In the past month, two papers have appeared, one in Science and one in Cell, addressing the issue of whether the Covid-19 infection began in a wet markets in Wuhan as a zoonotic infection, or, alternatively, as an escaped virus from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). While we’ll never know for sure where the virus came from, the wet-market origin is looking increasingly likely.
Why is this important? Well, as the article below in the LA Times notes (click on screenshot, and if you hit a paywall, it’s republished for free on yahoo! finance), the precautions we’d take depend on the pandemic’s origin. If it came from a wet market, we’d want to take a close look at these markets, and possibly close them. (I think they should be closed anyway, for, as I’ve seen, the animals for sale are kept under horrible conditions.) If it escaped from the WIV, on the other hand, we’d want to institute more stringent regulations in lab.
Click below or on the link above.
Now the column is written by Michale Hiltzik, a business writer for the Times, so you might want to take that into account. Still, he reprises the evidence in the two papers (both in top-tier journals) that makes a lab origin look pretty unlikely. In fact, he claims there’s no good evidence for the lab-leak theory, which is a lesson emphasized in those two papers. A quote from the LA Times article:
It would be inaccurate to say that evidence for the lab leak theory is fading. That’s because there never was any evidence for the theory, just conjecture.
Virtually from the outset, the lab leak theory was driven by ideology, not science. It employed the vocabulary of science, but that’s a familiar technique for bamboozling a susceptible public.
“The only evidence for a lab leak, period, is just that the virus emerged in Wuhan, where the Wuhan Institute of Virology is,” Rasmussen told me. “That’s it. Since day one, that has been the only piece of evidence.”
The assertions supporting the lab leak theory are not only conjectures, but in many cases provably wrong conjectures. They’re often based on misinformation, scientific ignorance, or even bad translations from Chinese documents.
Proponents have made much of the fact that the Virology Institute is only about 300 yards from the animal market that appeared to be the source of the first infections, for instance.
But that’s wrong. The facility 300 yards away is the Wuhan Center for Disease Control, which doesn’t conduct research on raw viruses; the Virology Institute is about 7.5 miles from the market and on the far side of the Yangtze River.
Attributing the disease outbreak to the lab would be akin to stating that a disease outbreak in Santa Monica had to have originated in a lab at UCLA about seven miles away.
The WIV-origin theory was also supported by a mistranslation: when Texas congressional representative Michael McCaul claimed that the WIV put out a $606 million contract for a new air-conditioning system—something reported by the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal (the amounts now appear to have been corrected)—it turned out that the amount was actually $606,000, which is about what it would take to put in a new A/C system in my lab.
Other evidence supposedly favoring the WIV origin, like the so-called “engineered adaptation” of the virus to humans, has fallen apart, since the virus infects many mammals. The famous “furin cleaveage site” supposedly put into the virus’s code for the spike protein to make it more infectious—a site said to be too novel to have been a natural occurrence—has now been seen in other coronavirus spike proteins.
Finally, Christopher Ford, a former Assistant Secretary of State, has recounted in an open letter how the State Department itself pushed the WIV-origin theory without scientific evidence, motivated mainly by the intelligence division, which saw sinister motives more strongly than evidence.
As I said, we’ll never know for sure where the pandemic came from, but to me the epidemiological evidence is telling, and it points strongly to a wet-market rather than to a WIV origin. They also found viral material in the wet market.
This article concludes with some common sense:
Research supporting the theory that the pandemic originated in a natural jump from animals to humans has moved ahead, with more evidence accumulating drawn from the virus’ genetic footprint. Evidence for the lab leak, however, has stagnated. Nothing has been posited about the possibility of a laboratory leak this year that wasn’t posited in 2020, when the theory was widely dismissed.
No reputable scientist would assert that a laboratory origin of the SARS2 virus is impossible or inconceivable. But it’s looking more and more like a dead end. That means pursuing it, especially to the exclusion of natural explanations, may not be merely foolhardy, but dangerous for the health of humankind.
Here’s the wet market, closed, photographed on January 21, 2020. (AP Photo by Dake Kang)