In October of 2002 the James Ossuary exploded into the public consciousness. The artifact, a burial box in which bones were interred, was announced at a press conference in Washington prior to undergoing any form of scholarly authentication. It had an inscription that read in Aramaic: Ya’akov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua (“James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”). Its promoters presented the thing as the first real concrete link to the historical Jesus.
It was an obvious fake, and at that time I was administrating two enormous discussion groups devoted to early Christian history, which hosted numerous scholars in the field. There I was, with a lifelong interest in forgery, smack in the middle. I had a voice, and I used it.
Typically in fraud cases there is someone, an expert or someone intimate with its creator, who right from the beginning, immediately recognizes the object as a fake, and never wavers from that position. In the James Ossuary case that was Rochelle Altman, an expert in ancient scripts. In the famous Chingshan Diary forgery case, a friend of forger Edmund Backhouse, George Ernest Morrison, played that role. His Chinese was pitiable, but he knew Backhouse well. The Hitler Diaries were questioned by scholars who knew that Hitler hated writing and would never have kept a diary.
Illustration: Yi-chun Chen
Piltdown Man was dismissed almost immediately by the American zoologist Gerrit Smith Miller, who identified it as a composite. Scientists from other countries objected as well, but were silenced. It was said they were motivated by nationalism, jealous that the oldest known man was a Briton.
Like the US State Department’s accusations about the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the lab at the heart of the COVID mess, it is clearly false and motivated by nationalism. I mean, did you see Tucker Carlson promoting the accusations on Fox the other day?
I lived through the James Ossuary mess, a tangential figure. For a time, I corresponded frequently with Altman, who strove on valiantly despite vicious attempts to silence her. Strange things began happening to the both of us, my first experience with the dark, evil side of the Internet.
ORIGINS OF COVID-19
I reflect on that experience often when thinking about the origins of COVID-19 because the Wuhan lab leak hypothesis has that same stench of fakery about it, that same too-good-to-be-trueness as the James Ossuary (it’s obvious that it’s the lab!), that same appeal to nationalism as the Piltdown case (those Chinese so stubbornly nationalistic, can’t admit they screwed up!), that same knowing wink of inside knowledge as the Chingshan Diary case (but geneticists assure me!). Surely, somewhere, there must be fraud involved. Isn’t it obvious?
The scientists assure us there is no evidence for a leak coming from the lab. They are correct. In cases like this the problem isn’t the evidence, but how it is read: a clash of competing interpretive frameworks. What if this is a fraud case?
In Forgers and Critics, a wonderful work on the interplay of forgery and scholarship, author Anthony Grafton notes that a fake artifact is usually aimed at a particular moment in history, a particular sociopolitical dynamic and a particular audience, and when that moment passes, it becomes increasingly obvious that the thing is a fake.
Lately in articles and commentaries, people seem to be coming round to the idea that the Wuhan lab let the virus escape. The lab leak hypothesis, which has hung around since the beginning while other ideas are discredited one by one, appears at last to be coming into its own.
Has a moment passed, or has one arrived?
A forger does not begin his career by presenting an incredible fake. He builds to it by starting small, with minor forgeries, learning his trade. Usually early on he acquires a mark, someone interested in antiquities who is both rich and gullible, to finance his career. Denis Vrain-Lucas, one of history’s great forgers, sold over 27,000 fake letters from historical figures like Cleopatra, Judas Iscariot and Isaac Newton to French collectors, but especially to Michel Chasles, to whom he sold hundreds. As with so many forgers, Vrain-Lucas was tripped up when one of his truly stupendous forgeries, a letter from Pascal claiming that he discovered gravity before Newton, was made public. Similarly, the James Ossuary forgers had a mark to whom they sold thousands of fake objects.
Forgers often end their careers with something spectacular, in part because one powerful motivation for forgery is making fools of the experts and everyone who believes them.
In this case the Chinese also started small. First, it was pangolins, even before the virus had been sequenced. Marks in the West sprang up immediately to further Beijing’s goals, arguing that of course it was the evil wildlife trade. Enjoy your instant karma, animal-eaters! The righteousness of their cause authenticated their arguments.
GET WITH THE SCIENCE
Those of us still considering the lab leak hypothesis had latched onto “conspiracy theories.” Get with the science, we were told.
Why pangolins? Remember SARS? That supposedly came from civets — another hapless victim of the evil trade in exotic wildlife for food. The success of the civet diversion — the civet fraud — sent Beijing to the well again with pangolins. This time around they also tried with snakes and even turtles.
Forgers, like any criminal, do what they are good at, using the same technique again and again.
The pangolin hypothesis eventually fell out of favor (its moment passed), though, interestingly, the famous “batwoman” Shi Zhengli (石正麗), the head of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan lab and the human at the heart of this morass of animal-to-human transmission, dragged it out again this month in a new paper.
Meanwhile, there’s the lab. Whenever Beijing does something related to the lab, eyes pop and keyboards light up. If it is not the lab, people ask, why is Beijing taking down papers related to it? Why is it sealing off the lab to outsiders and shutting down questions? Why won’t it tell us what happened to the student intern who allegedly died of COVID-19? Why did it force two researchers who published a preprint paper saying the virus came from the lab to take it down? Why is it stonewalling the WHO? Why does it complain about US labs?
These people are asking the right questions, but with the wrong emphasis. Let me rephrase that for them.
Since it is not the Wuhan lab, why does Beijing keep redirecting attention to it?
It does this because the real, most likely animal-to-human route for this virus is an animal that is known to host its own adapted relative of COVID-19. It is the only animal with documented COVID-19-to-human transmission and emergence of COVID-19 variants. Highly susceptible to lung infections, it lives by the millions in cages in northern China, crowded in conditions ideal for transmission from one animal to another.
Minks. On fur farms. Worth billions.
Not just minks, but also raccoon dogs, another lucrative fur animal (found with the SARS virus, Shi Zhengli herself wondered in a 2007 article why the state had never investigated them even though it was never clear “if the raccoon dogs infected the civet or if it is the opposite”). When China banned the sale of exotic and wild animals, it exempted minks, raccoon dogs and other fur animals by labeling them livestock.
On Jan. 8 of this year, in the prestigious journal Science, Peng Zhou (周鵬) and Shi Zhengli finally called for minks to be investigated.
Maybe the virus came from the Wuhan lab. Maybe it is a leak from some other lab, one less prepared for a dangerous virus, one that someone sent samples of an unusual virus in minks to or even just routine samples in the normal course of keeping their fur animals healthy. Maybe it was just someone selling minks in a market or processing their fur or transporting them from one place to another.
All of the mink-producing nations have seen the virus tear through their mink populations.
Notes from Central Taiwan is a column written by long-term resident Michael Turton, who provides incisive commentary informed by three decades of living in and writing about his adoptive country.
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