Categories
Medicine Popular culture Science Skepticism/critical thinking

Is the lab leak conspiracy theory dead?

Two new studies published last month strongly support a natural zoonotic origin for COVID-19 centered at the wet market in Wuhan, China. Naturally, lab leak proponents soberly considered this new evidence and thought about changing their minds. Just kidding! They doubled down on the conspiracy mongering, because of course they did.

Every since the coronavirus now known as SARS-CoV-2 was first identified as the cause of an outbreak of a mysterious severe viral pneumonia in Wuhan, China two and a half years ago, a disease that later spread to the rest of the world as the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been intense curiosity about the origins of the virus. The most plausible hypothesis was that, like many diseases before, SARS-CoV-2 had a zoonotic origin; i.e., it developed the ability to “jump” from an animal reservoir to humans. Far less plausible, albeit not impossible, was the hypothesis that the novel coronavirus was created in a laboratory and then escaped, either through incompetence or malfeasance, a hypothesis that became more colloquially known as the “lab leak” hypothesis. Last week, two papers were finally published that, under normal circumstances, would be, if not the final nails in the coffin of the lab leak hypothesis, getting very close, were published in Science, one examining the molecular epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 and the other demonstrating that the wet market in Wuhan was indeed an early epicenter of the pandemic. Let’s just say that, contrary to the assertions of some optimists, these studies haven’t made much of an impact on conspiracy theorists, other than to provide them with targets to try to discredit.

Before I get to the studies, though, let’s look at some background on the lab leak hypothesis and conspiracy theories. I do this for two reasons. First, I want to show what these studies add to what we know about the origin of SARS-CoV-2. Second, it’s been a long time since I’ve written about this issue, and I think a recap is overdue. In the meantime, I’ll just mention that, scientifically, Betteridge’s law of headlines does apply to this post, but conspiracy theorists make sure that it does. Truly, lab leak is Schrödinger’s conspiracy theory.

A brief history of the lab leak conspiracy theory

Since the early days of the pandemic, there has been a question of whether SARS-CoV-2 arose naturally or had escaped from a lab. The latter hypothesis didn’t start out as a conspiracy theory, as lab leaks have happened before—although none had ever caused a pandemic that has thus far claimed millions of deaths worldwide, over a million in the US alone. However, it rapidly took on the characteristics of a conspiracy theory such that even those advocating the “lab leak” hypothesis often had difficulty not interspersing more serious scientific arguments with what can be only described as a dollop of conspiratorial thinking. As time went on, if anything, the lab leak hypothesis drifted further and further from legitimate science and deeper and deeper into conspiracyland, such that, try as I might, I now have a difficult time finding examples of lab leak advocates who don’t add conspiracy mongering narratives to their arguments.

Here’s what I mean. By by May 2021 it clearly had developed all the hallmarks of a conspiracy theory, complete with a coverup narrative in which China and powerful forces in the US were “suppressing” all mention of a lab leak as a “conspiracy theory,” attacks on funding sources of investigators doing research on coronaviruses, bad science in the form of anomaly hunting (Nicholas Wade and furin cleavage sites or Steven Quay and Richard Muller and CGGCGG, anyone?) in which any observed oddity in the nucleotide sequence of the virus was portrayed as clear-cut evidence of lab manipulation by scientists doing gain-of-function research (which, apparently, went very wrong), all coupled with an utter resistance to disconfirming evidence. It didn’t help, of course, that the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) was not far from the wet markets that were first identified as likely sources of the outbreak and that WIV was studying coronaviruses and thus had them on premises. Lab leak proponents are also fond of other kinds of conspiratorial thinking, such as attribution errors, weaponization of disagreements within a general consensus, shifting the burden of proof, moving the goalposts in response to disconfirming evidence, and others, all with an intense belief in a coverup at the highest levels of multiple governments.

Of course, conspiracy theories about a lab origin for a new pathogen (often as a “bioweapon” that somehow “leaked” from a biowarfare research lab) are nothing new. They inevitably arise whenever a deadly new pathogen appears to cause major outbreaks or, as in the case of SARS-CoV-2, a pandemic. It happened with HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and H1N1. For instance, there was a major conspiracy theory about HIV/AIDS that involved its creation at Fort Detrick when scientists supposedly spliced together two other viruses, Visna and HTLV-1 and then tested on prison inmates. (Interestingly, this turned out to be a Russian propaganda operation codename Operation INFEKTION designed to blame the AIDS pandemic on the US biological warfare program.) Other conspiracy theories include claims that HIV had contaminated various vaccines (smallpox, hepatitis B, etc., depending on the specific version of the conspiracy theory) and thereby gotten into the population. It’s therefore no surprise that almost as soon as SARS-CoV-2 was identified as the source of the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China so did conspiracy theories about a lab origin for the virus, among other things.

One of the earliest conspiracy theories had arisen by February 2020, when James Lyons-Weiler claimed to have “broken the coronavirus code,” claiming the novel coronavirus whose nucleotide sequence had been published a week or two before, was actually the result of a failed attempt to develop a vaccine for SARS, the coronavirus-caused disease that nearly became a pandemic in 2002-2003. Hilariously, he tried to claim that the novel coronavirus showed evidence of containing nucleotide sequences from a plasmid (a circular DNA construct into which scientists insert genes that can then be introduced into cells to get them to make the protein products of those genes), which, if true, certainly would have been slam-dunk evidence that SARS-CoV-2 had been created in a laboratory. Let’s just say that Lyons-Weiler, for all his claims of molecular biology expertise, made some rather glaring errors. Another variation on this theme was the claim that there were HIV sequences in the virus that indicated that the pandemic had come about as the result of a failed attempt to develop a vaccine against AIDS.

By March 2020, direct examination of the nucleotide sequence of SARS-CoV-2 had led scientists to conclude that the virus was highly unlikely to have been engineered in a laboratory. Predictably, that revelation didn’t stop the conspiracy theories claiming that the virus had been created in a lab and escaped, at least not right away. It took time and more accumulating evidence. In the meantime, distorted claims about the rarity of certain base combinations in the virus and its furin cleavage site had proliferated. Still, by late last year, it had become pretty clear that these narratives were not consistent with scientific data; so, as Steve noted, the goalposts shift (as they often do when conspiracy theories run headlong into disconfirming evidence). The “bioweapon” or lab-engineered version of the lab leak hypothesis then, as conspiracy theories tend to do, morphed into a version that was much harder to falsify, namely that the origin of SARS-CoV-2 was indeed a lab leak, just of a naturally occurring coronavirus that had been collected from bats or pangolins and stored for study at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, such as the bat virus RaTG13, which was incorrectly claimed to be a direct precursor to SARS-CoV-2. Then, of course, there were claims that workers at WIV were infected with SARS-COV-2 in November 2019, but exhaustive contact tracing failed to find these cases.

None of this is to say that the lab leak hypothesis is impossible, or even homeopathy-level improbable. As I mentioned once, lab leaks of pathogens have occurred before, although none have lead to a global pandemic. Rather, conspiracy theorists simply tended to assume that because lab leak was possible that implied that it was equally likely as a natural origin, when the preponderance of evidence has long suggested the conclusion that a lab leak origin for this pandemic is incredibly unlikely. Before I move on to the studies and the reaction to them, I’ll quote Dan Samorodnitsky from over a year ago:

If the question is “are both hypotheses possible?” the answer is yes. Both are possible. If the question is “are they equally likely?” the answer is absolutely not. One hypothesis requires a colossal cover-up and the silent, unswerving, leak-proof compliance of a vast network of scientists, civilians, and government officials for over a year. The other requires only for biology to behave as it always has, for a family of viruses that have done this before to do it again. The zoonotic spillover hypothesis is simple and explains everything. It’s scientific malpractice to pretend that one idea is equally as meritorious as the other. The lab-leak hypothesis is a scientific deus ex machina, a narrative shortcut that points a finger at a specific set of bad actors. I would be embarrassed to stand up in front of a room of scientists, lay out both hypotheses, and then pretend that one isn’t clearly, obviously better than the other.

Change that to lab leak requiring a “colossal cover-up and the silent, unswerving, leak-proof compliance of a vast network of scientists, civilians, and government officials” to over two years now, and the two studies published last week just add to the difference. As was noted last year, there are a number of coronaviruses that routinely infect humans and are known to have had an animal origin and that “there is no data to suggest that the WIV—or any other laboratory—was working on SARS-CoV-2, or any virus close enough to be the progenitor, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Molecular epidemiology: Two lineages likely jumped to humans

The first study comes from Joel O. Wertheim at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) and was first authored by Jonathan E. Pekar. As is often the case with papers of this sort, the list of authors is long, with multiple labs contributing, because studies of this sort require a lot of expertise and materials and single institutions rarely have everything needed to do them.

I read the whole paper, as well as its very copious supplementary materials and figures (all 31 supplemental figures!), and although my knowledge of bioinformatics and molecular biology is not sophisticated enough to understand the finer details of the analysis, I can help to summarize the overall findings. In brief, the authors queried several large nucleotide sequence databases maintained by different countries, including the GISAID database, GenBank, and National Genomics Data Center of the China National Center for Bioinformatics (CNCB), for complete high-coverage SARS-CoV-2 genomes collected early in the pandemic, specifically by February 14, 2020. They then analyzed the sequences by computer to reconstruct the likely origin and evolution of different viral lineages and used epidemic modeling to surmise when the virus was likely introduced into the human population, as well as to reconstruct the sequence of a probable common ancestor.

The first clear finding is that it is highly unlikely that SARS-CoV-2 circulated widely in humans before November 2019. Indeed, the authors were able to use their phylogenetic analysis to estimate that the first zoonotic transfer from animals to humans likely occurred sometime around November 19, 2019, with a range from October 23- December 8. Interestingly, a news story cites Chinese government data finding that the earliest case of COVID-19 in China could be traced back to November 17, 2019, which is pretty close to the date of zoonotic transmission that this study found, although readers elsewhere have told me that it was subsequently concluded that this case was not credible. Be that as it may,. on that date a 55 year-old man from Hubei province might have been the first person to have contracted COVID-19. Every day after that, one to five new cases were reported each day, and by December 15 the total number of infections stood at 27. By December 20, the total number of confirmed cases had reached 60, and then it was off to the races for the outbreak.

The second clear finding is that a single zoonotic event can’t explain the data, but rather required two such events from two different lineages, dubbed Lineage A and Lineage B by the scientists. The study found that Lineage B was the first to make the jump to humans. Tellingly, it was only found in people who had a direct connection to the Wuhan wet market. Lineage A appears to have made the jump within weeks—or even days—of when Lineage B did; it was found only in samples from humans who lived near or stayed close to the market. From the paper:

Therefore, our results indicate that lineage B was introduced into humans no earlier than late-October and likely in mid-November 2019, and the introduction of lineage A occurred within days to weeks of this event.

And:

The first zoonotic transmission likely involved lineage B viruses around 18 November 2019 (23 October–8 December), while the separate introduction of lineage A likely occurred within weeks of this event. These findings indicate that it is unlikely that SARS-CoV-2 circulated widely in humans prior to November 2019 and define the narrow window between when SARS-CoV-2 first jumped into humans and when the first cases of COVID-19 were reported. As with other coronaviruses, SARS-CoV-2 emergence likely resulted from multiple zoonotic events.

Now, I know what lab leak proponents are thinking. Two zoonotic events introducing this novel coronavirus into the human population? Isn’t that highly unlikely?

Yes and no:

The likelihood that such a virus would emerge from two different events is low, acknowledged co-author Joel Wertheim, an associate adjunct professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego.

“Now, I realize it sounds like I just said that a once-in-a-generation event happened twice in short succession, and pandemics are indeed rare, but once all the conditions are in place — that is a zoonotic virus capable of both human infection and human transmission that is in close proximity to humans — the barriers to spillover have been lowered such that multiple introductions, we believe, should actually be expected,” Wertheim said.

Also, as the authors noted in their discussion:

Successful transmission of both lineage A and B viruses after independent zoonotic events indicates that evolutionary adaptation within humans was not needed for SARS-CoV-2 to spread (49). We now know that SARS-CoV-2 can readily spread after reverse-zoonosis to Syrian hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus), American mink (Neovison vison), and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), indicating its host generalist capacity (50–55). Furthermore, once an animal virus acquires the capacity for human infection and transmission, the only remaining barrier to spillover is contact between humans and the pathogen. Thereafter, a single zoonotic transmission event indicates the conditions necessary for spillovers have been met, which portends additional jumps. For example, there were at least two zoonotic jumps of SARS-CoV-2 into humans from pet hamsters in Hong Kong (56) and dozens from minks to humans on Dutch fur farms (52, 53).

In other words, if SARS-CoV-2 was already able to infect humans, it shouldn’t be surprising that more than one introduction occurred. In any case, this study is robust evidence that the most likely origin of SARS-CoV-2 was in an animal reservoir and that it very likely it first made the jump to humans in the wet market at Wuhan in November 2019. The study did not successfully identify the intermediary animal and is observational. It is, however, powerful.

But what about the second study?

Early cases clustered

The second study has a similarly large list of authors from different institutions, with the corresponding author being Kristian Andersen. It’s a correlative study that can’t prove the origin of the pandemic by itself, but when coupled with the first study is highly suggestive that COVID-19 arose in late 2019 in Wuhan as a result of zoonotic transfer from an animal at the market to humans.

The authors examined a number of data sources for their analysis

COVID-19 case data from December 2019 was obtained from the WHO mission report (7) and our previous analyses (5). Location information was extracted and sensitivity analyses performed to confirm accuracy and assess potential ascertainment bias. Geotagged January/February 2020 data from Weibo COVID-19 help seekers was obtained from the authors (26). Population density data was obtained from worldpop.org (27). Sequencing- or qPCR-based environmental sample SARS-CoV-2 positivity from the Huanan market was obtained from a January 2020 China CDC report (data S1) (24).

Also:

To estimate the relative amount of intra-urban human traffic to the Huanan market compared to other locations within the city of Wuhan, we utilized a location-specific dataset of social media check-ins in the Sina Visitor System as shared by Li et al. 2015 (33). This dataset is based on 1,491,499 individual check-in events across the city of Wuhan from the years 2013-2014 (5-6 years before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic), and 770,521 visits are associated with 312,190 unique user identifiers. Location names and categories were translated using a Python API for Google Translate.

So what did the investigators find? I think a picture, specifically the spatial analyses in Figure 2, is worth a thousand words:

Lab leak dead
Fig. 2. Spatial analyses. (A) Inset: map of Wuhan, with gray dots indicating 1000 random samples from worldpop.com null distribution. Main panel: median distance between Huanan market and (1) worldpop.org null distribution shown with a black circle and (2) December cases shown by red circles (distance to Huanan market depicted in purple boxes). Center-point of Wuhan population density data shown by blue dot. Center-points of December case locations shown by red dots (‘all’, ‘linked’ and ‘unlinked’ cases); dark blue dot (lineage A cases); and yellow dot (lineage B cases). Distance from center-points to Huanan market depicted in orange boxes. (B) Schematic showing how cases can be near to, but not centered on, a specific location. We hypothesized that if the Huanan market epicenter of the pandemic then early cases should fall not just unexpectedly near to it but should also be unexpectedly centered on it (see Methods). The blue cases show how cases quite near the Huanan market could nevertheless not be centered on it. (C) Tolerance contours based on relative risk of COVID-19 cases in December, 2019 versus data from January-February 2020. The dots show the December case locations. The contours represent the probability of observing that density of December cases within the bounds of the given contour if the December cases had been drawn from the same spatial distribution as the January-February data.

Leading to the conclusions:

Several lines of evidence support the hypothesis that the Huanan market was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic and that SARS-CoV-2 emerged from activities associated with live wildlife trade. Spatial analyses within the market show that SARS-CoV-2-positive environmental samples, including cages, carts, and freezers, were associated with activities concentrated in the southwest corner of the market. This is the same section where vendors were selling live mammals, including raccoon dogs, hog badgers, and red foxes, immediately prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Multiple positive samples were taken from one stall known to have sold live mammals, and the water drain proximal to this stall, as well as other sewerages and a nearby wildlife stall on the southwest side of the market, tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 (24). These findings suggest that infected animals were present at the Huanan market at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic; however, we do not have access to any live animal samples from relevant species. Additional information, including sequencing data and detailed sampling strategy, would be invaluable to test this hypothesis comprehensively.

And the answer to one major criticism of the hypothesis that zoonotic transfer first occurred at the Huanan market in Wuhan:

One of the key findings of our study is that ‘unlinked’ early COVID-19 patients, those who neither worked at the market or knew someone who did, nor had recently visited the market, resided significantly closer to the market than patients with a direct link to the market. The observation that a substantial proportion of early cases had no known epidemiological link had previously been used as an argument against a Huanan market epicenter of the pandemic. However, this group of cases resided significantly closer to the market than those who worked there, indicating that they had been exposed to the virus at, or near, the Huanan market. For market workers, the exposure risk was their place of work not their residential locations, which were significantly further afield than those cases not formally linked to the market.

The authors also note that the “live animal trade and live animal markets are a common theme in virus spillover events” and that markets like the Huanan market “selling live mammals being in the highest risk category,” comparing SARS-CoV-2 to SARS-CoV-1 outbreaks from 2002-2004, which were “traced to infected animals in Guangdong, Jiangxi, Henan, Hunan, and Hubei provinces in China.”

Again, is this one study slam-dunk evidence in and of itself for zoonotic transfer? No. However, the two studies together constitute powerful evidence that SARS-CoV-2 was not introduced into the human population from a laboratory, but rather transferred from animals to human, almost certainly in the Huanan market, from which is spread to the rest of Wuhan province, to China, and then to the world.

Indeed, the combination of studies was so powerful that it convinced a couple of the scientists doing the studies that lab leak is no longer a viable hypothesis to explain the origin of SARS-CoV-2:

Andersen said the studies don’t definitively disprove the lab leak theory but are extremely persuasive, so much so that he changed his mind about the virus’ origins.

“I was quite convinced of the lab leak myself, until we dove into this very carefully and looked at it much closer,” Andersen said. “Based on data and analysis I’ve done over the last decade on many other viruses, I’ve convinced myself that actually the data points to this particular market.”

Worobey said he too thought the lab leak was possible, but the epidemiological preponderance of cases linked to the market is “not a mirage.”
“It’s a real thing,” he said. “It’s just not plausible that this virus was introduced any other way than through the wildlife trade.”

That’s what real scientists (and skeptics) do. When the evidence becomes overwhelming, even if not absolutely 100% definitive, they change their minds. But will it make a difference to lab leak proponents? I think you know the answer.

Lab leak proponents react

If there’s one thing that’s true about conspiracy theorists, it’s that evidence that would tend to refute their hypotheses doesn’t persuade them to question their beliefs. Instead, it tends to make them double down. I can’t help but quote a comment after a post by Dr. Steven Novella a couple of weeks ago as an example, in which one of our commenters dismisses the studies solely based on this:

Anything to exculpate the elites who foisted this on us.

But there’s a lot of money going back and forth between the NIH, Big Pharma, and their CCP buddies. To appropriate a public metaphor, one hand washes the other.

Truly a clown world that we live in.

And then on Twitter the other a week ago:

This fool is pointing to NIH funding of studies to study the origin of SARS-CoV-2 as if NIH funding were a bad thing!
This conspiracy mongerer seems to think that Fauci personally approves each and every grant based on whether it furthers his own nefarious aims.

Then, when all else fails, there’s always the shill gambit:

To conspiracy theorists, the only reason those accepting science that argues against their beliefs must be because they were paid by The Man.

Note the conspiratorial thinking that because the NIH funded these studies that must mean they are hopelessly biased and that “Fauci is trying to cover his Arse.” This is a frequent narrative among conspiracy theorists, to personalize decisions by government agencies to a preferred bogeyman who can be attacked and to be unable to imagine that any government institution would provide research money to any group opposed to its messaging or to fund any research whose results might not line up with the message it wants to promote. I’ve discussed this issue many times before; whatever its flaws in funding mechanisms, the NIH peer review process for funding grants is arguably about as close to a true meritocracy as you will ever find in a government agency. Scientists on study sections review each grant for merit based on science, if the preliminary evidence supports their hypotheses, whether the proposed methodology is appropriate to address the scientific questions asked, if the investigators and institution are capable of carrying out the proposed research with, and the appropriateness of the budget requested. A priority score (lower is better) is assigned by the study section, and then in the best scoring grants are funded until the money runs out.

Perhaps the only substantive criticism (sort of) is that there might have been ascertainment bias, leveled by Alina Chan, who herself is selling a book promoting lab leak theory. (If cranks are going to play the shill gambit, turnaround is fair play, especially when there is an actual real financial interest. She claimed that there was ascertainment bias (bias in how cases were identified that would tend to distort the results), dismissing the authors’ discussion on the matter based on their referring to a paper by one of the main authors as evidence that there was no ascertainment bias. However, as Susan Oliver describes in her video on the subject (around the 13:00 mark), the authors tested for ascertainment bias (something that reviewers would almost certainly have insisted upon). Her video is worth looking at if you have time:

Then I came across this:

That’s evolutionary biologist Heather Heying on the podcast that she does with her husband, biologist Bret Weinstein, claiming that it’s a conspiracy to “definitely” show that it was “those people” who caused the pandemic, not a lab leak. In a massive exercise in projection, she calls claims that the pandemic started at the Huanan market “racist,” apparently ignoring the blatant anti-Chinese racism and xenophobia behind lab leak, whose proponents often ascribe a nefarious coverup to the Chinese government, or:

At the end, Weinstein promises to discuss these studies more in the future. Given his previous promotion of ivermectin as a cure-all for COVID-19 based on misunderstood meta-analyses, I’m sure his discussions will be as nuanced as his wife’s ascribing racism to the investigators.

Then there’s the appeal to personal incredulity, such as:

Prof. Ebright is a chemist who fancies himself an epidemiologist, molecular biologist, and virologist who is one of the most vocal “lab leak” conspiracy theorists out there,.
John Stewart should be ashamed of himself over this. His lab leak conspiracy mongering sounded indistinguishable the conspiracy nuts that he used to mock so effectively when he hosted The Daily Show.

As I like to say, just because you personally find it difficult to believe that zoonosis is the much more likely explanation for SARS-CoV-2 than lab leak does not mean that lab leak is the more viable hypothesis. Also, in that interview from last year John Stewart disappointed me in the extreme by sounding very much like the sort of conspiracy theorists that he used to mock on The Daily Show.

Another favorite conspiracist narrative is that the wording of the conclusions of the Science papers is less definitive than it was in the preprint versions published in February. Specifically, they’ve honed in on this sentence in the second study:

While there is insufficient evidence to define upstream events, and exact circumstances remain obscure, our analyses indicate that the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 occurred via the live wildlife trade in China, and show that the Huanan market was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leading to a tsunami of perseveration on the normal equivocation we see in any scientific paper over this and another sentence:

Yep. Adding qualifications of one’s findings after peer review is slam-dunk evidence (to conspiracy theorists) that the whole paper is bogus!

Apparently the authors were “spanked”:

The authors couldn’t have been “spanked” that hard, given that there were few changes made from the preprint to the final manuscript, other than this and a better discussion of study limitations.

Conspiracy theorists also perseverated over a single word that was eliminated between preprint and final publication:

US Right to Know? Now that’s a bunch of serious cranks.

Seriously…

The removal of this word means…nothing!

You get the idea. Lab leak conspiracy theorists seem to be perseverating on how the word “dispositive,” which was apparently used in the preprints to describe this evidence but was removed from the final versions of the studies as published in Science. To be honest, it was a mistake on the part of the authors to use a word like that, given that it is a legal term, not scientific one, meaning something that resolves a legal issue, claim or controversy. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that science deniers love to substitute legal reasoning for scientific reasoning; a favorite example that I like to cite is falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, meaning “false in one thing, false in all.” Cranks love to imagine that interrogating science is like interrogating a witness, where this legal principle allows the jury to assume that if the witness is incorrect or lies about one thing they can discount everything that witness says. Science doesn’t work like that, because the path to a scientific consensus is almost never straight and there is almost always something “false” to find if you look hard enough. Similarly, I don’t recall ever having heard a scientist use the term “dispositive evidence,” which is why I’ll fault the scientists for using what is more a legal than a scientific term in their preprint.

As scientists know, the toning down of the language in the conclusions and discussion sections of a scientific paper is a feature, not a bug, of peer review; it almost always ends up happening after the first round of peer review as the authors revise a manuscript to resubmit. I could point to a number of examples that I’ve personally experienced getting papers published over the last 30 years. That the final versions of the paper include more carefully nuanced language than the initial versions is not a conspiracy. It’s something that very frequently happens with peer review. Think of it this way. Scientists like to state their conclusions as clearly as possible; however peer-reviewers often see the caveats more strikingly and require toned down language. It’s normal.

Failing that, conspiracy theorists attack peer review itself:

No one ever said, though, that peer review is anything magical. It does, however, mean that scientists carefully examined the submitted manuscript, its data, and its supplementary data and figures and decided that the data did support the hypothesis being tested and was therefore worthy of publication in the journal for which the manuscript was being considered. Again, note the conspiratorial thinking in all the criticisms:

  • It’s a coverup by Anthony Fauci and the NIH (and big pharma and who knows who else).
  • Anomaly hunting, in which minor issues with the papers are portrayed as fatal flaws.
  • Arguments based on personal incredulity of the results.
  • Cherry picking of opposing studies.
  • Failure to consider the totality of the evidence and perseveration about bits of evidence that appear to support your view.

Science is a process, and definitive scientific conclusions rarely flow from a single study. The rejection of the lab leak hypothesis and conclusion that a zoonotic origin for SARS-CoV-2 is far more likely derive not from any single study—or even from these two studies—but from an accumulation of evidence obtained using different methodologies that all converge on the same conclusion. While lab leak proponents are correct that these studies don’t absolutely rule out a lab leak hypothesis, when they are taken together with existing evidence, they do deliver blows to lab leak so devastating that the hypothesis should be considered dead until and unless proponents can produce evidence sufficiently compelling to persuade scientists to resurrect it.

At this point, I can’t help but think that lab leak hypothesis has become the parrot in a classic Monty Python sketch, pining for the fjords.

If it wasn’t doing so months ago, the lab leak “theory” for the origins of SARS-CoV-2 is pining for the fjords now!

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

193 replies on “Is the lab leak conspiracy theory dead?”

“Funding: This project has been funded in whole or in part with Federal funds from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases”

Do you honestly believe this study would have reached any other “conclusion”. Please.

How cute.

A paper, in common usage and as commonly defined, for example by Merriam-Webster: “a formal written composition often designed for publication”.

You act as if the following probative points of fact aren’t in the paper, or you just missed them?

From the paper:

“Birx’s book was published in April 2022. The early videos she recounts as the source of her trauma were exposed as fake by the Associated Press[1] and other outlets[2] in February of 2020.

[1]https://apnews.com/article/archive-fact-checking-8509320385
[2]https://www.revolver.news/2021/02/how-phony-coronavirus-fear-videos-were-used-as-psychological-weapons-to-bring-america-to-her-knees/

Birx tells us how she grew even more determined after seeing that the Chinese had built a hospital in 10 days to fight the virus.

BuzzFeed had proved that images of rapid hospital construction in China were faked[3] on Jan. 27, 2020

[3]https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/janelytvynenko/china-state-media-false-coronavirus-hospital-image

Birx tells us that she’d always known “two weeks to slow the spread” was a lie.”

Have you been evaluated for psychopathology, including an appropriate brain scan?

This is quite disturbing:
https://youtu.be/oq8SAOGSGrY

@Anderson Smith: ‘A paper, in common usage and as commonly defined, for example by Merriam-Webster: “a formal written composition often designed for publication”.’

Sophistry, how novel!

Meanwhile, here in the middle of a science discussion, under a science post, on a science blog, enthusiastically inhabited by scientist and all his little science minions, all talking—you know—about science stuff, it is fair, or at least not wildly unreasonable, for everyone to assume the word “paper” is the ubiquitously accepted contraction for “scientific paper” or, at a stretch, some nominally science-like idiot wibble that at least brags a PubMed index to call all of its own; not some arbitrary waste you scraped straight out of that dirty diaper we laughingly call the World Wide Web of fake facts, fascists, and porns without even showing us the courtesy of trying to work on your form.

But, hey, you do you. Bringing a poop sock to a scientific knife fight. Awwwww.

@Anderson Smith “Two weeks to slow the spread” was one stupid things Trump claimed. After he was not reelected, Birx, a Trump appointee, admitted the fact.
What thinhas to do with lab leak ?

@Anderson Smith You, of course misquoted Merriam Webster. Full quote:
“a formal written composition often designed for publication and often intended to be read aloud
presented a scholarly paper at the meeting”
So, you did not quote a paper.
This is not very good for your credibility. It is stupid, too, because checking is very easy.

Given the tension recently with China and the USA over Pelosi’s vist, do you think the US would collude with the ‘enemy’?

The US and China collaborated on gain of function in bat coronaviruses. This is a known fact.

Would you care to provide a source for your “known fact”?

https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/21055989-understanding-risk-bat-coronavirus-emergence-grant-notice

pp 12 & 14 are the quickest way to a summary that the research was funded by NIH in Wuhan to do research that looks an awful lot like GoF on bat coronaviruses.

On p 189 they state that no GoF research should go on but specify no oversight and state that the researcher is supposed to stop it if it happens and report it.

Then they seem to contradict themselves on p 516 where they talk about being experts at working within frameworks to do GoF research without it being labeled as such.

What is also very clear from this grant is that they were going to manipulate the WIV1 strain to go after ACE2 receptors. One helluva coincidence.

I’m going to say something a lot of folks won’t like – This is becoming an echo chamber. It belongs to Orac and he has every right to run one, should he desire. I would argue we are better than this. We cannot just dismiss anything out of hand that we don’t like and stick our fingers in our ears and say nah-nah-nah whenever something comes along that we don’t want to hear. We can’t just block, deplatform, or ignore well-sourced articles that say things we don’t like.

We have to give this theory a hearing. I does not mean the release was intentional. It does not mean Fauci is the devil or the Chinese are scum, etc, etc. I might mean that a mistake happened. Like at Sverdlovsk, Gruinard, and Dugway before this. It might also mean that this research is far too dangerous to allow to go on.

Why too dangerous? If this thing did accidentally escape, what did we “learn” from this experimentation? Were we better prepared to fight it once it became a pandemic? Did we have novel therapeutics because of this research? No. Just a new virus (Possibly.)

I don’t know what happened. It might have come from any of several vector species. It might have come from the lab on accident. You know what? No one else can claim to be 100% certain, either. We risk losing all credibility if it turns out the lab made a mistake and we told anyone who thought that might be the case he or she was “dumb” or a “xenophobe.”

Just my $0.02. I’m sure many will disagree.

Your $0.02 is one of the best examples of JAQing off I’ve seen in a long time. Next you’ll be citing furin cleavage sites.

pp 12 & 14 are the quickest way to a summary that the research was funded by NIH in Wuhan to do research that looks an awful lot like GoF on bat coronaviruses.

Thank you.

Results of gain of function surdies have been reported:
Ge XY, Li JL, Yang XL, Chmura AA, Zhu G, Epstein JH, Mazet JK, Hu B, Zhang W, Peng C, Zhang YJ, Luo CM, Tan B, Wang N, Zhu Y, Crameri G, Zhang SY, Wang LF, Daszak P, Shi ZL. Isolation and characterization of a bat SARS-like coronavirus that uses the ACE2 receptor. Nature. 2013 Nov 28;503(7477):535-8. doi: 10.1038/nature12711. Epub 2013 Oct 30. PMID: 24172901; PMCID: PMC5389864
Point is that he sequence of this virus is very different than SARS CoV 2

@Phu Q SARS CoV 2 is not mentioned. It is diseases like plague and tularemia.

Do you honestly believe this study would have reached any other “conclusion”.

It’s long been clear that people like you are so delusional that you have come to believe that everyone in the world is as integrity free as yourself.

For the first study they sent Peter Daszak. Without doing any actual investigating, he concluded it could not have come from the lab.

By the way, China has not provided the relevant data.

At some point, as with so many conspiracy theories, the only reasonable conclusion is that everyone else is in on it in some way and the proponents are the only ones clever enough to not fall for the lies.

It just goes to show how even scientists are prone to conspiracy theories. There’s no good evidence that SARS-CoV-2 came from a lab.🙄🤦🏻‍♂️

It’s amazing how many high profile people have made sharp turns away from rationality in the past several years. People with a long history of careful, reasoned, evidence-based thought suddenly breaking from reality and embracing conspiratorial thinking.

Maybe they made sharp turns back towards truth, because of their long history of careful, reasoned, evidence-based thought they had no other option than to suddenly break from echo-chamber platitudes and rejecting group-think and newspeak.

Just a bunch of odd “coincidences.” Gain of function research was prohibited in the US because it’s too dangerous. So they outsourced it to China. The intention was to make bat coronaviruses able to infect humans.

Strangely, not long after a bat coronavirus that can infect humans starts a pandemic in the very same lab where that research was being done.

This biodefense research will never stop. For one thing, virologists love this research and don’t want it to be banned. And for another, the US has to keep up with the bioweapons research done in other countries, or by terrorists.

We are in the age of gain of function biodefense research, and there is no way out.

Gain of function research was prohibited in the US because it’s too dangerous. So they outsourced it to China.

Um, no. NIH funding for some GOF research was suspended from late 2014 to late 2017.

Ok, whatever. GoF was started up again in the US in 2017. But it was also outsourced to China.

If this is some sort of oblique reference to the EcoHealth Alliance, you’ve failed again.

Gain of function research was not for weapons. SARS CoV 2 is a quie bad bioweapon. Do you envision sneezing corps to eliver it.
US do not do weapons ressearch in China, for Chia.

Indeed. Conspiracy cranks are such ignoramuses about everying, it is painful. There isn’t a self-respecting bioweapon engineer alive who would want to be seen dead in the same room as SARS-CoV2. Much lame. So amateur.

Now, Nipah. That’s the one they would weaponize. 50–75% fatality out of the box, no vaccines or treatments available. Just jack up transmission by making it aerosol and Global Armageddon is ready to roll. Guaranteed room clearer, or your Rothschilds’ money back. It’s the only† way to go.

† (short of rabies, of course)

@Phu Q. Actually read the proposal. It is not a weapon proposal. It is about assessing the risk and protecting the warfighter.
As I have said before, a weapon must be delivered. Do you envision sneezing corps to infect the enemy ? Now, this would be really retarded

No good evidence it came from a lab, no good evidence it came from nature. The Chinese government would not cooperate and provide data. The US government and health agencies don’t want to accept any blame. Most virologists want biodefense research to continue, and they are the experts who are trusted to decide what happened. The military industry wants biodefense research to continue.

There is no proof, no good evidence, for any theory right now. There is no good scientific reason to reject the lab origin theory.

As I like to say, just because lab leak is not impossible does not imply, as lab leakers seem to argue all the time, that lab leak is equally probable as an explanation for the origin of SARS-CoV-2 as a natural zoonotic origin is. It’s utter bullshit to claim that there is “no good evidence it came from a lab, no good evidence it came from nature.” It’s false equivalence and an appeal to lack of data, except that there are actually far more data than is claimed.

Indeed. there is far more evidence, including prior plausibility, to conclude that a natural origin is not just a more likely explanation for the origin of SARS-CoV-2 than lab leak is, but a far more likely explanation. It’s not even close.

Indeed. there is far more evidence, including prior plausibility, to conclude that a natural origin is not just a more likely explanation for the origin of SARS-CoV-2 than lab leak is, but a far more likely explanation. It’s not even close

And, Orac keeps saying this that I just have to ask. Isn’t that just your opinion that you’re trying to pass off as fact?

Prior plausibility is not really relevant, since genetic engineering has taken off in recent years. We have not had a pandemic like this one in over 100 years, so there is not much past history to go by. We do know there have been virology lab accidents, and we know there have been viruses crossing over from wild animals. We do NOT know which caused covid.

You think the fact that 2 different strains were found at the market is proof, but Alina Chan explains that one could have easily evolved from the other in a short time.

And she explains that the early search for evidence centered on the market, NOT the lab. So of course evidence was found where they looked for it, not where they did not look.

But you slap the label “conspiracy theorist” on anyone who questions the official narrative.

It is very important for our government and the military industry to continue unrestricted biodefense research. I don’t blame them, and I understand why it is critical. I am only interested in trying to find out what happened, and I think lots of others are similarly interested.

Someone here accused me of not being a scientist and therefore Dunning-Kruger. Well I am a (retired) cognitive scientist. I understand how to think about and analyze data. They could just as well accuse Orac of Dunning-Kruger, since he is not a virologist or epidemiologist.

@Polly There have been many pandemic during last 100 years, hhave you no noiticed ?
You seems still think that China and US develop together, an NIH does the research on US side. Do you understand how stupid this is ?

This might be true absent other information. However there are other facts that argue in favor of a lab leak. Some questions:
– Why is WIF virus database still offline? If this had been available from the start it would have made it easy to disprove the lab leak hypothesis — no closely related viruses in the lab => not a credible source. I think we can all agree.
– Why did the WIF suddenly make an emergency upgrade to their filtration system in October 2019?
– Even the French who built the lab did believe the staff was suitably trained. Nor did the US when they visited it. This has to increase the risk vs a Western lab.
– Even Ralph Baric acknowledges doing this coronavirus work at BHL2 was risky and is on record saying it should have been at BHL3.
The list goes on…
If you want to be objective you have to consider these facts too. I will be honest, I consider both hypotheses quite plausible at this point. If we find the animal reservoir, I’ll be convinced of natural origin (assuming of course the animal was not from the lab). If a whistleblower manages to reveal details from the lab work that show the closest ancestor virus came from there I will likewise be convinced. I wait for the data.
I sense a lack of objectivity from many on both sides of this debate. They often discount the good arguments from the other side. I agree that the new studies provide increased weight for the natural origin argument. However I also note many of the authors were strongly in that camp prior to their study. The 1977 flu pandemic was a prior strain and came from human behavior (perhaps not a lab leak but a vaccine trial). And yes most pandemics do come from animal spillover. Let’s be scientists here and give both sides their fair due. That is real science in my books.

Why don’t you realize you’re not a scientist, Polly? It actually is very important, as it begins your path to learning about what scientists actually do know, and how they know it’s very very unlikely to have come from the lab and far more likely to have come from the wet market.

Go study the Dunning-Kruger effect and how it couples with your desire for a conspiracy.

” Why don’t you realize that you’re not a scientist , Polly?”

This seems to be a common state of affairs these days especially at places that are monetised like Substack and ( soon) Adams’ Brighteon. Economists, libertarians, alt med folk or just plain writers can opine about whatever they think people will react to such as Covid, vaccines, inflation, war etc.

Today I had the dubious pleasure of hearing Naomi Wolfe and Gary Null discuss the intricacies of Covid vaccine injuries/ deaths/ heart issues ( Progressive Commentary Hour/ PRN.live , yesterday) despite not having a shred of insight into the matter. It is truly mind shatteringly ill-informed.
D-K for sure! A classic example.

@Denice Walter

I’d really like to understand why so many think that their opinions on topics are somehow something everyone needs to hear. The origins of the virus aren’t all that important, it’s not weaponized, it’s just a significant virus. Naomi Wolf, though, now that’s not your run-of-the-mill Dunning-Kruger, that’s full on crazy lady who really needs to start collecting cats and hoarding supermarket tabloids.

@Jay Kanta: “Why don’t you realize you’re not a scientist, Polly?”

Oh dear.

Honestly, mate, you might as well ask this question of the Khmer Rouge as they roll up to your house(!)

Some people’s only goal is to know they are better, more powerful, than you. And when they feel that they aren’t, they will do what it takes to make it true. If they can.

This is our hubris talking, not theirs: choosing to believe we are conversing with social empathetic animals much like ourselves. If only we can enlighten them to the errors in their logic; educate them to think as we do, they will become more honest, better people with our Heeeelp.

Well, you can’t. Stop that. They are already operating correctly, for them. What’s your excuse?

I posit a different approach. Respect them for who and what they are, and stop fooling ourselves that we will make them “better” than that. Minimalization, rationalization, determined belief in face of all evidence to the contrary, denial; the self-appointed language of the self-appointed victim who returns, time after time after time, to her abuser. “He’s a changed man!” No, he’s not. You only got better at lying to yourself, doubling down on your own sunk costs.

Sociopathy works. And they’re a decent single-digit percentage; perhaps more. This is how they’re wired at a fundamental neurological level. The only way you can change that is a bullet. So unless that’s your ulterior motive, you need to move on swiftly to how to contain their effects within a society that is highly skilled at not acknowledging those predators who look just like us.

Treat these people as you would a great white shark, and manage accordingly. You cannot change them: they are already behaving correctly, their normal, as nature-plus-nurture has made them. So work on reducing the risk they can bite anyone in half.

@ Jay Kanta:

Ha ha. Cat lady.

Wolf ( I correct my previous error) appears to pose as a 1980s model or nighttime soap star because she does too much with her hair. For one who preaches about women not being taken seriously she should know that**.
If you have “not straight” hair you learn to tame it, not pouf it up even more.
Better role models include Dr Jen Gunter and Prof Dorit… and me.

A woo-oriented physician, Toni Bark, who died also had famously wild hair.

** only discussing white women because Black women know better than I

@ has:

re “.. decent single-digit figure; perhaps more.”

I sometimes wonder if there are also sociopaths lite– meaning not formally dx’able but showing definite signs at least on occasion

We used to refer to dealing with ” difficult people” when counselling young adults. People who behave in extreme ways, over-react, are histrionic, narcissistic, just odd etc. How to avoid them or disempower them.

re “Difficult people”

I should clarify” I didn’t mean the clients I counselled but the people in their lives who were giving them problems

@Denice: “I sometimes wonder if there are also sociopaths lite”

Absolutely. Cluster B disorders are spectrum disorders. e.g. I had a relative who I’m confident was on the lite end of covert narcissism. Easily the most entitled, demanding person I’ve ever met by a mile, and bad enough for all their children to move to other countries as soon as they turned adult, and still expected them to rush back to wait on her hand and foot whenever she wanted. The youngest, being the baby of the family and spoiled, grew up to be much the same. The rest grew into decent good adults, successful with well-adjusted families of their own, but their relationships to their (n)parent always remained difficult, distant, and fragile.

And then I go read some r/raisedbynarcissists and there are stories of extreme, decades-long, mental, physical, and sexual abuse there that will make you wish you were dead, knowing there is such utter irredeemable gleeful monsters on this planet. (Then quickly realize it’d be infinitely better for the world and everyone in it for them to be dead, and then quickly realize they are exceptional survivors, and rinse and repeat from there.)

This is why I despise Alties and Trumpers far more than I do the Adamses and Trumps who peddle to them. So many of these people have a mixture toxic traits, but at the same time I do not think most are wired to be irredeemably evil. The trouble is, they prefer to choose to embrace and encourage the worst parts of what’s in themselves and in each other, because it makes them feel successful powerful. Something, Something, Something, Dark Side.

Amplifying their evil by killing their good. They can hardly assert they made an honest wrong turn; even on a spectrum there’s only two ways they can go.

I mean, I may be a toxic evil chud but at least I have the simple human decency to keep those tendencies to myself and not inflict it with others (excepting the odd verbal lashing served to those who have really earned it, just to keep myself in practice). These people choose to do the other thing, not because it is hard but because it is easy, and cowardly, venal, cruel, greedy, etc. They don’t like who they are but don’t have the stones to admit it, never mind do what they can to be better than that.

So they double down on their shit half, and now we have fascism back at the gates of every major democracy and institution, because tens of millions of people who can choose to have a conscience and exercise it have instead chosen to sell their souls out to those who cannot.

Remember, the malignant narcissist that was Hitler didn’t march to power on tens of millions of jackboots. He marched to power on a small number of jackboots plus the tens of millions of sensible shoes all proudly worn by Good Germans. In doing so, every one of those weak passive enthusiastic enablers chose to make themselves into the world’s cruelest abusers.

Dishonest people cannot learn—not when the answers are painful truths they need instead of the pleasing lies that they want.

Been there, done that. And so round and round the world goes as the people who lie to themselves fuck it up for all.

Sachs really believes that China and US develop weapons together. How stupid can a professor be,

Should the researchers have included negative controls in the form of infectious diseases in Wuhan which don’t cluster around the wet market? Would that data be available?

I think I learned from Steve on SGU about a study looking at diseases which cluster around high voltage power lines (Norway, Denmark?). Well, they opened it up to a huge list of diseases, and lo and behold, one disease jumped out! Of course, this correlation could be just by chance, and the authors seem to have ignored that possibility.

Yeah, and they could have considered the fact that a virology lab is in the same area as the market. So all they showed is that the virus could have come from the market, or from the lab, or come from the lab and then gone to the market. It’s really dumb research, but they know the public isn’t scientific enough to question it.

“Yeah, and they could have considered the fact that a virology lab is in the same area as the market.”

They did. The whole paper is a spacial analysis comparing the location of the lab and various wet markets in the Wuhan region. Perhaps you should have spent a few minutes attempting to read a scientific paper before making a fool of yourself a second time?

They showed that the origin is most likely zoonotic, and then spread from the wet market directly, and then indirectly through further human-human interactions. Your analysis of the studies is rather superficial, don’t you think?

Your counter example is suitably vague as to be unhelpful. One thing powerlines do is result in different vegetation under them compared to beside them. That would change the environment and lead to different species being present. There may be more obvious explanations if we knew what disease, what species and which country.

In the current example, the distribution of early cases of two lineages does not show anything like the pattern you would expect if the disease had escaped from the WIV. What they do show is the type of distribution you would expect if the two lineages had been introduced into the wet market*. The fact that there are two lineages is indeed, on its own, evidence that this did not come from the WIV. In addition, there is no evidence of any sort that the WIV was working on either of these strains. The speculation that the WIV may have been the source is because they were working on a different coronavirus.

This research does not prove the virus jumped across to humans in the wet market at Wuhan, but what it does do is show that it did not escape from the WIV.

*Of course, conspiracy theorists will now claim that the route for escape was through the virus having been moved from WIV to the wet market and escaping from there. However, that is simply an exercise in goalpost moving. You would need to posit that two separate events like this occurred in close time.

The power line study looked at human disease. Essentially it sought to address the fanciful idea that power lines cause disease (you know, like 5G towers cause covid…). This is a cautionary tale about poor study design that lead to a faulty conclusion because data distribution can be due to chance.

<

blockquote>This is a cautionary tale about poor study design that lead to a faulty conclusion because data distribution can be due to chance.
XKCD had a comic about that. Jellybeans and cancer.

Exactly! It was those darn green ones, I believe. Thanks for the reminder. I need to show that to my students this fall.

“Through his investigations as the head of the COVID-19 commission, Prof. Sachs has come to the conclusion that there is extremely dangerous biotechnology research being kept from public view, that the United States was supporting much of this research, and that it is very possible that SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, originated through dangerous virus research gone awry.”

https://www.currentaffairs.org/2022/08/why-the-chair-of-the-lancets-covid-19-commission-thinks-the-us-government-is-preventing-a-real-investigation-into-the-pandemic?fbclid=IwAR0hha66U9yZQD9v060I3DdUnmWrUqaungbFcP9PB1dxN-LUAUlS9JZJ0-g

Orac’s favorite argument against anything he doesn’t agree: Very simple — the official narrative is always correct, any objections are conspiracy theories.

As a new and experimental public service, RI is pleased to announce something a little out of the ordinary: a Troll dating service. We use Science!™ to analyze your comments and posting history to find the perfect romantic partner for trolls.

After our formal introduction you meet and, um, do whatever it is that two trolls do in private.

Polly, meet Felix.

Felix, meet Polly.

Now you two lovebirds scurry along and have some fun together.

And not even a relevant authority. Sachs is an economist. He has no relevant expertise in molecular biology, virology, epidemiology, etc. He spewed a bunch of nonsense about furin cleavage sites as supposedly indicating a laboratory origin for SARS-CoV-2. (It doesn’t. That’s been known since 2020.) I was quite unimpressed.

I have learned to not be at all surprised when worldwide phenomena are treated entirely from an American perspective. Because, of course, the USA is the only country that matters.

Just because the economics of health delivery in the USA is completely rooted doesn’t mean that is the only topic worthy of discussion in the world of science.

The sad thing is, I used to thing SG’s blog was alright…around 15 years ago. I don’t know where he went wrong in recent years, but here we are.

He didn’t go wrong, he along with many others became aware of how off and off-putting the Orac variety of slug is.

Sachs believes that US and China develo bioweapons together.Only close allieswould do thst. China is not a close ally. to put mildly.

Even if the lab was the source of the outbreak, that wouldn’t mean we could ignore the need to control the spread. Most of the AntiVa people seem to say that blaming the lab means one need not take precautions to prevent infection. It’s a horrible bioweapon that Xi and Fauci cooked up together, but there’s no need to wear a mask or get vaccinated because it’s only 0.00001% fatal. Logic and facts are unpopular with those fixated on blaming.

“We don’t need no stinking evidence.”

Just like crank magnetism: bad thinking in one area quickly spreads to others. This ought to make it clear that they truly have embraced conspiracy theories and left the world of critical thinking behind.

If you actually apply critical thinking to the idea that “bad thinking in one area quickly spreads to others”, you’ll find it doesn’t hold water. People compartmentalize. If “crank magnetism” was truly a thing, the US economy would crater, given the large number of people infected with bat guano political conspiracy theories succumbing to general insanity. But most of these people still manage most aspects of their everyday lives in pragmatic, even “rational” fashion. Main-line religions have long spouted some of the kookiest ideas out there, without them necessarily metastasizing into general insanity in the congregation.

All this means is that there’s a specificity to the really weird stuff people glom onto. There are reasons they adopt conspiracy thinking in general, and reasons they pick this conspiracy instead of that. It’s too complex a phenomenon to classify as just some broad Gresham’s law of cognition or epistemology. In some cases, sure, the objects of the conspiracy are in some way fungible, and someone may shift from one to another to serve the underlying psychological function, or adopt an additional one to augment the original. These things can look like “crank magnetism”, but you need to consider the “control group”, the far more common cases where crank ideas don’t just expand willy nilly, but stay in their (often odd) lanes. More importantly, if there’s any “magnetism'”at hand, it’s not embodied in the ‘original’ crank belief, but in the psychological needs that sublimated themselves into that belief to begin with, in large measure as a way of avoiding whatever is really eating at the holder’s psyche.

Crank magnetism really is a thing. Once a person has succumbed to a conspiracy theory, they are more likely to adopt a second. Once a person has suspended rational thinking in favour of joining the imaginary dots on one topic, it becomes easier to do it on other topics.

Whenever I get into discussions with people pushing a conspiracy theory, inevitably I find there are one or more other conspiracy theories sitting under the surface.

That is not to say that people adopt every conspiracy theory they meet, although I have run into some people who go close. I often wonder how John Scudamore manages to get through the day. Usually the conspiracy theories are related to topics the person feels strongly about; however, there is clearly also a level of tribalism involved. Not everyone who believes the Democrats were running a child trafficking ring from the non-existent basement of a Washington pizza establishment believe that Donald Trump was robbed of the 2020 Presidential election by massive voter fraud, but lots of them do. Having accepted one conspiracy theory, they were more likely to accept an adjacent conspiracy theory.

I noticed that Sachs published his call for “independent research” was published in PNAS, where prominent cranks go to publish after they go crank (e.g., Linus Pauling). I also notice that he’s not a virologist or molecular biologist, but an economist. I also notice that in that article he’s blathering about furin cleavage sites as suggesting a lab origin, which is a claim I was debunking over a year ago, as were many scientists more knowledgeable than I. (Search this blog for “furin cleavage.) He’s also spewing common lab leak tropes, appeals to personal incredulity, and conspiracy theories.

Color me very unimpressed.

I see that Polly’s idea of research is copying and pasting from Facebook:

fbclid=IwAR0hha66U9yZQD9v060I3DdUnmWrUqaungbFcP9PB1dxN-LUAUlS9JZJ0-g

Sachs do have a conspiracy theory, that there lots dangerous bioweapon rereeach going around, in secret, and by international cabal, because China is involved.

It would make sense to read Alina Chan’s criticisms, for example, before rejecting the lab origin theory:

“We don’t know who the earliest cases were, just that an early cluster of cases was located at a live animal market in Wuhan (see my other medium post for more details on this). Due to the belief at the time that this was a repeat of the 2003 SARS epidemic, local investigators focused their search for early coronavirus cases solely on the market, nearby hospitals and its neighborhood”

https://ayjchan.medium.com/the-evidence-for-a-natural-vs-lab-origin-of-covid-19-6946407f3310

In other words, the locations of cases they based their conclusion on were near the market because that’s where the initial cases were assumed to be. So the reasoning is entirely circular.

The fact is that no one knows. She has a good point — they initially looked for cases only in and near the market, so that’s where they found them. If they had been looking in and around the lab, maybe they would have found them there also. So this location research actually does not make sense.

Even a science would recognize a circulat argument.
Read the papet. Authors do not say that check cases only around wet market.

Sure. Anyone, no matter how qualified, who questions your beloved official narrative has to be a crank and conspiracy theorist. It’s all very simple for people like Orac.

Sure. Anyone, no matter how qualified, who questions your beloved official narrative has to be a crank and conspiracy theorist. It’s all very simple for people like Orac

Indeed, Polly! Riddle me this; how many times in Orac’s post did he use the word conspiracy or some iteration of it (conspiratorial or crank)? 45 times!

Let’s face it, this isn’t just Orac’s usual, incoherent, invective blathering meant to dismiss an alternative position; this is Orac trying his hand at voodoo hypnosis!

Both you and your new beau the idiot-greg can leave. You’re and your JAQing off aren’t really welcome on a science page

But we are on this blog, so what’s the problem?

That’s a grossly dishonest claim. Perhaps she is making bad arguments, but “gone full crank” is patent nonsense.

When the arguments are so bad and riddled with conspiracy theories about a topic and are coming from someone who really should know better, it’s reasonable to conclude that she has gone “full crank.”

That article is garbage, riddled with strawmen, e.g., “nowhere do they present proof that Sars-CoV-2 was manufactured” — c’mon, that objection is blatant bad faith.

That is in fact a ludicrous argument, because there are no other early clusters.

If the virus had jumped to humans in another location and only been transported to the wet market at a later date, there would be other early clusters in other locations.

The fact that there were two lineages clustered near the wet market of itself indicates the disease did not leak from the WIV. You would need to postulate two separate leaks and the likelihood of that is minute.

On the other hand, we know that animal viruses jumped to humans all the time (monkeypox anyone?). Most die out quickly, but some have varying levels of transmissibility in human populations and they are the ones we note. There have been 3 different coronavirus pandemics in the last 20 years. A coronavirus jumping from animals to humans and becoming a human pandemic is no surprise.

“Early cases are clustering around wet market”, This actually refers early cases. It does not say that cases around wet market were stidoed, and they were early.

I am not going to believe any presumed analysis of the origin of SARS2 until we can see the records of WIV and their overlords in the CCP Government – which isn’t going to happen. The Chinese Government is clearly covering something up, and we probably won’t know what it is for decades, if ever. Whatever the truth is, you can be sure that the Chinese Government knows a lot more than they are willing to admit.

Of course the CCP aren’t talking about it. The whole debacle is embarrasing for them! The CCP’s poor initial response to COVID-19 makes the Chinese authorities look like weak idiots at best (and to be clear, a lot of Chinese citizens would have agreed with that sentiment at the time – the CCP has not faced this kind of challenge to their authority since the Chinese Civil War). NO conspiracy needed. They were idiots, they know they were, and now it’s head-in-the-sand time, pretending things are just fine. Authoritarian states depend on the projection of strength to stay in power, and when that fails, generally so do they. As a result, they never admit perceived weakness even when it would be safer.

Frankly, if you want to be mad at the CCP for anything, having had proof that wet markets are horrifyingly zones for zoonotic transmission for years, and ignoring them anyway, is plenty enough. Or knowing that an infectious disease was about, but holding a several massive events, including a banquet, anyway. Or trying to keep their own doctors from reporting on the disease… so much so that Dr Li Wenliang risked potential prison time or worse for outing the infection (look it up, even Chinese celebrities have gone “missing” for a time when they do something that annoys the CCP). Plenty of real things to be mad about.

Attacking the doctor for reporting the disease is inexcusable. But at least China did a good job of cleaning up the Wuhan Market when they recognized the problem and gathered environmental samples. I wish they had collected animal blood samples as well. But in the end they got the word out to the world significantly quicker than they had with the first SARS outbreak.

It’s probably part and parcel of the same problem, but I am much more outraged at their quashing of local government and the independent press in Hong Kong (and their ongoing exercises to intimidate Taiwan) than with the specifics of the latest Wuhan outbreak.

What a hacky and immature article. Can we stop using the most extreme words we can find to describe opinions we don’t like? It’s not a “conspiracy theory” to have a lot of questions about the origin of a virus that seems to center around a virus lab known for working on that exact type of virus and bats. As Jon Stewart said “The name of the pandemic is on the building!” a joke but not far off. You may not like the questions. But it doesn’t make it a “conspiracy theory”. Or if it does, by the same token, the idea it just came in from the wild is also a “conspiracy theory” that deflects blame from a country notorious for deflecting blame and two governments with money to spare that DO NOT want their fingerprints on a lab leak.

Of course, yours is a classic argument by conspiracy theorists trying to deflect accusations that their belief system is a conspiracy theory, that you’re “Just asking questions>.”

And John Stewart revealed himself to be susceptible to conspiracy theories.

Of course, yours is a classic argument by public policy manipulators trying to deflect factual accusations that their belief system is a criminal conspiracy, that you’re merely an authoritarian rational skeptic altruistically spending most of your time “debunking” counter-narrative facts in your mostly echo-chamber blogs.

“It is still mind-blowing that so many people are still so ignorant as to struggle with the fundamental notion that people in positions of power and influence might actually deliberately conspire among themselves to engage in morally reprehensible acts for self-benefit that would seem incomprehensible to the average person who is not a raging psychopath. Regardless, the historical record shows in abundance that this has always been the case in our known history.”

https://globalfreedommovement.org/in-1967-the-cia-created-the-label-conspiracy-theorists/

“that seems to center around a virus lab”

Except that it doesn’t, which is shown by the evidence above. Are you incapable of reading? Or did you reject it offhand because it doesn’t confirm what you desperately want to believe?

“the idea it just came in from the wild is also a “conspiracy theory” ”
Except that this is where every other disease ever has come from in the whole of history. So that alone gives the “from the wild” origin a whole lot more plausibility than anything else.

And then there are all the studies, reports and investigations that have looked for evidence of a lab origin and found nothing.
Following the preponderance of evidence and the understanding of where literally every other disease has come from is hardly the same as ascribing to a conspiracy theory.

Or if it does, by the same token, the idea it just came in from the wild is also a “conspiracy theory” that deflects blame from a country notorious for deflecting blame and two governments with money to spare that DO NOT want their fingerprints on a lab leak.

Ooh. Countering claims of an idea being a conspiracy theory by proposing a conspiracy theory.

It is well known that viruses jump from animals to humans all the time. I could list dozens of examples in the past few years: monkeypox (multiple times), ebola (multiple times), hantavirus (multiple times), bird flu (multiple times) for a short start, rabies (every time it occurs), but also every new version of influenza. Many times these viruses become extinct in humans pretty quickly. It is more unusual for them to become established in the human population, but it does happen. There have been 3 global coronavirus pandemics in the past 20 years. Before that there was AIDS.

Viruses escaping from secure research facilities and becoming established in the human population is far less common. The reason being that there are billions of wild viruses and billions of interactions between wild animals and humans every year. In contrast, there are only a small number of virus research facilities and each only handles a small number of viruses.

At present, there is no good evidence that SARS-CoV-2 leaked from the WIV. There is no evidence that the virus was present within the WIV. The virus they had in their collection was only distantly related. None of the early cases were in WIV staff or their families, but were in people associated with the Wuhan wet market. The location of early cases points to the Wuhan wet market, rather than WIV being the source of infection into humans. Lastly and most importantly, there were two lineages in the early infections that had separate epicentres. There would need to be two separate releases from the WIV to explain the data.

I urge people to read “Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19” by Alina Chan and Matt Ridley. They are not “advocates” for any particular hypothesis, only for an open investigation. And there are numerous other scientists with the same view who are not conspiracists. Of course there are many conspiracists (just see the other comments here) but that isn’t relevant to the science.

Matt Ridley, of course, went full conspiracy crank about a number of topics years ago.

As for the book, it’s an exercise in JAQing off designed to promote lab leak, even as the authors feign considered agnosticism over supporting lab leak versus natural origin hypotheses for the origin of SARS-CoV-2. It’s a favorite tactic of conspiracy theorists, saying basically, “I’m not saying one explanation is necessarily better than the other; I’m just saying we should consider the other one.” It’s JAQing off combined with a false equivalence. Combine that with a slanted discussion that overvalues evidence for lab leak and denigrates evidence for a natural zoonotic origin, and you have the same sorts of arguments that intelligent design creationists used to make about evolution. Remember, they don’t necessarily want to convert everyone; they just want to convince enough people that their conspiracy theory is plausible enough to take seriously.

https://newrepublic.com/article/164688/viral-lab-leak-theory-covid-19

And Ridley’s language is pure conspiracy theorist:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2022/01/12/duped-covid-lab-leak-deniers/

I urge people to read “Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19” by Alina Chan and Matt Ridley.

Has she changed her name yet?

“who herself is selling a book promoting lab leak theory”

That’s a blatant lie. Over and over again she has made clear that she is not “promoting” any theory, only holding that a lab leak has not been falsified and that there is important missing data … she only promotes an open investigation and the cessation of attacks on scientists who haven’t declared allegiance to any hypothesis … attacks from horrible people like Angela Rasmussen.

If Chan and Ridley aren’t promoting the lab leak theory, it’s odd that they give so much attention to it in their book. Reviewers have noted the authors’ slant.

“Presenting themselves as champions of rigorous, evidence-based science, they write: “we are not alleging malfeasance, only a mistake”.”

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/nov/15/viral-by-alina-chan-and-matt-ridley-review-was-covid-19-really-made-in-china

I still find the idea that a worker a the Wuhan lab got accidentally infected and went to the nearby market after work far more likely. Maybe I’m a conspiracy junkie but absent finding a host animal an accident seems far more likely to me than two rare zoonotic jumps from a species of unknown origin.

If you think that an near simultaneously dual zoonotic jump from an unknown species origin story makes more sense I’m not sure I could convince you regardless of my degrees. I think that a Laotian horseshoe bat, the most likely origin species, showed up in a lab that studies bat coronaviruses rather than in a nearby seafood market, that did not sell bats or pangolin, to be more persuasive on its face. Accidents at work are not uncommon, even highly secure biological laboratories have had many instances of lab accidents and leaks. I think that it is more likely that someone accidentally exposed themselves and went to the market after work. I’m not even saying that it’s due to gain of function research. If you disagree that’s fine. I think the thing thats would really convince people would be finding the host species. If that happens then they either find it locally, at another wet market, or they find it in the lab or a cave the lab was known to take bat’s from. Until then I don’t think people will change their minds. Regardless of the origin the solutions are the same, dismantle and discourage wet markets, increase training and security at biolabs, highly restrict or end gain of function research.

@ Peter

I highly agree with should close down wet markets, a extremely major sources of a variety of infectious diseases that we literally have NO immunity to. And I agree: “increase training and security at biolabs”.

As for gain-of-function, perhaps limited to well supervised labs; but can be valuable research to predict, among other things, possible future variants of various microbes and, thus, be prepared.

I think that it is more likely that someone accidentally exposed themselves and went to the market after work.

Nothing like a bracing nine-mile walk after a hard day at the bench.

People in China don’t have vehicles? They can’t live near the seafood market? Come on, argue in good faith. I’m happy to be wrong but have you never stopped at a grocery store on your commute from work?

People in China don’t have vehicles? They can’t live near the seafood market? Come on, argue in good faith.

I was. And the market does have parking (PDF). Aerial photography also shows that WIV is next to a major thoroughfare and seems to have a multistory parking garage.

Then again, Wuhan also has supermarkets. I won’t speculate about the purchasing habits of WIV workers, mutandis mutandis their housing demographics.

I think that a Laotian horseshoe bat, the most likely origin species, showed up in a lab that studies bat coronaviruses rather than in a nearby seafood market, that did not sell bats or pangolin….

“Showed up”? From Laos? A girl named John?

Your contention that “someone” was infected at work both ignores the dual lineages and is far from parsimonious, especially given SARS and MERS-CoV.

Two different lab workers smuggle Covid-19 out of the lab, sneak over to the wet market to spray it on pangolins and sneak out again unnoticed.

Simple and diabolically clever.

That’s the issue. In either scenario, zoonotic or accident, two variations really does make all potentialities statistically rare. What would be ironic would be if somehow both happened near simultaneously. I really think the issue with the zoonotic origin is that the most likely host animal is not indigenous and also not sold at the seafood market. Finding the host species would do a lot to putting this whole thing to bed. They just had a new outbreak in China, thankfully no human to human transmission this time, but they already traced it to shrews. Usually finding the host is accomplished within 6 months and most commonly way sooner.

I honestly don’t know if Covid-19 is zoonotic or accidental in origin but I don’t think holding either theory as likely is absurd. So far, I have not seen any evidence that is dispositive towards either proposition.

Usually being the key word. I’m aware it isn’t always the case. I am also aware that scientists have gotten significantly better at it since then and have vastly more resources, technologically and monetarily, than in 1976. Not to mention the legacy of colonialism and its impact on research and interest in Africa especially in the 1970’s.

I’m not saying it was definitely a lab accident or the fault of gain-of-function research. In fact gain-of-function research is entirely unnecessary for the lab leak hypothesis to be true. I’m just saying that it doesn’t make someone a conspiracy nut to think that a lab accident is a likely possibility. Zoonotic origin from an animal brought to the market or something local are a likely scenarios too. However the lack of indigenous horseshoe bats in Wuhan makes me skeptical.

If the Wuhan Institute of Virology were instead studying African fruit bats and a new hemorrhagic fever broke out in Wuhan I’d be skeptical of a local zoonotic origin also.

It’s a good article by the way and the first study you go over is pushing me towards zoonotic over leak but I’m not convinced of either at this point. There are a lot of nuts to pick but everyone leaning towards the leak theory isn’t one.

Ok, but every other infectious disease in history has come from a zoonosis. That’s a lot of diseases. Why should this one be different, given that very careful analysis has not shown any sign of human manipulation of its genome?

Here’s the thing it’s not actually really an argument against zoonosis. The animals we have found with the closest match to the current coronaviruses are horseshoe bats. Horseshoe bats are not native to Wuhan or near Wuhan and there is no evidence they were sold at the seafood market. It is known that samples from bat coronaviruses were present in the WIV. Samples taken from caves in Laos and other places. It wouldn’t take genetic manipulation for the lab leak hypothesis to be correct. It would simply take one of the bats or one of the samples in the lab to accidentally infect a worker. It’s quite possible the virus has a solely zoonotic origin but that that origin came from the lab via a cave in Laos and not anywhere near Wuhan.

Which is why I was saying that gain-of-function research isn’t necessarily indicted here.

If they had the origin narrowed down to something actually native Wuhan or present in the seafood market, the lab hypothesis is voided entirely. Unless I’m mistaken they haven’t come close to that. If I’m wrong about that I’m happy to concede. If someone has evidence akin to the evidence that points to fruit bats being the origin of ebola that would be more than enough for me.

This is an argument from incredulity.

Two occurrences in a similar place and at a similar time of something that happens often is to be expected. Two occurrences of something that is quite rare, is much less likely.

People are exposed to animal viruses all the time. A recent paper https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-022-31860-w suggests there may be as many as 66,000 spillover coronavirus infections in humans every year.

I’ve said multiple times now that the two occurrences makes a local zoonotic origin more likely and is certainly pushing me in that direction. This new evidence is not dispositive.

I have explained what evidence would convince me. I’m not looking for certainty, I’m looking for a local organism or an organism sold at the seafood market that appears to be the likely source. We know that samples from the closest source we’ve found, horseshoe bats, were in the WIV. Absent a local host or likely host I don’t think the leak hypothesis can be dismissed. That’s me YMMV

So you continue to perseverate on the word “dispositive.” How boring. As I said in the post, that is more of a legal than a scientific term, and it was a big mistake on the part of the authors to use it in the first version of the manuscript. Had I been a peer-reviewer, I would have made them get rid of it too, for the very reason that lab leak conspiracy theorists would focus on it, given their obsession with using legal terms to discuss scientific findings.

Probably never know for sure, as the market had been closed by the Chinese authorities before any testing of animals present could take place. However, the largest cluster of positive environmental samples taken at the market in January 2020 was from a cage that had previously contained racoon dogs at a stall that sold live animals.

However, several other susceptible species were also present at the market including red foxes and hog badgers. Palm civets (the suspected intermediate species for SARS 1) were also sold at the market.

@orac I am happy to use a different word choice if you would prefer; certainty, almost surety, incontrovertibly. I’ll happily work to establish a standard vernacular for this conversation. Is there something I am saying other than my word choice that you would like to address?

@Chris Preston I think you are likely correct that we won’t ever know for sure. It certainly would help to have more open access to data from WIV. It is still possible to find a indigenous species or one sold at the market that is the host but it is more difficult having missed the early opportunity

In either scenario, zoonotic or accident, two variations really does make all potentialities statistically rare.

“All potentialities” sum to unity.

@Narad: ‘“All potentialities” sum to unity.’

Indeed. It is easy to tell who here has passed (or in my case failed) statistical math, according to whether their thinking patterns align with “common sense” or confound it.

In this instance, asking what is the probability of a sequence of rare events ever occurring, after it has already occurred; to which they will advance “one in million”, “one in a billion”, and so on, in order to rationalize their argument from credulity… completely missing that the correct answer here is always 1.

I found this the other day while I was out on a Pepe Silvia meme hunt, and IMO it does pretty good at vivisecting the rational misfires upon which Conspiracy Theoryism builds:

https://medium.com/@jaxonevans/10-logical-errors-that-fuel-conspiracy-theories-f2fec7327cc1

#2 is apposite.

For a bunch of proselytizing paranoiacs who possess all the answers, CTers are terribly good at not asking one very obvious (to us) and rather important question: “What if I’m wrong?” So it goes.

This is a powerful argument against the lab leak. What are the chances two different strains leave the lab a few weeks apart? Labs with potentially dangerous pathogens are careful, while wet markets are…not. As has been pointed out, once the perfect storm for transmission occurs, multiple jumps should not be surprising.

Which is why I said it is pushing me towards the zoonotic market origin being more likely. At the same time dangerous workplace environments or poorly followed protocols and procedures don’t usually correct themselves until a problem is found. A lab is not like a construction site where accidents are usually more obvious, you cut off your finger or fall off a ladder, at least to the person who’s had the accident.

Origin of Pandemic

As Orac has clearly explained the overwhelming evidence clearly shows the current pandemic is of natural origin. Genomic sequencing of the coronaviruses in numerous horseshoe bats has found a number that needed only a few additional mutations to become the current Sars-Cov-2 virus and also tracing of early cases. However, for sake of argument, let’s assume it could have escaped from a Wuhan lab.

First, the United States has experienced quite a number of gain-of-function viral escapes over the years, including a gain-of-function corona virus from a University of North Carolina lab in . Fortunately, none of these spread; but they could have. In fact, the U.S. government banned gain-of-function research from 2013 to 2017; but then it started up again. Bottom line is that a pandemic such as the current one could have started from an American lab. just as easily as from a Wuhan lab. (see Biosafety Lab Security Breaches U.S. Reference List below, especially the Young & Blake references)

Second, and more important, how would things be different if the current pandemic had begun either in nature or a lab escape? Currently, the US has the, by far, highest per capita death rate among any of the advanced nations of the world [e.g., PBS News Hour (2022 Feb 20). Why the COVID death rate in the U.S. is so much higher than other wealthy nations]. Wherever the virus originated, we were given advance warning by early January; but the Trump government downplayed the risk and basically did nothing for five weeks. US and CDC were aware early January (see CDC Museum COVID-19 Timeline) Even then Trump’s message was contradictory at best. He continued to have large indoor as well as outdoor meetings where neither he nor most of the attendees wore masks and/or maintained any type of distance.

Third, I have read a number of books and even more articles on the pandemic and what went wrong (see list of books below). Just about everything. Historically, public health has not been well-funded in the U.S., though on a dollar for dollar basis it is responsible for more lives saved and more quality of adjusted life years than all of our expensive technologically advanced health care. For brief periods of time after some major epidemic we increase funding to public health; but it doesn’t last. The CDC is both underfunded and understaffed. State, County, and Municipal public health departments, for the most part, are also underfunded and understaffed. And we don’t have one united public health system, unfortunately, politics plays a major roll, a large number of citizens lacking the basic understanding of science base their beliefs on social media, etc. Currently and during the pandemic, States where politics emphasized individual freedom have had the highest deaths, hospitalizations, etc. As Deborah Birx book makes clear, we didn’t need complete lockdowns. We needed, for instance, we needed one database for infectious disease cases hospitalized, etc., regular testing of asymptomatic because they were the major spreaders of disease, we needed physical distancing, and masks, etc. and by local testing we could do more intense mitigation just where there were numbers of positive tests. Read her book, it clearly shows how we could have saved probably 2/3 or more lives without major disruption to our economy. And we didn’t have even a reserve of personal protective equipment and it wasn’t manufactured in this nation. In fact, more than half of our medications, as well as our personal protective equipment are manufactured abroad, mainly in India and China. So, in a major pandemic, we could not expect them to export what would be needed in their nations.

Finally, vaccine hesitancy and outright refusal finds those areas of nation dominated by the aforementioned with highest hospitalizations and deaths. Note in a previous set of exchanges I posted a longer comment on the mRNA vaccines, that they were NOT experimental, that they are highly effective with rare serious adverse events and even if people were hesitant when they first came out, we now have international data for over two years. And, even with the Omicron variants, the current vaccines with booster, though they don’t prevent infection and mild symptoms, still have high effectiveness in preventing hospitalizations and deaths. I should point out that our media tells us how many new cases. Cases simply means the virus found in, for instance, nasopharyngeal swabs; but we have potentially pathogenic viruses all the time on our skin, in our noses, in our lungs, in our intestines; but they are kept in check by our immune systems.

So, for those who want to believe the virus originated from a Wuhan lab, they fail to understand that it would NOT have mattered regarding the tragic loss of life and long-term covid experienced in this nation, so, their wanting to believe in conspiracies regarding the origins is really a waste of time. They should be looking at why we, the most powerful nation on the planet with the most expensive health care system, failed so miserably to save lives and reduce suffering.

As for Jeffrey Sachs, I may write another comment focusing on him; but, just to be clear he is a staunch free-market economist with no understanding of infectious diseases, public health, etc. One can find a wide range of opinions on the pandemic from numerous people with absolutely no minimal knowledge of infectious diseases or, sometimes, a far out absurd position. Orac has addressed some of these in previous articles.

Books I’ve read on pandemic:

Deborah Birx (2022). Silent Invasion: The Untold Story of the Trump Administration, Covid-19, and Preventing the Next Pandemic Before Its Too Late.

Nina Burleigh (2021 May). Virus – Vaccinations, the CDC, and the Hijacking of Americas Response to the Pandemic.

Scott Gottlieb (2021). Uncontrolled Spread: Why COVID-19 Crushed Us and How We Can Defeat the Next Pandemic.

Richard Horton (2020 Jun). The COVID-19 Catastrophe: What’s Gone Wrong and How To Stop It Happening Again.

Michael Lewis (2021 May). The Premonition: A Pandemic Story.

Debora MacKenzie (2020 Jul). COVID-19 – The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened and How to Stop the Next One.

Biosafety Lab Security Breaches U.S.
Reference List

DiGangi D (2020 Jan 22). Army germ lab shut down by CDC in 2019 had several ‘serious’ protocol violations that year. WJLA.

GAO (2016 Mar). HIGH-CONTAINMENT LABORATORIES – Comprehensive and Up-to-Date Policies and Stronger Oversight Mechanisms Needed to Improve Safety.

Mohney G (2014 Jun 20). Anthrax Scare Is Latest CDC Lab Security Lapse. ABC News.

Mongilio H 2019 Nov 24). CDC Inspection Findings Reveal More about Fort Detrick Research Suspension. The Frederick News-Post, Md.

NBC News (2014 Dec 24). CDC Reports Possible Ebola Exposure at Containment Lab.

Raymond JY (accessed 2008). The 1, 2, 3’s of Biosafety Levels. CDC.

Weiss S et al. (2015 May 17). Lessons to be Learned from Recent Biosafety Incidents in the United States. The Israel Medicine Association Journal; 17(5)

Young A (2016 Jun 2). Newly disclosed CDC biolab failures ‘like a screenplay for a disaster movie’. USA Today.

Young A (2017 Jan 4). CDC keeps secret its mishaps with deadly germs. USA Today.

Young A & Blake J (2020 Aug 17). Here Are Six Accidents UNC Researchers Had With Lab-Created Coronaviruses. ProPublica.

Young A & Blake J(2020 Aug 17). Near Misses at UNC Chapel Hill’s High-Security Lab Illustrate Risk of Accidents With Coronaviruses. ProPublica.

“They should be looking at why we, the most powerful nation on the planet with the most expensive health care system, failed so miserably to save lives and reduce suffering.”

Completely agree

Jeffrey Sachs

First, Sachs is an economist with NO background in medicine, infectious diseases, etc. Second, though he is a well-known award-winning economist, his approach is based on a firm belief in total free market economies and something called shock therapy. He has many economists who are critical of his approach. Shock therapy is to totally tear down any economic structures to make way for the free market, regardless of the harms to people. He proved this in Russia. Russia could have looked at the successful economies of Western European nations; e.g., Germany, Sweden, France, nations with mixed economies; i.e. universal health care coverage, generous sick leave and pensions, etc. But Sachs wanted none of this, not even a transition period; but shock therapy. The result in Russia was, according to an excellent Swedish documentary available on YouTube: Att skapa en Putin. I am fluent at Swedish; but one can find free programs online that allow one to view YouTube videos in many different languages. A summary of the program: “About Russia’s transformation from communism to a market economy was coming to an end with disaster. Out of the ashes rose a powerful president who rules his country with an iron fist. How did it happen? SVT’s former correspondent Peter Löfgren tells what happened when a bunch of young capitalists from the West were invited to reform Russia. Some became immensely rich while the majority continued to live in misery. The attempt failed and the road to power was soon open to a new type of leader. His name: Vladimir Putin.” Another good article can is Greg Rosalsky (2022 Mar 22). How ‘shock therapy’ created Russian oligarchs and paved the path for Putin. NPR

Note as the major institutions of the Russian economy, everything from health care to electricity were taken over by individuals who became billionaires, Russia went into a severe economic collapse resulting in over one million deaths, mass alcoholism, and mass poverty.

Now, let’s look at his article in Current Affairs,

Jeffrey Sachs (2022 Aug). Why the Chair of the Lancet’s COVID-19 Commission Thinks: The US Government Is Preventing a Real Investigation Into the Pandemic.

Neil L Harrison and Jeffrey D. Sachs (2022 May 19). A call for an independent inquiry into the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

He focuses on the furin cleavage site, which basically improves virus replication and pathogenesis. He assumes this was done at a lab and, yep, labs were investigating it. But it turns out that such furin cleavage sites are a normal product of genetic mutations, interchanging of genetics, etc. in corona viruses found in nature; e.g., Abdou Nagy et al (2021 Jul 13). Evolutionary insights into the furin cleavage sites of SARS‑CoV‑2 variants from humans and animals. Archives of Virology; 166: 2541-2549.

For a clear explanation, a well-known professor of virology runs his own website: Vincent Racaniello (2020 May 14). SARS-CoV-2 furin cleavage site revisited. Virology Blog.

Besides Jeffrey Sachs having NO basic understanding of infectious diseases or, for that matter, such things as furin cleavage sites, his co-author on the PNAS paper is a Professor of Pharmacology with numerous peer-reviewed publications; but, as far as I can find, not one single one remotely related to infectious diseases, etc. You can find more, including list of his publications at:

Neil L. Harrison, PhD. Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Therapeutics

So, of course, anyone wanting to believe in conspiracy theories, and we have lots of them, the majority who have little to no understanding of immunology, microbiology, virology, epidemiology, etc; but in a world of seven billion people with the internet and thousands and thousands of magazines and journals one can always find something that confirms one illogical unscientific conspiracy beliefs.

And, again, even if it did come from accidental lab release, highly unlikely, but not totally impossible, the results would be the same, exponentially higher death rates, etc. in U.S compared to other advanced nations. The one think I do agree with Sachs on is that we need better oversight of gain-of-function studies. No, to eliminating them as they help, among other things, to prepare for possible future epidemics and pandemics that could easily arise from nature-based mutations.

@Joel: “The result in Russia was, according to an excellent Swedish documentary available on YouTube: Att skapa en Putin.”

Yep. Having won the war against the USSR, the US et al chose to lose the peace. How quickly the lessons from Versailles were forgot with grifters like these leading the charge: Don’t gouge the losers for all they have got or they will vote in someone even worse than before, and then we’re all back for round #2.

Wanting the lab origin theory to be investigated should have nothing to do with being angry at China. The US partnered with the Wuhan lab, through Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance, and funding was approved by Fauci’s agency.

Virologists don’t want biodefense research to be restricted, so their minds are not open to the possibility of lab origin. And the military industry doesn’t want it restricted either. If the US ends or restricts this research, other nations, and terrorists, will get ahead of us. Biodefense research, and genetic engineering, is here to stay, it won’t be shoved back in the bottle.

Biodefense and bioweapons research cannot be separated, so you can’t permit one and ban the other. In order to create vaccines against bioweapons, you have to understand how bioweapon viruses can be created by modifying natural viruses. That is exactly what the Wuhan gain of function research was about.

There is NO “overwhelming evidence” that covid came from nature. Some pandemics have come from nature, but viruses have also escaped from labs. And it is only relatively recently that biodefense research and genetic engineering has really taken off.

Anyone who is certain about what happened, one way or the other, has a closed mine.

If covid did come from a lab, what can be done to prevent more of these accidents? There are no easy answers, but awareness is a good place to start. Refusing to investigate and denying the possibility of lab origin is a dogmatic and unscientific.

@ Polly

First, you apparently ignored my comments above; but you write: “Refusing to investigate and denying the possibility of lab origin is a dogmatic and unscientific.”

Wow. I guess you are unaware that not only various experts in US investigated; but experts from many other nations; but, given your comments, no matter how many investigations, not acceptable to you. Oh well.

Besides your beliefs in conspiracy theories, what is your background; i.e., education?

I am a physician. Please rs don’t make your usually inane comment. First if you haven’t convinced the other you haven’t won the argument. No Dr. Gorski I’m not reading your study. Garbage in garbage out. China is an opaque society. The CCP murdered 60 million of its own people. Why would you trust any ” data” from this bunch of lying sociopaths. Why would we fund any research in such a depraved and hostile country. Also Dr. Gorski you are a surgical oncologist. Most of the surgical oncologists I know operate 2 to 3 days a week with long clinics, rounds, conferences, and administrative duties leaving little time for an extensive blog like this. Let me tell you and your herd of independent thinkers this is a sham. It is a big pharma disinformation ploy. Raise up the straw dogs then lump them together and strike down what your masters order. This disinformation thing and conspiracy theory crap is so tiresome. Guess Hunter’s laptop was a Russian ploy. Just how did they photoshop him smoking crack with underage prostitutes? And please Joel Harrison don’t write 5 pages of vacuous palaver.Go get’m Polly!

Ideally yes. However, not when the person you are talking to is politically and ideologically locked into an opinion.

For instance, it doesn’t really matter what the Chinese say, or how deep the access they give to outside agencies, Felix won’t believe them. He’ll say that they are lying or that the outside agency has an agenda. In other words, his opinion cannot be changed, he will always find another excuse to reject evidence. Anyone who’s opinion cannot be changed by new evidence is safe to ignore.

This is not a debate. You are a bad actor, here to piss on Orac’s rug in his house, and everyone knows it. Calling you exactly what you are is both civil and honest, and just good science, and all you have earned. If you want any more than that then you are welcome to put up first, but we won’t hold our breath.

Wouldn’t Orac, who is a physician, works with physicians and who has great verbal skill be able to judge from written language who is likely to also be a dr?

“Wouldn’t Orac, who is a physician, works with physicians and who has great verbal skill be able to judge from written language who is likely to also be a dr?”

What??? You think it’s possible to identify who is or is not a physicians based on how they write?

This disinformation thing and conspiracy theory crap is so tiresome. Guess Hunter’s laptop was a Russian ploy. Just how did they photoshop him smoking crack with underage prostitutes?

It was a QOP ploy which, in today’s world, makes it a russian ploy by inheritance. You seem to be ignoring the fact that the tech the right got the laptop from (after he looked at it) has said that none of the material that is being talked about was on it when he had it — and that there were no pictures on it.

And I agree — it’s highly doubtful you’re a doctor.

Firehosing. A standard propaganda technique of which Soviets and Stone are particularly fond.

What is/isn’t on H Biden’s laptop is irrelevant: the purpose of their inchoate infinite spew is not to convince recipients of the propagandists’ own truth (although it is always nice when that happens) so much as to persuade them that all sources of truth are equally untrustworthy. Because neurotics unmoored from “objective” are delightfully pliable.

“Raise up the straw dogs then lump them together”

We either have a winner in the mushy metaphor category, or lyrics to one of the worst dance songs ever.

Virologists don’t want biodefense research to be restricted, so their minds are not open to the possibility of lab origin. And the military industry doesn’t want it restricted either.

It’s interesting how the lab leak conspiracy mongers’ arguments are similar to those of the vaccine deniers: some group of scientists are secretly working to hide evil things. No explanation of where the money comes from, although lots of it is implied.

The biggest thing the two groups have in common are vivid imaginations and low to non-existent levels of critical thought.

@ felixsteiner1933

You write: “The CCP murdered 60 million of its own people.”
Yep, they did 70 years ago; but despite what you choose to believe, though still an authoritarian society, China has changed enormously, including much better lives for their people. If you want to talk about cruelty, the US has murdered over 20 million people in third world nations since World War II, claiming we were fighting communism; but mainly for American corporations to get hold of raw materials and/or to make money for our arms industry. We have 4% of world’s population with 25% of prisoners with estimates of 50,000 or more totally innocent and a criminal injustice system that bends over backwards to not undo their convictions. It takes innocence projects 10 or more years to get one innocent person released and when they find incontrovertible evidence that police and/or DA falsified evidence, suborned perjury, or withheld clearly exculpatory evidence, they never go to prison, don’t even lose their jobs and our Supreme Court ruled can’t even be sued. In addition, we have many more in prison for minor crimes serving draconian sentences. And even during World War II, fighting two of the world most evil nations in modern times, Nazis Germany and Imperial Japan, we were guilty of horrible war crimes. We intentionally targeted civilians with massive firebombing raids, killing over two million. Targeting civilian has been a war crimes since 1648 Treaty of Westphalia that ended 30 years war, included in Hague Conventions of 1890s and Geneva Accords in 1920s. Interesting is we didn’t include bombing civilians in indictments in Nuremberg or Tokyo War Crimes trials, though both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were guilty of such because they would have thrown it back at us. So, yep, China not the greatest humanitarian nation but neither are we.

As for your writing: “And please Joel Harrison don’t write 5 pages of vacuous palaver”

Typical of people like you who throw out vacuous attacks; but are incapable of addressing one single point with logic, science, and valid references.

And you probably don’t know it; but David Gorski, alias Orac, also had a legitimate PhD in immunology and has over 60 peer-reviewed journal articles on subject and millions in grant monies. The fact that he also finds time to write articles for this blog, though something I am not capable of and most people not capable of, I have known others that also seem to have boundless energy and creativity as he has. Your attacks on him are just empty of any legitimacy. Why not use your real name and medical specialty if you really are a doctor? I find it hard to believe given your empty meaningless comment.

Stray observations…

I notice that “lab leak” is quite frequently posited amongst ALL the alties I follow. It’s frigging everywhere- Mike, Gary, Del, AoA, RFK jr etc

I made the mistake of watching Bill Maher and he ranted about the usual :
medicine doesn’t know much : first, he had a guest who dealt with Lyme and then, towards the end of the show with panelists. Alt med helps but is discouraged, lab leak, white coats etc
— universities are unnecessary** and produce cry babies : he had a young guest/ dropout who echoed this sentiment, decrying elite universities
— young people are too woke, cancel people too much and search for safe spaces
— Piers Morgan sounded like the sane one

Bill is starting to sound like the alties I follow who now sound like the righties.

I realised that Bill fits some of the characteristics that I endlessly quote here about anti-vaxxers/ CT believers- he’s special, ahead of the curve, experts don’t know much. he’s prescient etc

I promise not to watch next week when I am in a hotel . I’ll read an Italian novel – it’s more reality based.

Orac predicted IIRC that opposition to Covid vaccines/ PH measures would lead to questioning/ declining childhood vaccines in general

CHD applauds this turn of events. Their daily mis-information campaign against vaccines may have contributed. CCDH has CHD and Del as big Machers across social media

Schools are opening around most of the US: we can expect anti-vax shenanigans on the net and in the RW

** universities were great when HE attended and when they hired him as a comic for big money

But what would I know as a product of those elitism factories?

My observations were supposed to be numbered but they got lost in transmission so my comment is more organised than it appears

Initial numbering of the “1.” fashion gets eaten by the WordPress template, as with single asterisks. I have no idea why.

For masochists/ others**:

there is a video of the show at Daily Motion – write in yesterday’s date. 57 minutes

** I’m not a masochist: I do this purely to accumulate bonus points for travel as a pharma minion

@Denice: “I’m not a masochist: I do this purely to accumulate bonus points for travel”

Bang! Zoom! Straight to the moon!

“there is a video of the show at Daily Motion”

I read this as Daily Mouton, the go-to news source for sheeple.

universities were great when HE attended and when they hired him as a comic for big money

I’m surprised that he was able to work as a grass dealer in Ithaca. My college girlfriend’s mom had a rabbi that supplied her. (It makes Koyaanisqatsi even more tedious.)

The horseshoe bats that covid came from live in caves far from Wuhan. How do you suppose the virus got from there to the Wuhan market? Virologists in Wuhan traveled the distance to collect viruses from the distant bat caves, and brought them to their Wuhan labs. So doesn’t it make more sense to think covid came from a lab?

Finding cases near the market proves nothing. It could have come from the lab and then spread to the market.

Virologists in Wuhan traveled the distance to collect viruses from the distant bat caves, and brought them to their Wuhan labs.

Ms. Chase, you’ve yet to learn that convenient speculation carries no weight.

In the sense that anal swabs are always relevant as far as you’re concerned, sure. Otherwise, not particularly, as you’re missing an FCS and decades of evolution.

@ Polly

A number of explanations. First, people traveling could have been asymptomatic carriers. Second, they have found bats closer by with corona viruses, just not as close as the further away. Third, an intermediate animal could have passed it on. Fourth, animals from area where bats had close versions are shipped regularly to Hubei, so animals could have been asymptomatic carriers. There are more; but I’m too tired to look them up.

However, you ignore what I wrote above. Given that so many bats have so many versions of coronaviruses, sooner or later one would pass on to humans. Even if, despite experts who understand things far better than you, it came by accident from the lab, it was the total unpreparedness and terrible political system that resulted in US having highest by far per capita death rate among advanced nations. So, since if not this time, next time comes from nature, more than likely US will again experience highest per capita deaths. And the next one could be both more virulent and more transmissible.

And, given how many escapes from labs in US, I wonder whether you would readily admit a pandemic originated from here? Given this, why is it so important to you to believe it was a Chinese lab? We are just as lousy in maintaining lab security.

By the way, do you have any education/training in infectious diseases and/or epidemiology?

@ Polly

You write: “It could have come from the lab.”

Could have is pure speculation. It could have been released by some terrorist from the US. Since US also had gain-of-function corona viruses. How about that?

And… This installment of Dispatches from the Subcontinent is effectively the same as the previous one.

@ Polly

Remember Sars-CoV-1 late 2002-2003. One man from Southern China travelled to Hong Kong. Stayed in Metropole hotel, was superspreader, infected over 20 people, who many, in turn travelled around. One man! ! !

Want to respond to Orac? Here's your chance. Leave a reply! Just make sure that you've read the Comment Policy (link located in the main menu in the upper right hand corner of the page) first if you're new here!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: