Earlier this week a science reporter named Nicholas Wade, who has worked for both Nature and the NY Times, published a lengthy piece on Medium titled “Origin of Covid — Following the Clues.” The piece can be broken into three parts. The first looks at what could be called the PR push to dismiss the lab leak theory. The second, about the kind of research taking place in the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the third part looks at the existing evidence and asks whether it fits more easily with the idea of a natural origin or with a lab leak.
Let’s start with the PR aspect. Wade argues there were really two statements made by scientists early on that framed the lab leak idea as a kind of easily brushed off conspiracy theory. The first appeared in Lancet:
“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…
It later turned out that the Lancet letter had been organized and drafted by Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York. Dr. Daszak’s organization funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. If the SARS2 virus had indeed escaped from research he funded, Dr. 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.”
Daszak was one of the scientists sent to Wuhan as part of the WHO trip earlier his year. He has repeatedly dismissed the lab leak theory though both the Biden administration and WHO Director Dr. Tedros have refused to discount it. The second PR push came last March in Nature Medicine. I remember this one because I wrote about it at the time.
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. Dr. Andersen and his colleagues were assuring their readers of something they could not know.
It’s not just that the authors of the letter couldn’t know what they were claiming to know it’s that the two arguments they used to support their claims were full of holes. Here’s Wade’s explanation of just one of those claims:
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). But 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.
Moving on to the second portion of the piece, Wade looks at some of the gain-of-function research that was being carried out in the Wuhan lab.
Researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, led by China’s leading expert on bat viruses, Dr. Shi Zheng-li or “Bat Lady”, mounted frequent expeditions to the bat-infested caves of Yunnan in southern China and collected around a hundred different bat coronaviruses.
Dr. Shi then teamed up with Ralph S. Baric, an eminent coronavirus researcher at the University of North Carolina. Their work focused on enhancing the ability of bat viruses to attack humans so as to “examine the emergence potential (that is, the potential to infect humans) of circulating bat CoVs [coronaviruses].”
And by 2018 and 2019, Dr. Daszak was funding new gain-of-function research in the Wuhan lab which sounds like a recipe for creating SARS-CoV-2.
On 9 December 2019, before the outbreak of the pandemic became generally known, Dr. Daszak gave an interview in which he talked in glowing terms of how researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology had been reprogramming the spike protein and generating chimeric coronaviruses capable of infecting humanized mice.
“And we have now found, you know, after 6 or 7 years of doing this, over 100 new sars-related coronaviruses, very close to SARS,” Dr. Daszak says around minute 28 of the interview. “Some of them get into human cells in the lab, some of them can cause SARS disease in humanized mice models and are untreatable with therapeutic monoclonals and you can’t vaccinate against them with a vaccine. So, these are a clear and present danger….
Finally, Wade turns to the likelihood of the two rival theories. There’s a lot included in this section, some of it pretty technical but here’s a sample that’s easy to understand.
In the case of SARS1, researchers have documented the successive changes in its spike protein as the virus evolved step by step into a dangerous pathogen. After it had gotten from bats into civets, there were six further changes in its spike protein before it became a mild pathogen in people. After a further 14 changes, the virus was much better adapted to humans, and with a further 4 the epidemic took off.
But when you look for the fingerprints of a similar transition in SARS2, a strange surprise awaits. The virus has changed hardly at all, at least until recently. From its very first appearance, it was well adapted to human cells. Researchers led by Alina Chan of the Broad Institute compared SARS2 with late stage SARS1, which by then was well adapted to human cells, and found that the two viruses were similarly well adapted. “By the time SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in late 2019, it was already pre-adapted to human transmission to an extent similar to late epidemic SARS-CoV,” they wrote.
When you add to that the fact that no intermediary host has been identified (all of the samples from the Wuhan wet market apparently were negative) and, even stranger, the fact that SARS2 is apparently not infectious in bats, you have a real mystery on your hands. How did the virus get from point A (infectious in bats) to point B (highly infectious in humans) with no intermediary steps? One possible answer is that it arose in a laboratory where researchers were experimenting with “humanized mice” whose lung tissue had been altered to contain the human ACE2 receptor.
Again, there is much more to the entire piece, all of which seems to make the natural passage explanation less likely and the lab leak more likely. Does this settle the matter? Of course not. More than a year after this pandemic started we still don’t have conclusive evidence for either possibility. But in his conclusion, Wade faults the media for not taking the lab leak theory seriously enough.
To my knowledge, no major newspaper or television network has yet provided readers with an in-depth news story of the lab escape scenario, such as the one you have just read, although some have run brief editorials or opinion pieces. One might think that any plausible origin of a virus that has killed three million people would merit a serious investigation. Or that the wisdom of continuing gain-of-function research, regardless of the virus’s origin, would be worth some probing. Or that the funding of gain-of-function research by the NIH and NIAID during a moratorium on such research would bear investigation. What accounts for the media’s apparent lack of curiosity?…
Because President Trump said the virus had escaped from a Wuhan lab, editors gave the idea little credence. They joined the virologists in regarding lab escape as a dismissible conspiracy theory. During the Trump Administration, they had no trouble in rejecting the position of the intelligence services that lab escape could not be ruled out. But when Avril Haines, President Biden’s director of National Intelligence, said the same thing, she too was largely ignored.
We’re long past the point where this should have been taken more seriously than it has. Josh Rogin reported yesterday that some Republicans in Congress have started demanding answers from the Biden administration. Frankly, if Wade is right about why this has been ignored thus far, that may be counter-productive. We don’t need this to become more partisan we need people to set aside their preconceived notions about whose ox will be gored by this and simply investigate.