Origins of Covid 19

What do we know, who can we trust?
Author:
Publish date:

There are few people who regard information from either the Chinese government or the Trump administration as reliable. Thus when Trump claimed that the virus originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, many articles appeared contradicting his claim. For instance, Vox writes, "Why these scientists still doubt the coronavirus leaked from a Chinese lab," and CNN, "Intel shared among US allies indicates virus outbreak more likely came from market, not a Chinese lab," and "The Wuhan lab at the center of the US-China blame game: What we know and what we don't."

Before going into the most plausible remaining case for the virus coming out of the Wuhan lab, it is helpful to be clear about what scientists agree on. There is a very substantial agreement that the virus was not engineered artificially. A paper published on March 17, 2020, in Nature Medicine concluded that the virus was not engineered because, "If someone were seeking to engineer a new coronavirus as a pathogen, they would have constructed it from the backbone of a virus known to cause illness." This claim has not been credibly disputed. Many of the criticisms of Trump's allegation that the virus originated in the Wuhan lab focus on this scientifically robust finding showing that the virus was not engineered.

The situation becomes fuzzier, however, if one admits of animal-to-animal gain-of-function experiments as a possible source of the virus. In these experiments, instead of genetic engineering, researchers study increased virulence of a natural occurring virus by exploring animal-to-animal transmissions in a laboratory setting. Because the resulting mutations would have taken place by means of a natural process, they could be the result of experiments that took place at the Wuhan lab but which did not involve genetic engineering.

Newsweek

quotes two researchers on this issue, one who suspects that the virus might be the result of gain of function research and another who doubts that it is but acknowledges that possibility can't be ruled out. Ebright suspects that the virus may b e the result of gain of function research:

Rutger's Ebright, a longtime opponent of gain of function research, says that the Andersen analysis fails to rule out animal-passage as an origin of SARS-CoV-2. "The reasoning is unsound," he wrote in an email to Newsweek. "They favor the possibility 'that the virus mutated in an animal host such as a pangolins' yet, simultaneously, they disfavor the possibility that the virus mutated in 'animal passage.' Because the two possibilities are identical, apart from location, one can't logically favor one and disfavor the other."

Eisen doubts it but acknowledges that it is impossible to know for sure:

Jonathan Eisen, an evolutionary biologist at UC Davis, says that the preponderance of evidence, while not definitive, suggests that the virus came from nature, not a lab. "There's no hint there that there's something unnatural, that is, genetically engineered or manipulated," he says. But "there is some wiggle room" in the findings that admits the possibility that the virus was concocted in a lab via animal passage. "Passaging is hard to test for. Escape from a lab is hard to test for," he says. "If [Wuhan researchers] collected something from the field and they were doing some experiments in the lab with it, and some person got infected and then it spread from there, that would be really hard to distinguish from it having spread in the field directly."

Vox provides six reasons to doubt that the virus originated at the Wuhan lab. Several of their theories seems weak if one mistrusts the Chinese government or is concerned about the pressures researchers there are likely to be under from the Chinese government. For instance, they note that the Wuhan lab has denied that it could have happened there and they note that there had been no gossipy buzz about a new virus from Wuhan. But given the Chinese government's propensity to monitor and oppress ordinary citizens, one has to suspect that scientists at such a lab would have been under even greater scrutiny and, especially once COVID-19 had appeared to have exploded in part due to their actions, any Chinese citizen who in any way supported a narrative that could be perceived as blaming China would be under severe pressure, and quite likely open threats, not to communicate such a message in any manner.

The most assertive denials of the lab escape theory came from Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance:

The scientists I did speak to all acknowledge it’s not possible to definitively rule out the lab-escape theory. “The trouble with hypotheses is that they are not disprovable. You cannot prove a negative,” said Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance and a disease ecologist who has studied emerging infectious diseases with colleagues in China. Yet he also sees the lab-escape theory as “ironic and preposterous.”

Other scientists cited in the Vox article are much more ambiguous, acknowledging the uncertainties:

Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, also sees the lab-leak theory as very unlikely. “This virus came from bats under unknown circumstances,” she told me. “While I cannot rule out the lab-accident theory, there are so many other possibilities for how it could have happened.

Daszak explains why he is less ambiguous as to its origins:

“If you do the math on this, it’s very straightforward. ... We have hundreds of millions of bats in Southeast Asia and about 10 percent of bats in some colonies have viruses at any one time. So that’s hundreds of thousands of bats every night with viruses,” Daszak says. “We also find tens of thousands of people in the wildlife trade, hunting and killing wildlife in China and Southeast Asia, and millions of people living in rural populations in Southeast Asia near bat caves.”

Next, he says, consider the data he’s collected on people near bat caves getting exposed to viruses: “We went out and surveyed a population in Yunnan, China — we’d been to bat caves and found viruses that we thought could be high risk. So we sample people nearby, and 3 percent had antibodies to those viruses,” he says. “So between the last two and three years, those people were exposed to bat coronaviruses. If you extrapolate that population across the whole of Southeast Asia, it’s 1 million to 7 million people a year getting infected by bat viruses.”

The problem with his argument, however, is that the naturally occurring bats with a virus that most closely resembles COVID-19 are from Yunnan, 1,000 miles away from Wuhan. If a human from Yunnan was patient zero, then the first outbreak should have been from Yunnan. There is also no evidence for meat in the wet markets of Yunnan coming into Wuhan. Thus while Daszak's numerical argument seems to make sense initially, he fails to explain why the outbreak began in Wuhan.

At the same time, it is widely acknowledged that the Wuhan labs were conducting research on bat viruses that most closely resembled COVID-19. Indeed, that is the only known source in Wuhan (rather than Yunnan) where humans were in close contact with viruses similar to COVID-19. Moreover, Wuhan labs were engaged in research on these viruses in a grant that was managed by Daszak himself. Moreover, the research included gain of function research.

The research, approved by Dr. Fauci, was controversial when it was approved,

"We have serious doubts about whether these experiments should be conducted at all," wrote Tom Inglesby of Johns Hopkins University and Marc Lipsitch of Harvard. "[W]ith deliberations kept behind closed doors, none of us will have the opportunity to understand how the government arrived at these decisions or to judge the rigor and integrity of that process."

None of this implies that Fauci or Daszak have misinformed anyone. It may well be the case that the origin of the virus is strictly natural. On the other hand, insofar as controversial gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses was approved by Fauci and then supervised by Daszak, it would only be nature for them to want to believe that the virus in no way could have originated in the Wuhan lab.