Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' analysis: SARS2 origin

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NobodyKnows
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12 May 2021, 5:17 pm

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is an anti-proliferation organization that's branched out into fairly standard academic activism. They recently published this:

Nicholas Wade of the BAS wrote:
[P]roponents of lab escape can explain all the available facts about SARS2 considerably more easily than can those who favor natural emergence.

It’s documented that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were doing gain-of-function experiments designed to make coronaviruses infect human cells and humanized mice. This is exactly the kind of experiment from which a SARS2-like virus could have emerged. The researchers were not vaccinated against the viruses under study, and they were working in the minimal safety conditions of a BSL2 laboratory. So escape of a virus would not be at all surprising. In all of China, the pandemic broke out on the doorstep of the Wuhan institute. The virus was already well adapted to humans, as expected for a virus grown in humanized mice. It possessed an unusual enhancement, a furin cleavage site, which is not possessed by any other known SARS-related beta-coronavirus, and this site included a double arginine codon also unknown among beta-coronaviruses. What more evidence could you want, aside from the presently unobtainable lab records documenting SARS2’s creation?

Proponents of natural emergence have a rather harder story to tell. The plausibility of their case rests on a single surmise, the expected parallel between the emergence of SARS2 and that of SARS1 and MERS. But none of the evidence expected in support of such a parallel history has yet emerged. No one has found the bat population that was the source of SARS2, if indeed it ever infected bats. No intermediate host has presented itself, despite an intensive search by Chinese authorities that included the testing of 80,000 animals. There is no evidence of the virus making multiple independent jumps from its intermediate host to people, as both the SARS1 and MERS viruses did. There is no evidence from hospital surveillance records of the epidemic gathering strength in the population as the virus evolved. There is no explanation of why a natural epidemic should break out in Wuhan and nowhere else. There is no good explanation of how the virus acquired its furin cleavage site, which no other SARS-related beta-coronavirus possesses, nor why the site is composed of human-preferred codons. The natural emergence theory battles a bristling array of implausibilities.


You can find the article in somewhat tidier format on Medium.

Reason's Ronald Bailey mentions some of the counter-arguments.



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12 May 2021, 6:31 pm

That's interesting and utterly beyond my education, or my personal or democratic power to do anything about it.
Basically, all I can say is: We'll see, I guess.


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12 May 2021, 6:55 pm

Nicholas Wade was widely criticized by the scientific community because he wrote a book about "genetic differences" between the races.



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12 May 2021, 6:58 pm

BotAS is jumping on the conspiracy bandwagon, and using their authority as atomic scientists to spread a theory that has been debunked by scientists in both biology and virology.

I wonder who is paying them to do this?
  Donald J. Trump, most likely.

:roll:


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12 May 2021, 8:09 pm

Fnord wrote:
[color=black], and using their authority as atomic scientists

I don't know about the rest of the group but the guy who is credited as the author is not an atomic scientist,
Quote:
Nicholas Wade received a BA in natural sciences from King’s College, Cambridge. He was the deputy editor of Nature magazine in London and then became that journal’s Washington correspondent. Wade joined Science magazine in Washington as a reporter and later moved to The New York Times, where he has been a science reporter, a science editor, and an editorial writer, concentrating on issues of defense, space, science, medicine, technology, genetics, molecular biology, the environment, and public policy.

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/auth ... olas-wade/

Whether he is on target or off target is its own thing but he does have some credibility to be writing about it.


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13 May 2021, 7:48 am

Event 201 October 2019
A test run for the Pandemic



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20 May 2021, 5:53 pm

I just read this myself, it's very well researched and convincing. Which would explain the immediate desire to attack the author, rather than the argument.

Fnord wrote:
BotAS is jumping on the conspiracy bandwagon, and using their authority as atomic scientists to spread a theory that has been debunked by scientists in both biology and virology.

I wonder who is paying them to do this?
  Donald J. Trump, most likely.

:roll:


The "debunking" is covered throughout the article. The "ringleader" of the debunkers is not some somber neutral observer, he is a man directly involved with the Wuhan lab and has everything to lose if the lab leak theory is correct. Virology research as a whole stands to lose most or all of its funding too if this was a man-made virus. Take their words not with a pinch, but a wheelbarrow of salt.


From early on, public and media perceptions were shaped in favor of the natural emergence scenario by strong statements from two scientific groups. These statements were not at first examined as critically as they should have been.

“We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” a group of virologists and others wrote in the Lancet on February 19, 2020, when it was really far too soon for anyone to be sure what had happened. Scientists “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife,” they said, with a stirring rallying call for readers to stand with Chinese colleagues on the frontline of fighting the disease.

Contrary to the letter writers’ assertion, the idea that the virus might have escaped from a lab invoked accident, not conspiracy. It surely needed to be explored, not rejected out of hand. A defining mark of good scientists is that they go to great pains to distinguish between what they know and what they don’t know. By this criterion, the signatories of the Lancet letter were behaving as poor scientists: They were assuring the public of facts they could not know for sure were true.

It later turned out that the Lancet letter had been organized and drafted by Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York. Daszak’s organization funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. If the SARS2 virus had indeed escaped from research he funded, Daszak would be potentially culpable. This acute conflict of interest was not declared to the Lancet’s readers. To the contrary, the letter concluded, “We declare no competing interests.”

Virologists like Daszak had much at stake in the assigning of blame for the pandemic. For 20 years, mostly beneath the public’s attention, they had been playing a dangerous game. In their laboratories they routinely created viruses more dangerous than those that exist in nature. They argued that they could do so safely, and that by getting ahead of nature they could predict and prevent natural “spillovers,” the cross-over of viruses from an animal host to people. If SARS2 had indeed escaped from such a laboratory experiment, a savage blowback could be expected, and the storm of public indignation would affect virologists everywhere, not just in China. “It would shatter the scientific edifice top to bottom,” an MIT Technology Review editor, Antonio Regalado, said in March 2020.

A second statement that had enormous influence in shaping public attitudes was a letter (in other words an opinion piece, not a scientific article) published on 17 March 2020 in the journal Nature Medicine. Its authors were a group of virologists led by Kristian G. Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute. “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus,” the five virologists declared in the second paragraph of their letter.

Unfortunately, this was another case of poor science, in the sense defined above. True, some older methods of cutting and pasting viral genomes retain tell-tale signs of manipulation. But newer methods, called “no-see-um” or “seamless” approaches, leave no defining marks. Nor do other methods for manipulating viruses such as serial passage, the repeated transfer of viruses from one culture of cells to another. If a virus has been manipulated, whether with a seamless method or by serial passage, there is no way of knowing that this is the case. Andersen and his colleagues were assuring their readers of something they could not know.

The discussion part of their letter begins, “It is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus.” But wait, didn’t the lead say the virus had clearly not been manipulated? The authors’ degree of certainty seemed to slip several notches when it came to laying out their reasoning.

The reason for the slippage is clear once the technical language has been penetrated. The two reasons the authors give for supposing manipulation to be improbable are decidedly inconclusive.

First, they say that the spike protein of SARS2 binds very well to its target, the human ACE2 receptor, but does so in a different way from that which physical calculations suggest would be the best fit. Therefore the virus must have arisen by natural selection, not manipulation.

If this argument seems hard to grasp, it’s because it’s so strained. The authors’ basic assumption, not spelt out, is that anyone trying to make a bat virus bind to human cells could do so in only one way. First they would calculate the strongest possible fit between the human ACE2 receptor and the spike protein with which the virus latches onto it. They would then design the spike protein accordingly (by selecting the right string of amino acid units that compose it). Since the SARS2 spike protein is not of this calculated best design, the Andersen paper says, therefore it can’t have been manipulated.

But this ignores the way that virologists do in fact get spike proteins to bind to chosen targets, which is not by calculation but by splicing in spike protein genes from other viruses or by serial passage. With serial passage, each time the virus’s progeny are transferred to new cell cultures or animals, the more successful are selected until one emerges that makes a really tight bind to human cells. Natural selection has done all the heavy lifting. The Andersen paper’s speculation about designing a viral spike protein through calculation has no bearing on whether or not the virus was manipulated by one of the other two methods.

The authors’ second argument against manipulation is even more contrived. Although most living things use DNA as their hereditary material, a number of viruses use RNA, DNA’s close chemical cousin. But RNA is difficult to manipulate, so researchers working on coronaviruses, which are RNA-based, will first convert the RNA genome to DNA. They manipulate the DNA version, whether by adding or altering genes, and then arrange for the manipulated DNA genome to be converted back into infectious RNA.

Only a certain number of these DNA backbones have been described in the scientific literature. Anyone manipulating the SARS2 virus “would probably” have used one of these known backbones, the Andersen group writes, and since SARS2 is not derived from any of them, therefore it was not manipulated. But the argument is conspicuously inconclusive. DNA backbones are quite easy to make, so it’s obviously possible that SARS2 was manipulated using an unpublished DNA backbone.

And that’s it. These are the two arguments made by the Andersen group in support of their declaration that the SARS2 virus was clearly not manipulated. And this conclusion, grounded in nothing but two inconclusive speculations, convinced the world’s press that SARS2 could not have escaped from a lab. A technical critique of the Andersen letter takes it down in harsher words.

Science is supposedly a self-correcting community of experts who constantly check each other’s work. So why didn’t other virologists point out that the Andersen group’s argument was full of absurdly large holes? Perhaps because in today’s universities speech can be very costly. Careers can be destroyed for stepping out of line. Any virologist who challenges the community’s declared view risks having his next grant application turned down by the panel of fellow virologists that advises the government grant distribution agency.

The Daszak and Andersen letters were really political, not scientific, statements, yet were amazingly effective. Articles in the mainstream press repeatedly stated that a consensus of experts had ruled lab escape out of the question or extremely unlikely. Their authors relied for the most part on the Daszak and Andersen letters, failing to understand the yawning gaps in their arguments. Mainstream newspapers all have science journalists on their staff, as do the major networks, and these specialist reporters are supposed to be able to question scientists and check their assertions. But the Daszak and Andersen assertions went largely unchallenged.


...

Virologists knew better than anyone the dangers of gain-of-function research. But the power to create new viruses, and the research funding obtainable by doing so, was too tempting. They pushed ahead with gain-of-function experiments. They lobbied against the moratorium imposed on Federal funding for gain-of-function research in 2014, and it was raised in 2017.

The benefits of the research in preventing future epidemics have so far been nil, the risks vast. If research on the SARS1 and MERS viruses could only be done at the BSL3 safety level, it was surely illogical to allow any work with novel coronaviruses at the lesser level of BSL2. Whether or not SARS2 escaped from a lab, virologists around the world have been playing with fire.


...

If the case that SARS2 originated in a lab is so substantial, why isn’t this more widely known? As may now be obvious, there are many people who have reason not to talk about it. The list is led, of course, by the Chinese authorities. But virologists in the United States and Europe have no great interest in igniting a public debate about the gain-of-function experiments that their community has been pursuing for years.

Nor have other scientists stepped forward to raise the issue. Government research funds are distributed on the advice of committees of scientific experts drawn from universities. Anyone who rocks the boat by raising awkward political issues runs the risk that their grant will not be renewed and their research career will be ended. Maybe good behavior is rewarded with the many perks that slosh around the distribution system. And if you thought that Andersen and Daszak might have blotted their reputation for scientific objectivity after their partisan attacks on the lab escape scenario, look at the second and third names on this list of recipients of an $82 million grant announced by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in August 2020.



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21 May 2021, 5:57 pm

Douglas G. McNeil, Jr., veteran of The Times mulls over Wade's article.

https://donaldgmcneiljr1954.medium.com/ ... f88446b04d

The deeper I read into the papers and articles Nick cited, the clearer it became how much new information had trickled out in the last year. Not new to the most intense and well-educated followers of this topic, but new to the greater public debate. I include articles like this, this, this, this and this by Yuri Deigin, Rossana Segretto, Milton Leitenberg, Josh Rogin, Nicholson Baker and others.

And more and and more scientists feel misled.

I now agree with Nick’s central conclusion: We still do not know the source of this awful pandemic. We may never know. But the argument that it could have leaked out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology or a sister lab in Wuhan has become considerably stronger than it was a year ago, when the screaming was so loud that it drowned out serious discussion.


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21 May 2021, 9:13 pm

That was a rambling piece. The author is not quite sure what he is trying to say. At one point he is saying it is from a lab because it does not have a natural origin, then later he says it has a natural origin and made in a lab. He can't have it both ways. He is also just bashing people. This is kind of a mix between a straw man and an ad hominem.

He make a lot of conjecture, but very little evidence. Note, this is not a peer reviewed article.



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22 May 2021, 2:40 pm

Something a lot better:

https://science.sciencemag.org/content/372/6543/694.1

Quote:
Investigate the origins of COVID-19

Jesse D. Bloom1,2, Yujia Alina Chan3, Ralph S. Baric4, Pamela J. Bjorkman5, Sarah Cobey6, Benjamin E. Deverman3, David N. Fisman7, Ravindra Gupta8, Akiko Iwasaki9,2, Marc Lipsitch10, Ruslan Medzhitov9,2, Richard A. Neher11, Rasmus Nielsen12, Nick Patterson13, Tim Stearns14, Erik van Nimwegen11, Michael Worobey15, David A. Relman16,17,*


On 30 December 2019, the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases notified the world about a pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan, China (1). Since then, scientists have made remarkable progress in understanding the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), its transmission, pathogenesis, and mitigation by vaccines, therapeutics, and non-pharmaceutical interventions. Yet more investigation is still needed to determine the origin of the pandemic. Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable. Knowing how COVID-19 emerged is critical for informing global strategies to mitigate the risk of future outbreaks.

In May 2020, the World Health Assembly requested that the World Health Organization (WHO) director-general work closely with partners to determine the origins of SARS-CoV-2 (2). In November, the Terms of Reference for a China–WHO joint study were released (3). The information, data, and samples for the study's first phase were collected and summarized by the Chinese half of the team; the rest of the team built on this analysis. Although there were no findings in clear support of either a natural spillover or a lab accident, the team assessed a zoonotic spillover from an intermediate host as “likely to very likely,” and a laboratory incident as “extremely unlikely” [(4), p. 9]. Furthermore, the two theories were not given balanced consideration. Only 4 of the 313 pages of the report and its annexes addressed the possibility of a laboratory accident (4). Notably, WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus commented that the report's consideration of evidence supporting a laboratory accident was insufficient and offered to provide additional resources to fully evaluate the possibility (5).

As scientists with relevant expertise, we agree with the WHO director-general (5), the United States and 13 other countries (6), and the European Union (7) that greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve. We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data. A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest. Public health agencies and research laboratories alike need to open their records to the public. Investigators should document the veracity and provenance of data from which analyses are conducted and conclusions drawn, so that analyses are reproducible by independent experts.


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26 May 2021, 6:08 pm

Mikah wrote:
Douglas G. McNeil, Jr., veteran of The Times mulls over Wade's article.

The deeper I read into the papers and articles Nick cited, the clearer it became how much new information had trickled out in the last year ... I now agree with Nick’s central conclusion ... the argument that [COVID-19] could have leaked out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology or a sister lab in Wuhan has become considerably stronger than it was a year ago

Thanks for the link.

It's interesting that a senior New York Times reporter would try so hard to kill the messenger, on such shady grounds, before ultimately conceding that he's correct. Compare his opening complaint that Wade 'attacked' Peter Daszak to what Wade actually wrote:

Nicholas Wade wrote:
It later turned out that the Lancet letter had been organized and drafted by Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York. Daszak’s organization funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. If the SARS2 virus had indeed escaped from research he funded, Daszak would be potentially culpable. This acute conflict of interest was not declared to the Lancet’s readers. To the contrary, the letter concluded, “We declare no competing interests.”

Drawing attention to on-the-record lying (and probable fraud against a prestigious medical journal) is hardly a personal attack.

McNiel also stooped to what may be the mother of all false equivalences to excuse Chinese government secrecy about the origins of SARS2:

Donald McNiel wrote:
To my mind, China could be forgiven for its standoffishness in early 2020. It was busy fighting its own pandemic. And if China had, say, arrogantly offered to teach the American C.D.C. how to investigate America’s killer hamburgersthe equivalent of the way the Trump administration spoke to China back then — we would have snubbed them too.

That could only be "equivalent" if the two examples had similar international consequences, which they certainly didn't.

(The 1993 E. Coli outbreak he referred to killed four US citizens in two US states and never crossed a national border. By contrast, SARS2 has allegedly killed 3.5 million people in 188 countries. Almost any country would have standing to ask the Chinese government for data. In any case, in contrast to what McNiel claimed, the US has cooperated with other countries when the tables were turned.)

McNiel went on to equate the destruction of irreplaceable samples from the first humans infected with SARS2 to the destruction scientifically-unimportant samples from an outbreak with an already-known origin:

Quote:
[The Wuhan] health commission and then the national one ordered diagnostic and genetics labs to destroy their samples or surrender them to high-level biosecurity labs. Most labs chose incineration — another crime scene wrecked.

That smacked of coverup, and was treated as such by the Trump administration, but it’s actually standard safety procedure to prevent outbreaks. Our C.D.C. gave the same order in 2014 when it realized that hospital labs had samples from Ebola patients being treated in Dallas and Omaha. “We told the labs in Texas and Nebraska to destroy them or send them to Fort Detrick,” Dr. Pierre E. Rollin, who recently retired from the C.D.C after 26 years of fighting global outbreaks, told me. “You can call that a cover-up, but it was a public health decision.”

It's hard to imagine a more strained comparison; the samples in Texas and Nebraska weren't of a novel pathogen, and it was clear that they didn't come from patient zero. By contrast, the samples from Wuhan would have contained the only evidence of SARS2 evolving to target people, if that's what happened.

McNiel and Rollin certainly know that, so chalk it up to desperation and mendacity.



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30 May 2021, 2:48 pm

kraftiekortie wrote:
Nicholas Wade was widely criticized by the scientific community because he wrote a book about "genetic differences" between the races.


Big deal. Are we supposed to dismiss his covid article because of that?

Of course there are genetic differences between the races. That’s what makes them different races in the first place. I’ve read some of the book you are referring to, and it’s full of caveats about how the facts should not be misused for nefarious political agendas, etc etc. If after all that, some scientists still chose to sling mud at him for writing that book, it’s more of a reflection on them than on him.



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30 May 2021, 2:49 pm

Fnord wrote:
BotAS is jumping on the conspiracy bandwagon, and using their authority as atomic scientists to spread a theory that has been debunked by scientists in both biology and virology.

I wonder who is paying them to do this?
Donald J. Trump, most likely.

:roll:


Since you are someone who loves throwing around the term “conspiracy theory”, it’s strange that you don’t seem to realise that your idea that someone is paying BotAS to make stuff up is itself – guess what – a “conspiracy theory”.

Mikah wrote:
I just read this myself, it's very well researched and convincing. Which would explain the immediate desire to attack the author, rather than the argument.

Fnord wrote:
BotAS is jumping on the conspiracy bandwagon, and using their authority as atomic scientists to spread a theory that has been debunked by scientists in both biology and virology.

I wonder who is paying them to do this?
Donald J. Trump, most likely.

:roll:


The "debunking" is covered throughout the article. The "ringleader" of the debunkers is not some somber neutral observer, he is a man directly involved with the Wuhan lab and has everything to lose if the lab leak theory is correct. Virology research as a whole stands to lose most or all of its funding too if this was a man-made virus. Take their words not with a pinch, but a wheelbarrow of salt.


That’s a very important point. I doubt Fnord read that far though. He seems to be one of these people who love to believe the first thing authority figures tell them so he can happily dismiss everything else as a conspiracy theory.

But to be fair to Fnord, there has been a lot of nonsense written about covid, especially on the right. I’d love it if more people on the right read Wade’s article, particularly those on the right who want to construct some conspiracy narrative about how covid is “just the flu”, and the vaccines all contain microchips and so on.

Wade’s article describes the real conspiracy pretty convincingly as far as I’m concerned.



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01 Jun 2021, 9:03 pm

A funny article in Yahoo News that cites the paper in the OP (author: Thomas Frank)

https://www.yahoo.com/news/wuhan-lab-le ... 49505.html

Quote:
There was a time when the Covid pandemic seemed to confirm so many of our assumptions. It cast down the people we regarded as villains. It raised up those we thought were heroes. It prospered people who could shift easily to working from home even as it problematized the lives of those Trump voters living in the old economy.

Like all plagues, Covid often felt like the hand of God on earth, scourging the people for their sins against higher learning and visibly sorting the righteous from the unmasked wicked. “Respect science,” admonished our yard signs. And lo!, Covid came and forced us to do so, elevating our scientists to the highest seats of social authority, from where they banned assembly, commerce, and all the rest.

We cast blame so innocently in those days. We scolded at will. We knew who was right and we shook our heads to behold those in the wrong playing in their swimming pools and on the beach. It made perfect sense to us that Donald Trump, a politician we despised, could not grasp the situation, that he suggested people inject bleach, and that he was personally responsible for more than one super-spreading event. Reality itself punished leaders like him who refused to bow to expertise. The prestige news media even figured out a way to blame the worst death tolls on a system of organized ignorance they called “populism.”

In reaction to the fool Trump, liberalism made a cult out of the hierarchy of credentialed achievement in general


But these days the consensus doesn’t consense quite as well as it used to. Now the media is filled with disturbing stories suggesting that Covid might have come — not from “populism” at all, but from a laboratory screw-up in Wuhan, China. You can feel the moral convulsions beginning as the question sets in: What if science itself is in some way culpable for all this?

*

I am no expert on epidemics. Like everyone else I know, I spent the pandemic doing as I was told. A few months ago I even tried to talk a Fox News viewer out of believing in the lab-leak theory of Covid’s origins. The reason I did that is because the newspapers I read and the TV shows I watched had assured me on many occasions that the lab-leak theory wasn’t true, that it was a racist conspiracy theory, that only deluded Trumpists believed it, that it got infinite pants-on-fire ratings from the fact-checkers, and because (despite all my cynicism) I am the sort who has always trusted the mainstream news media.

My own complacency on the matter was dynamited by the lab-leak essay that ran in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists earlier this month; a few weeks later everyone from Doctor Fauci to President Biden is acknowledging that the lab-accident hypothesis might have some merit. We don’t know the real answer yet, and we probably will never know, but this is the moment to anticipate what such a finding might ultimately mean. What if this crazy story turns out to be true?

The answer is that this is the kind of thing that could obliterate the faith of millions. The last global disaster, the financial crisis of 2008, smashed people’s trust in the institutions of capitalism, in the myths of free trade and the New Economy, and eventually in the elites who ran both American political parties.

Related: Biden move to investigate Covid origins opens new rift in US-China relations

In the years since (and for complicated reasons), liberal leaders have labored to remake themselves into defenders of professional rectitude and established legitimacy in nearly every field. In reaction to the fool Trump, liberalism made a sort of cult out of science, expertise, the university system, executive-branch “norms,” the “intelligence community,” the State Department, NGOs, the legacy news media, and the hierarchy of credentialed achievement in general.

Now here we are in the waning days of Disastrous Global Crisis #2. Covid is of course worse by many orders of magnitude than the mortgage meltdown — it has killed millions and ruined lives and disrupted the world economy far more extensively. Should it turn out that scientists and experts and NGOs, etc. are villains rather than heroes of this story, we may very well see the expert-worshiping values of modern liberalism go up in a fireball of public anger.

Consider the details of the story as we have learned them in the last few weeks:

• Lab leaks happen. They aren’t the result of conspiracies: “a lab accident is an accident,” as Nathan Robinson points out; they happen all the time, in this country and in others, and people die from them.

• There is evidence that the lab in question, which studies bat coronaviruses, may have been conducting what is called “gain of function” research, a dangerous innovation in which diseases are deliberately made more virulent. By the way, right-wingers didn’t dream up “gain of function”: all the cool virologists have been doing it (in this country and in others) even as the squares have been warning against it for years.

• There are strong hints that some of the bat-virus research at the Wuhan lab was funded in part by the American national-medical establishment — which is to say, the lab-leak hypothesis doesn’t implicate China alone.

• There seem to have been astonishing conflicts of interest among the people assigned to get to the bottom of it all, and (as we know from Enron and the housing bubble) conflicts of interest are always what trip up the well-credentialed professionals whom liberals insist we must all heed, honor, and obey.

• The news media, in its zealous policing of the boundaries of the permissible, insisted that Russiagate was ever so true but that the lab-leak hypothesis was false false false, and woe unto anyone who dared disagree. Reporters gulped down whatever line was most flattering to the experts they were quoting and then insisted that it was 100% right and absolutely incontrovertible — that anything else was only unhinged Trumpist folly, that democracy dies when unbelievers get to speak, and so on.

• The social media monopolies actually censored posts about the lab-leak hypothesis. Of course they did! Because we’re at war with misinformation, you know, and people need to be brought back to the true and correct faith — as agreed upon by experts.

*

“Let us pray, now, for science,” intoned a New York Times columnist back at the beginning of the Covid pandemic. The title of his article laid down the foundational faith of Trump-era liberalism: “Coronavirus is What You Get When You Ignore Science.”

Ten months later, at the end of a scary article about the history of “gain of function” research and its possible role in the still ongoing Covid pandemic, Nicholson Baker wrote as follows: “This may be the great scientific meta-experiment of the 21st century. Could a world full of scientists do all kinds of reckless recombinant things with viral diseases for many years and successfully avoid a serious outbreak? The hypothesis was that, yes, it was doable. The risk was worth taking. There would be no pandemic.”

Except there was. If it does indeed turn out that the lab-leak hypothesis is the right explanation for how it began — that the common people of the world have been forced into a real-life lab experiment, at tremendous cost — there is a moral earthquake on the way.

Because if the hypothesis is right, it will soon start to dawn on people that our mistake was not insufficient reverence for scientists, or inadequate respect for expertise, or not enough censorship on Facebook. It was a failure to think critically about all of the above, to understand that there is no such thing as absolute expertise. Think of all the disasters of recent years: economic neoliberalism, destructive trade policies, the Iraq War, the housing bubble, banks that are “too big to fail,” mortgage-backed securities, the Hillary Clinton campaign of 2016 — all of these disasters brought to you by the total, self-assured unanimity of the highly educated people who are supposed to know what they’re doing, plus the total complacency of the highly educated people who are supposed to be supervising them.

Then again, maybe I am wrong to roll out all this speculation. Maybe the lab-leak hypothesis will be convincingly disproven. I certainly hope it is.

But even if it inches closer to being confirmed, we can guess what the next turn of the narrative will be. It was a “perfect storm,” the experts will say. Who coulda known? And besides (they will say), the origins of the pandemic don’t matter any more. Go back to sleep.


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"The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is a hard business. If you try it, you'll be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privelege of owning yourself" - Rudyard Kipling


Mikah
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03 Jun 2021, 7:41 am

More on the same topic:

How Amateur Sleuths Broke the Wuhan Lab Story and Embarrassed the Media

https://www.newsweek.com/exclusive-how- ... ia-1596958

...

Like most people following the news back when the pandemic started, The Seeker initially believed that the virus had jumped from wild animals to humans at a Wuhan wet market. (On March 27 he tweeted, "Nobody wants to see their parents or grandma and grandpa die over a stupid virus from an exotic animal market.") He believed this because that's what the mainstream press told him, and the mainstream press believed it because that is what a handful of scientists had said.

Chief among these scientists was a biologist named Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a non-profit research group that ran a large international program to survey natural pathogens with the potential to cause a pandemic. Daszak had been collaborating for years with Shi Zhengli, the director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology and a renowned bat virologist. Daszak co-authored nearly a dozen papers with Shi and funneled at least $600,000 of U.S. government grants her way.

When the pandemic happened to break out on the doorstep of the lab with the largest collection of coronaviruses in the world, fueling speculation that the WIV might be involved, Daszak and 26 other scientists signed a letter that appeared in The Lancet on February 19, 2020. "We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin," it stated.

We now know, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request, that Daszak orchestrated the letter to squelch talk of a lab leak. He drafted it, reached out to fellow scientists to sign it, and worked behind the scenes to make it seem that the letter represented the views of a broad range of scientists. "This statement will not have the EcoHealth Alliance logo on it and will not be identifiable as coming from any one organization or person," he wrote in his pitch to the co-signatories. Scientists whose work had overlapped with the WIV agreed not to sign it so they could "put it out in a way that doesn't link it back to our collaboration."

At the time, however, there was no hint of Daszak's organizing role. The letter helped make Daszak a ubiquitous presence in the media, where he called a lab-leak "preposterous," "baseless," and "pure baloney." He also attacked scientists who published evidence pointing to the lab. Part of the reason the lab theory made no sense, he argued, was because the Wuhan lab wasn't culturing any viruses remotely similar to SARS-CoV-2. (Daszak has not responded to Newsweek's request for comment.)

For a long time, Daszak was astonishingly influential. Few in the media questioned him or pointed out that his career and organization would be deeply damaged if it turned out his work had indirectly played a role in the pandemic. His unwitting accomplice was Donald Trump, who embraced the theory, turning what should have been a scientific question into a political one.

When the Trump administration canceled EcoHealth Alliance contracts that would have spent millions on new virus research, 60 Minutes ran a segment that painted Daszak as a martyr to the right-wing conspiracy machine. For right-thinking people everywhere, it seemed like an easy call: The enemy of my enemy is my friend: thus, the lab-leak theory is bunk.

...


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As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man -
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began: -
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!


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05 Jun 2021, 2:44 pm

Bret Stephens of the NYT:

Quote:
If it turns out that the Covid pandemic was caused by a leak from a lab in Wuhan, China, it will rank among the greatest scientific scandals in history: dangerous research, possibly involving ethically dubious techniques that make viruses more dangerous, carried out in a poorly safeguarded facility, thuggishly covered up by a regime more interested in propaganda than human life, catastrophic for the entire world.

But this possible scandal, which is as yet unproved, obscures an actual scandal, which remains to be digested.

I mean the long refusal by too many media gatekeepers (social as well as mainstream) to take the lab-leak theory seriously. The reasons for this — rank partisanship and credulous reporting — and the methods by which it was enforced — censorship and vilification — are reminders that sometimes the most destructive enemies of science can be those who claim to speak in its name.

Rewind the tape to February of last year, when people such as Senator Tom Cotton began pointing to a disturbing fact set: the odd coincidence of a pandemic originating in the same city where a Chinese lab was conducting high-end experiments on bat viruses; the troubling report that some of the original Covid patients had no contact with the food markets where the pandemic supposedly originated; the fact that the Chinese government lied and stonewalled its way through the crisis. Think what you will about the Arkansas Republican, but these were reasonable observations warranting impartial investigation.

The common reaction in elite liberal circles? A Washington Post reporter called it a “fringe theory” that “has been repeatedly disputed by experts.” [Actually, the original headline called it "a conspiracy theory that was already debunked." See footnote.] The Atlantic Council accused Cotton of abetting an “infodemic” by “pushing debunked claim that the novel coronavirus may have been created in a Wuhan lab.” A writer for Vox said it was a “dangerous conspiracy theory” being advanced by conservatives “known to regularly spew nonsense (and bash China).”

There are many more such examples. But the overall shape of the media narrative was clear. On one side were experts at places like the World Health Organization: knowledgeable, incorruptible, authoritative, noble. On the other were a bunch of right-wing yahoos pushing a risible fantasy with xenophobic overtones in order to deflect attention from the Trump administration’s mishandling of the crisis.

Yet it was also a narrative with holes larger than Donald Trump’s mouth.

Was it outrageous to think that the virus might have escaped the Wuhan Institute? Not if you listened to evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein’s patient, lucid, scientifically rich explanation of the lab-leak hypothesis — which he delivered almost a year ago on the decidedly non-mainstream Joe Rogan podcast.

Was it smart for science reporters to accept the authority of a February 2020 letter, signed by 27 scientists and published in The Lancet, feverishly insisting on the “natural origin” of Covid? Not if those reporters had probed the ties between the letter’s lead author and the Wuhan lab (a fact, as the science writer Nicholas Wade points out in a landmark essay in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, that has been public knowledge for months).

Was it wise to suppose that the World Health Organization, which has served as a mouthpiece for Chinese regime propaganda, should be an authority on what counted as Covid “misinformation” by Facebook, which in February banned the lab-leak theory from its platform? Not if the aim of companies like Facebook is to bring the world closer together, as opposed to laundering Chinese government disinformation while modeling its illiberal methods.

To its credit, Facebook reversed itself last week. News organizations are quietly correcting (or stealth editing) last year’s dismissive reports, sometimes using the fig leaf of new information about Wuhan lab workers being infected in the fall of 2019 with a Covid-like illness. And the public-health community is taking a fresh look at its Covid origin story.

But even now one gets a distinct sense of the herd of independent minds hard at work. If the lab-leak theory is finally getting the respectful attention it always deserved, it’s mainly because Joe Biden authorized an inquiry and Anthony Fauci admitted to doubts about the natural-origin claim. In other words, the right president and the right public-health expert have blessed a certain line of inquiry.

Yet the lab-leak theory, whether or not it turns out to be right, was always credible. Even if Tom Cotton believed it. Even if the scientific “consensus” disputed it. Even if bigots — who rarely need a pretext — drew bigoted conclusions from it.

Good journalism, like good science, should follow evidence, not narratives. It should pay as much heed to intelligent gadflies as it does to eminent authorities. And it should never treat honest disagreement as moral heresy.

Anyone wondering why so many people have become so hostile to the pronouncements of public-health officials and science journalists should draw the appropriate conclusion from this story. When lecturing the public about the dangers of misinformation, it’s best not to peddle it yourself.


The two Washington Post headlines and their correction note:

Image

The Washington Post wrote:
Earlier versions of this story and its headline inaccurately characterized comments by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) regarding the origins of the coronavirus. The term 'debunked' and The Post's use of 'conspiracy theory' have been removed because, then as now, there was no determination about the origins of the virus.


Source: https://www.businessinsider.com/wapo-co ... 021-6?op=1