Non-leaky labs and overly leaky mouths

The idea that COVID-19 leaked from a lab is extremely unlikely, and there is zero evidence to support it. It was a conspiracy theory last year, and, since we have no new evidence suggesting that there could have been a leaky lab causing problems, it still remains a conspiracy theory. Of course, there might be new discoveries someday in the future, but for now we should abstain from promoting ideas that are not supported by any evidence.

I am not a virologist or an epidemiologist, so I am not qualified to discuss the relevant research about SARS-CoV-2 origins. Instead, I will link to materials created by experts.

Here is an article written by David Gorski.

I can also offer podcasts/video:

Peter Daszak, Thea Kølsen Fischer, and Marion Koopmans, members of the WHO team investigating the origins of SARS-CoV-2, join TWiV (This Week in Virology podcast) to explain the work done by the committee during phase one, their conclusions, and the extent of work that remains to be done in phase two.

Robert Garry joins TWiV to explain how the molecular biology of SARS-CoV-2 shows that it came from Nature and not a lab, including the receptor binding domain, the furin cleavage site, and the two lineages circulating in Wuhan wildlife markets.

Scientists from WHO have went to China to investigate SARS-CoV-2 origins. Scientists have done SARS-CoV-2 genome sequencing. There is no evidence that would support the lab leak conspiracy theory. That should be the end of the media frenzy right?

Unfortunately, conspiracy theories die hard. People keep parroting silly claims about “suspicious” coincidences. A few scientists got sick during the flu season? So what, they could have had a flu. The pandemic started in a place in the vicinity of a biosafety level 4 laboratory (Wuhan Institute of Virology)? Again, so what? The pandemic also started in a place with a large wet market selling wild animals. The latter is a much more suspicious coincidence in comparison.

Coincidences happen. They can be a reason to start an investigation, but they cannot be used as sufficient evidence to support firm conclusions or else said conclusions ought to be called “conspiracy theories.”

My favorite is the claim that it was simply unlikely for a pandemic to start from wild animals. Some people just have to demonstrate their ignorance. Humans get zoonotic viruses all the time (SARS-CoV-1, MERS, Ebola, HIV) from contact with wild animals. Meanwhile, it’s not like viruses were escaping from labs all the time.

It is wrong for people to promote unproven ideas that cause real harm. Here’s an example: It is extremely unlikely (but not impossible) that your next door neighbor is a serial murderer. Without evidence, you cannot go to newspapers and publicly accuse your neighbor of having committed murders. Nor can you demand your neighbor to prove a negative. Even if she allowed you to ransack her entire home, a true conspiracy theorist would simply say that she must have hidden the dead bodies somewhere else.

Just because something is not entirely impossible does not mean that you should be running around promoting said hypothesis. Such actions can be harmful:

1) You are accusing Chinese scientists (who are real people with real feelings), promoting anti-science attitudes among general population (“those evil scientists doing dangerous experiments behind our backs”), promoting racism directed towards Chinese people.

2) You are making the pandemic worse by promoting vaccine hesitancy. If you promote the idea that the virus came from some lab, you create distrust towards science among general population. If some person believes that those evil scientists leaked the virus, why would they want to get a vaccine developed by scientists?

In my part of the world, 27.5% of people have gotten their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. 17.7% are fully vaccinated. (I got my first Pfizer/BioNTech shot in late May.) Whenever I read a local online news article about vaccination, there is a flood of antivaxxer comments about how vaccines will kill you or at least cause terrible side effects. “The virus is imaginary, so called registered cases are only regular colds and flu; vaccines are designed to murder people. Or maybe the virus was created in some lab, and now the same scientists push vaccines on the world for financial profit. Or maybe the virus is real, but the vaccines are ineffective at best and harmful for health at worst.” By the way, if all these claims sound contradictory and mutually exclusive for you, yes, that’s how conspiracy theories work.

I have an uncle who is seventy and had a stroke last month. A decade ago he was getting flu shots every autumn. Now he is into conspiracy theories. My mother (age 68) also refuses to get vaccinated. She “doesn’t like the idea of putting foreign substances in her body” and she “isn’t convinced about vaccine efficiency.”

If humans were wiser, we could end this pandemic. We could vaccinate all people across the globe, and reach the threshold for herd immunity.

But it won’t happen.

And people will continue to suffer.

Of course, people should not blindly trust everything that sounds sciency. We should demand authority figures to provide data and evidence. We shouldn’t blindly trust doctors either.

I have gotten bad advice that I initially incorrectly assumed as scientific. For example, at school I was taught about the Food Pyramid and advised that almost half of everything I ate ought to be refined grains (those drawings of the Food Pyramid prominently featured white bread, refined grain pasta, and white rice at the bottom). Later in life I learned that refined grains are empty calories, and there is nothing healthy about them. I was also taught about the dangers of saturated fats and advised to eat margarine (full of trans fats) instead of butter. Later I found out that studies have linked consumption of trans fats to heart disease.

When I was a child, my pediatrician routinely prescribed me homeopathic “medicine” (aka placebos) and antibiotics for all those colds I got every winter.

A reasonable dose of healthy skepticism and willingness to do some research is, indeed, very beneficial. People would benefit from learning about the scientific method, they should know what is a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial. They should understand that personal anecdotes aren’t evidence. Or, in the case of COVID-19, that coincidences can happen—a person can die of unrelated causes a week after getting their COVID-19 vaccine, and it is also perfectly possible for a zoonotic virus to emerge in the same region where some lab happens to be located.

Of course, more research about SARS-CoV-2 origins is certainly necessary and who knows what scientists will discover in the future. But, as long as we don’t have sufficient evidence, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions and create narratives that fit our political preferences, either by demonizing people from a certain country that xenophobes dislike, or by imagining that events in the world aren’t random and disasters don’t happen by chance leaving us unable to find some convenient scapegoat that could allow us the regain a sense of control and security.

We should also draw a line between questions that have been answered by scientists versus questions that have no known answers. Here are some examples: (1) by now hundreds of millions of COVID-19 vaccines have been injected in people’s arms, and we know that these vaccines are both safe and effective. Journalists should finally stop typing that COVID-19 vaccines are still experimental and have unknown risks; (2) scientists still don’t know many facts about SARS-CoV-2 origins; nor do we know how long vaccine-induced immunity will last, especially with new SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern emerging across the globe.

Unfortunately, people routinely fail to distinguish when to accept facts and when to suspend judgment. For example, when Ancient Greeks had no idea what caused lightning, they shouldn’t have invented the story that a god named Zeus created lightning bolts. They should have admitted that they didn’t know the answer. Similarly, we shouldn’t invent conspiracy theories when we cannot answer some questions in 21st century.

Lately, I have read countless news articles written by incompetent journalists who keep asking the wrong questions (problem #1: answer is known to science, but the writer is ignorant), or speculating about what humanity doesn’t know (problem #2: answer isn’t known, but the writer makes things up and gives unjustified credibility to implausible theories). Journalists keep questioning vaccine safety and risks as if we still didn’t have relevant data to answer said questions. Meanwhile, they also type nonsense about how a natural origin of SARS-CoV-2 sounds implausible and how it could have leaked from a lab thus creating the false impression that a highly unlikely event probably actually happened.


  1. Allison says

    I think conspiracy theories are driven by people’s desperate need for 100% certainty in an uncertain and not entirely safe world. (That’s also true of a lot of religion.)

    If you accept that diseases jump from other species to humans no matter what people do, then we are always in danger of another, possibly more deadly, epidemic. Better to believe it was due to a Bad Person doing Bad Things; then you can just throw all the Bad People into jail, and then no epidemic can ever happen again.

    By the same token, we don’t need to prepare for another epidemic, because once we throw all the Bad People into jail, it can never happen. And BTW, preparing for an epidemic will somehow bring up the possibility of one, so we shouldn’t keep up measures that would put us in a better position to dealing with one (such as stockpiling N-95 masks, or maintaining a reserve of hospital beds.)

  2. ChrisE84 says

    The behavior of some of the folks over at Pharyngula was quite embarrassing.

    @2 At least the flu outbreak mentioned by Business Insider seems not to have been a lab outbreak. It’s treated as fact, but it is actually more a conspiracy theory (with similar supposed villains …). A vaccine trial would have been more likely, but there’s also no proof.

  3. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    See also, SV-40, an animal virus brought into humans by vaccines. A very rare occurrence, but it did happen.

    ChrisE84, I assume me?

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