Lab leak push-back – the counterattack

The liberal news media has not given up on this one. The turn-about on the lab leak theory “which until recently was considered a conspiracy” lasted a few days but has been followed up by a retrenchment. They are still pushing back against the lab leak theory despite the fact that scientifically speaking what we have is two competing theories (lab leak and natural origin) without a great deal of hard evidence to support either. (There is also the middle-ground theory of direct transmission from a bat to one of the researchers from the Wuhan lab who had been spending too much time in the bat-infested caves and a subsequent spread once they got back to Wuhan). I say scientifically speaking because the most interesting evidence in support of the lab leak theory is the obvious and undeniable cover-up operation by the Chinese (take-down of the original Wuhan lab database in September 2019 [1], attempts to control the WHO mission, refusal to share actual patient data with the WHO mission, [2] other removals of published genetic material, [3] suggestions that Pangolians had been identified as the zoonotic jump species – which turned out not to be sustainable, and so on).

This is an article in the Guardian which is part of the push-back. The article is written by the Guardian’s “Science Editor”. Though, from the point of view of science it doesn’t get off to a good start: “Whatever this week’s Biden review finds, the cause of the pandemic lies in the destruction of animal habitats”. A more unscientific statement it would be hard to think up. “Whether the causes of C are found to be A or B I assert Z”. So there. Liberals. You have to love them.

Quotes and comments follow.

Although allegations of a leak from the Wuhan institute had been aired by Donald Trump, and rejected flatly by the Chinese, little credence was given to the claim until May, when 18 leading scientists sent a letter to the journal Science in which they claimed both spillover and leak theories were equally plausible.

“Little credence was given to the claim” – well that certainly isn’t true of this web site! And in general there were plenty of voices pointing out that the lab leak theory was / is perfectly plausible. It was just that the liberal media decided at an editorial level to squash the lab leak theory – for political reasons. Watch how they try to rewrite history by suggesting that the idea that the lab leak theory was a “conspiracy” was universal. The 18 May letter is just a convenient peg on which to hang their backing down from the false narrative that the lab leak was a conspiracy.

The main evidence to support a lab leak rests on the failure of scientists to pinpoint the intermediate animal that picked up the virus from bats and passed it to humans. In addition, the Wuhan institute is home to a laboratory that is headed by the virologist Shi Zhengli, who tracked down the bat origins of the last coronavirus Sars epidemic.Her team specialises in collecting coronaviruses. Thus, one of the world’s coronavirus research centres was situated in the city where Covid-19 first materialised – a coincidence that some conspiracy advocates find too much to accept.

This paragraph is disingenuous. While the fact that despite thousands of animals having been tested no intermediate animal has yet been found is significant it is not the only evidence. The lab was not simply a “coronavirus research centre” it was doing specific research into how coronaviruses could infect humans including artifically creating such viruses. [4] Furthermore; the original source for these kinds of coronaviruses is in bats which lives in caves hundreds of kilometers to the South of Wuhan. It is hardly tin-hat stuff to consider it a noteworthy coincidence that Sars-Cov-2 first appeared in Wuhan very close to the lab where which was researching coronaviruses and which collected the samples from the caves hundreds of kilometers away. And the virus did not (based on current data) start in villages near the caves.

Shi has rejected claims she had been working on enhancing a new virus to make it more virulent or that she or her staff had been infected with a new coronavirus that they had collected

In his article on this subject for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Nicholas Wade, a former writer at Nature, points out that we know what work was being done at the Institute of Virology in Wuhan because it was funded by the US NIH and the funding application is publicly available: “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. We will use S protein sequence data, infectious clone technology, in vitro and in vivo infection experiments and analysis of receptor binding to test the hypothesis that % divergence thresholds in S protein sequences predict spillover potential”. [4] and [5] Wade summarises: “What this means, in non-technical language, is that Shi [the scientist from the Wuhan Institute of Virology] set out to create novel coronaviruses with the highest possible infectivity for human cells” [4] Without the context for Shi’s reported refutation here it isn’t possible to comment on it. But certainly the Guardian is not giving its readers the full picture.

The Guardian mentions:

a recent review by scientists in the journal Cell: “Despite extensive contact tracing of early cases during the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been no reported cases related to any laboratory staff at the WIV [Wuhan Institute of Virology] and all staff in the laboratory of Dr Shi Zhengli were said to be seronegative for Sars-CoV-2 when tested in March 2020

That is interesting because recent information has been precisely that there were early cases of a viral infection amongst WIV staff. [6] This information has been made public by US intelligence and it forms part of their investigations. It isn’t known if this was Covid or not. But taken together with the refusal by China to release non-anonymised early patient data [2] it is certainly beginning to look suspicious. Again the Guardian’s Science Editor, Robin McKie is only giving his readers a very narrow picture here.

The evidence that “there have been no reported cases related to laboratory staff at the WIV … when tested in March 2020” appears to rely on claims by the Chinese side. Note how the passive voice is used to disguise the agent. – Tested by who? Independent investigators or by the lab themselves? We aren’t told. (I looked up the paper [7] and the reference in the paper for this claim is: “WHO-convened global study of origins of SARS-CoV-2: China Part (World Health Organization).” No futher information is given as to who conducted these tests.

In general I’ve noticed a strong tendency amongst liberal journalists to take all claims by Chineses scientists and authorities at face value and cite them as evidence. At any event even if true – that no one at the WIV had Covid in March 2020 – it is neither here not there as to whether the virus originally leaked from the lab in the last quarter of 2019. So – why even cite this? Unless of course your aim is simply to build a narrative against the lab leak theory.

The fact that Sars-CoV-2 is highly transmissible among humans has also raised suspicions that it had been genetically enhanced. This notion is dismissed by Professor David Robertson, of Glasgow University’s centre for virus research

Scientists who support the lab leak theory have pointed to an unusual structure of the virus. It has a surprisingly effective – in terms of aiding infection – furin cleavage site unusual in SARS-related beta-coronaviruses. This site helps the virus infect human cells. In addition the genetic coding for the furin cleavage site uses an unusual combination (for coronaviruses) of nucleotides. Wade [4] cites this as evidence in support of the possibility that Sars-Cov-2 was built in a lab. (The full discussion is quite technical and readers are best advised to read Wade directly rather than rely on my summary). Wade was in correspondence with the David Robertson cited by Robin McKie (of the Guardian). Wade cites Robertson’s objections and argues against them. (Again readers are referred to the Wade article for details [4] but Wade’s point seems to be that were the furin cleavage site to have arisen naturally it would imply a whole chain of improbable events). The point here is that Robertson is a scientist in the anti-lab-leak camp. There are scientists who consider that the genetic structure of Sars-Cov-2 is evidence of its having been artificially created. (Wade cites David Baltimore from CalTech for example). Notice that Robin McKie cites one who does not interpret the genetics of Sars-Cov-2 in this way. He doesn’t tell his readers that this point is disputed amongst scientists.

We end with this:

This point is backed by Professor James Wood, of Cambridge University. “I think there is very strong evidence for this being caused by natural spillovers but that argument simply does not suit some political groups. They promote the idea that Covid-19 was caused by a lab leak because such a claim deflects attention from increasing evidence that indicates biodiversity loss, deforestation and wildlife trade – which increase the dangers of natural spillovers – are the real dangers that we face from pandemics.” In other words, fiddling with viruses in laboratories is not the dangerous activity.

In reality there is not “very strong evidence for this being caused by natural spillovers”. The key evidence that would support this would be finding signs of tranmission in intermediary species – as happened with Sars-Cov. This has not happened with Sars-Cov-2. (There is a possibly convenient theory that the transmission occured without building up a reservoir of infection in an intermediary species – convenient because on this theory no intermediary species need be found). At any event there is no strong evidence to a support natural origin. Professor James Wood, who is a veterinary epidemiologist, then makes a wholly wild and unsubstantiated interpretation that certain “political groups” are supporting the lab leak idea because this deflects from questions of habitat loss and the wildlife trade. First of all; if by certain “political groups” he means those Republicans who support the lab leak theory he should do some more background reading. Many of these people express disgust for the wildlife trade in China (to a point which some would consider near racist). Far from trying to deflect from the wildlife trade many Republicans denounce it. Secondily; there are many and diverse people who suggest that the lab leak theory is a plausible candidate. These include various scientists around the world, the head of the WHO (who recently said that “accidents happen” [8]), the ex-head of MI6, science writers like Nicholas Wade whose article we have discussed above and so on. The idea that all these people constitute “some poliitcal groups” who are all trying to deflect from discussion about habitat loss and the wildlife trade is barmy. And, as I say, offered without substantiation, (at least in the Guardian’s article). Furthermore; this is circular logic; the idea that these people are trying to deflect from environmental problems presupposes that environmental problems were indeed the source of Sars-Cov-2 – which is what we are trying to establish. It is true that if Sars-Cov-2 did spill from animals to humans than the Chinese trade in wildlife for food consumption is something which should be looked at – and China has imposed restrictions on this trade – but until there is solid evidence for that (natural transmission and links to either the wildlife trade or habitat loss) it is, like the lab leak theory, just a theory.

Robin McKie starts his article by explaining that the question of the origin of Sars-Cov-2 has become “political”. He ends by making a wildly political conclusion which is simply detached from any scientific evidence. “In other words, fiddling with viruses in laboratories is not the dangerous activity”. This manoeuvre would appear to come from the school that believes that the best form of defence is attack. Noting that some of those who argue that the lab leak theory should be treated seriously have suggested that one reason for its original suppression was a coordinated campaign by virologists to defend their reckless gain-of-function experiments the counter attack seems to be to suggest that lab leak proponents are motivated to deflect away from environmental problems. This doesn’t work however; because there is clear evidence of a campaign by virologists and other scientists to suppress the lab leak theory. For example the Nature letter of 19/2/20 which was led by one of the people backing the Wuhan research which claimed the lab leak theory was a “conspiracy” without any evidence for that – or another public letter this one in Nature Medicine in which a group of virologists claimed that the virus could not have been a lab construct, which, according to Wade they cannot be certain of [4] for technical reasons. The fact that the media almost with unanimity broadcast something which they could not know to be true (and cannot to this day) that the lab leak theory was a “conspiracy” – and therefore false – is clear evidence of power getting behind this narrative. And, on the other hand there does not appear to be any evidence that those who suggest that the lab leak theory is a plausible theory are trying to protect the right of Chinese people to eat civets and pangolians. (This writer may not be a representative sample but for what it is worth he is in favour of habitat protection, against the wildlife trade, and generally speaking pro lab leak theory!).

This article in the Guardian is simply further evidence of a desperate attempt to suppress the scientifically entirely plausible theory that Sars-Cov-2 leaked from a lab in Wuhan – specifically the Institute of Virology which was carrying out US NIH funded work into the infectivity of coronaviruses using “virus infection experiments across a range of cell cultures from different species”. Even if in the end it does turn out that it was a spillover from nature it will remain interesting to have observed the suppression of the possibility that it leaked from a lab. The motives for suppressing the lab leak theory may be varied; possibly there is a factor of virologists protecting each other, and academics in general protecting their Chinese counterparts. My guess is that the main driver is likely to be the fear of a wave of popular resentment against China leading to a demand for sanctions and serious economic consequences for the global system should it turn out that Sars-Cov-2 did indeed leak from a lab and this was covered up.

Notes

  1. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/349073738_An_investigation_into_the_WIV_databases_that_were_taken_offline / https://news.cgtn.com/news/2021-08-21/COVID-19-origins-Why-did-the-Wuhan-lab-take-down-its-online-database–12UtSYUWw5q/index.html
  2. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-who-china-idUSKBN2AD090
  3. https://web.archive.org/web/20210801003522/https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/30/science/coronavirus-sequences-lab-leak.html
  4. https://thebulletin.org/2021/05/the-origin-of-covid-did-people-or-nature-open-pandoras-box-at-wuhan/
  5. https://reporter.nih.gov/search/xQW6UJmWfUuOV01ntGvLwQ/project-details/9320765 Nb. this appears to be the same project which Wade is referring to but his quite contains a sentance that is not present in this text. This could be because this is an abstract.
  6. https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/wuhan-lab-staff-sought-hospital-care-before-covid-19-outbreak-disclosed-wsj-2021-05-23/
  7. https://www.cell.com/cell/pdf/S0092-8674(21)00991-0.pdf
  8. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/16/who-chief-says-push-to-discount-lab-leak-theory-was-premature

Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer