COVID-19 Origin Debate
I’ve been asked by many to comment on the SARS-CoV-2 origin debate and new Wall Street Journal article. And, honestly, I don’t want to touch this topic with a 10-foot pole. But, I will leave you with a few thoughts:
The origin of COVID-19 is an ongoing scientific debate. Scientific consensus has not settled. We can all agree that the Wuhan market was an amplification event (i.e. super spreader), but I don’t think we will ever know how it got there because we’ve missed the window of opportunity for critical data. Disproving the lab leak will be close to impossible. This is a tragedy, but I look forward to seeing the ongoing science we can muster.
Transparency is key, and I don’t like how things have to be “leaked” to be known.
The debate is another example of false dichotomies. In reality, opinions range on a scale from “natural spillover” to “lab leak.” Perspectives fall somewhere within the spectrum of probabilities. I lean more towards natural spillover, but I’m certainly not 100%. (I’m a ~70% given some evidence released last year.) I think everyone should recognize where they land on this spectrum and why. Also recognize there are conflicts of interest all over the place.
Many initially dismissed lab spillover because of the original messenger (Trump) and because it was wrapped up in other conspiracy theories, like being a Chinese bio-weapon. (The claim that the virus was engineered is clearly debunked. There’s scientific evidence that it wasn’t an intentional event.) I admit that privately I initially dismissed the idea of a lab leak because of these reasons, which I constantly self-reflect on. As a scientist, I can do better with this noise. We all can. And, we must.
Underlying all of this is that there is the possibility of a lab leak, and a possibility of a natural spillover, and a possibility of intentional lab leaks. We need to address all of these to ensure a safer future. I’m afraid we’re losing sight of this.
I’ve been spending the past few days with Dr. Rivers eating tacos, enjoying happy hour, and processing whatever the hell we’ve been through the past three years. During this time, she wrote the following balanced piece on this topic that I think is worth everyone’s time (see below).
Your Local Epidemiologist is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
One thing too often left unsaid here is the fact that virologists have been at the forefront of dismissing the lab-leak as a conspiracy theory, despite the fact that they have an enormous conflict of interest. This conflict arises from the fact that they want to perform the sorts of experiments which make a lab leak much more likely. These include, most notably, gain of function experiments where they take a related virus isolated from animals and investigate whether they can make it able to infect human cells (or humanised mice). These were exactly the sorts of experiments being performed in Wuhan and they are performed all over the world. The rational for them is that they might help us recognize a potentially dangerous pathogen. This is highly unlikely - and it has never actually happened. What is vastly more likely is that these organisms will infect those doing the experiments and then spread in the community.
There is no justification for doing these types of experiments other than scientific vanity and prestige. They are NOT needed to protect us and they are certainly not needed to make vaccines. THEY SHOULD BE BANNED except under truelly exceptional circumstances.
The main reason virologists dismiss the lab leak hypothesis is that they fear they will be stopped from doing this useless and dangerous research.
As an MD and also having an advanced degree in population genetics and evolutionary biology,I think your positions are mistaken. This virus almost certainly underwent modificatins in a lab prior to its emergence as a worldwide pathogen. One can call it "gain of function". I for one do not feel gain of function research is all bad; in fact under its broad definition we are foolish to let politicians define what research can and can not be done as I see no other way we can keep one step ahead of epidemics. Having said this, it must be done with great caution. Was this some sort of intentional leak; i feel not likely. But you appear foolish to hold on to the theory this jumped from bats to humans in the Wuhan wet market. The Covid spike protien's super strong affinity to the human ACE-2 receptor as well as the furin cleavage site show almost certain modification. This ia a case where epidemiologists need to defer to geneticists and evolutionary biologists. The mere fact that the laboratory records from Wuhan appear to have been purged is pretty incriminating. And to date, no matching Covid virus has yet to have been found in any bat in the world. Similar DNA to other bat coronviruses does not cut it. I would remind you we share over 96% of of our human genome with a chimpanzees but we are an entirely distinct species. Covid -19 most likely emerged from an unfortunate lab leak.
P. Flexon MD