Did the Covid-19 virus come from a Wuhan lab? It’s looking increasingly likely.

June 4, 2021 • 1:15 pm

You surely remember last year when the “conspiracy theory” was broached that the coronavirus, which was thought by nearly all the media to have come from a Wuhan wet market, might have actually come from a virology lab in Wuhan, with some even suggesting that it might have been released on purpose.

Well the “deliberate release” scenario is dumb, since how could one contain an easily-spread virus targeted at an enemy? But the “accidental release” theory is gaining more and more credibility, with the Biden administration deciding to launch its own investigation. The story below, from Newsweek (yes, a conservative site), recounts how a group of amateur Internet sleuths pieced together from publicly available data what is the most likely story: an accidental release of a virus stored in the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). That virus seems to have come from a Chinese cave in which 3 men shoveling bat guano died in 2012, and died from a virus that was remarkably similar to the coronavirus responsible for the pandemic.

It’s thus likely that the Chinese repeatedly lied about the origins of the virus and the U.S. government, suckered in, didn’t do due diligence in following up. After all, if a bunch of amateurs can piece together this tale (and I emphasize that we don’t know if it’s true for sure), why couldn’t the government?

Click screenshot to read the story:

It was a group of amateurs, following the lead of an 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.

As Newsweek notes, “The ongoing effort to cover this up implies that something may have gone wrong.” What went wrong, if the story is indeed true, might never be known, as the Chinese either might not know themselves and at any rate haven’t been exactly forthcoming about what they do know. Now professional journalists and epidemiologists are on the case, so we should get some answers—at least about whether the virus came from the WIV.

The episode of course makes China look bad (the article is replete with the WIV’s and Chinese government’s lies), but it also makes the U.S. look bad. It makes the press look bad: newspapers and websites had to go back and change months-old headlines that the lab-escape theory had been debunked. And it makes science look bad. To dismiss a theory without having investigated it first, and dismiss it so, well, dismissively, is only going to make people trust scientists less.  It’s even worse when you realize that had the Chinese been open about what they were doing, and were studying the sequences of viruses related to the pandemic organism, a vaccination might have been developed—or at least been in the works years before the outbreak.

Again, this is just a theory, but it’s a theory that’s become so plausible that nobody dismisses it as lunacy any more, and our own government is taking it seriously. If it turns out to be true, what will be the upshot? We’ll know to trust Chinese assurances even less (apparently the U.S. government was too credulous), and perhaps this can ensure more cooperation with the Chinese in future cases. But I wouldn’t count on it. At least we know that science works best when it’s at its most open.

At any rate, you owe it to yourself to read this fascinating amateur detective story.

h/t: Luana

87 thoughts on “Did the Covid-19 virus come from a Wuhan lab? It’s looking increasingly likely.

  1. This may have been covered here but there is a distinction between a gentically engineered virus and a naturally occurring one. Although I admit that I didn’t follow closely to all the reports, the scientists I heard discussing it, were saying there wasn’t evidence that it was genetically engineered. They weren’t saying that it wasn’t released from a lab. I think these two topics got conflated in some media reports. Of course scientists will be blamed/not trusted as a result because people may not understand the distinction.

    1. The scientist said it was not genetically engineered and the media interpreted it as it could not come from a lab. Then they (the media and a lot of people on social media and online forums) gaslighted and bullied people who suspected the lab as conspiracy theorist nutcases.

      BTW, the Chinese went into great effort to keep the problem secret and then the military overrun and cleaned up the lab (there were news about that early 2020). From that point it was almost certain that the virus is from the lab, US agencies just took their time to ascertain (the entire not jumping into conclusions thing).

      1. Yes, those are 2 very different things that got conflated: a virus accidentally escaping and an ‘engineered’ virus. I’m not a virologist, but some virologist friends, whose opinion I greatly respect, told me that if it were engineered there would be a ‘signature’ in it’s nucleic acids, And -again on their authority- that signature appears to be lacking.

        1. I’ve heard this “signature” theory before but surely whoever had the knowledge and skill to synthesize such a virus would also know enough to leave out any signatures. I suppose it is possible but it also sounds like something experts in a field would say to protect their own from criticism.

        2. This thread is in line with my recollections too. I never thought of the “mede in a lab” take as credible and nobody has ever shown supporting data. “Escaped from a lab” as you all note is something entirely different.

        3. I’m ignorant as well on the details, but the Newsweek site includes a video that explains the steps in ‘gain of function’ research. This does not seem to be about engineering in the sense of putting in genetic modifications that are drastic and unlikely, so no obvious “signature”. Gain of function experiments, as explained in the video, are more often about injecting a virus into an animal, like ferrets, and then transferring descendent viruses into other hosts over generations. Along the way they select for more transmissable mutant forms of a virus. This process would not produce a virus that would not seem drastically changed. Only slightly changed.

          Why is this even done? I think its done to produce a virus that could infect humans, but then to use that to study manufacture of vaccines against that virus in case one is needed. Clearly controversial and dangerous research.

          1. I agree with Mark. I did not find this paper
            https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0820-9
            very convincing and somewhat disingenuous when it appeared.
            Could it be that some of the authors were themselves involved either in gain of function research or in cooperation with the Wuhan lab?
            I believe one reason for the absolute dismissal of the lab theory was the intention to counter Trumpian idiocy (the Chinese did it on purpose) in a very polarized time when nuanced opinions were drowned out.
            Even in Germany, a Twitter mob descended on a Hamburg University professor who published an opinion piece online where he stated that some sort of lab origin was probable (I didn’t read the paper myself.) The university was pressured to sanction him.

    2. The simplest gain-of-function experiments simply pass the wild-caught bat virus strain through a series of human cell cultures or through mice with human genes (especially human genes expressed in mouse lung cells). These are a kind of artificial selection experiment: mutations arise in the viruses while they are infecting and reproducing in those cultured cells or mouse cells, and the researcher selects for those viruses that successfully do so. Over many generations, it’s possible to select for mutant virus strains that are better at infecting such cells in the lab. The supposed goal is to generate those mutant strains that have gained this functional ability (to infect human cells), characterize their molecular traits, and design ways to kill such viruses or prevent their pathogenic effects, or design vaccines against them.

      That kind of experiment would not leave a signature of any genetic engineering involving moving, altering, adding, or deleting genes in the virus genome.

      But there is actually some evidence of such engineering. The details are complex, but they are nicely explained in the Nicholas Wade article. Basically, (1) SARS-CoV-2 has a feature of its spike gene (called a peptide cleavage site) that is not encoded in the spike gene of other bat coronaviruses (bat coronavirus genomes encode a different kind of peptide cleavage site), and (2) the RNA sequence of that specific feature is like a human peptide cleavage site, and not like the way other virus RNA or DNA genes encode peptide cleavage sites. Some molecular biologists have suggested that, if the researchers at WIV had wanted to create a bat coronavirus with a better peptide cleavage site, this is the RNA sequence they would have used. I’m not a molecular biologist (although I know some genetics), so I can’t assess that idea. But it is consistent with the lab leak hypothesis, and can’t easily be explained by the natural origins hypothesis.

  2. According to the Nicholas Wade article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the Chinese have tested over 80,000 animals trying to find a source in nature for this virus. If they find such a source it will relieve the pressure that is on them that the virus leaked from their lab. If they knew that the virus came from bats found in a certain cave then why wouldn’t they “find” the relevant bats and then announce, “See, it came from nature. Somebody brought those bats to the wet market. No need to examine the WIV”?

    1. Yes, that too. But of course it doesn’t matter, since a conspiracy theory is made to be untestable – we will never know.

      1. It seems to me that the longer we go without finding a source in nature the more likely it is that it does not have a natural origin but was constructed in a lab. In that sense, we will know.

    2. The bat virus from the Yunnan cave was not identical, but is the closest fit ever found. It could have mutated in one of the infected individuals, who apparently was ill for a very long time and had immune suppression, or in lab animals.

  3. Mr Coyne,

    You owe it to yourself to listen to these two recent episodes of This Week in Virology. After doing so you might want to reconsider some of your statements in this post. The message in the podcasts explains why these scientists believe that it is unlikely that the coronavirus of 2019 was produced in a lab. It sounds to me that these scientists are doing a great job following the science and not the politics. Why would we want to get our science from amateurs?

    https://www.microbe.tv/twiv/twiv-760/
    https://www.microbe.tv/twiv/twiv-762/

    When you mix politics with science, what you get is politics.

    Thanks,
    Doug Healy

    1. Can you give us a synopsis please? I doubt many here want to listen to an 88-minute podcast just to get to the punch line. If it’s just another set of virologists saying that COVID-19 lacks the “signature” of a man-made virus, I’m unpersuaded. Any virologist smart enough to create the virus is also smart enough to leave out the signature.

      1. I think some of the problem here is that most people would rather not listen to an explanation from scientists who are experts in the field and prefer to run with a short sensational story by a nonscience journalist.

        You are not an expert in virology and you don’t have the patience to listen to one. Yet, you say you are “unpersuaded” (presumably by whatever you’ve read so far) and make a completely unsupported statement on the ease of creating a virus.

        1. There are many people who depend on journalists to summarize the opinions of scientists. Some are good at it and many are bad. Telling people that they should go to the source is really not practical. It’s really not a matter of preference.

          I would trust the opinion of virologists if I thought they had solid information on which they were basing their opinions, but we all know that no one has solid information or, if they do, they’re keeping it secret. Even the smartest virologist in the world can’t make something from nothing.

        2. Well this is getting more twisty and interesting. But I also understand Paul’s point.
          I admit to being reluctant about delving into these links, curious as I am about it, since it seems a rapidly evolving story and I don’t know if their punchline will be the punchline a week or month from now.

      2. It is a zoomcast video, not just a podcast, and the first 50-60 minutesareworthwhile..the gist, paul. You and i spend more time than that on weit most days i think, and the twiv episodes are well composed on this broad issue. I had written comment 8 below before i saw these comment 5 posts…sorry.

        1. I take your point but it’s more than just about time. Another very important decision factor is whether I think I will learn anything new and useful. Right now, no one has the information to really answer the COVID-19 origin question and, more to the point, I’m pretty sure these virologists don’t have it. I’m sure I would learn something about virology that I don’t already know, but I’m not looking for that kind of information right now. If one of them claimed to be part of the team that created COVID-19, I would definitely listen.

    2. I also recommend listening to these two episodes as they give detailed information on the science. Peter Daszak is one of the scientists interviewed.

    3. Did any of those statements suggest that this particular coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) was produced in a lab?

  4. It could also be true that the Chinese government was studying the virus but someone else went into the cave and took some bats and sold them in the market.

  5. Um, what!? Why would a lab sit on a virus that split from other viruses decades ago and not publish the data?

    The rest looks like evidence free speculation – it isn’t scrutinized by WHO (or better yet, published science). What WHO is dissatisfied with was the data that was supplied from China, not some web conspiracy theory.

    Is this correlated with the other evidence free “intelligence medicine” story that we get from US?

    Mysterious health attacks like those seen in Cuba have come to DC

    [ https://arstechnica.com/science/2021/04/mysterious-health-attack-like-those-seen-in-cuba-have-come-to-dc/ ]

  6. I think that the use of the word “theory” gives the lab-origin scenario to much weight at this point. I might use the word “hypothesis” rather than theory until more substantiated data are available. I know that commenter mike finds conflict of interest in the recent TWiV (This Week in Virology) episodes 760 and 762, but i still recommend viewing them at https://www.microbe.tv/twiv/.

    1. Totally agree: those TWIV episodes have good information in them and are worth viewing. I’m just suggesting that viewers might keep in mind the conflicts of interest on the part of virologists like Peter Daszak and others who appear in those TWIV episodes and who have advocated for gain-of-function experiments on potential human pathogens.

      But as the DRASTIC folks showed, it was Daszak who orchestrated the original “scientific consensus” in 2020 against the lab leak hypothesis, and they showed that Daszak did so in a way that would cover up any association between the “consensus” and his organization’s research connections to WIV. It’s a reasonable guess that he did this in part because he and other virologists who do gain-of-function experiments perceive their risk of liability for the pandemic. And I assume he also did so in part because he truly believes that SARS-CoV-2 came from nature and not from WIV.

      And totally agree with Doug Healy @ 5: when one mixes politics with science, one gets politics. But again it was Daszak and his EcoHealth Alliance that introduced politics into the mix by attempting in the earliest stages of the pandemic to manufacture a “scientific consensus” that did not exist and did not have a strong factual basis.

      An accidental lab leak from WIV (not a deliberate release of a weaponized virus) seems more likely to me than any other explanation, but I agree with other commenters we don’t know for sure and may never know for sure if the authorities in China decide not to be transparent about what was going on at WIV.

  7. The closest match to the current virus was found in a mine 1,900 km from Wuhan. No vector to account for that distant transmission has been found. If such transmission occurred, which takes time, numerous mutations would have been found among the first people infected; there were none. Some of the first people infected were workers at the WIV. The Chinese authorities could clear the WIV by releasing their records, but those have been sealed. There is a lot more circumstantial evidence, see
    https://zenodo.org/record/4477081#.YLqAhvbTVQy

    1. “Some of the first people infected were workers at the WIV”

      If you’re referring to those three WIV researchers who fell ill in the autumn of 2019, I thought we still didn’t know what their ailment was. The news today was that Fauci issued a demand for their medical records to be released.

      1. You are technically correct, but the symptoms were similar to covid. See the link that I included, but, be warned, it is a long paper. Also, releasing their records might clear the WIV, so why have they mnot been published?

  8. “Well the “deliberate release” scenario is dumb.”

    I know what you mean but surely it is not out of the realm of possibility in this day and age of mass shootings. Some nut might do it just to get the attention of, say, Jodie Foster or their favorite K-Pop star.

  9. Newsweek (yes, a conservative site) …

    I’ve never thought of Newsweek (at least in its old print format) so much as being “conservative” as being be The Voice of The Establishment. As a matter of tradition, as between the two major weeklies, it was Henry Luce’s Time that was the more hidebound (not that either one of ’em was something I ever cared to spend much time reading, in print or digital format).

    1. Newsweek seems to have gone way downhill. When I click on any of their stories lately their website is a horror show of pop up advertisements all over the place making the reading of the article nearly impossible.

      1. Sounds like the HuffPo-ization of traditional media, Bob.

        Whatever it takes to sell soap, I suppose.

      2. I’ll put my two cents in, for that’s about what my opinion is worth (blame inflation). I think I’ll wait a while before jumping to any conclusions about the origins. We may never really know thanks to the authoritarian secrecy of the Chinese government, just as we still do not know the number of deaths from Tianamen Square. But, and this is a big BUT, I am highly skeptical about these “amateur” sleuths. I think we’ve all smelled this brand of bullshit before, the anti-expert line of crap that non-science writers love so much. They may be correct, and some dude in a trailer park may hold the secret to perpetual motion machines and unlimited power, and maybe military persons have seen LGMs…again, I’ll wait. The truth may indeed be out there but I’m not sure Moldy and Skuller are the ones who will find it.

        1. “I am highly skeptical about these ‘amateur’ sleuths…The truth may indeed be out there but I’m not sure Moldy and Skuller are the ones who will find it.”

          Excellent comment, but possibly wrong metaphor? Mulder & Scully were pros. I think it’s the abilities of The Lone Gunmen you’re doubting.

  10. Although many are blaming the media for getting the story wrong, I see this more as a result of Trump’s flip-flopping on the subject and the Chinese not being honest. First, Trump said that China was handling the pandemic perfectly then later blamed everything that went wrong on China. While it is natural for the media and the public to look to the government on situations like this, everyone could see that Trump was adopting whatever stance helped his political situation. The media didn’t really have the resources to research the origin itself, at least not to the level where it could definitively tell the public that Trump was lying. At the same time, we couldn’t trust what the Chinese government was telling us and still can’t. The media was, and still is, stuck between a rock and a hard place.

    1. “Although many are blaming the media for getting the story wrong, I see this more as a result of Trump’s flip-flopping on the subject and the Chinese not being honest.”

      I don’t see how Trump’s flip-flopping or being insincere or self-serving could rationally be counted as evidence against the lab-leak theory. Nor do I see how Chinese dishonesty should be a factor. People guilty of wrongdoing often do not admit to it. Does China have such a stellar reputation for honesty that the media should not doubt what they say?

      “The media didn’t really have the resources to research the origin itself, at least not to the level where it could definitively tell the public that Trump was lying.”

      To the extent that this is true they had no justification for saying that either side of the question was more likely. And they have no more resources today than they had when taking their former position.

      “The media was, and still is, stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

      What they are being blamed for is accepting self-serving statements without engaging in the minimum inquiry.

      1. I never said Trump’s flip-flopping was evidence against any theory, merely that it contributed greatly to the media’s trouble getting the story right. Since we can’t count on China being honest about it, we rest our hopes on our own experts, both in disease and in intelligence. Trump’s weaponizing everything for his own personal interest simply gets in the way of that process.

        “To the extent that this is true they had no justification for saying that either side of the question was more likely.”

        As far as I know, the media reported scientist’s opinions. But which scientists? Which experts? They have to choose, of course. This is very hard to do in a situation in which no one really knows the truth. In a perfect world, they would tell their audience that they’re getting mixed messages and they simply can’t tell. Instead, they indulge in their obvious bias toward giving the public an answer.

        “What they are being blamed for is accepting self-serving statements without engaging in the minimum inquiry.”

        I’m not sure whose self-serving statements you are talking about. If it’s Trumps, then how does the media tell if he’s making it all up or dutifully summarizing the detailed reports of his experts? I would go with the former every time but I don’t think the media should.

        1. “I’m not sure whose self-serving statements you are talking about.”

          According to the Nicholas Wade article (https://thebulletin.org/2021/05/the-origin-of-covid-did-people-or-nature-open-pandoras-box-at-wuhan/), the media’s take was greatly influenced early on by (a) the Lancet letter of 2/19/2020 organized and drafted by Peter Daszak, and (b) a letter published in Nature Medicine 3/17/2020. Daszak had an undisclosed conflict of interest since he was deeply involved with the Wuhan Institute of Virology and it would have reflected very badly on him if they were responsible. Furthermore, it would have been very bad for virologists everywhere, not just the ones who signed these letters, since it would bring government restrictions on them all and would dry up their grant money. “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.” Doubts have also been expressed about whether the evidence described in these letters was sufficient to justify the uncritical reception they received in the media, which has a duty to examine the claims and point out apparent weaknesses.

          “I never said Trump’s flip-flopping was evidence against any theory, merely that it contributed greatly to the media’s trouble getting the story right.”

          The most that can be said about Trump’s flip-flopping is that it was unhelpful and perhaps retarded progress in the right direction, not that it encouraged progress in the wrong direction.

          “As far as I know, the media reported scientist’s opinions. But which scientists? Which experts? They have to choose, of course.”

          Yes, but the blame for “getting the story wrong” cannot be assigned to Trump, as you appeared to do.

  11. You said,”Well the “deliberate release” scenario is dumb, since how could one contain an easily-spread virus targeted at an enemy?” The Chinese have a track record of having little concern for the life of the individual. To them the only concern is for the Party. Although it does seem to be a conspiracy theory COVID-19 was released as a viral weapon, it certainly is a thought going through military minds for a long time.

  12. A few days ago Dr. Gorski wrote a long article about this on Science Based Medicine. He does cite the two This Week in Virology podcasts in the article noted above. The article is here

    https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/the-origin-of-sars-cov-2-revisited/

    I am still trying to digest the information but it does seem very unlikely that SARS CoV2 was laboratory engineered. He notes we still have not identified the origin of the Ebola virus after all these years.

    1. Not only is the idea that it was laboratory engineers “unlikely,” Dr. Gorski writes: “I can say with a high degree of confidence based on existing evidence that the first version is so implausible as to have drifted well into conspiracy theory territory. The second is the version that “reasonable” people consider plausible, but there is no good evidence for either version.”

      1. I’m guessing that Dr. Gorski is talking about engineering a virus like COVID-19 from scratch. As I understand it, this is far beyond our current abilities. Engineering COVID-19 by modifying some other known related virus would be more likely. How exactly is that so implausible as to be immediately considered a conspiracy theory?

        1. Your guess is incorrect. Gorski treats several possibilities of varying plausibility but engineering from scratch is not one of them.

          1. If not engineering from scratch, then what theory does Gorski think amounts to a conspiracy theory? Without any real facts, all the reasonable possibilities should still be on the table. All the unreasonable possibilities aren’t worth discussing.

          2. Gorski ends with this:

            If we were to know the origin of this pandemic, the thinking goes, then we would better know how to prevent future pandemics. Maybe so, but here’s the thing. Even if the lab leak hypothesis is true, and SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a lab in China, it would make absolutely zero difference in how we need to deal with the pandemic now.

            Sounds like he still gives some non-zero possibility to the lab leak hypothesis and acknowledges that it might be useful to know in order to prevent future pandemics. His problem really is that all the discussion about origins doesn’t help deal with the current pandemic. He’s right there.

            In fact, many seem to be using the origins controversy to trash science in general. Rand Paul calling for Fauci to be fired is a good example. I think some states are even trying to weaken their public health institutions in order to give them less power to enact restrictions in the next pandemic. Now that’s truly crazy.

    2. “He notes we still have not identified the origin of the Ebola virus after all these years.”

      Except that there are many animals that can be infected with Ebola. Not knowing which exact one was responsible doesn’t make it less likely that it came from some animal. According to the Nicholas Wade article, the intermediary host species of SARS1 was identified within four months of the epidemic’s outbreak, and the host of MERS within nine months. Yet 15 months after SARS2, and after testing 80,000 animals, we still haven’t found a source in nature. (And we can be sure that China is highly motivated to find a natural source.) If this virus can’t be found in nature, but it did come from nature, that would seem to be very peculiar.

      1. The point Dr. Gorski made concerning the Ebola virus was that we still cannot identify which species transmitted the virus to humans. The Ebola virus has been known to infect humans since 1976. Eighteen months is not so long for the transmission of SARS CoV2 to humans to remain a mystery. Looking at PubMed you can see that the transmission of SARS was still under investigation in 2019.

        Molecular epidemiology, evolution and phylogeny of SARS coronavirus

        Hayes K H Luk 1 , Xin Li 1 , Joshua Fung 1 , Susanna K P Lau 2 , Patrick C Y Woo 3
        Affiliations expand
        PMID: 30844511 PMCID: PMC7106202 DOI: 10.1016/j.meegid.2019.03.001
        Free PMC article
        Abstract

        Shortly after its emergence in southern China in 2002/2003, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) was confirmed to be the cause of SARS. Subsequently, SARS-related CoVs (SARSr-CoVs) were found in palm civets from live animal markets in Guangdong and in various horseshoe bat species, which were believed to be the ultimate reservoir of SARSr-CoV. Till November 2018, 339 SARSr-CoV genomes have been sequenced, including 274 from human, 18 from civets and 47 from bats [mostly from Chinese horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus sinicus), n = 30; and greater horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum), n = 9]. The human SARS-CoVs and civet SARSr-CoVs were collected in 2003/2004, while bat SARSr-CoVs were continuously isolated in the past 13 years even after the cessation of the SARS epidemic. SARSr-CoVs belong to the subgenus Sarbecovirus (previously lineage B) of genus Betacoronavirus and occupy a unique phylogenetic position. Overall, it is observed that the SARSr-CoV genomes from bats in Yunnan province of China possess the highest nucleotide identity to those from civets. It is evident from both multiple alignment and phylogenetic analyses that some genes of a particular SARSr-CoV from bats may possess higher while other genes possess much lower nucleotide identity to the corresponding genes of SARSr-CoV from human/civets, resulting in the shift of phylogenetic position in different phylogenetic trees. Our current model on the origin of SARS is that the human SARS-CoV that caused the epidemic in 2002/2003 was probably a result of multiple recombination events from a number of SARSr-CoV ancestors in different horseshoe bat species.

    3. Although I’m skeptical of the natural origins hypothesis, and an accidental lab release seems likely to me, I found David Gorski’s explainer to be excellent. A very good antidote to conspiracy thinking.

      But one element of the work at WIV that Dr. Gorski doesn’t address is that EcoHealth Alliance and WIV were doing exactly the kinds of gain-of-function experiments in Wuhan that could turn a bat coronavirus into a new virus strain with high human-to-human transmissibility. The abstract of their NIH grant says so. They were actively trying to achieve this, and it doesn’t seem paranoid to think that they might have succeeded.

      1. Dr. Gorski’s article quotes an interview with Dr. Fauci in which he denies the NIH gave a grant to WIV for gain of function research. I could not find the grant abstract you noted. Perhaps you have a reference.

        1. Grant abstract here

          https://reporter.nih.gov/search/xQW6UJmWfUuOV01ntGvLwQ/project-details/8674931#details

          The grant was made to EcoHealth Alliance; WIV was a subcontractor.

          As noted by Nicholas Wade, the narrow definition of “gain-of-function” used by Daszak and some other virologists applies only to human viruses. Wade notes that he does not know whether this is the definition that NIH uses as well. If so, then bat coronaviruses used in the experiments at WIV were not found yet in humans and so were not yet considered to be human viruses for the purpose of those regulations. This is discussed by Wade and by DRASTIC.

          From that narrow POV, serial passage of those viruses through human cell cultures or humanized mice (as described in the grant proposal and in media interviews by Daszak in 2019) would not count as gain-of-function. But this seems like a distinction without a difference.

          Of course we don’t know that WIV actually did such experiments. That NIH document is a grant proposal to do things, not a report of what WIV did. Daszak also told reporters that EcoHealth Alliance was trying to do such experiments. But again it’s not known what was actually accomplished. So on balance it is all speculative. I find the speculation relatively convincing on balance, especially given the location of the original outbreak and of WIV in the same city, and the stated goals of the research at WIV, the inability to find the virus and its intermediate host in the wild, and the apparent coverup by the authorities in China. But it’s not proof.

      2. Sorry to be late to the discussion but exactly where in the abstract for this grant do you see mention of gain-of-function experiments? The closest thing in the abstract that could be misinterpreted as a gain-of-funtion experiment is “Predictive models of host range (i.e. emergence potential) will be tested experimentally using reverse genetics, pseudovirus and receptor binding assays, and virus infection experiments across a range of cell cultures from different species and humanized mice.” I fail to see how any of this could be interpreted as saying that they “were doing exactly the kinds of gain-of-function experiments in Wuhan that could turn a bat coronavirus into a new virus strain with high human-to-human transmissibility.”!!!

        1. “Sorry to be late to the discussion but exactly where in the abstract for this grant do you see mention of gain-of-function experiments?”

          Reverse genetics is the alteration of genes in order to study the effect on how the virus functions: “Reverse genetics is the opposite approach to the forward genetics in functional genomics. Therefore, it involves the study of the gene function, starting from an already known gene sequence. Scientists alter the sequence of the gene in order to study the effect of a particular alteration on the corresponding phenotype.” https://pediaa.com/what-is-the-difference-between-forward-and-reverse-genetics/#Reverse%20Genetics

          Gain-of-function experiments attempt to discover whether new phenotypes, such as the ability to transmit more efficiently, can be acquired by the pathogens: “I view GOF as a generic label for a broad class of experiments that lead to a genetically altered biological agent with new or enhanced functions. These experiments help to link genotype with phenotype and can therefore be valuable, although they can entail risk and are by no means the only approach for linking sequence with function.” https://www.nature.com/articles/nrmicro3405?WT.feed_name=subjects_policy-and-public-health-in-microbiolo

          In 2015 Dr. Zhengli Shi, head of coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published a paper describing the use of reverse genetics: “Using the SARS-CoV reverse genetics system, we generated and characterized a chimeric virus expressing the spike of bat coronavirus SHC014 in a mouse-adapted SARS-CoV backbone.” https://www.nature.com/articles/nm.3985/

          1. Thank you for your answer to my “reply”.

            I still disagree though, and will try to explain why. I will not engage in a protracted back and forth with you as I believe this kind of exchange too rarely leads to anything constructive. However, for the benefit of anyone else who might be following this conversation, I believe this is a perfect example of the nature of the public discussion on this issue and may serve as a lesson as to why it is so difficult to reach any valid conclusion at the moment. I also hope that you will not take this as a personal attack. However, I believe you statement is not accurate and muddies the issue instead of helping.

            Given the nature of public discourse in this “social media” era, I am also compelled to state unequivocally that I do not reject the hypothesis of an accidental lab leak or for that matter the hypothesis of a natural transmission from an animal host. As you correctly stated, “So, on balance it is all speculative”.

            I still maintain that nothing in the abstract of the grant you referred to (https://reporter.nih.gov/search/xQW6UJmWfUuOV01ntGvLwQ/project-details/8674931#details) could be interpreted as saying that they “were doing exactly the kinds of gain-of-function experiments in Wuhan that could turn a bat coronavirus into a new virus strain with high human-to-human transmissibility.”

            There lies the problem with this whole public discussion. There are simply too many unwarranted statements of that sort.

            Let’s recall what the only relevant part of the abstract says: “Aim-3. Test predictions of CoV inter-species transmission. Predictive models of host range (i.e. emergence potential) will be tested experimentally using reverse genetics, pseudovirus and receptor binding assays, and virus infection experiments across a range of cell cultures from different species and humanized mice.”

            In the abstract, they use the term “reverse genetics”. This is a very, very broad term and contrary to what you implied, it does not necessarily mean the alteration of the coding sequence of a gene (or modification of a virus). Expression of an intact gene in a context where it is not normally expressed or overexpression as well as silencing of genes are also reverse-genetics approaches that do not require changing what the genes encode. Such approaches are used to infer the function of many viral genes (not only the ones encoding spike proteins) and their possible role in increased host range and virulence. It does not imply a gain-of-function experiment. In fact, as your very quote from the Duprex et al. (2014) article about gain-of-function states, gain-of-function approaches “are by no means the only approach for linking sequence with function.” There is therefore no way the use of the term “reverse genetics” in the abstract could be interpreted as meaning that they “were doing exactly the kinds of gain-of-function experiments in Wuhan that could turn a bat coronavirus into a new virus strain with high human-to-human transmissibility.”

            In support of your biased interpretation, you then cite a 2015 article by Dr. Zhengli Shi, and collaborators where they state: “Using the SARS-CoV reverse genetics system, we generated and characterized a chimeric virus expressing the spike of bat coronavirus SHC014 in a mouse-adapted SARS-CoV backbone.”
            If you read the Methods section of this article (https://www.nature.com/articles/nm.3985/) you will see that the description of the “Construction of the SARS-like chimeric viruses” uses exactly the type of approach that would generate a virus that any competent molecular virologist would immediately recognize as having been constructed in the lab. This is completely irrelevant to the current discussion where everyone agrees that there is no “signature” of a lab engineered sequence in the Covid-19 pandemic causing viruses.

            The discussion is about the possibility that the new human infecting virus was the result of serial passages in cell lines or more likely an animal model such as “humanized” mice. While the abstract says that they will test infectivity of bat viruses in humanized mice, in no way does that mean that they intend to do the type of long-term serial passages experiment that could lead to gain-of-function for infectivity in humans. They could very well intent simply to test a large collection of bat coronaviruses in humanized mice to see which ones are virulent, which ones are sufficiently immunogenic to induce human immunoglobulin production and whether these can cross-react with a range of other coronaviruses of animal origins. All of these would be completely valid and important observations without the need to generate “a new virus strain with high human-to-human transmissibility.”

            Of course, getting access to the full grant proposal would show whether you were right or not and resolve the question of what they intended to do (not that they necessarily did everything that was in the proposal of course). But as of now, in my opinion your statement was a tendentious overinterpretation at best.

            I look forward to your rebuttal but please note that this is my last contribution to this discussion.

            Regards
            Benoît

            1. I think you are confusing me with “Mike.” He is the one who posted: “So, on balance it is all speculative” as well as the post about “exactly the kinds of gain-of-function experiment…” My post went only to the quote from you that began the post, asking where in the abstract “gain-of-function” is mentioned.

              “Expression of an intact gene in a context where it is not normally expressed or overexpression as well as silencing of genes are also reverse-genetics approaches that do not require changing what the genes encode.”

              I don’t know if your argument is that reverse-genetics can be used to bring about a loss-of-function, and not just a gain-of-function. Are you arguing that loss-of-function experiments cannot result in a virus having increased lethality to humans? The purpose of silencing and overexpression of genes is to see what the change is to the phenotype, or how the virus behaves. It can’t be assumed that the effect will always be to make the virus less dangerous to humans. “For some, gain of function causes the most concern, although even for the influenza transmission studies, it is simplistic to focus on only one phenotype/one function as a range or on infectivity changed during selection of mammal-adapted avian influenza viruses. Once again, this highlights why “GOF” is such a vague term. Conversely, loss of function, such as the ability to be neutralized by an antibody, inhibited by a drug, or detected by a diagnostic assay, also raises significant concern.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4271557/ So I don’t quite see what your objection is to the term “gain-of-function.”

              Furthermore, the experiment by Shi at the WIV cited above involved creating “chimeric” viruses in order to determine what changes make the virus more lethal. “This project aims to understand what factors increase the risk of the next CoV emerging in people by studying CoV diversity in a critical zoonotic reservoir (bats), at sites of high risk for emergence (wildlife markets) in an emerging disease hotspot (China).”

              “It is clear that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was systematically constructing novel chimeric coronaviruses and was assessing their ability to infect human cells and human-ACE2-expressing mice,” says Richard H. Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University and leading expert on biosafety. …“It is also clear,” Ebright said, “that, depending on the constant genomic contexts chosen for analysis, this work could have produced SARS-CoV-2 or a proximal progenitor of SARS-CoV-2.” “Genomic context” refers to the particular viral backbone used as the testbed for the spike protein. …“It is clear that some or all of this work was being performed using a biosafety standard — biosafety level 2, the biosafety level of a standard US dentist’s office — that would pose an unacceptably high risk of infection of laboratory staff upon contact with a virus having the transmission properties of SARS-CoV-2,” Ebright says. https://thebulletin.org/2021/05/the-origin-of-covid-did-people-or-nature-open-pandoras-box-at-wuhan/

              These quotes by Ebright seem to cover Mike’s statement that they “were doing exactly the kinds of gain-of-function experiments in Wuhan that could turn a bat coronavirus into a new virus strain with high human-to-human transmissibility.”

              You argue that they could very well intend “simply to test a large collection of bat coronaviruses in humanized mice to see which ones are virulent, which ones are sufficiently immunogenic to induce human immunoglobulin production and whether these can cross-react with a range of other coronaviruses of animal origins.” But according to Ebright that does not describe what they are doing, nor does that use reverse genetics to create chimeric viruses in order “to understand what factors increase the risk of the next CoV emerging in people.”

              Finally, you argue that the cited experiment started with a known virus, so it would be recognized as having been constructed in a lab. Apart from the fact that most known viruses are also found in the wild so it’s not entirely clear why certain modifications couldn’t have arisen naturally, this does not demonstrate that all of their experiments start with viruses or “backbones” that had been previously described in the literature. It’s clear that the WIV has collected more viruses than they have written up.

  13. The thing to realize is that both the left and right media sources are incredibly untrustworthy. They will state “facts” that are confirmed only by their own bias.

    Half of what you “know” about Trump is false if you get your news exclusively from either Fox News or the liberal media. From Glenn Greenwald documenting the Trump/Russia reporting.

    https://theintercept.com/2019/01/20/beyond-buzzfeed-the-10-worst-most-embarrassing-u-s-media-failures-on-the-trumprussia-story/

    1. The left-wing media and right-wing media may both be biased and may both report inaccurately. It does not follow, however, that they are equally biased or equally inaccurate in their reporting, or that the truth lies midway between the two. Beware the “golden mean” fallacy.

  14. I have great respect for Dr. Gorski, and I think that his rebuttal of the “deliberately engineered” hypothesis is convincing. It seems to me that his argument against the “accidental leak” hypothesis is a bit short of specific evidence, circumstantial or otherwise.

    1. “his rebuttal of the “deliberately engineered” hypothesis is convincing.”

      One problem with Gorski’s piece is that he sets up strawmen. An example is in his discussion of the furin cleavage site, which greatly increases viral infectivity for human cells. In his article, Nicholas Wade points out that of all known SARS-related beta-coronaviruses, only SARS2 possesses a furin cleavage site. Wade goes through a number of different explanations as to how SARS2 could have acquired its furin cleavage site. One difficulty is that such a site is not needed for SARS-related beta-coronaviruses to infect bat cells, so one struggles to understand the environmental pressure to develop one there. Wade goes through the various possibilities and concludes that each step in each required chain of events is very unlikely, making the whole series improbable.

      However, in his article Gorski represents Wade as saying that the furin cleavage site “couldn’t have arisen naturally.” He then cites some sources who describe how it could have been done. But Wade goes through all of that. His argument is that it is unlikely. Furthermore, he points out that “At least 11 gain-of-function experiments, adding a furin site to make a virus more infective, are published in the open literature, including [by] Dr. Zhengli Shi, head of coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”

      The main issue is that the media adopted the position that to a scientific certainty the lab-leak theory had been thoroughly debunked and could only be seriously considered by someone partial to conspiracy theories. Such people were to be publicly ridiculed (a very popular approach these days to getting one’s own way and one that Dr. Gorski makes liberal use of). The problem is that this is not true. There are reputable virologists who agree that the matter is not closed and has not been debunked. Even if eventually it becomes clear that the lab-leak theory is false, that does not justify anybody who said so on insufficient evidence or who relied on statements but did not examine them critically when they had a duty to do so (the media).

  15. What are the odds that, of all the wet markets found everywhere throughout China, the one that Covid originated from is exactly the one in Wuhan, next to the lab that has been doing bat Coronavirus experimentation for many years, and also raised various safety concerns in the past? I am not saying it is impossible, just that it seems a little too much of a strange coincidence …

  16. The CCP would have no problem sacrificing a few hundred thousand of it’s citizens if they could cause the chaos and misery unleashed on the planet. They knew how the Red Carbuncle would react.
    Are we too frightened to discuss the possibility that the virus was released purposefully?

    1. Deliberate or accidental release of the virus, either way, I’ve been thinking for some time that however it’s come about, we are making dandy lab rats.

    1. Martenson is smart, but comes off as a legend in his own mind. The prepper stuff he promotes seems to have messed with him. I watched a number of his first videos about the pandemic and found them helpful to get up to speed. But then, he started suggesting collecting rainwater. Huh? This is a pandemic caused by a virus, not an earthquake. Also, his take on the vaccines was looney.

  17. To me, the important revelation is not the reasonable and obvious possibility that an outbreak of a rare disease, occurring very close to one of three places on earth that study that disease, is likely related to that virus lab.
    What concerns me is the immediate and universal treatment of any discussion of that possibility as “false claims about a debunked and racist conspiracy theory”. Particularly distressing is the uncritical way that almost all of the media clung to that orthodoxy, even denouncing anyone who questioned it.
    I am sure that most here have noticed that media seem to simultaneously adopt such positions, even using the same wording.
    The language used implies strongly that the allegations have been carefully evaluated, and proved false beyond any reasonable doubt. I have noticed that they frequently have not had time to do even a cursory examination of the claims, much less eliminated it as a possibility.
    Charitably, it might be possible that they have stopped trying to do journalism, and just copy each other. Slightly less palatable is the idea that they reflexively take an opposite position to whatever Trump claims.
    A worst case scenario is possible, where news department’s reporting conclusions are controlled by their corporate owners, who are in turn heavily influenced by the CCP and other entities who they do business with, but are hostile to US interests.
    So what other things are they lying about?

    As far as the “dumb” idea of deliberate release, yes, it seems pretty unlikely. But even that presupposes that the motivations of the CCP are similar enough to our that we can predict their actions.

    Just as an intellectual exercise, if the CCP did want to deliberately set such a disease loose on the world, they could do exactly what happened. Even if they started the pandemic far away from China, some number of Chinese would be affected. That is a typical downside of bio warfare, and just part of an equation. Infecting large numbers of foreign residents at a large lunar festival just before their return home might be an acceptable strategy to some.
    In “12 Monkeys”, they had one traveler personally release his virus in airports on a globe hopping trip. That presumes the virus is tremendously infectious. With a more covid-like disease, such tactics might take years for the few infected travelers to cause a serious outbreak in their home countries. Or it could never take hold. To ensure rapid spread, you really need to seed the target nations with hundreds or thousands of infected people. The logistics of infecting so many diverse people outside of China could be daunting.
    I am not alleging that this is what happened, but I know a few things bout bio warfare defense, so I cannot help but think in this way. Defensive strategy starts with asking “how would I attack this facility, if I had the enemies resources?”

    1. Interesting take on the matter. When I first heard about the “labgate” (did I just make that up?) I thought about “12 Monkeys” and the psychopath that swirled his wares in the airports. A very realistic scenario. And a scary brain exercise because now we know it doesn’t take long to realize how easily a pandemic can be realized…esp. if it’s egged on. Unfortunately, I feel my best decision is to have ‘faith’ in the human race, and especially the intellectuals who I hope have humanity’s best interest in mind. Hopeless optimist? I hope so.

      1. I mentioned here before that I used to teach bio and chem warfare defense and counter terrorism tactics in the military. That does not give me special knowledge in this case. However, it does give one a certain mindset. Every place I go, I think of ways to attack and defend. I can’t help it.
        So when the idea of a possible deliberate release of Covid was promoted, I started thinking about the logistics of it.
        If China wanted to do this, and I am not saying they actually do, managing to infect a sufficient number of people from diverse origins outside of China would be difficult. Covid is not virulent enough that they could just put some infected people on some flights. Having a hundred Chinese agents going around spraying live virus aerosol droplets in global travel hubs is risky. They need to keep the virus viable, so it would be difficult to conceal, and if one of them were caught with the apparatus, it might well be seen as an act of war on the whole world.
        Plus, even if it were successfully deployed that way, infected travelers would still bring it back to China, and there would be a Chinese death toll.
        The logistics of spreading it among foreign visitors at a lunar festival in a city with an existing bio warfare lab are much simpler.
        I still don’t think any of this is likely. It is worth pondering, though.

        1. “if the CCP did want to deliberately set such a disease loose on the world, they could do exactly what happened”

          What would their motive be for this? It’s interesting that China claims that their fatalities from COVID-19 are only 4,636.

          1. The effects of bio warfare are incredibly unpredictable, but hubris can lead people to make irrational decisions.
            The Chinese could perhaps believe that destabilizing the economies of their competitors would leave them in a position of advantage.
            I am guessing here, but if their internal economists predicted that they were heading towards some sort of economic disaster, releasing the disease might give them the opportunity to shuffle the deck instead of playing their current hand, so to speak.
            The CCP is not known for being obsessed with cherishing human life and preventing suffering, so they might give that particular downside of the equation less weight than you or I would.
            Bio warfare agents are being developed and stockpiled by at least 16 countries, so that comes with the assumption that those countries foresee possible circumstances where their use might be considered a viable option. Even though the predicted effects will include numbers of casualties among their own citizens.

            1. Sure, they do evil things, but the Chinese government seems to do everything by cold calculation. It is hard to see how this really helps them. Even if they thought it was to their advantage, the risk and cost of discovery is too great. All it would take is one scientist at the lab giving it all away. The scientists are somewhat public figures so hiding them isn’t an option as that would also give it away.

              1. I should repeat that I don’t believe the deliberate release option is likely, unless some new evidence is uncovered.
                I don’t think we have been in this long enough to understand the full effects of the lockdown. Lots of things are just starting to happen. The eviction moratorium is ending soon, and I don’t think whatever happens then is going to help us much. Some time in the future, I imagine some researcher will be able to quantify the economic and social consequences of so many kids missing a year of school.

                But importantly, what is actually happening to us is not necessarily what CCP analysts might have predicted would happen. Poor predictions of an opponent’s response are the rule rather than the exception. Even when using conventional weapons and strategies.

  18. I’m really disappointed in you Jerry. You don’t normally fall for this kind of pseudoscience.

    I look forward to what you have to say after you’ve listened to the two TWiV interviews and to the comments the host make afterwards, especially what they have to say about Nicholas Wade’s ridiculous claims that have already been debunked.

    1. Are you saying that you believe that the media treatment of this issue was appropriate and proper? Typical was PolitiFact: “On Sept. 16, PolitiFact’s Daniel Funke penned a polemical fact check of Yan’s claim. He described the idea that COVID-19 originated in a laboratory as a “debunked conspiracy theory” whose exponents dissented from the “consensus of the scientific community and international public health organizations” on the natural origin of COVID-19. He argued that the virus’s genetic structure precluded “the possibility that it was manipulated in a lab.” Funke called Yan’s claim “inaccurate and ridiculous” and awarded it the “Pants on Fire!” verdict.” https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2021/06/03/how_fact-checkers_mishandled_the_covid-19_origin_debate.html#!

      Do you have a reference to where Nicholas Wade’s claims have been debunked?

  19. I’m really not sure just how plausible this scenario is compared to the other possible avenues of initial transmission, but China being a closed society that’s taking this virus as a insult to the nation is a major problem going forward. No virus cares about the global reputation of China, yet the global reputation of China takes precedent over trying to understand and manage how these things spread.

    I’m curious as to why “the West” has dropped all pretence that it cares about democracy and open societies. The sheer economic cost of this outbreak is staggering – is it worth it for the amount of business done with authoritation dictatorships?

  20. If information about the natural origin of the virus could be conveyed in HD resolution and other urgent information about the near past and future of our planet, I believe that such a film should be “watched”. In such a situation (if such a hypothetical film was available) one should ask – what the hell are we waiting for? (for all signs on heaven as I judge ,we are live finally in the 21st century )

    Unfortunately, we do not have the technology that would allow us to rewind our story like a film stock.These are all daydreams.

    So the doubts remain, and “doubt” is not a temporary stage before gaining more facts for some people, but an end in itself.Especially when the stake in the game is to lose or only diminish hegemony.
    Therefore, I agree with the gentleman who wrote above. “When you combine politics with science, you get politics.”

  21. This matter is a lesson on why conspiracy theories and theorists arise. Authorities dissemble. Authorities manipulate a letter from scientists, then punishing those who questioned the official position. When all comes out, surprise, people are subsequently skeptical of authorities.

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