Do Not Jump the Gun

In a dispassionate look at the Covid pandemic, on May 28, Ann Reid of the National Center for Science Education warns us not to jump the gun and assume that the pandemic was caused by a leak from the laboratory of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). Ms. Reid notes that

even though the overwhelming likelihood remains that SARS-CoV-2 evolved naturally, the accidental-escape theory hasn’t been ruled out. Still, there are a lot of reasons why that scenario is unlikely. Foremost among them, to my mind, is that it’s hard to imagine how a wild bat virus could evolve the ability to be both infectious to humans and transmissible between humans in a highly controlled laboratory environment, even admitting the possibility of occasional safety lapses (which have so far only been rumored, not proven). Remember, the most closely related bat virus — which cannot infect humans — differs at over 1,200 nucleotides. Nevertheless, making a good-faith effort to rule out that possibility is important, and that is why a group of prominent scientists recently called for a new investigation, suggesting that an earlier one was not as thorough as it should have been.

Ms. Reid gives short shrift to the “theory” that the virus was released deliberately.

The controversy may have begun in earnest on May 5, when the science journalist Nicholas Wade in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists asked, Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan? Mr. Wade is a former reporter for Science and the New York Times, and holds a bachelor of arts degree in natural sciences. He has written an interesting article, but in the end he blames “Trump Derangement Syndrome” (my characterization, not his) for scientists’ unwillingness to consider the lab-leak hypothesis. Whatever the merits of his article, he begins his conclusion with these loaded sentences:

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 conspiracy “theory” continues, blaming scientists, for example, for failure to rock the boat and risk their funding. Mr. Wade’s article finally concludes,

The common sense perception that a pandemic breaking out in Wuhan might have something to do with a Wuhan lab cooking up novel viruses of maximal danger in unsafe conditions could eventually displace the ideological insistence that whatever Trump said can’t be true.

Nevertheless, apparently on the strength of Mr. Wade’s article, the Bulletin plans a virtual program to discuss Mr. Wade’s “groundbreaking article,” featuring Mr. Wade himself, Bulletin editor-in-chief John Mecklin, and Bulletin president and CEO Rachel Bronson. And not an epidemiologist or virologist in sight.

On May 14, David Relman of Stanford and 17 colleagues published a letter to the editor of Science magazine; Dr. Relman and his colleagues are the “group of prominent scientists” to whom Ms. Reid refers. The authors are all biologists, epidemiologists, immunologists, and so on. They say, primarily, that the report by the World Health Organization did not give sufficient consideration to the possibility of an accident or a leak from the virology laboratory and should not have concluded so firmly that “a zoonotic spillover from an intermediate host as ‘likely to very likely,’ and a laboratory incident as ‘extremely unlikely.’”

I do not mean to cherry-pick, but, as if to emphasize the political rather than the scientific, an article in Nature on May 27, Divisive COVID ‘lab leak’ debate prompts dire warnings from researchers, quoted Angela Rasmussen of the University of Saskatchewan as criticizing Dr. Relman and his colleagues for not considering “how [their article] would feed into the divisive political environment surrounding this issue.” Dr. Rasmussen added, “This debate has moved so far from the evidence that I don’t know if we can dial it back.” Indeed.

As my head began to spin and my eyes lost their ability to focus on my monitor, I read a June 2 Washington Post article which, though largely a profile of a Chinese researcher, mentioned a very curious hypothesis:

The report lent credence to China’s preferred theory that the virus could have come from overseas, possibly via frozen food imports — though Beijing has presented little support for that. On the question of a possible lab leak, the report concluded that pathway was “extremely unlikely.”

Not quite a conspiracy theory, but really!

Speaking of conspiracies, I read a May 31 post, The origin of SARS-CoV-2, revisited, by the well known skeptic and medical doctor David Gorski. Dr. Gorski reminds us,

[W]henever there is a major outbreak, epidemic, or pandemic of infectious disease, one conspiracy theory always—and I do mean always—arises. That conspiracy theory is that the causative microbe was developed in a laboratory and/or escaped a laboratory. HIV, H1N1, the original SARS, Ebola virus, every single one of them gave birth to such conspiracy theories. Unsurprisingly, given its global scope and death toll, so it was with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The Gorski article is long, and I cannot go into detail. He points out something, however, that ought to be obvious but apparently is not: The fact that there are two hypotheses does not mean that they are equally probable. Thus, he concludes,

The natural origin hypothesis tends to [be] the default for any new disease that arises for the simple reason that it is by far the most likely to be the correct explanation. It’s very common for viruses to mutate and evolve in animals and then jump over to humans and pandemics have been caused this way before.

The biologist Jerry Coyne also weighed in on June 4, in a blog post entitled Did the Covid-19 virus come from a Wuhan lab? It’s looking increasingly likely. By “it,” Dr. Coyne means an accidental release. He refers here to a Newsweek article, which I have not read; he writes,

It was a group of amateurs, following the lead of an (sic) young Indian called “The Seeker,” who determined that the sequence of the pandemic virus was almost identical to that of the virus stored in the WIV (they managed to get the latter sequence), and that that virus was likely the one who killed the three men nine years ago. They also found out, through diligent labor, that the WIV was actually studying the virus despite their denial, and had made seven trips to the guano mine to collect samples. The amateurs found grant proposals from the WIV, which was apparently testing the infectivity of the collected viruses, possibly with the hope of producing a vaccine against them.

I am mildly skeptical of something put forward by a “group of amateurs,” and I mention this blog post largely because the comments were instructive, and some of these criticized aspects of Dr. Gorski’s article. A commenter, Douglas Healy, claimed, correctly, I think, “When you mix politics with science, what you get is politics.” The conclusion to Mr. Wade’s article certainly lends support to Mr. Healy’s hypothesis.

Me? I am not a biologist, only a fellow traveler. I found Ms. Reid’s advice not to jump the gun to be compelling, and I thought that Dr. Gorski’s observations about the number of failed conspiracy theories were right on target. Until I unearth further evidence, I shall consider “natural source” to be the odds-on favorite.