On The Origins of COVID-19

The question of where COVID-19 came from is of scientific interest, mostly, but unfortunately it has been politicized and used with racist overtones, e.g.: Trump’s calling it “the Chinese virus.” The worst part of it, to my mind, is that the ‘edgy’ branches of the media are also digging into the story in search of some kind of conspiracy angle, which is going to serve to further fuel less-disciplined conspiracy theories. This shit-show is going to continue for the forseeable future.

We have excellent case-studies of how novel viruses, including coronaviruses (that doesn’t really matter, though) spread into a population in the era of air travel, and there is ample scientific knowledge of the basic virology behind these outbreaks. That’s what’s so frustrating about this whole thing. You’ve probably heard about things like the massive slaughters of entire populations of chickens [e.g.: this] It’s bird flu – a zoonotic virus that can potentially mutate to become extremely deadly to humans, so let’s do the smart thing and eradicate the reservoirs:

TAIPEI, Taiwan – Health officials ordered the killing of thousands of ducks and chickens in central and southern Taiwan yesterday to control the latest outbreak of a bird flu that has swept across Asia, devastating poultry stocks and killing at least 10 people.

The officials ordered the immediate slaughter of about 27,000 ducks and chickens after the virus was detected among birds at four farms between 20 and 100 miles from the central city of Taichung. A six-month quarantine also was placed on poultry farms within a 2-mile radius of the affected birds.

That was 2004. One year after the novel coronavirus outbreak of SARS in Toronto, which killed 44 people and infected at least 600 others. The Toronto SARS outbreak, not referred to as the “Canadian Virus, Eh” probably got there from an infected airline passenger. At the time, nobody cared to point a finger of blame; it was understood that viruses can move between animals and people and we are risking outbreaks when we assemble thousands of pigs, chickens, ducks, or Fox news viewers in a close space. The point of my raising all of this is that there was no need to establish any conspiracies regarding what happened. A virus broke out in Toronto, some Canadians died and others got sick and the main debate was whether the mayor of Toronto was an asshole (he was) for continuing to encourage tourism to the town, during the outbreak. As it happened, the outbreak was contained, so it was no big deal.

[Thinkglobalhealth] has an excellent review of what happened in Toronto in 2003, with reflection on how/where it applies to our recent experience with COVID-19. This is probably not a spoiler, but: humanity didn’t do a very good job of learning a damn thing from the 2003 outbreak:

The report noted that at the time SARS struck, no Toronto hospital had made infectious diseases a priority. “There was no regional framework for outbreak management to coordinate responses across institutions or health service sectors,” the report read. Its authors aimed to fix that. One of its key recommendations was the need for provincial and federal agencies dedicated to tackling infectious diseases and other threats to public health. Another was to give higher priority to infection control in hospitals, including measures for treating and isolating patients, providing personal protective equipment for staff, and alerting the wider community.

Remember, briefly, there was discussion of the Obama Administration’s plan for dealing with a pandemic – which the Trumpies threw in the trash because they hadn’t written it. That plan basically mirrored the Canadian plan based on 2004 (Obama was elected in 2009 and these sort of plans take time to draw up) none of this is rocket science. What is rocket science is the spectacular way that the Trump administration ruthlessly and ignorantly screwed the pooch with the pandemic response, when there was plenty of good advice literally lying around gathering dust. The conspiracy, if there has to be a conspiracy, is the conspiracy of dunces that managed to fuck up America’s response to the pandemic while simultaneously trying to deny its reality and make money off it. You can’t make this shit up.

Meanwhile, sensible, real scientists are trying to figure out where and how COVID-19 came into humanity, so we can control for similar outbreaks in the future. [lancet] This should make you happy: there are sensible, real, scientists checking and double-checking to make sure that our pig, chicken, and duck populations cannot become reservoirs and mutating-grounds for new strains of COVID-19. We’ll have to leave that to the republican populations of Florida, Texas, Mississippi, etc. In Denmark, it was determined that COVID-19 can be carried in ferrets and minks, and sensible, real, scientists pulled the trigger on the massacre of the minks: [nbc]

The small, ferret-like mammals farmed for their valuable fur have raised alarm after contracting and mutating the coronavirus, passing it back to humans.

The virus, officials said, spread from human handler to mink, mutated, and then spread back to humans.

Denmark went so far as to cull 17 million minks in November in response to outbreaks at more than 200 mink farms. The northern region of the country, where most fur farms lie, was placed under strict lockdowns.

That is how it’s done, and that is why it is important to identify the reservoirs for the virus. It’s not to placate the conspiracy nuts, it’s to keep the pandemic from coming back again and again. Except, well, the stupid people in America seem to have decided to ensure that. The situation is incredibly frustrating for anyone who has the slightest understanding of what’s going on.

Let’s look briefly at a bit of the dark side of all of this. One of the media outlets I follow is/was The Intercept. They did a podcast session that flirted overmuch with the COVID-19 conspiracy story for my taste. Remember: this is an outbreak, that in the context of SARS and MERS is a fairly normal thing that we knew was going to happen again sooner or later – but The Intercept wants to encourage people to speculate about how it could have come from a lab. One of the reasons I am writing this posting is because I intend to send them a link to it, so they’ll maybe think a bit harder, do a bit more research, and stop being jackasses. It’s full of fatousity like, “we have never had an outbreak of this scale” etc. Because, apparently, the jackasses they are interviewing have never heard of the great swine flu pandemic that had nearly 10x the mortality rate of COVID-19, and then there was the Black Death. Both of those were zoonotic viruses that spread into humans from co-resident animal populations: pigs and rats. Did you know that human cities now try to keep the rat populations in check? Do you want to take a guess why? If you can do that little bit of thinking, you’re clearly more thinkful than the folks at The Intercept. [intercepted] You need to look at this stuff in historical context, not just through the lens of shock and despair that Americans are feeling.

To be fair, Intercepted is able to shrug off the blame for amplifying conspiracy nuts’ signal by playing clips from Tucker Carlson to make them sound much more rational:

But what Trump didn’t realize – or maybe just didn’t care about – was that if the coronavirus did emerge from a lab in Wuhan, China, there were members of his government in Washington, D.C., who could arguably be complicit.

The National Institutes of Health had provided funding to the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the nearby Wuhan University Center for Animal Experiment – two institutions that wound up uncomfortably close to the presumed genesis of the pandemic. The money had often come through the EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit that administers federal grants for a variety of scientific projects.

Oh, boy, it’s the Wuhan lab story again. I don’t want to quote all (or even much) of the Intercepted piece, but it’s all about how “gain of function” research might have resulted in COVID-19 being evolved in a lab to be worse. Because, apparently, the historical model of pandemics igniting from zoonotic viruses that jump to humans is just too unbelievable, or something.

But what’s striking is the scientific community’s swift and complete dismissal in the mainstream of the possibility that the virus could’ve originated from a lab.

Working in the BSL-4 at Wuhan [bloomberg]

That’s because, while it could have originated in a lab, it didn’t. Purple winged monkeys might fly out of my butthole, too, but they won’t. As Rich Rosen once said on USENET: “many things are possible but very few of them actually happen.” Real, sensible, scientists are busy worrying about important stuff because it’s pretty obvious that the Wuhan lab story is stupid. What’s exceptionally annoying, to me, is that the conspiracy nuts have mostly ignored the bioweapons labs that the US and Russia maintain or maintained until fairly recently. If you want a conspiracy, look at USAMRIID and the fact that they (and CDC) came up with some pretty feeble excuses for why they need to keep vials of smallpox “in case”… in case what? And if the conspiracy nuts want something to think about, they could look at the US Army’s just putting into test their own COVID-19 vaccine against multiple coronavirus variants. [TheHill]

The SpFN vaccine uses a protein with 24 faces which allows for scientists to attach the spikes of multiple coronavirus strains on different faces, according to Defense One.

That’s pretty cool. So they built a carrying vehicle for virus proteins that can be tailored to invoke immune response for entire families of viruses. That’s a defense against a bioweapon, of course, but if you see someone walking around in armor with a shield, you’ve got to ask where their sword is, right? I am kidding around, of course, but to illustrate that’s the kind of reasoning that gets us nowhere. So USAMRIID has BSL-4 labs, are they making viruses or are they making vaccines? One of the problems that came up often on TWIV is that there are certain experiments with viruses that you simply can’t do outside of a BSL-4 environment. The Wuhan lab is, if I recall correctly, the only BSL-4 in China; these labs are exceptionally rare because they are insanely expensive and it’s hard to hire people to work in that environment. There’s a pretty good description of working in the BSL-4 at Wuhan in [bloomberg]

Now at Melbourne’s Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, Anderson began collaborating with Wuhan researchers in 2016, when she was scientific director of the biosafety lab at Singapore’s Duke-NUS Medical School. Her research – which focuses on why lethal viruses like Ebola and Nipah cause no disease in the bats in which they perpetually circulate – complemented studies underway at the Chinese institute, which offered funding to encourage international collaboration.

Yes, the Wuhan lab was researching how bats survive ebola, which is an interesting question because it reflects on how humans might, someday, too. The point is that the Wuhan lab is doing exactly the right kind of work: figuring out how to detect, track, and block, zoonotic viruses in populations that humans rub shoulders with, or eat.

You have massive culls of animal reservoirs like chickens and minks. And you have a virus that jumped from swine to humans in 1918 and killed [cdc] 50 million people. In the course of reading the just-referenced CDC piece I learned something new, which is that apparently the “swine flu” came from chickens:

The 1918 influenza pandemic was the most severe pandemic in recent history. It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin.

While the 1918 H1N1 virus has been synthesized and evaluated, the properties that made it so devastating are not well understood.

It wasn’t a “Spanish” flu, either. But catch that last sentence: “the properties that made it so devastating are not well understood” – that’s the kind of thing that the Wuhan lab is/was trying to understand about Ebola and bats and humans. It’s the kind of research we desperately want scientists to be doing, and conspiracy mongering ignorati need to shut the fuck up and learn a bit more virology. I suggest they listen to every episode of TWIV, for starters. The topic of the Wuhan lab has, not surprisingly, come up a few times and the virologists are instantly dismissive of the conspiracy. Why? It’s more than you’d think – it’s not just “why would anyone do that?” or “it’d be harder than you think” (which is warmer) it’s: COVID-19 pretty obviously evolved from other variants of SARS. It’s been sequenced a bunch of times and it’s not some rocket science new virus put together by space aliens – it’s a strain of SARS and we have experience with SARS and MERS and the question is “why is it so bad?” and that is an interesting question that has not been answered yet. In order for a bioweapons lab to whip up a batch of extra-nasty SARS they’d have to know what makes one version of SARS nastier than another. They don’t know that but they want to, defensively (because whatever that is will be a protein structure we can build vaccine targets against!) Also, the bioweapons guys wouldn’t waste their time with something like SARS: they’d go straight to ebola or smallpox. Ebola is a much better bioweapon than SARS, anyway, because it’s so lethal it burns itself out by destroying the population it’s reproducing in; it wouldn’t spread around the globe like SARS did/can/will.

Intercepted again:

In science, you’re not really supposed to eliminate a possibility until you’ve proven that it doesn’t work. But so many of the world’s top virologists seemed not at all interested in asking the question.

The folks at Intercepted need to familiarize themselves with Bertrand Russell’s teapot. It is possible there is a teapot orbiting the planet Mars. The only way we can tell would be to mount a very expensive mission and find out. But scientists are not interested in asking the question “is there a teapot orbiting Mars?” because it’s fucking stupid and they’re busy. Yes, scientists understand that there may be a teapot but they are comfortable telling the teapot conspiracy theorists “get out of my office, I’m busy.” Basically Intercepted demonstrates in that one paragraph that not only are they not qualified to report on the topic, they should shut up because they’re embarrassing themselves. I’m embarrassed for them.

Recent reporting has revealed that not only was the type of work happening that could, hypothetically, have taught a bat coronavirus to infect people, but there were some pretty specific plans that laid out just the type of experiment that could’ve done it.

Holy shit, that’s incredible! A bat virus being able to infect people the same way a chicken virus or a mink virus can? Or like HIV, which jumped from a chimp to a human some time in the 1920s? Seriously. Who gives a shit for Intercepted‘s conspiracy-mongering. The question the Wuhan lab would have been looking at is what makes one virus more or less survivable; i.e.: how does a bat survive ebola when a human doesn’t do so great? Intercepted, shut the fuck up, you’re sounding like Tucker Carlson and that does not put you in good company at all.

I like this so much I am going to include it again

That’s all depressing stuff, so let me close with a bit of warm, sweet, refreshing science. It’s from TWIV, of course, and it’s this episode: [twiv] The great stuff starts about 4 minutes in, but the whole episode is fascinating.

V: Two interesting papers, today. The first is a “perspective” published in Science: Dissecting the early COVID-19 cases in Wuhan. [Science] [By Michael Worobey.] They’re not really ‘dissecting’ the cases, they’re trying to figure out what happened early on.  Maybe not the best title. This is by Michael Worobey who is at the University of Arizona. I thought this would be a good thing to chat about, it’s a 2-page or so perspective, it’s his ideas about what’s going on. Michael Worobey is a known genomicist, he looks at sequences and makes conclusions – we talked about one of his papers a while ago, where he looked at some of the earliest HIV-1 sequences and figured out, basically, the sequence of transmissions from Africa/Cameroon to Haiti, New York, and eventually San Francisco. Very interesting stuff. And so he’s been doing this for the pandemic, of course, and all the isolates – this opinion deals with the very earliest cases in Wuhan and he starts out by saying “there are a lot of key questions, including ‘what about the earliest cases?’ that’s what he largely talks about here. And he writes that despite assertions to the contrary it’s now clear that mammals susceptible to the coronavirus including raccoon dogs were sold at the Huanan market and three other live animal markets in Wuhan before the pandemic. Remember, we did a paper about wildlife sampling in the markets and they concluded there were no pangolins or bats being sold.

Huanan market

A: But the raccoon dogs were there, and the important part about that paper was that because they had gone in and it was done completely independent of public health efforts – they were looking at wildlife trade – and they established relationships with the vendors, and that allowed them to see what was really being sold, even the stuff that was not supposed to be sold. You know, there are regulations about these things! But, of course, you could buy stuff that’s a little off the books and they report it: here’s the list of stuff we had in the market, which explains why the initial pronouncement from the Chinese government was that these were not being sold there because, officially, they weren’t.

V: … And so SARS COV, back in 2003, was found in raccoon dogs during that outbreak, and those were available in live meat markets and he says it’s still not clear whether – [interrupts himself] – there are a lot of cases in Wuhan associated with this Huanan Market – and he says ‘are these truly reflective of what happened, or is it some kind of reporting bias?’ He tries to get at that and he actually does, I think, in his analysis.

A: The Raccoon dog, by the way, is an asian species that is neither a raccoon nor a dog: discuss. It’s a separate species in asia, it looks a little like each of those things but is not to be confused with either.

V: The story begins on the 30th of December, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission issued 2 emergency notices – this is for local hospitals – that there were patients with unexplained pneumonia being seen and some of them worked at the Huanan Market. So they put out notices and they say ‘see if you’ve got anything related!’ and the next day they looked at the Huanan Market and they found 27 patients that fit the description that were in the market.

[a bit hard to read because I had to down-render from the PDF]

B: Before you go too much further I want to point out that, although I haven’t ascertained whether this is open access [Alan says: “it is”] then the figure S1 – the supplemental figure, which is a time-line, is really great. [Alan: yeah!] I started to make my own and then I thought “maybe I should see what Figure S1 is”So, December 30 is when the announcement was made to look for cases and the 31st was when the reports came in of 27, I think you said Vincent.V: 27 more patients, and 41 of these first patients were published, I think that was, in the New England Journal of Medicine– that’s the paper we talked about which said 66% of the earliest cases had a link but some of them did not and that threw some doubt into whether this was the beginning or not, and he addresses that in a bit.
A: Also, maybe this is a good point to introduce this – there are multiple systems involved that come into play in keeping track of this. Individual hospitals had people show up and some very sharp doctors picked up on “hey this is something weird” and there was one hospital where they actually had a couple of these cases come through and they called a meeting and had their ID folks say “yeah this is worth looking into.” At the same time there is this system that China, that the government had set up, the viral pneumonia of unknown etiology or VPUE system, and the Chinese government was under the impression that the VPUE was tracking all this but in fact it was multiple groups tracking the information at once, as can happen in a situation like this you had some differences between who, what, and when.V: Yeah, they say the system didn’t kick in until January 3rd, right?A:But they point out that the existence of this system is great. Other countries probably ought to have something like this. [It was probably in the Obama Plan that was sitting on a shelf] The only issue was that it was not well-known, but I’m sure it is, now. So the staff at these local hospitals just saw these cases and didn’t necessarily report it to that system immediately because they didn’t know about it or didn’t think about it.

V: I said for a long time that it was that system that picked up these cases. But it wasn’t, it was these hospitals and some sharp doctors.

So this paper, with these 41 first cases – they were all transferred from other hospitals to the Yin Yin Tan hospital, which is apparently the premier hospital in the area and they formed the basis of that first New EnglandJournal paper. But they were not referred by this VPUE, as Alan said, they were referred by the hospitals. He says “the reporting about there the cases came from only began after these 41 cases were transferred so it’s not likely there was a disproportionate connection to the Huanan Market.” He says we can actually go back before all of this by piecing together what happened in the hospitals, and he starts with the Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine, which has an acronym almost as long as the name (HPHICWM) and they say this was not mentioned in the media but they were the first to alert district and provincial health authorities about these weird pneumonia cases. Jiang Ji-Chien, who was director of respiratory and critical care medicine, on the 27th of December, noticed an elderly couple that had “ground glass opacities” in images of their lungs, which were different from typical viral pneumonia. He insisted that the couple’s son also get a CT scan – the son had no symptoms – and the lesions where there, as well.

B: So pretty much single-handedly this doctor, Jian Ji-Chein worked out that this was likely a new viral disase because of this strange, unusual presentation, and with asymptomatic presentation in the son.

A: Dr Jian Ji-Chien is female, by the way.

V: As soon as I said ‘he’ I thought “I shouldn’t say that.” Thanks.

This husband and wife are what the WHO China report issued says is the earliest known case cluster and the only one admitted by the 26th of December – they hadnoconnection (laughing) to the Huanan Market. That’s very interesting. Then, another patient with similar “ground glass opacities” – he or she worked at Huanan Market – was admitted to this hospital on the 27 of December. Jian then reported these 4 cases – the 3 family and this new one – to hospital officials and they reported to the district CDC on the same day. In the next 2 days, 3 more patients, all of whom worked at the Huanan Market, were admitted and they had the same kind of respiratory distress. So they brought together some experts, they had a meeting, and on the 29th of December they said “something is really extraordinary here” and some other hospitals started to see these patients and they alerted the Wuhan/Hubei CDC on the 29th of December. Meanwhile, similar things are happening at Wuhan Central Hospital. You can go back to 18th December, the director of the Emergency Department encountered her first unexplained pneumonia patient – a 65-year-old man who got sick on either the 13th or 15th December.

A: … And he was a delivery man at Huanan Market.

So, now this is earlier, showing up earlier than the cases we just heard about at the multi-letter hospital.

V: On the 24th of December a bronchio-alveolar lavage was taken from him and sent to a meta-genomics sequencing company. They identify a new coronavirus on the 26th of December.

B: Yeah! To me that’s the most amazing thing. A new coronavirus on December 26, because we waited until January to find that there’s been some sequencing and it’s a coronavirus.

A: So this is somebody who became ill, showed up at the hospital – became ill the 13th or 15th of December, probably caught the virus a week or two before that, so now we’re going back to early December.

… I’m going to skip a bit but, seriously, the whole discussion is word-for-word fascinating. One thing that really jumps out at me is that the Chinese medical system seems a lot more clued-in than the US, where its mishmosh of for-profit hospitals (all disguising themselves as non-profit) can barely see patients and diagnose them effectively, let alone report and correlate information with any kind of regional CDC – because there mostly isn’t one. When the pandemic hit the US, the Trumpists’ response was to monkey-wrench the hell out of the US CDC and render it ineffective. It’s my opinion that from the top down, they ought to be arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit mass murder. Let the chips fall where they may.

V: Whorby writes: “these 7 cases were figured out before the investigation at the Huanan Market.” He’s building a case that there’s no bias toward the market; these things were just reported.

The second cluster of patients in Wuhan were on the other side of the river, but the first patient diagnosed worked at the Huanan Market, the second patient didn’t work at the market but had friends who did. The pattern, when you run the clock backwards, points clearly and directly at the Huanan Market. Note that the Chinese government regulates the kinds of animals that can be sold in such markets because they understand that zoonotic viruses are a thing and aren’t stupid. But it appears that someone may have brought something to the market that they shouldn’t have. Asshole American pundits went around saying, “someone ate a bat” but it was probably more like “some delivery guy got pissed on by a scared animal they were hauling to market.” It’s that simple. No need for a big conspiracy – we already understand that viruses can jump from animals to humans and we’ve already seen it happen with SARS, H1N1 and its variants, “swine” flu, and the black death. [Admittedly there are some fleas involved with the black death, I am simplifying somewhat in the interest of reinforcing the obvious]

V: 10 of the 19 earliest cases were linked to the market – 53%.

These cases could not have been cherry-picked before anyone identified the market as an epidemiological factor.

He [Whorobey] says “why does this matter?” If the market was the source, where are only 1/3 or 2/3 of the cases linked to it? But he says a really better question is “why would you expect them all to be linked to the market?” There are going to be a lot of people who are asymptomatic.

A: 93% of the people who catch this virus don’t get sick enough to come to medical attention.

V: He does think that community transmission started at the market, because we have so many cases.

Also (I am surprised the TWIV folks didn’t mention this) the people who work at a market are working class people who probably can’t just stay at home when they’re feeling a bit poorly. When you’re talking about a 65 year-old delivery boy, this is not someone that has paid sick leave. You feel like shit but you still go to the market and deliver those raccoon dogs or whatever it is you’re hauling, and you infect a percentage of everyone you cough on. Then, consider the asymptomatic young guy in the first family cluster – he had COVID-19 badly enough that his lungs were decaying but he didn’t think he was sick; that’s the kind of person who’s going to go about their life, infecting people around them, and isn’t going to even appear in the hospital at all. To Whorobey’s question: you wouldn’t expect them to be linked to the market once the virus was burning through the population, which, apparently, was about 2 weeks for initial burn and then it went non-linear in week 3. So the hospitals had 16 patients, and half of them were linked the the Huanan Market but once the outbreak was burning the only people the hospitals saw were the people who were sick enough to go to the hospital – there would have been dozens and quickly hundreds, but the percentages being what they are if you have 20 people go to the hospital that means there are 200 sick at home or going to work and spreading it further. There would have been old people who couldn’t afford the time to go to the hospital, who may have died in their beds, unrecorded as anything but another old dead person, before the outbreak was recognized and reporting requirements kicked in.

Given the timing and the percentage of people who get sick with COVID-19 to the point where they need to be hospitalized, the “patient zero” case might easily have been one of the high percentage that never go to the hospital at all. It could have been someone who shopped at the market 2 weeks earlier than the ripples from the outbreak began to propagate through the population.

What’s so important about this, as the TWIV team point out, is that this is exactly what you’d expect to see with an outbreak that was community spread: you just see the slice of the community that gets so sick they wind up in the hospital, and that’s a small percentage of the total number of people who get sick in the initial outbreak.

No lab leak required. Nobody had to eat a bat. In fact, we’ll never be able to point exactly to patient zero because this isn’t a goddamn Hollywood movie.  There is not a teapot orbiting Mars, and the reporting at The Intercept sucks. And, in the vein of “not a movie” – no conspiracy needed; the plot is fascinating enough on its own. The reason real virologists and scientists are not spending time looking at the possibility it was a lab leak is because, to an epidemiologist, this looks like a ‘normal’ outbreak and looking for a conspiracy would be stupid and why bother explaining it to the journalists, they’ll just get it wrong anyway.

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This took a lot longer to write than I expected when I got started. I think I’m going to take a couple days off, and I’m sure there will be some comments as well. Since it’s holidays, I need to make some big batches of caramel corn to share around, because that’s what I do. [the best caramel corn ever – stderr] This year I got a couple food safe plastic snap-lid buckets so I can just give people “bucket o sugary stuff.”

“In science, you’re not really supposed to eliminate a possibility until you’ve proven that it doesn’t work.” – I am tempted to write a whole posting about that one line. It’s right-ish but it’s also wrong, and I often see skeptics get hung up on that whole “you can’t prove a negative” thing (e.g.: Russell’s tea pot) but, briefly, what needs to be added is not falsifiability but rather a plausible method of action – in other words, we are reasonably justified to reject the idea that there is a teapot orbiting Mars, at least when Russell made that argument, because no human agency at that time had the ability to put a teapot there and we’d otherwise have to imagine there were anglophile space aliens leaving tea ceremony service littered about the solar system. That (the tea-loving aliens) sufficiently strains credulity that we can say, “look asshole I’m not going to try to prove there’s no teapot, but why don’t you invest your useless life looking for it and get back to me, because I am certain that you won’t find one, based on our current understanding of Mars, teapots, space travel, and aliens. I’ll update my beliefs when and if any of those things change but for now, piss off with your stupid teapot theories.” Those things change. Now, we might reasonably wonder if Elon Musk thought it funny to send a teapot to Mars and chose not to mention it. Then, some future Mars traveller’s ship gets blown to flinders by a teapot impact.


  1. flex says

    Good article. I’ll be sharing this around.

    Enjoy your few day’s off, and have a safe and healthy holiday.

  2. says

    FWIW. Have people seen potholer54’s old clip on this Covid-19’s origin question? I reckon its pretty good and worth watching

    I hadn’t heard of it before, but you’re right, it’s good. I particularly like how they unpack the origins of the lab rumor. I.e. “publication in a journal” means “some anonymous guy on youtube did a video with a bunch of claims” – hardly The Lancet. That’s why I think that responsible journalists should ignore these stories, instead of promoting them like The Intercept did. Basically, they’re taking a crapshoot and hoping that some bit of fringe news turns out to be sort of defensible so they can later say “we broke the story first!” Responsible journalism would be to sit back a while and gather the facts or wait for the people like Worobey, who did.

  3. says

    Reginald Selkirk@#3:
    I wish I lived in a world where I didn’t have to explicitly proclaim that I am joking

    Yeah, really. The Trumpers killed irony and have gut-shot sarcasm.

  4. says

    PS – the rest of the “grand theft kinesin” episode has some amazing research about how herpes is able to gain mobility, and some really elegant science that was used to figure that out. It’s mind-blowing.

  5. invivoMark says

    If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend a complete read of this series of posts: https://leelabvirus.host/covid19/origins-part1

    It’s an MD/PhD student’s (that is, an actual virologist’s) take on the virus origin that’s extremely well written (and not too long). It covers a lot of the details that get passed over by news outlets, such as why there’s a polybasic cleavage site, and what we can learn from synonymous mutations.

    To me, the most offensive thing about the lab leak conspiracy theory is that it explicitly throws under the bus exactly the people who were trying to prevent global pandemics. Folks like Peter Daszak (of EcoHealth Alliance) and Shi Zhengli (I believe she’s the one on the left in the BSL-4 picture) are some of the best experts we have on coronaviruses, and they chose to spend their careers learning about these viruses because they knew that we were sitting on a ticking time bomb.

    Well, the bomb blew up exactly like they were saying it would, and the thanks they get is to be accused of global genocide.

  6. Dennis K says

    Good write-up. One small correction: The Black Death was actually caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, not a virus.

  7. says

    The Black Death was actually caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, not a virus.

    Aaarergghhhhhh that’s a pretty serious blunder that I made in a post about virology. Should have fact-checked harder.

    I’m going to leave the mistake in the posting rather than look like I’m editing it to seem smarter than I am. Thanks and good catch.

  8. jrkrideau says

    Two new lab-link conspiracy books have come out this fall.

    Alina Chan & Matt Ridley (2021) Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19 and
    Elaine Dewer (2021), On the Origin of the Deadliest Pandemic in 100 Years: An Investigation.

    No idea about the Dewer book butthe Chin & Ridley one has had a couple of scathing reviews. Matt Ridley is quite well-known in climate-denial circles among other things. After bankrupting that UK bank he make be moving on to new conspiracies.

    BTW, as a throwaway point, Wuhan is a little city not much bigger than New York City.

  9. seachange says

    Clearly two of the three the Beagle 2’s solar panels failed to open precisely because of a polar-orbiting teapot collision. The aliens put it there because they figured someone who loved tea as much as they do would land just there, and so they did. Only y’know there were no actual Britons on the Beagle 2 to take their well-earned tea. Oops.

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