Alina Chan, a woman who grew up and was educated in Singapore throughout her childhood years, has been hailed as the whistleblowing scientist tirelessly advancing the Covid-19 lab-leak theory from the very beginning when it was dismissed as a looney conspiracy theory.
Why is her voice unique?
Besides being one of the first persons of science to publicly embrace and advance the lab-leak theory, she is a unique voice in this discussion, having both a friendly and authoritative disposition.
In March 2020, Chan found it strange that Covid-19 started circulating from the Huanan wholesale seafood centre.
According to her, if this possibility was true, then why hasn’t anyone found any infected animals there?
Chan's view was that the senior virologists behind the journal article, "The Proximal Origins of SARS-CoV-2", published in Nature Medicine, were very mistaken on the origins of Covid-19 and that they have not thought of the lab leak possibility.
She uses her @Ayjchan Twitter account to advance her ideas and argue with people in a respectful manner, and has amassed 30,000 followers to date.
Her use of memes and reliance on scientific evidence, and pointing out the lack of, have been perceived to be arguments in good faith to get to the bottom of the truth.
Detractors have found it hard to discredit her, as she is a postdoc in a gene therapy lab at the Broad Institute, a prestigious research institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that’s affiliated with both Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
An example of her good faith interaction that is also irreverent:
People of twitter, I know I’m super mysterious... but I’m not some kind of Canadian-Chinese-US State Department genetic engineering scientist-spy with connections to the billionaire class.— Alina Chan (@Ayjchan) June 8, 2021
I’m just a postdoc asking for the lab leak hypothesis to be investigated properly. pic.twitter.com/5BnPbZHMbf
Without her input, much of the chatter online about a lab-leak theory would very quickly spiral into ad hominem attacks and specious arguments amidst conspiratorial whisperings and nationalistic soapboxing.
Best of all, she is Canadian.
Why is the focus on her now?
Her goal of putting the lab-leak idea front and centre so that right-thinking people -- i.e. scientists -- will take it seriously, appears to have been achieved, the MIT Technology Review reported on June 25, 2021, in a fawning piece dedicated to Chan.
The idea that the Covid-19 virus was leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, China has gained more traction and currency over the past six months.
What is happening on the ground and internationally is a reflection of the sharp reversal in opinion and significant shifting of scientific consensus.
The United States, under the Biden administration, has started to actively investigate whether there is more merit to this idea.
The previous consensus was to brush aside the lab-leak theory as impossible or highly unlikely.
“I think my goal has been achieved,” Chan told the publication.
“I just wanted people to investigate, take it seriously. My job is done, and I want to go back to a normal life.”
Can she get back her normal life?
It appears that going back to some relative obscurity will be difficult for Chan.
She is in demand by media outlets and has recently signed a deal for an undisclosed amount of money with HarperCollins to write a book about the search for the origins of Covid-19.
She will be working with the British science writer Matt Ridley.
According to MIT Technology Review, Chan is now facing the brunt of accusing China.
Her push for the lab-leak theory, in effect, means that China is standing accused of one of the biggest manslaughters in history.
She told the publication that after the book is published, she plans to change her name and try to quietly continue her scientific career.
Chan has received messages calling her a “race traitor”.
“My goal right now is to stay alive and not get hacked,” she said in the interview.
She fears for her life.
Is she a product of the Singapore system?
Chan, who is ethnically Chinese, is born in Canada but grew up in Singapore until age 16.
Her family is from Singapore.
She told MIT Technology Review they are apolitical and her parents work in information technology.
The motto in her home was: “Don’t get into trouble; don’t get into politics.”
Chan returned to Canada at 16 to attend the University of British Columbia for both her undergraduate degree and her PhD.
She picked the Canadian citizenship over the Singapore citizenship eventually.
Chan also readily admitted that has no particular expertise on China.
She said she can read Chinese, which she studied in Singapore, but her spoken Mandarin is poor.
She can't even order food in Mandarin properly, she said.
However, she also denied being motivated by any special animus against China.
“I have never lived in China,” she said. “Neither of my parents even speak Chinese as mother tongue. I don’t even know anyone in China. I think my stance is as reasonable as it could be -- I don’t like the Chinese Communist Party because of dictatorship and concentration camps. I could also criticise the U.S. government for children in cages. But that doesn’t mean I want the U.S. to burn either.”
“A born shit stirrer”
This was not the first time that Chan acted as a whistleblower.
Previously, she spoke out against the working conditions in a lab in Harvard, even if that move jeopardised her career.
She referred to herself as a “born shit stirrer”.
As reported by MIT Technology Review, her purpose of drumming up the lab-leak theory was for people to investigate and take the theory seriously.
Her biggest fear? She admits she could be wrong.
Now that the lab-origin theory is being investigated by powerful organistions, Chan admitted that she fears being wrong about it all, which would be disastrous.
Asked how she would feel if the virus did prove to have emerged naturally, which most scientists still seem to believe is more likely, Chan told the publication: “I have days where I think this could be natural. And if it’s natural, then I’ve done a terrible thing because I’ve put a lot of scientists in a very dangerous spot by saying that they could be the source of an accident that resulted in millions of people dying.”
“I would feel terrible if it’s natural and I did all this.”
Latest developments in investigations
China has been rejecting the theory that Covid-19 was leaked from their lab.
The Chinese Embassy in the U.S. issued a statement saying that "smear campaigns and blame shifting are making a comeback, and the conspiracy theory of 'lab leak' is resurfacing”.
This comes after U.S. President Joe Biden ordered the country’s intelligence community to redouble efforts to investigate whether Covid-19 was a product of an infected animal passed to human, or from a lab accident.
In April 2021, after concluding a visit to China by a team of international scientists, the World Health Organisation was of the view that Covid-19 was most likely from bats and passed to humans through an unidentified intermediary animal.
The group of scientists also concluded that further studies need to be done to establish Covid-19’s origins.
Top photo via Alina Chan