Eighteen months ago, Alina Chan co-wrote an explosive paper that said scientists should investigate the possibility that a virus from a laboratory in China caused the pandemic. Buffeted by a firestorm of criticism, the Cambridge researcher now says she plans to change her name. But only after her book on the origins of COVID-19 is published.
Chan, a postdoctoral fellow at the renowned Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, says she’s struggled to sleep and lead a normal life ever since the paper provoked scorn from veteran scientists, denunciations by the Chinese government, I-told-you-so’s from critics of China, and, by her account, hate mail and violent threats.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m entering some sort of spy movie, but I don’t know what to do,” said the 33-year-old researcher. “I want to fade back into obscurity.”
But first, she’d like your attention.
On Tuesday HarperCollins will publish “Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19,” which Chan co-wrote with science writer Matt Ridley, a Conservative member of the UK House of Lords. Building on her paper, which appeared online in May 2020 but hasn’t been accepted by a peer-reviewed journal, the book asserts that a growing body of circumstantial evidence supports her hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 emerged from a lab in Wuhan, China.
The book doesn’t explicitly blame a “lab leak” for the pandemic, but “Viral” does say that scenario has evolved from a “conspiracy theory to just barely a possibility, to a plausible hypothesis worthy of a credible investigation.” She cites, among other things, the similarity between the new coronavirus and another virus at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The prevailing view has been that the illness resulted from natural spillover from animals to humans, although no one knows for sure. An investigation by US intelligence agencies this year was inconclusive, which the White House blamed on a lack of cooperation by the Chinese government. The World Health Organization last month announced that a group of international scientists will try again.
Chan says she was reluctant to write the book when Ridley, a veteran journalist who contends the dangers of global warming are exaggerated, approached her last year about collaborating. She says she finally signed a book deal because news reports and posts on Twitter ― which she uses prolifically to advance her theory and spar with opponents ― cannot tell the complex story of COVID-19′s origins.
“It has to be summed up in a book,” she said. “I hope it will be a bestseller.”
She acknowledged that writing and promoting a book seems a bad way to achieve anonymity.
To her critics — and there are plenty — she’s motivated less by the pursuit of knowledge than of riches and notoriety.
“In my opinion, she is an intellectually dishonest, manipulative conspiracist with very little subject matter expertise who has offered nothing of value to the search for the origins of COVID-19 and has compensated for her mediocrity by pursuing personal profit,” Angela Rasmussen, an American virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, said in an e-mail. “Her supposed scientific contribution, including this book, is a scam disguised as an honest quest for the truth.”
Rasmussen has skewered Chan on Twitter, noting that the Broad researcher is not a virologist or epidemiologist ― specialists with expertise in viruses and the spread of disease. Chan is a molecular biologist who focuses on gene therapy and cell engineering.
Chan has repeatedly fired back at critics, tweeting in October 2020 that scientists who obscure the origins of the pandemic have “a hand in the deaths of millions of people.”
Other scientists, however, say Chan deserves credit for challenging the view that the virus almost certainly moved to humans from bats through an intermediary host animal.
Richard Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, called her “courageous.” In March, he signed an open letter along with Chan and other scientists ― published in the Wall Street Journal and the French publication Le Monde ― calling for an international forensic investigation of COVID’s origins.
In an interview, Ebright said Chan questioned a “false narrative” that scientists had ruled out the possibility the virus came from a lab and is “putting her reputation and career on the line.”
But in an example of the controversy’s many layers, Ebright said the central argument for a lab leak that Chan made in the 2020 paper wasn’t all that compelling. She was right to say the virus could have come from a lab, he says, but for the wrong reasons. Still, Ebright credits her and other scientists with prodding US intelligence agencies to conduct a 90-day inquiry earlier this year into the pandemic’s origins, although the findings were inconclusive.
At first glance, Chan seems an unlikely figure to provoke an international uproar among seasoned virologists, government officials in multiple countries, and Internet sleuths hunting for evidence of suspicious illnesses in China.
A Canadian citizen who was born in Vancouver and grew up in Singapore, she is a junior scientist who arrived at the Broad in 2018. Chan says she did all her COVID research in her spare time. During interviews, she seemed alternately wounded and amused by the criticism hurled by veteran scientists, exclaiming “ouch!” and “holy cow!” when a reporter read aloud Rasmussen’s scathing e-mail.
Chan works in the field of gene therapy, which involves altering or inserting genes inside human cells to treat diseases. Scientists sometimes use modified viruses to deliver a new gene into the cell, but several experts said that background would not give Chan a deep understanding of coronaviruses.
“It’s like the difference between a car salesman and a car mechanic,” said Benjamin Neuman, a virologist at Texas A&M University who believes it’s far more likely that the coronavirus naturally spread from animals to humans like many other so-called zoonotic viruses. “It’s a different body of knowledge.”
Chan dismisses such criticism, saying her knowledge of how viruses can be genetically modified is relevant and that virologists should be embarrassed for not taking the possibility of a lab leak more seriously.
By her account, Chan began researching that scenario early last year as a result of encouraging reports that the new coronavirus appeared to be mutating very slowly, improving the prospects for developing medicines and vaccines to target it.
As she worked on her laptop at her kitchen counter in Cambridge during the 2020 lockdown, Chan said, she wondered whether the relatively stable virus had somehow “pre-adapted” to infect humans before the first cases of COVID-19 were reported. Could it have adapted to humans while being studied in a lab and then accidentally escaped?
At the time, many experts theorized the virus likely spread from an animal to humans at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, given that two-thirds of the initial 41 people hospitalized with COVID-related pneumonia in early 2020 had direct exposure to the market. Chan had her doubts.
She contacted Shing Hei Zhan, a friend and bioinformatics expert from her days at the University of British Columbia. Together, they began a genetic analysis, comparing the evolution of the new coronavirus with the SARS-CoV virus that caused a far smaller outbreak that began in China in 2002 and disappeared two years later.
In the paper that the two friends wrote with Ben Deverman, Chan’s boss at the Broad, they concluded that by the time the new coronavirus emerged in December 2019, it was “already pre-adapted to human transmission” so that it resembled the earlier SARS virus during the latter phase of that outbreak.
They also couldn’t rule out that it had come from a lab, such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology, about 8 miles from the market. The institute acknowledged in early 2020 that it had a virus in its database with a genome sequence that was 96.2 percent similar to SARS-CoV-2, but it dismissed the idea of a leak as a conspiracy theory.
The paper appeared at a time when the politics surrounding the genesis of the pandemic were fraught. President Trump called the coronavirus “the Chinese virus.” Critics accused him of stirring anti-Asian hatred. The study Chan coauthored swiftly made headlines. “Coronavirus did NOT come from animals in Wuhan market,” The Daily Mail on Sunday in Britain trumpeted.
The state-backed Chinese newspaper Global Times attacked Chan, saying her “filthy behavior and lack of basic academic ethics have also aroused the disgust of many international experts,” according to an account she translated for the Globe. Chan said she was accused of being a “race traitor” because of her Chinese heritage. She said she also received “some quite terrifying e-mails” and that Broad security guards were put on alert.
Fearing she had “committed career suicide,” Chan said she apologized to Deverman. He told her “he still believed in what I wrote” in the study, she recalled.
Deverman, who directs a vector engineering group at the Broad, declined to discuss his communications with Chan but called her “fearless.” He said he, too, was surprised by the blowback. To him, the study simply reported that no scenarios for COVID’s origin could be ruled out based on known scientific evidence.
Chan shows no signs of retreat in “Viral.” Indeed, she expands on her arguments and credits Internet detectives who combed online records for gathering important evidence. They include a group of activists called DRASTIC, or Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19, which formed on Twitter and has pushed the lab leak theory.
Among the key evidence she cites is the virus that the Wuhan institute collected in 2013 in Yunnan province that shares 96.2 percent of the genomic identity of the virus that causes COVID. Researchers obtained the virus, known as RaTG13, a year after six workers at a bat-infested copper mine in the province fell ill with severe pneumonia caused by a “SARS-like” coronavirus. Three of the workers died. In September 2019, she writes, the institute took its pathogen database offline while studying that virus and eight similar ones.
The Wuhan institute has conducted experiments on coronaviruses. But Shi Zhengli, a top Chinese virologist at the lab, has repeatedly denied it was the source of SARS-CoV-2, telling The New York Times in June, “How on earth can I offer up evidence for something where there is no evidence?”
Chan raises the possibility in her book that SARS-CoV-2 was a bioweapon being developed in a lab, but then brushes that aside as a “distraction.” She writes, “If the virus came from a laboratory, it is much more likely that it was a leak from experiments designed to understand viruses that pose potential pandemic threats.”
Other scientists say there’s a world of difference between two viruses that are 96.2 percent genetically identical.
“It’s not that close,” said Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona. He noted that researchers recently discovered a virus in bats in Laos that is even more similar to SARS-CoV-2, as reported in September in Nature. “The science has moved on,” he said.
Worobey signed a second letter with 17 other scientists, including Chan and Deverman, that was published in Science in May that called for further investigation of COVID’s origins. Since then, he has grown more convinced that the virus jumped from animals to humans naturally, he said, most likely spreading from bats to raccoon dogs that researchers found were sold at the market.
Ridley, the coauthor of “Viral,” says Chan has played a crucial role in the debate. They talked on video calls for months and rewrote each other’s drafts, he said, but met in person for the first time on Wednesday in Kendall Square. Standing outside the Area Four pizzeria, they opened a box containing the first US edition of their book.
Ridley says he plans to donate half of his advance to charities. Chan says she will donate half of everything she makes on the book. Neither would say how much money they have received.
“I felt very strongly about not profiteering,” Chan said. “It was never about the money for me. ... It’s not like I can retire.”
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.