The Covid-19 pandemic: Failure to predict, failure to report. Part One -- Can Republicans be scientific?
An interim report from Senator Richard Burr and GOP staff concludes the lab-leak hypothesis is more likely than the alternative natural origins scenario. All hell breaking loose, as usual.
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In the previous post in this ongoing series, I promised to discuss a number of “preprints”—scientific studies which have been posted but not yet peer reviewed and “officially” published—that call into question the hypothesis that the pandemic virus, SARS-CoV-2, arose via natural transfer or zoonotic “spillover” between animals and humans. This hypothesis, which most news media outlets now treat as either most likely or close to fully established, has been challenged from the beginning of the pandemic by proponents of the rival “lab-leak” scenario, which posits an accident in a lab in Wuhan, China, such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
But I’ve decided to postpone that discussion until the next post, because in the meantime there has been another newsworthy development—and it is getting lots of media attention. On October 27, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), released an “interim report” entitled “An Analysis of the Origins of the COVID-19 Pandemic.” As Burr explained in a Foreword to the interim report, the full committee, chaired by Senator Patty Murray of Washington state, had embarked last summer on a bipartisan investigation of the Covid-19 origins question, but that bipartisan report appears to be far from ready.
I’m not going to speculate on why Burr (and perhaps other minority members of the committee) felt it necessary to release an interim report, rather than wait for the full bipartisan investigation to conclude. Many, of course, will blame it on politics, with the midterms fast approaching. The Covid-19 origins question has clearly become a partisan issue, with Republicans (most notably Rand Paul and others) doing their best to keep it alive, and most Democrats avoiding the topic as much as possible or declaring that it is firmly resolved in favor of the natural origins hypothesis.
But the truth is, as I have written in previous posts, politics is a major factor for both sides of the origins issue, as much as some may claim that they have scientific truth on their side. Moreover, both sides of the political spectrum can be accused of “starting” the fight: Trump and his supporters when they blamed China (using significant doses of anti-Asian racism) at the same time they were declaring the pandemic was a “hoax;” and liberal/progressive scientists and journalists when they declared that the lab-leak hypothesis was a “racist conspiracy theory.”
I can imagine the new wave of pushbacks against the natural origins hypothesis must be quite a shock to proponents of that view, because last July the argument was all but declared over. That’s when Science published two papers linking the “epicenter” of the pandemic to the Huanan “seafood” market in Wuhan. Of course, it was not really over, and next time we will discuss a number of studies, not yet published, that are challenging those conclusions.
In the meantime, I’d like to take a closer look at the Burr report, which—declaring my viewpoint up front—strikes me as a sober, careful, and fully science-based review of the current evidence. Indeed, it is so dispassionately written that some on Twitter have complained that the report’s authors did not attack Anthony Fauci, Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance, Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a host of others whom some more diehard lab leak advocates view as the “villains” of the Covid pandemic. Not that these individuals are above criticism, and not that they may have played key roles in hiding or obfuscating the evidence that would allow us to evaluate the origins of the pandemic scientifically; but I think the authors of the report were wise to stick to the science, even if others may—and do—disagree on what the science says.
Before I move on to the report’s contents, I do want to make some brief comments on the news coverage it has generated. The most high-profile breaking news coverage I have seen so far was in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Science. In an upcoming post (or two), I will be going into a LOT of detail about what I see as the failures of the mainstream media to adequately cover the origins debate; but for now, I think we can judge the quality of the reporting by how often it quotes the “usual suspects” in the controversy—those who have staked out entrenched positions and are very unlikely to change them any time soon—and how often it uses quotes that are inflammatory and insulting to the other side of the issue rather than ones that stick strictly to the scientific issues.
If you look at these stories, and also the considerable Twitter traffic about the report, one might think that it is largely a political document, and, as one noted Covid expert put it, “anti-science.” I think a quick glance at the report, which includes 225 citations from the scientific literature, official documents, and reputable media outlets, contradicts that notion, which smacks of a smear against the document and the serious effort that went into it.
I will let readers be the judge, but in my view, the stories in the Post and the WSJ are closer to what we might hope for in balanced coverage, while those in the NYT and Science (where, full disclosure, I worked for 25 years) are below par in that regard. I invite readers to take a look themselves, and then comment in the space provided by clicking below.
[Note: Just as this post was going to press, a major investigation into the problems at the Wuhan lab was published by ProPublica. I hope everyone will read it carefully.]
Now on to the report. Here are what, to me, are the most interesting and important points.
While zoonotic transfers are a well-known and well studied way in which animal pathogens infect humans, the epidemiology of Covid-19 differs from that pattern.
The previous major outbreaks of disease related to coronaviruses, SARS (which originated in China) and MERS (in the Middle East), have been convincingly established as zoonotic spillovers. In both cases, the so-called “intermediate host” animal from which humans were infected by the viruses was identified within a reasonable amount of time. This is not the case with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, even nearly three years after the pandemic began. The missing intermediate host is, of course, a problem that has been much discussed in the past.
But the report’s authors emphasize what I think is a key, often overlooked point. As the report points out, the SARS epidemic of 2002-04 “saw at least five independent spillovers of the SARS virus into humans that then spread them to other humans…” The first independent spillovers took place in animal markets in Guangdong Province over a period of several months in the early days of the epidemic. The same thing happened in the later days of the SARS epidemic: Continued independent zoonotic transfers.
This is exactly what one might expect, because both the reservoir of bats and intermediate hosts of the virus still existed and were still fully capable of infecting humans. Moreover, animals infected with the SARS virus were identified soon after the epidemic began.
But the situation with Covid-19 is very different. The report says: “There…do not appear to have been subsequent spillovers of the virus that generated sustained transmission in humans, or any other independent spillovers of SARS-CoV-2, from the [unknown] intermediate host animal(s) to humans since the pandemic started.”
I’ve boldfaced this because, as the report points out, this is a serious issue for the natural origins hypothesis. The closest relatives of SARS-CoV-2 have been identified in bats from a mine in southwest China nearly 1000 miles from Wuhan, and from Laos, at least 1000 miles distant. So, somehow, an intermediate host carrying a SARS-like virus already capable of infecting humans gets to the Wuhan market, causes one or two spillovers (one of the two Science papers mentioned above finds that it was two), but never spilled over before that and has not done so since (that we know about.)
To make matters even more murky, as the report briefly discusses, we do not actually know when the pandemic actually began in Wuhan. As some scientists have discussed, and as one of the Science papers itself concludes, the first cases could have been as early as October 2019—many weeks before they were first reported to Chinese health authorities in December.
Extensive coronavirus research in Wuhan and at the Wuhan Institute of Virology
The report goes over the now well-known, but hidden until revealed by leaks and Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, revelations that the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) was virtually awash with samples of SARS-like viruses from China and other southeast Asian countries; and that the research teams at WIV and other Wuhan labs—in collaboration with U.S. scientists—were genetically engineering viruses and creating “chimeric” versions to study how they infected humans and what were the key molecular features that allowed them to do that. Here is a key passage:
“WIV researchers and their collaborators undertook large scale virus collection expeditions to Southern China and Southeast Asia, where bats naturally harbor SARS-related viruses, on an annual basis from 2004 onwards. 94 During these expeditions, scientists collected bat blood, saliva, and urine samples.95 The WIV collected more than 15,000 bat-related samples around the time the pandemic began.96 Of these, the WIV had identified more than 220 SARS-related coronaviruses, at least 100 of which have not been made public.97”
Despite the potential relevance of this research to the Covid origins question, the WIV has refused to divulge what research it did with NIH funds it received via a sub-grant from EcoHealth Alliance—which has now led NIH to cut its funding (a news story which has been ignored by ALL mainstream/legacy media.)
The report also, quite appropriately, relates that in 2018 researchers at the WIV, in collaboration with U.S. scientists at EcoHealth Alliance and UNC, Chapel Hill, submitted a grant to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which, in part, described experiments that would have inserted a so-called furin cleavage site—a genomic segment known to help SARS-CoV-2 infect human cells, and which only SARS-CoV-2 possesses out of all SARS-like viruses—into a viral backbone. The grant was not funded, but ever since it was revealed by the dissident science group DRASTIC, natural origins proponents have done their best to try to explain it away—even when they could not possibly know whether the work was actually performed or not (see here and here for my commentaries on this.)
The report goes on to discuss, at length, the long history of safety problems at the WIV and the remedial actions which were undertaken to deal with them. In other words, the WIV could—emphasis on could—have been an accident waiting to happen. Whatever the case, there is nothing outlandish or “unscientific” about factoring in these events as part of the evaluation of the most likely scenarios for the emergence of the pandemic virus.
The last topic the report’s authors examined that is possibly relevant to the origins question is the fact that China was able to come up with vaccine candidates for Covid-19 by more than a month before AstraZeneca-Oxford. The implication is that Chinese scientists already knew the genomic sequence of the virus at least a month or more before it was published and available to the rest of the scientific community. I won’t go into details here, but I agree with those who think this is a weak argument—primarily because, unlike so much of the report, it is fact-free and based on pure speculation about Chinese scientific capabilities.
Based on all of this evidence taken together, the report concludes that it was “more likely than not” the result of a “research-related incident.” What I want to stress here is that this conclusion, whether right or wrong, is based on what I think is a fair and reasonable sifting of the known evidence. Obviously, if the Republicans take over either chamber of Congress, they are very likely to launch hearings into just these issues, complete with subpoenas of documents and individuals. Some suspect, perhaps rightly, that this is why the “interim” report was released now, just days before the midterms. I’ve even seen a number of lab-leak advocates on Twitter saying loudly that they favor a Republican sweep in the midterms just so those hearings can take place.
As a life-long leftist and anti-fascist, I cannot sympathize with that sentiment, much as I also want to see some serious investigation of this issue—which, it is important to understand, has not really taken place so far. (No thanks to mainstream/legacy news outlets, whose coverage is pretty clearly biased towards the natural origins hypothesis.)
But one thing seems certain: The long campaign to “debunk” the lab-leak hypothesis and marginalize it as a “conspiracy theory” has failed, miserably. It’s now time to seriously put the conversation on a solid scientific basis, and for each side to admit that despite circumstantial evidence of the kind described in this report and elsewhere, neither has the direct evidence necessary to resolve the question.
Stay tuned for the next installment, when we will look at some new challenges to the natural origins hypothesis, and begin to follow their progress from preprint to possible peer-reviewed publication.
Words For the Wise is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Great write up although don't see much difference between republican/ democrat...
If SARS-CoV-2 originated in an *accidental* lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, why the Fauci-Farrar cover-up? Why the involvement of the global scientific establishment? To hide Chinese *mistakes*? Can’t be explained without #Event201 #Plandemic #biowar