Why Indeed?

At Spiked Matt Ridley has a post asking why scientists “suppressed” the lab leak theory for SARS-CoV-2:

In December 2019 there was an outbreak in China of a novel bat-borne SARS-like coronavirus a few miles from the world’s leading laboratory for collecting, studying and manipulating novel bat-borne SARS-like coronaviruses. We were assured by leading scientists in China, the US and the UK that this really was a coincidence, even when the nine closest relatives of the new virus turned up in the freezer of the laboratory in question, at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Now we know what those leading scientists really thought. Emails exchanged between them after a conference call on 1 February 2020, and only now forced into the public domain by Republicans in the US Congress, show that they not only thought the virus might have leaked from a lab, but they also went much further in private. They thought the genome sequence of the new virus showed a strong likelihood of having been deliberately manipulated or accidentally mutated in the lab. Yet later they drafted an article for a scientific journal arguing that the suggestion not just of a manipulated virus, but even of an accidental spill, could be confidently dismissed and was a crackpot conspiracy theory.

Following a discussion of the skepticism that a virus with the particular characteristcs of SARS-CoV-2 could have arisen naturally, he gets to the meat of the post:

The emails unveiled this week reveal no good scientific reason at all for why these leading virologists changed their minds and became deniers rather than believers in even the remote possibility of a lab leak, all in just a few days in February 2020. No new data, no new arguments. But they do very clearly reveal a blatant political reason for the volte-face. Speculating about a lab leak, said Ron Fouchier, a Dutch researcher, might ‘do unnecessary harm to science in general and science in China in particular’. Francis Collins was pithier, worrying about ‘doing great potential harm to science and international harmony’. Contradicting Donald Trump, protecting science’s reputation at all costs and keeping in with those who dole out large grants are pretty strong incentives to change one’s mind.

All of this ties in with a post I’ve been working on. Different professionals have different ethical obligations. Making the needs of your profession your highest goal is not an ethical stance.

I don’t know how SARS-CoV-2 arose. That it emerged due to a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology is plausible. That is emerged naturally is plausible, too. It would be a lot more plausible if a related virus with the distinctive characteristic of SARS-CoV-2 were to be found. Maybe it will in time.

From a legal standpoint I think that there should be multiple class action lawsuits against Chinese individuals and institutions claiming harm due to COVID-19. That would provide the Chinese authorities with a healthy motivation for being more forthcoming than they have been to date.

7 comments… add one
  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    It doesn’t take much smarts to realize the implications for virology as a field if people assigned probabilities like 10% that COVID originated in a lab (assigning probabilities is impossible with current data in my view)

    There is a reason why the Manhattan project was in Los Alamos, and why to this day Los Alamos is a center of nuclear physics research in this country. Imagine if the CDC / NIAID was relocated to Los Alamos or somewhere in Alaska? How attractive would doing research be if to access many specimens, researchers had to quarantine themselves in special facilities for several weeks after each visit to the lab to ensure they didn’t have a virus?

  • bob sykes Link

    If you are going to sue Wuhan Institute, you will have to include both the CDC and USAMRIID.

    As to why several virologists discounted a man-made origin for covid, I don’t know. Almost all viral diseases, certainly all influenzas, have natural causes. However, I’m going to doubt they were bribed or threatened by the Chinese. The CDC, however, is another matter. If covid is synthetic, the CDC/USAMRIID had a big hand in making it, and that is just too embarrassing.

    By the way, the old USSR, like us, the Brits, French, Germans, et al., maintained several biowarfare labs around its own territory. Nearly all of these receive subsidies from CDC/USAMRIID nowadays. There was an active lab in Almaty, Kazakhstan, that was subsidized by CDC/USAMRIID.

  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    My comment wasn’t to throw shade on the CDC/NIAID or WIV.

    The issue is general to virology. I think it is very hard for virologists to neutrally assess the dangers inherit in the field of research they are in — and what kind of countermeasures would be needed to protect against those dangers.

  • Zachriel Link

    Why many scientists say it’s unlikely that SARS-CoV-2 originated from a “lab leak”

  • That’s a good article, Zachriel. I found its concluding paragraphs the most valuable:

    Chinese scientists are conducting their own studies into potential natural origins, but few outside the country know details. “Unfortunately, finding out what is being done is getting harder by the day because the lab-leak stuff has turned COVID origins into a major political weapon,” says one Western researcher who asked not to be identified. “My colleagues in China are nervous and feeling great pressure.”

    China has been pushing the theory that the virus came from another country—maybe brought in on frozen food, or, according to baseless propaganda, concocted at a U.S. military lab. “It’s comical,” Worobey says. “The big picture here is China is doing everything it can to push the narrative that this pandemic started outside of China.” He suspects that while rejecting the lab-leak theory, the Chinese government is also unenthusiastic about pursuing a natural origin, fearing that proof would expose China to further blame for a pandemic even if the discovery exonerated Chinese scientists. “I think at some point they thought, here’s the strategy: We try to muddy the waters,” he says.

    But even without China’s cooperation, there are ways to move ahead. Some studies elsewhere have already yielded intriguing leads. Researchers have found coronaviruses in bats in neighboring countries that suggest evolutionary pathways from an ancestor of SARS-CoV-2 to the pandemic virus. More clues may come from studies in Southeast Asia of wild pangolins—the only other species to date found to harbor a close SARS-CoV-2 relative.

    Researchers can also hunt for cases outside of China that predate the December 2019 outbreak. One possibility, Wang says, is to check the blood of Wuhan visitors or residents who were in the city in the months before, including the 9000 athletes from more than 100 countries who attended the Military World Games there in October 2019. (A new antibody assay from his lab, he says, can distinguish between SARS-CoV-2 and related viruses that may have preceded it.)

    The search will never lead us to patient zero, the first person to be infected by SARS-CoV-2, Hanage says. “Humans are looking for a story,” he says. “They want Columbo to come in and just somehow get somebody to confess or show what actually happened.” Instead, there are “possible stories” about SARS-CoV-2’s origin—some more probable than others—and stories that can be excluded, Hanage says. “And the space of possible stories in which there was a natural origin in or around the markets is much larger than the space of possible origins in which the Wuhan Institute of Virology is involved.”

  • steve Link

    “I think it is very hard for virologists to neutrally assess the dangers inherit in the field of research they are in — and what kind of countermeasures would be needed to protect against those dangers.”

    I think they do risk benefit analysis and decide it comes out positive. After the fact non-virologists, and some virologists, think it is negative knowing that we have covid. Hindsight is 20/20.


  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    Yes, everyone looks smart in the rearview mirror. But has anything changed in virology?

    Lets give it some solid context. The guidelines say SARS-COV-2 should be handled in a BSL3 lab.

    The CDC also gives a guideline that anyone that is a “close contact” or has been exposed to SARS-COV-2 should isolate for 5 days (used to be 10). In China, they require 21 days.

    From what I understand, anyone in a BSL lab is not required afterwards to isolate for multiple days; even through they were in close contact with potentially dangerous pathogens. To be fair, BSL3 labs have all sorts of safety features and rules to prevent exposure, but I doubt there’s ever been a lab where all the rules were always strictly followed. And if that’s the case, isn’t the proper countermeasure to always isolate lab workers for a couple of days afterwards to eliminate risks of an unknown, unseen accident?

    I’m sure this countermeasure has been pondered by others (most likely virologists). They probably would reject the countermeasure because it is “too expensive”; and they are right, a BSL3’s cost would be astronomical if lab workers had to isolate for a few days after each trip to the lab. But the virologists aren’t neutrally weighing the risks; its between not having a lab or exposing the community to some risk of a dangerous pathogen.

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