Trying to know the unknowable. And a reminder that it is easier to preach transparency than to practice it.
Could you please join Threads? I have left Twitter forever (sorry, "X"), and want to still read your short-form commentary.
Sorry to join this conversation so late; I just subscribed.
As people have pointed out here, the origin has little or nothing to do with how to deal with a pandemic once it has actually started. The reason that it's important to judge the probability of the different origins is that it's needed to make decisions about how to minimize the probability of future pandemics.
Given the worldwide spread of gain-of-function research, these questions are not just matters of abstract curiosity. The scariest current work of which I'm aware has nothing to do with China but is happening in the Netherlands, with Ron Fouchier and Marion Koopmans as leaders. Fouchier is enhancing the human infectivity of flu strains that have >50% infection fatality rates. So raising awareness of the possibility of lab leaks and the need for controls is a big deal, maybe an existential deal, on the scale of global warming but faster.
Admittedly, for some of us with a scientific bent, there's also just an instinctive need to know/puzzle solving motivation. Vague inconclusive executive summaries from agencies that have other strong legitimate interests (e.g international relations) are not a promising way to solve a scientific question. Neither are selective unsupported stories from political players.
Instead we look for hard evidence, e.g. RNA sequences, locations, detailed research plans, past publications, etc. Surprisingly few of the gossipy and sensationalist stories dealing with one or another piece of evidence do the obvious exercise of cranking through the evidence systematically to find the odds of lab-leak (L) vs. zoonosis (Z). There is a well-known simple rigorous way of combining various pieces of data to compare the probabilities of competing hypotheses- Bayes' Theorem. I did a preliminary version a couple of years ago, deliberately only including the simplest facts, pointing to L being maybe a bit more likely than Z. I recently found out that an outfit called "root" had earlier done another, more complete but not complete by current standards, giving roughly 10/1 odds favoring L. Recently a German scientist, Valentin Bruttel, posted a lengthy, comprehensive, low-key youtube talk summarizing the current state of evidence, including many points that were not available before. He concludes that the L probability is >99.9%. I can follow most of his arguments with confidence, having also heard the opposite sides, and in these Bruttel consistently is factual and uses correct logic. To get all the way to 99.9% requires some more recent arguments that also look right to me but are more technical and for which there may be better rejoinders than the feeble ones that I've seen so far.
Lab accidents happen all the time, just like in every lab where I've worked- WUSTL, UCSD, Harvard, UIUC. When people play with GOF pathogens, that's what will leak. We need serious international regulation- especially of the Netherlands!
What about the loss of the surveillance research that these labs are now doing? Isn't zoonosis still a thing? Yes, but the research has gone off track and is not properly focussed on surveillance, in vitro drug tests, and other work that will actually help stop or treat the next pandemic. The best evidence that the prediction methods are broken is that in the three years after a pandemic started in or near a major research center, it has been unable even to retrodict the origin.
It doesn't look like people post links in these replies, but I'd be happy to provide links on request. Bruttel's talk includes an extensive set of references, both to work that agrees with his conclusions and work that doesn't.
Since so much of the tracks of the early Coronavirus cases have now been wiped, what seems most relevant for future researchers fighting future diseases is whether the pathogen that entered wide spread in the world population benefited from "enhancement of function" manipulation in the Wuhan lab or became viable for human spread while still mutating in animals. Before lab records became inaccessible, it seemed that there were no bat samples with DNA sequences close enough to the first types of wild human virus to make the jump without some help. So the "accident investigation" that is needed is not about assigning blame or guilt, its about what guardrails are needed when exploring the very real potential of MRNA experimentation to obtain medically valuable proteins, be they viruses, vaccines or antivirals.
Just to reiterate the sentiment, Jim, thanks for your persistence on this specific case of Pro Publica and, more importantly, an insistence on a reasonable assessment of the origins of this epidemic. Alan Goldhammer also deserves recognition outside of his response if only because, as you know, I have an old friend still active in this field who said exactly the same thing when I inquired many months ago.
You said it; well done!
to quote fellow subscriber Gary (below): "And this is why I subscribe."
thanks for the great, interesting story
and have a super summer!
Jim, many thanks for this update. ProPublica seems about as inclined to admit a serious mistake as is the NYT is. What first puzzled me about this episode--besides the amateurish reliance on one translator--is why ProPublica took on this project to begin with. Nearly everything else they do is domestic, and this was clearly out of their range of competence.
Second, ProPublica failed to recognize that Republican investigators were not exactly dispassionate on this question also seems very weird for a self-styled investigative reporting organization.
Third, I have yet to see a story about what actual high-level infectious disease scientists think about the significance of whether the lab or wild animals or both were the culprits here. I bet they would say it is not very significant except at the margins, as wild animal origins in history are relatively frequent and lab-origins are not impossible. In either case there can be a bad virus running loose, the origin question is basically moot. The rapid sequencing of the COVID virus and vaccine development was amazing and underappreciated by the general public.
Wow Jim, well done! Tenacious digging into stories. Pandemics will happen again. The problem is to realize what is happening at the working with ill people level (as did the heroic Doctor Li Wenliang), and somehow get people up the chain to listen. Am I correct that historically, the first country to experience a given pandemic has been slow to grasp what was happening? ~ Anyway ~ Thank you so much for this important work!
Thanks so much for bringing this up to date.
And this is why I subscribe.
What puzzles me is why so many are so fixated on identifying the source of Covid-19. There almost seems to be an emotional need to know, as opposed to being just a good mystery story. I understand that knowing the source might help us to mitigate future outbreaks of new pathogens, but it does nothing to help figure out how to deal with Covid-19 itself (at least no one has claimed it does that I know of). And I am not sure if it tells us how to mitigate future outbreaks. We now know that China is a weird-ass place where people eat strange things, and that an authoritarian regime ain't exactly conducive to scientific transparency. Actually, neither of these is a news flash. So, what, just stay the hell out of China? That doesn't sound like a realistic prescription to me.
My assumption is that politics, writ large, is at the root, particularly to tarnish the Chinese government and by some weird logic to tarnish whoever is in the White House. Partisans on both sides seem to want to tie the other to being "soft" on China, although Republicans seem more emotionally invested in the project. But that seems to be of no consequence to me either way. Since no one (who is not a nut case) is claiming that the Wuhan lab engineered Codiv-19 and released it either intentionally or accidentally before they finished engineering it into a devastating plague vector, I honestly do not care if it was collected from the wild and accidentally released by the lab, or it just spread from the wet market. Either way, we have no control over wet markets, and we cannot regulate laboratories in authoritarian China. That is, we're screwed.
Thanks for this. I had suspected that the lab-leak explanation was too glib to be possible, mostly because I found the notion that Toy Reid alone could divine the real meaning of Chinese governmental communications (people bought that nonsense? really?) to be a neat re-telling of "The Emperor's New Clothes" and because the logical conclusion of all that smoke was just too convenient for the most truthless administration in American history. Please keep peeling this back, it's very instructive.
Thanks for spreading some sanity about this vexed issue. PP should never have allowed such lax and credulous reporting.
Jim Thanks for your tenacious follow up on the Wuhan story. Clearly there were those who sought to blame the Wuhan lab for careless handling of Covid. That the Chinese government was reticent to release investigative details left an open field for speculation.
As you point out, translation from Chinese poses problems. Also, scientific language poses difficulties of its own. I doubt that we will ever have the DEFINITIVE explanation. My instinct is that Covid evolved from animals sold in the local market. How they became infected is unclear.
Meanwhile, I shall continue to follow reports on what happened to those two princes imprisoned (and killed) in the Tower of London. I do not believe that this is linked to the Covid mystery.
P. S. I strongly believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating JFK. He retrieved his murder weapon from the home of a friend of mine on November 22nd, went to the book depository, and fired. I visited the grassy knoll, watched how these shots could have been fired in 8 seconds, and realize that the motorcycle radio noises could be misinterpreted. Oswald did it.
Thanks Jim. Appreciate your re-visiting this highly volatile matter.
Finally an area that have some expertise in for better or worse. When I was still in research at NIH, I had experience with a number of different pathogens and toxins. I had my own "lab leak" when a beaker of whooping cough bacteria shattered splashing me with a (un)healthy dose of log phase growth. One of my colleagues came to help and noted that this is not a particularly rare occurrence; stuff happens. Fortunately the strain we were growing was an attenuated vaccine strain and I just had to go home toss my clothes in the washing machine and take a nice long shower. I've also done some consulting on these issues including those related to the Biological Weapons Convention.
I've read almost everything there is to read on this topic and also know some people who have been to Wuhan. As far as I can tell, not being privy to national security, it is a complex issue. However, the big picture of whether it was or was not a lab leak is to me irrelevant! The Wuhan group has been researching corona viruses for a considerable period of time, many of them endemic to China where there are a number of animal hosts. One can 'confidently' assume that they have a large collection of corona virus specimens of various geno- and phenotypes. The location of the large 'wet animal' market in the proximity to the research institute poses further complications since a number animals who are potential hosts of Covid were trafficked there. We do not have reliable evidence about the presence or absence of the virus at the market (though some papers have pointed to this and at least one Chinese paper has disappeared). Thus, there is a real conundrum that likely will never be resolved unless we get more data/information from the Wuhan researchers as to the role of the lab versus a zoonotic outbreak.
It's worth remembering that two earlier corona virus outbreaks, MERS and the original SARS, came from natural sources (not to mention the episodic outbreaks of Ebola and more recently Marburg which are far more dangerous than Covid). Nature's own mixing bowl leads to problematic viral infections such as the great Spanish Flu and the 1957-58 Asian Flu (which had higher fatality than Covid). Of course none of these remotely rival The Black Death that devastated Europe in the mid 14th century and definitely was NOT a lab leak.
We will continue to see novel infectious diseases of various virulence in the future. The good thing is we have much better tools to deal with them but it will require increased vigilance and research. I'll leave it at that. Anyone who is interest can go back and look at my archive of COVID-19 reports (just Google my name and COVID-19 if interested).
This is a magnificent analysis. Thank you.
It occurs to me that to republicans, we might add Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.