The “lab-leak” stuff is as imaginary as the Iraqi aluminum tubes


I keep seeing this “lab leak” nonsense about how COVID-19 originated in a biological warfare lab in Wuhan — all presented with absolutely no evidence by sloppy reporters who have turned “it’s remotely possible” into “it happened!” I read the articles and am just appalled at the total lack of supporting evidence for the claims, and I have to wonder what’s going on here. Is this more sabre-rattling at China, and why would anyone be interested in stirring up conflict with China anyway?

Well, here’s an interesting observation of a link between the current lies and incitement and a similar set of stories that were circulating almost 20 years ago. One of the first and most prominent stories promoting the “lab leak” inanity was an article in the Wall Street Journal.

But the article published by the Wall Street Journal—beyond being totally unsubstantiated and presenting nothing fundamentally new in terms of “intelligence”—is presented by a lead author who happens to have helped fabricate the most lethal lie of the 21st century.

The lead author of the Journal piece, Michael R. Gordon, was the same man who, along with Judith Miller, wrote the September 8, 2002 article falsely asserting that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was seeking to build a nuclear weapon.

That article, entitled “U.S. says Hussein intensifies quest for a-bomb parts,” claimed that “In the last 14 months, Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium.”

The claim was a lie, funneled to the Times by the office of US Vice President Dick Cheney.

Why does this Gordon fellow still have a job? For that matter, why isn’t Cheney in jail for making up lies that led to a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people? (By the way, why is Cheney still alive? Wasn’t his heart reduced to a putrescent lump of feebly twitching slime by his own evil?)

So one of the same guys who gullibly promoted lies about Iraq fed to him by a war-monger is now pushing the lab leak hypothesis. It makes me wonder who is feeding this lazy patsy now.

Comments

  1. says

    Dr. Bret C. Devereaux at acoup.blog wrote an interesting article about chemical weapons in march 2020. The conclusion:

    Quite frankly, we don’t use chemical weapons for the same reason we don’t use war-zeppelin-bombers: they don’t work, at least within our modern tactical systems.

    I don’t think it is a stretch to say that the same goes for biological weapons.
    So the PLA (which Dr. Devereux lists as using the modern system) should have little use for bioweapons.

    And if you look into bioweapons it seems that agents that are very virulent but not readily transmissible from person to person are preferred for obvious reasons.
    So COVID-19 does not really fit the profile for a “good” bioweapon.

  2. says

    What strikes me about this flapdoodle is exactly how or why it is supposed to matter. Whatever the case has nothing to do with evaluating the U.S. and global response — that question is completely unrelated. And the security of BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs remains important (I’m not sure which level the Wuhan lab is), and the possibility of zoonotic infections jumping to H. sapiens also remains, or I should say the certainty. Obviously the Chinese didn’t release it on purpose, and if there was a security lapse at the lab it’s up to them to fix it and presumably they will, they certainly don’t want this to happen again. So what exactly will be different based on the answer to this question?

  3. Rich Woods says

    @cervantes #2:

    So what exactly will be different based on the answer to this question?

    Some people want to use it as an excuse to deflect blame from their own failure to prevent tens or hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths, while others want to use it to play down the necessity of dealing with the socially and economically difficult local and global problems that lead to the increased likelihood of the generation of zoonotic diseases leaping to humans.

  4. brucegee1962 says

    @3
    Don’t forget the strategic importance of giving China a black eye while it is trying to extend its influence over third-world countries locally and globally. I’m not exactly saying this ironically — our local anti-China hawks aren’t nice people, but neither is the Chinese government.

  5. weylguy says

    Right-wingers want the leak to be confirmed, as they believe it would give them added justification to hate the Chinese. What I don’t understand, however, is that even if it’s disproved they will go right on hating anyway.

  6. consciousness razor says

    I keep seeing this “lab leak” nonsense about how COVID-19 originated in a biological warfare lab in Wuhan — all presented with absolutely no evidence by sloppy reporters who have turned “it’s remotely possible” into “it happened!”

    And when it’s not claimed to be coming from a “biological warfare lab” which was used in some kind of deliberate attack … then what? I mean, perhaps you have good strawmen ready to go for many other types of claims too, but I think it could be interesting to hear what those are.

    Anyway, is that actually what you keep seeing from mainstream (and sloppy) reporters? Have you consulted an optometrist?

    Is this more sabre-rattling at China, and why would anyone be interested in stirring up conflict with China anyway?

    Is it? Aren’t you doing the sort of speculative, intent-attributing, conspiracy-mongering stuff that you’re complaining about here? If I put that into the form of a question, should I expect that you wouldn’t object to it?

    But no matter. For one thing, if you really thought it was a deliberate act of bioterrorism, a war crime committed by the Chinese government, which has caused the death of millions of people worldwide in a matter of months, then some “sabre-rattling” is not really a coherent response to that sort of thing anyway.

    On the other hand, for the many people who don’t think anything like that, then … I just don’t know how to make your question remain relevant.

    Why exactly is “it originated in China (without anybody intending it to happen) according to Scenario A” supposed to be importantly or substantively different from “it originated in China (without anybody intending it to happen) according to Scenario B”? I mean, I think everybody agrees that we have the China part nailed down already, so don’t tell me you think it’s about that. So what’s the difference?

    If anything, I think it’s easier to interpret as being directed at the scientific, medical and/or health policy communities, whenever they are explicitly said and understood to be the ones who are allegedly at fault. Keep it simple, you know? (This is of course distinct from, among other possibilities, random Chinese people who were shopping at a market, for instance.) And if the demand ought to be something like better safety measures or perhaps completely ending certain types of research which are just not worth the risks, the thought could be that a little rattle of the sabre may suffice. A full-scale war (so to speak) is probably not necessary to get what we need, or so one would hope.

    On that note, I don’t think it’s hard to understand why many (perhaps most) people are going to be at least a little upset the minute they hear what “gain of function” research is about. When they know that is even a thing that people somewhere are actually doing, well, that’s going to be seen a problem. It just sounds … bad. You know? Whether or not it has anything to do with COVID-19, I think we’re going to have to address that, like it or not, preferably in some way that isn’t utterly dismissive and condescending toward ordinary people. (So: get crackin’, science communicators!)

    Well, here’s an interesting observation of a link between the current lies and incitement and a similar set of stories that were circulating almost 20 years ago. One of the first and most prominent stories promoting the “lab leak” inanity was an article in the Wall Street Journal.

    You’re apparently talking about an article that was published a couple weeks ago, but it’s certainly not the first when the lab leak stuff has been circulating for about a year at this point.

  7. says

    White Coat Waste, a conservative (!) animal rights group, is pushing this narrative as well. Covid came from a lab in China. Fauci knew. Something something visit our website.

    Sadly, White Coat Waste has done some decent things–like getting that hideous kitten experiment that the USDA was doing shut down–but this is just gross.

  8. snarkrates says

    Part of the problem is that this sort of blamestorming derives in part from the basic human need to preserve the illusion of control. If someone is responsible for causing the catastrophe, then we can avoid future catastrophes by preventing similar actions in the future. This need is strong enough that parents who lose a child will go to the extent of blaming themselves just to avoid facing the randomness of life.

    That said, there is a lot of politics at work here. Certainly anyone who had anything to do with Darth Cheeto’s bungled response has an interest in deflecting well deserved blame away from themselves. And of course, any chance to bash “Gina,” amirite?

    And there are those in the scientific community and outside who view the lab-release hypothesis as a chance to go after “gain of function” research–or anything that even looks like it–because they feel it is too risky.

    It is going to be hard to prove this negative as it appeals to too many personal agendas.

  9. says

    According to the theory, the leak occurred in November when three lab technicians were hospitalized. However there’s good evidence that COVID was in the general population of Wuhan back in October a month earlier. As far as I’m concerned that debunks the whole theory.

  10. KG says

    There are at least 6 distinguishable hypotheses for the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic in which the Wuhan Institute for Virology (WIV) has an important role. roughly in diminishing order of blameworthiness for WIV:
    1) SARS-CoV-2 was engineered in WIV, and deliberately released to cause a pandemic.
    2) SARS-CoV-2 is a natural virus collected from the wild by WIV, studied, and deliberately released to cause a pandemic.
    3) SARS-CoV-2 was engineered in WIV as a potential biowarfare agent, and accidentally released.
    4) SARS-CoV-2 was engineered in WIV in a well-intentioned “gain of function” experiment and accidentally released.
    5) SARS-CoV-2 is a natural virus collected from the wild by WIV, studied, and accidentally released.
    6) SARS-CoV-2 is a natural virus which infected a WIV sample-collector who infected others in Wuhan, but it was never identified or studied pre-pandemic.

    I don’t know quite which of these the WSJ article alleges, as I can only read the first few paragraphs without subscribing, which I’m not going to do, but they talk of the virus “escaping” from WIV, which seems to rule out (1) and (2). Since the WSJ would make their article as sensational and anti-Chinese as possible, they clearly have no evidence at all that suggests (1) or (2). The expert consensus appears to more or less rule out (1), (3) and (4), the line of thought being that if you were going to engineer a coronavirus, that’s not the way you’d do it. And as rsmith@1 says, a bioweapon would be expected to be more lethal and less transmissable, addiitonally telling against (1) and (3). But (5) does seem to me to be possible (there were 2 accidental releases of SARS-CoV-1 from Chinese labs), the main evidence against it being that there’s been no “lab-leak” from whistleblowers – though one can imagine that any potential whistleblower would be too terrified to blow. And (6) seems to me at least as plausible as the “wet market” hypothesis, becauase it’s a remarkable coincidence, if that’s what it is, that the initial outbreak of the pandemic was in the very city which contains China’s only level-4 biosafety lab, a centre for research into bat coronaviruses.

    Does it make a difference? You bet it does. Of course it makes a huge difference politically, as others have discussed, but if we knew the truth (we probably never will) it would also tell us what to look out for, and what not to do, in future. If the truth is something like (4), (5) or (6), it must cast doubt on whether such research as WIV was undertaking should continue. It’s going to take a lot of new knowledge to outweigh the premature deaths of several million people, the long-term disablement of many more, and the slew of secondary effects such as the deep and widespread damage to gender equality and children’s education which appear to have accompanied the pandemic. I suppose one can weigh on the other side the defeat of Donald Trump and the political damage to Bolsonaro and Modi, which might well not have happened without the pandemic – but I don’t feel we can argue for increasing the chances of a future pandemic in the hope that the most repulsive national leaders will fuck up so badly they lose power.

  11. chris61 says

    @10 KG
    I like your analysis except I think (4) can also be dismissed as highly unlikely in the absence of a naturally occurring intermediate closer to SARS-CoV-2 than the bat viruses identified to date. I see no way that a virus could be engineered to that extent without leaving obvious traces in its sequence.

  12. raven says

    But the article published by the Wall Street Journal—beyond being totally unsubstantiated and presenting nothing fundamentally new in terms of “intelligence”—

    As soon as I saw the source of the “three Wuhan lab workers hospitalized”, I knew it was likely worthless. The Wall Street Journal, owned by the Fox NoNews owner, Rupert Murdoch. The WSJ isn’t a reliable source on anything political.

    The claim has no source. The “US Intelligence community.” This is a huge number of people, who frequently disagree with each other. As it turns out, this is believed by one part of the “Intelligence community” and disbelieved by the rest of the “Intelligence community”.

    The Chinese government and Wuham both deny that 3 lab workers were hospitalized in November.

    So what is new about the new witch hunt?
    No new information.
    Someone somewhere just decided that this is a good time to beat up on China and grabbed the first stick they could find.

  13. raven says

    One other fact also implies that the Wuhan lab leak theory is at best, unnecessary.

    We see these jumps of pathogens from animals to humans often, about once every 18 months.
    The latest ones were Swine flu, Zika, and outside the USA, Chikungunya and multiple outbreaks of Ebola.

    We already know that animal to human jumps occur and already know from SARS and MERS that Coronaviruses can do this.
    We also know that it will happen again. And again.

    There is no point in blaming the Wuhan lab for a natural event, unless we have evidence that they are in fact, involved. As of now, we don’t have that evidence.

  14. PaulBC says

    brucegee1962@4

    Don’t forget the strategic importance of giving China a black eye while it is trying to extend its influence over third-world countries locally and globally.

    However, it’s unclear why accidental transmission in an unsanitary wet market, or accidental zoonotic transmission because of irresponsible disruption of habitats is any less of a “black eye” than accidental lab leak. These are all things that could happen, and all other things equal, the lab origin is the least likely. They are not fully preventable, but ought to be part of our planning for the next inevitable pandemic (whether it originates in China or anywhere else).

    To be clear, I’m not interested in giving China a black eye, and I also sort of see why “lab leak” suggests greater culpability. I just don’t think it should. Virology labs provide a public good and also come with risks–just like food markets or economic development.

    Though I’ll add that if it weren’t for the convenient circumstantial evidence due to the placement of the lab, the same China-haters would be beating the drum over wet markets whatever thread they could find to hang blame.

  15. consciousness razor says

    KG, #10:

    But (5) does seem to me to be possible (there were 2 accidental releases of SARS-CoV-1 from Chinese labs), the main evidence against it being that there’s been no “lab-leak” from whistleblowers

    Does it need to be whistleblowers who work at that specific lab? That could be especially useful/informative, of course, but that doesn’t make it necessary.

    Why not just any people working in the field who blow their respective whistles? Because there is some evidence like that.

    though one can imagine that any potential whistleblower would be too terrified to blow.

    Indeed. The article I linked covers some of that as well.

  16. jack lecou says

    @KG #10:

    5) SARS-CoV-2 is a natural virus collected from the wild by WIV, studied, and accidentally released.
    6) SARS-CoV-2 is a natural virus which infected a WIV sample-collector who infected others in Wuhan, but it was never identified or studied pre-pandemic.

    I think the stumbling block on these simple probability:

    Both scenarios would imply that SARS-CoV-2 had already evolved in the wild, to the point that it was ready to make a human crossover.

    But if that’s the case, what’s the probability that the first person it infects is a sample-collector or a lab worker first, rather than one of the thousands of farmers, foresters, guano collectors, etc. that would have been having daily encounters with SARS-CoV-2’s host animal for years?

    Obviously it’s possible. The funny thing about very low probability events is that they can and do occur. But it’s important to keep those odds in mind when talking about these lab leak ideas.

  17. PaulBC says

    KG@10

    If the truth is something like (4), (5) or (6), it must cast doubt on whether such research as WIV was undertaking should continue.

    This doesn’t strike me as self-evident. E.g., the Bhopal disaster certainly didn’t shift public opinion to the view that industrial-scale chemical production is not worth the risk or is going to stop any time soon. Union Carbide was to blame, but there is no consensus that what they were trying to do was a bad idea to begin with, just that they did it badly. (Nuclear accidents have shifted public opinion on nuclear power generation, so it’s not immovable.)

    There’s also cultural chauvinism here. The US may insist that virology research is too dangerous to trust to China but we probably won’t generalize this to say it’s too dangerous for us to carry out (and I would assume that there is a lot of it going in in US labs, including the intentional study of potential bioweapons, at least for the purpose of defending against them).

    From a pure cause and effect with probability p of starting the next pandemic, I do not see the material difference between “You need to get better control of your wet markets.” and “You need to get better control of your virology labs.” Both present accidental risks. Both present culpability through negligence. I agree that there is a perception of difference, but I think that can be explained by (a) cultural chauvinism, because wet markets fit our impression of Chinese culture while we imagine ourselves to be much better at handing the risks of a virology lab and (b) just a big muddle that makes people connect “virology lab” with “engineered bioweapons” in their head whether they want to or not.

  18. robro says

    I see the “lab leak” theory much the same as the recent “unexplained aerial phenomena” flap: another distraction and deflection by a corrupt political-crime organization.

    The only legitimate reason to investigate any “lab leak” possibility, is to make sure that labs doing research on lethal viruses are doing so as safely as possible. We must study these viruses to prepare for them, so it’s imperative to continuously evaluate the safety and security of the work. If there’s a mistake, either because of flaws in the protocols or ineptitude, then we need to know and correct. It’s my understanding from a person involved with viral research, this is a understood requirement with well established governance and generally the WIV has met the known standards.

    Incidentally, a report on an upcoming “intelligence” investigation of the Navy UAP incidents can’t find any aliens there. What a surprise! But, it’s all in how the headline is written: NASDAQ news says “no evidence” versus HuffPost “can’t explain” versus Today “raises concerns”. Take your pick.

  19. jack lecou says

    @PaulBC #17:

    I missed that.

    Yeah, research like WIV’s should definitely continue. Be radically expanded, in fact. It’s not like shutting down WIV would make the bats or the viruses go away. The whole purpose of these virus research and surveillance programs is to be able to find, identify and counter dangerous viruses first, before they can crossover to local populations.

    And ironically, that’s exactly what scenarios (5) and (6) imply happened. In those hypotheses, a very dangerous pandemic-ready virus was already lurking out in the woods, only a matter of time before it broke out somewhere. But against all odds, researchers found it first. Good job! The only thing that went wrong, presumably, would be some correctable flaw in the safety protocols.

  20. donfelipe says

    What I’m most interested in is what does discovery the origins of this virus look like? How can it be done? Anyone have any good resources on this?

    It seems that the “lab leak” theory, which requires a conspiracy to cover up, is going to perpetuate forever. Until a definitive and unquestionable determination of the origins of Covid, which seems nearly impossible at this point, people are going to believe this. Any work done here is going to be either by or with co-operation with the Chinese government. I find it hard to believe that those pushing hard at this lab leak hypothesis for the past year, without evidence, are going to suddenly stop if there’s an explanation that clears their boogeyman. And they absolutely will not stop if no definitive proof is found.

  21. PaulBC says

    Oh, speaking of China. It’s May 35th today. I would have forgotten except I have an FB memory chiding myself for almost forgetting another year. It’s amazing all the crap we have to say about China and we forget that brief point in 1989 when it looked like there could be a successful democracy movement. The Chinese government hasn’t forgotten. They’ve learned the lesson that force works very well.

    China has made great strides in advancing living standards, and I know enough people who benefit that I don’t dismiss this at all. But it certainly puts the lie to the idea that economic growth leads inevitably to personal liberty.

  22. consciousness razor says

    If the truth is something like (4), (5) or (6), it must cast doubt on whether such research as WIV was undertaking should continue.

    This doesn’t strike me as self-evident.

    I think you can insert “in the minds of reasonable people” or something like that, after “it must cast doubt,” and it will retain the intended meaning of that statement.

    The US may insist that virology research is too dangerous to trust to China but we probably won’t generalize this to say it’s too dangerous for us to carry out.

    I get the feeling that we’re not on the same page….
    (1) It’s not about virology research as a whole. Just dial it back, and you should be less worried about the impact on positive scientific research which “provide(s) a public good.” It’s not hard.
    (2) It’s not about anybody trusting China or the US or any government for that matter. It’s about scientists, who can’t just be trusted to do the right things all the time (because they’re people, although they might not want to give that impression sometimes).

    (and I would assume that there is a lot of it going in in US labs, including the intentional study of potential bioweapons, at least for the purpose of defending against them)

    You know what I don’t trust? People who believe (or at least are willing to say out loud) that weapons are even plausibly “for the purpose of defending against [the very same weapons].” I hear that people used have to have shields for that sort of thing, and they might have built walls around the village, and so forth. Those happen not to be “weapons for the purpose of defending against the very same weapons,” because that idea is totally bonkers and should be mocked relentlessly.

    From a pure cause and effect with probability p of starting the next pandemic, I do not see the material difference between “You need to get better control of your wet markets.” and “You need to get better control of your virology labs.”

    Uh, are you sure about that? To start with, the one probably sounds a bit racist if you’re the target of it. The other sounds like a not-blown-out-of-proportion type of problem that a few quite powerful institutions could actually address with a pretty straightforward combination of regulations, oversight, technology, better funding, etc.

    Anyway, imagine them happening in the US, so you can try to get a fairly definite picture. Which do you think is more likely?

    — In the next 5 or 10 years, we revamped a huge part of food system that we’ve been using for a very long time, including the physical places where people produce and store and buy and consume food, etc. (When you think about it, it is an incredibly social thing, involving literally every person in a society and how each of them behaves, since every last one of us eats … often, multiple times per day.)

    — Or, over the same period, we could make things safer at a few already tightly-regulated labs, which are managed and operated by a relative handful of well-educated and highly-paid professional scientists.

    I mean, that’s how I look at it. When i just describe those things to myself, they don’t sound equal to me. Where do you get your probabilities from?

  23. Rob Grigjanis says

    cr @22:

    I hear that people used have to have shields for that sort of thing, and they might have built walls around the village, and so forth. Those happen not to be “weapons for the purpose of defending against the very same weapons,” because that idea is totally bonkers and should be mocked relentlessly.

    So the designs of shields and walls didn’t depend on the particular offensive weapons they were supposed to protect you from? If you want a shield which will protect you against a new weapon, you might want to actually test it against that weapon.

  24. jack lecou says

    @22 You know what I don’t trust? People who believe (or at least are willing to say out loud) that weapons are even plausibly “for the purpose of defending against [the very same weapons].” I hear that people used have to have shields for that sort of thing, and they might have built walls around the village, and so forth.

    But in order to do R&D on an effective shield you’d probably want to have some swords to test it against, no? Or at least study swords very thoroughly first so you knew what their capabilities and weaknesses were.

    That’s how I read “intentional study of potential bioweapons, at least for the purpose of defending against them” anyway.

    (It’s probably stretching the analogy past breaking, but its also worth noting that, historically, nobody carried a shield without also carrying a weapon in their other hand. Without the ability to fight back and repulse a attacker, a shield or wall alone can’t possibly stop them. Just slow them down a little.)

  25. raven says

    What I’m most interested in is what does discovery the origins of this virus look like? How can it be done? Anyone have any good resources on this?

    It could be easy, hard, or almost impossible. It depends on the individual outbreak.

    .1. If this was a lab leak from Wuhan, they should have vials of Covid-19 virus in their freezers, predating the outbreak.
    They should also have mountains of data on this virus, predating the outbreak.
    The first thing you do with a new isolate is sequence it, which is easy, fast, and automated. The proto-Covid-19 virus RNA sequence should be in their database.
    There should also be lots of information in the lab notebooks.

    Of course, Wuhan has been asked this many times. It’s the first question anyone would ask.
    They always say no.

    .2. If the Covid-19 virus came from a wild probably bat population, then we don’t really know the probability of discovering this by sampling.
    But we know it is low.
    The Chinese have already sampled close to 1,000 bat virus isolates.
    They found viruses somewhat related to Covid-19 virus, but they didn’t find Covid-19.
    This puts a lower limit on how many bats/other mammals you would have to sample to have a chance of finding it.
    It is a needle in the haystack problem.
    Not impossible but very difficult.

  26. raven says

    https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17687-3

    Nature Open Access
    Published: 25 August 2020
    Origin and cross-species transmission of bat coronaviruses in China
    Alice Latinne, Ben Hu, Kevin J. Olival, Guangjian Zhu, Libiao Zhang, Hongying Li, Aleksei A. Chmura, Hume E. Field, Carlos Zambrana-Torrelio, Jonathan H. Epstein, Bei Li, Wei Zhang, Lin-Fa Wang, Zheng-Li Shi & Peter Daszak
    Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 4235 (2020) Cite this article
    Abstract
    Bats are presumed reservoirs of diverse coronaviruses (CoVs) including progenitors of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)-CoV and SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID-19. However, the evolution and diversification of these coronaviruses remains poorly understood. Here we use a Bayesian statistical framework and a large sequence data set from bat-CoVs (including 630 novel CoV sequences) in China to study their macroevolution, cross-species transmission and dispersal. We find that host-switching occurs more frequently and across more distantly related host taxa in alpha- than beta-CoVs, and is more highly constrained by phylogenetic distance for beta-CoVs. We show that inter-family and -genus switching is most common in Rhinolophidae and the genus Rhinolophus. Our analyses identify the host taxa and geographic regions that define hotspots of CoV evolutionary diversity in China that could help target bat-CoV discovery for proactive zoonotic disease surveillance. Finally, we present a phylogenetic analysis suggesting a likely origin for SARS-CoV-2 in Rhinolophus spp. bats.

    People have already been searching in the wild for Covid-19 virus.
    Here is a summary paper of what they did and what they found.

    It’s long but not too complicated to read.

    Everyone is focusing on bats as the origin. Not unreasonable.
    But if the virus is like SARS, it could have come from bats through an intermediate host.
    SARS is thought to have jumped from bats to palm civets and then to humans.

    So if Covid-19 virus has an evolutionary history in an intermediate mammalian host such as raccoon dogs or minks, if we don’t look there, we will miss it.

  27. consciousness razor says

    So the designs of shields and walls didn’t depend on the particular offensive weapons they were supposed to protect you from?

    I did not imply that, Rob. So, your inference-making skills seem to be sort of lacking right now.

    If you can explain how it could be the case that a bioweapon, designed to be a bioweapon, is also designed to protect people from that bioweapon itself, then I will concede that it’s a possibility … but not that this is plausibly something that will ever happen. I don’t think it’s out of the question that this is just some tired old bullshit conjured up by some people who are hoping to excuse their belligerence.

  28. jack lecou says

    @20: What I’m most interested in is what does discovery the origins of this virus look like? How can it be done? Anyone have any good resources on this?

    The story of the first SARS-CoV is probably pretty closely analogous. Broadly speaking, I believe it involves a lot more of the same type of work WIV already does: going out and collecting samples from animals, in the hope of finding viruses that are genetic ancestors to the human virus. Eventually we may be able to piece together a story of which animals it moved through and where it came from.

    It’s impossible to say how long that will take. It took about 15 years before the full picture of SARS-CoV came to light, which included some lucky breaks. But perhaps the virus surveillance infrastructure is more developed now (WIVs creation is evidence of that).

  29. Trevor Sloughter says

    My assumption is (and apologies if someone else already said this) that a sizeable chunk of the media rightly put their foot down on this conspiracy theory early on because under Trump they understood it was being weaponised by the far-right as a fully fledged conspiracy theory. And now I think some of those same reporters are looking back and wondering if they were too hard because without the immediate threat of a far-right president they’re back on their “both sides” BS, and not objecting too much to their colleagues who keep the flame alive. Which is a positive feedback loop, the more centrist media report it, the more they think it’s a centrist position.

  30. PaulBC says

    CR@22

    To start with, the one probably sounds a bit racist if you’re the target of it.

    Well, that’s an interesting take. Are you saying the wet market explanation strikes you as more sinophobic than the lab leak? It may even be true, but that doesn’t seem to be the public perception right now, where nearly anything but a lab origin would let China off the hook at least briefly. On the other hand, there is no question that China bashers would latch onto either one as a reason to bash China. So I still don’t see much difference.

    I think any potential source of a new pandemic should be taken into account as a risk. If food sources or expansion into animal habitats are a problem, that needs to be taken into account. Global travel is another obvious thing that puts us at a much higher risk of pandemics than ever before. We can do something about all of these, not by stopping them but by putting better safety measures in place.

    The same applies to lab research. I just don’t see how it’s any different. We do a lot of things now that increase the risk of pandemics above where it was in the past. “Wet markets” isn’t one that’s worse, but it’s just exacerbated by the other risks since a new disease can spread farther (and a nation like the US that’s dependent on factory farming and agricultural use of antibiotics can’t exactly claim the high ground on food safety, though the risks are different).

    If “we” (that is 21st human beings as a whole) are at increased risk through our virology research, then we should mitigate that risk as well. I have no argument with that, either the premise or the conclusion.

    But it’s one big bag of risks. The important question is how to reduce the likelihood and severity of the next pandemic. Every reasonable risk should be mitigated against, including lab leaks, but the focus on one specific risk seems to be motivated by geopolitics (to put in generously) or simple bigotry.

  31. Rob Grigjanis says

    cr @27:

    your inference-making skills seem to be sort of lacking right now.

    Your remembering what you actually wrote seems to be sort of lacking. You certainly implied that working on offensive weapons in order to defend yourself against them is bonkers. Here, let me quote what you seem to have forgotten:

    You know what I don’t trust? People who believe (or at least are willing to say out loud) that weapons are even plausibly “for the purpose of defending against [the very same weapons].

    Now, it’s possible that you’re referring to people who say something like “if we’re under an anthrax attack, we have to release anthrax”, but I doubt such people exist, so that would be silly.

    If you want to defend against anthrax, you actually have to have some anthrax for analysis and testing, no?

    I’m sure governments through the ages have used the defence argument as a cover for producing such weapons, but that doesn’t negate the necessity of such work.

  32. numerobis says

    What are the odds that a zoonotic disease would naturally appear near a lab that was founded to study zoonotic diseases that happen in that part of the world?

    Similar question: what are the odds that malaria would be naturally occurring in the 1940s in the very same place where the CDC’s Atlanta headquarters was founded with a mission of controlling malaria?

    The causality is backwards. The lab is there because the disease is there!

  33. jack lecou says

    @22

    — In the next 5 or 10 years, we revamped a huge part of food system that we’ve been using for a very long time, including the physical places where people produce and store and buy and consume food, etc. (When you think about it, it is an incredibly social thing, involving literally every person in a society and how each of them behaves, since every last one of us eats … often, multiple times per day.)

    China has already banned the trade and consumption of wildlife.

    It’s obviously hard to say how successful they’ll be, or how long it will take — for all the reasons you outline — but I don’t think it’s a token gesture either. It’s coming from the highest levels, and they seem pretty serious about it.

  34. sophiab says

    Honestly, though few are paying attention it seems China has really done well, health and economic wise with the virus. I would not trust them day by day, but overall, so much better than usa and eu.
    Which have increased their soft power, while usa especially but also eu has dropped. So usa is working to bring them down a few pegs. How dare they do better?
    So framing this as all their fault, or something planned, like things couldn’t have gone differently with different actions in feb 2020… yeah, all china’s fault don’t question too hard

  35. unclefrogy says

    speculation is all fine and dandy in fiction the more far fetched is often the best. It is not so helpful in the real world .
    I get the impression that the interest in this particular speculation is coming from the conservative and conspiracy portion of the public. We are all ignorant to many facts about the early history of this current outbreak. I am wondering about why this one is so attractive?
    I can only think of a couple of reasons, The conservative needs something preferably a person or group to be against it gives them the appearance of separateness and meaning it is a kind of definition. works well on the ignorant as well
    the other is the need to see life as benign and understandable, with our human place in it as important as it were blessed by god and all has a purpose measured by humanity. A random pandemic caused by a zoonotic disease is profoundly unsettling as it just illustrates how indifferent the universe is to our importance and fate.
    If this is a bio-weapon research program escapee it is a very good example of why they are useless as hell. which everyone can now see.

  36. says

    For that matter, why isn’t Cheney in jail for making up lies that led to a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people?

    Because actually holding the Republicans responsible for the Iraq war (and the proto-fascist stuff like the PATRIOT Act and the creation of DHS/ICE) would have meant taking a hard stand against all that policy, which would mean also expelling (or at least severely punishing) Democrats who supported it, which would require the support of the national party, and the national party is the creature of center-right figures like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden who were in that group.

  37. consciousness razor says

    Well, that’s an interesting take. Are you saying the wet market explanation strikes you as more sinophobic than the lab leak?

    Yes, it does, and I’m a little surprised that you’re surprised by this.

    As I said above, the focus of the latter is on the relevant fields (worldwide) in the sciences, medicine, and health policy. It is mostly definitely (1) punching up, in case you care about that sort of thing, and is also (2) not aimed at any racial/ethnic/national group.

    The former is very strongly linked with the cultural practices and environment of ordinary folks in many parts of Asia. It gives me the same uneasy feelings as when people refuse to go to Asian restaurants, on the grounds that they heard a myth once that the food contains cat meat. It’s also extremely typical for racialized assumptions and prejudices to be blown out of all proportion compared to the handful of anecdotes and rumor that they may be based upon (if anything at all).

    Does “it came from a laboratory, which is like lots of other such laboratories around the globe” have any of those features? I don’t think it does, and typically, I’d have no idea where to even begin to understand how anyone would think so.

    In this case, however, we know that there is plenty of knee-jerk/blind liberal opposition to anything whatsoever which is ever said or done by anyone remotely associated with Trump, on the grounds that he is (rightly) distrusted on numerous topics, which is of course fallacious. And for similar reasons, which are also fallacious, there likewise tends to be little opposition (or even scrutiny) of people who are even very loosely associated with the opposing political group.

    So, there appears to be a clear and strong bias that many have which predisposes them to that line of thought, even if they have no real personal stakes that are directly associated with the scientists or health experts or politicians in question. Because whatever they might have which leads them to believe and/or say such things, it just doesn’t look as if it’s a coherent set of reasons like I was easily able to provide above.

    It may even be true, but

    Yes, I’m aware that your interest in the truth is not particularly strong sometimes. I think in the earlier thread, it was outweighed by the fact that you don’t like a guy from Arkansas, who (although a Senator) has absolutely nothing to do with evaluating any of the relevant claims. That said enough for me. I get the point.

  38. PaulBC says

    CR@39

    Yes, I’m aware that your interest in the truth is not particularly strong sometimes.

    Neither of us possesses the evidence to resolve it one way or the other and, speaking only for myself, my influence is not such that what I believes matters much to anyone else. So I can go on happily believing whatever I want.

    Is that a lack of interest in the truth? To an extent, sure. I’m not all that concerned with how my non-actionable beliefs connect to reality. I’d rather be correct about stuff and have a good reason for it. But other things probably matter more.

    E.g., if I believe bigfoot is out there somewhere, that’s one thing. If I drag people out on an ill-equipped expedition to find bigfoot and put us all at risk, that’s something entirely different. In the latter case, my lack of accurate knowledge could get people killed. In the former, it’s a harmless quirk.

    The lab leak hypothesis is getting its public hearing, which is probably a good thing. I am disinclined to believe it, though I concede it’s a possibility. I’ll leave it to the people who can do something useful with the information. If WIV could be counted on for complete cooperative, it seems like it should be possible to gather more than circumstantial evidence.

    My gut says it could just as easily be like aluminum tubes, as PZ said (or the “mobile chemical units” that had no purpose more nefarious than generating hydrogen to fill balloons). It could be something completely misinterpreted like “yellow rain” in the 1980s, which consisted of bee droppings and not chemical or biological attacks.

    In a few years, maybe we’ll have a better idea. There is no reason for me to make up my mind. It is also reasonable to consider all reasonable risks when preparing for the next pandemic. Lab leak is just one of them.

  39. KG says

    Both scenarios would imply that SARS-CoV-2 had already evolved in the wild, to the point that it was ready to make a human crossover.

    But if that’s the case, what’s the probability that the first person it infects is a sample-collector or a lab worker first, rather than one of the thousands of farmers, foresters, guano collectors, etc. that would have been having daily encounters with SARS-CoV-2’s host animal for years? – jack lecou@16

    Sample collectors handle live bats for fairly prolonged periods to take samples – no-one else is likely to do that. There are, if what I’ve read is correct, no bat caves near Wuhan. What there is at Wuhan is a lab conducting research on bat coronaviruses – what’s the probability that a pandemic would begin in the city holding one of the tiny number of labs in the world doing that? Frankly I’d much rather attribute the pandemic to the spread of “big farmer” (industrial farming by multinationals) pushing small farmers into marginal areas and into wildlife farming, which we know is happening in China, than to scientific research aimed at preventing pandemics – but I can’t get round that remarkable coincidence.

  40. KG says

    It seems that the “lab leak” theory, which requires a conspiracy to cover up – donfelipe@20

    My (6) – a WIV sample collector infected by a virus that was never studied in the lab – does not. The Chinese government and WIV might very well not know it happened. The initial infection could have been asymptomatic, since we know infected but asymptomatic individuals can transmit the virus.

  41. KG says

    Similar question: what are the odds that malaria would be naturally occurring in the 1940s in the very same place where the CDC’s Atlanta headquarters was founded with a mission of controlling malaria?

    The causality is backwards. The lab is there because the disease is there! – numerobis@32

    Nonsense. No bat coronavirus outbreak had happened anywhere near Wuhan. China is a big place, with a lot of cities. The original SARS outbreak was traced to Foshan in Guangdong, 425 kilometers from Wuhan. The WIV was founded in 1954 as the Wuhan Microbiology Laboratory.

  42. PaulBC says

    CR@39

    Yes, it does, and I’m a little surprised that you’re surprised by this.

    I agree with your explanation of why “wet market” should be more racist than “lab leak.” However, what I noticed actually happening in early 2020 was that the loudest China bashers moved very rapidly from from natural to lab origin at the slightest pretext, though some were indeed pretty enthusiastic about attributing it to Chinese eating practices before (apparently) glomming onto the virology lab as an even better drum to beat.

    Part of this was to accuse China of releasing a bioweapon, which I realize is not what we’re discussing here.

    In an unlikely hypothetical scenario in which a lab leak can be ruled out definitively (let’s say a close variant is found in nature with a plausible zoonotic path and an exhaustive inventory of WIV samples comes up empty) then my hunch is that many China haters will cling to lab leak as the basis of their sinophobia rather than revert back to a more primitive-sounding attack.

  43. PaulBC says

    Sorry… this is not very relevant but I can’t resist adding that my wife, who is Chinese, is entirely convinced the virus came from WIV. I think she has a greater preference for certainty than I do, and finds the circumstantial evidence compelling. Also her level of cynicism about the Chinese government comes from direct experience. She’s quite angry about the initial coverup.

    I admit that WIV’s location would be a very funny coincidence, but the world is full of funny coincidences. Assume that a comparable virology lab is in a Chinese city of at least 5 million and that the first cases of a pandemic would happen in a city of at least 5 million. It looks like there are 19 candidate cities (Wuhan has over 8 million and is ranked 9th). So if we picked uniformly from these candidates, there is a one in 19 chance of pure coincidence, which is a pretty high probability. Such coincidences happen all the time. This is simply very weak circumstantial evidence, though it raises questions.

  44. consciousness razor says

    PaulBC:

    Neither of us possesses the evidence to resolve it one way or the other

    The exchange we were having there was about racism. So when you just said “it,” I thought at first that you were still talking about that and hadn’t changed the subject on me.

    So if we picked uniformly from these candidates, there is a one in 19 chance of pure coincidence, which is a pretty high probability.

    Garbage in, garbage out. What you just demonstrated is that you assumed it would start in one of those large Chinese cities and not anywhere else. If it were up to me to choose a location by throwing a dart at a map, it doesn’t actually have to land in one of those 19 places.

    Also, a pandemic (or simply an outbreak) doesn’t need to start at any virology lab anywhere. There are of course tons of other scenarios which are possible and do not involve those.

  45. kevinrbrown says

    An additional point of overlapping data that might be interesting is that the bat caves in Yunnan are about 1,500~ km away from Wuhan. Pseudo-science literature has been emphasizing that bats have a range of about 50~ km… but that’s just for normal hunting. When migrating, bats travel up to 1,000 to 1,500~ plus kilometers. More or less exactly in range of Wuhan, and also (if the evidence still stands that October was the earliest point of transmission), at just the time of year they’d be expected to be doing migratory flights.

    Interesting (or not) data points aside, though – it strikes me that the lab leak hypothesis (funny how proponents have been able to sneak the word ‘theory’ into the conversation, despite lacking any evidence, but anyway) is completely unfalsifiable. If tomorrow we were to find either definitive proof of bat-to-human transmission or (more likely) the intermediary animal that transmitted the disease to humans, the lab leak proponents will just effortlessly shift the goalposts and claim that the lab is still involved (that the intermediary was still infected, one way or another, by carelessness / racially stereotyped uncleanliness via the WIV). It is a hypothesis that is shy of making any testable predictions at all because of how flimsy it is under scrutiny, and one that has already failed multiple early predictions about the virus being manufactured (the virus’s structure is the opposite of what we would expect from a manufactured virus).

    A natural origin hypothesis is completely falsifiable (all that would need to happen is some smoking gun revelation about the WIV)… but it is tragically simple to frame this as a weakness of the hypothesis rather than a strength, and that’s exactly what is happening. News outlets & activist groups present the lab leak as this robust argument that can be proven true no matter what, contrast that against natural origins which has the possibility of being discredited, and then come away with the impression that the right-no-matter-what argument is the better one (afterall, wouldn’t it be better to side with the camp that is just always correct?). :|

    It took, what, two decades at a minimum before we discovered that chimps were the likely origin of HIV? But organizations like the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists push the idea that not finding an origin within a year is JUST SO WEIRD, and because the org has a bunch of legacy respect & the name ‘scientists’ is in the title their not-so-much-peer-reviewed opinion articles are injected into the polity with undeserved credibility.

  46. unclefrogy says

    KG what constitutes near as in near Wuhan?
    how is handling bat guano less likely to get anyone contaminated with everything in a bat then taking samples for scientific purposes ?
    I was under the impression that bats were sold in the wet market not sure if they were live or dead my guess would be live.
    I wonder what the distance animals traveled to get to that market. I read as well that they sold pangolin there as well which were probably imported and is a possible intermediate host or thought to be at one time.

  47. KG says

    UncleFrogy@48,
    I can’t find any information on where the nearest bat cave to Wuhan is – all I’ve seen is that there are none near it. If you find any such information, please let us know.
    As I already said, the samplers handle bats, which guano collectors don’t. The samplers wear PPE, but this in itself may give the wearer a false sense of security. Guano collectors obviously could be at risk, but we know there were samplers from WIV in Wuhan. I’ve seen nothing suggesting bat guano was collected anywhere near that city.
    No, bats were not sold in the wet market. Besides which, the earliest known cases are not connected with the market.

    PaulBC@45,
    I don’t see why the first cases of a zoonotic disease would necessarily be in a large city. If, for example, the source was bat guano, the first cases would probably be in an area where farmers collect and use bat guano. If it was a mink farm (another suggestion, and I consider mink farming a vilely cruel and dangerous practice that should be banned worldwide), then on or near such a farm. And there is no other facility in China – very few in the world – that is a level 4 biosafety lab studying bat coronaviruses. Yes, it could be a coincidence. But do you think it would be a good idea for WIV to review their safety procedures during sampling expeditions? (Assuming they are telling the truth when they say SARS-CoV-2 was never studied there.)

    kevinrbrown@47,
    The hypothesis that a bat sampler from WIV became infected by a virus that was never studied at WIV clearly is falsifiable: either by evidence that SARS-CoV-2 was studied at WIV, or by the discovery of an intermediate host. It would be made more likely by the discovery of a SARS-CoV-2 strain distinct from any in humans but closely related in bats in a cave the WIV samplers had visited, less so by such a strain being discovered in bats in a cave they had not visited. More broadly, your rhetorical tactic of claiming that if an intermediate host were discovered, those giving credence to the possibility of a lab leak would move the goalposts, is itself intellectually dishonest. Most likely some would, some would not, and you have no grounds to assert that all would.

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