Hiltzik: More debunking of lab leak theory for COVID


When it comes to the pandemic, pseudoscience has triumphed over real science at almost every turn. One of the best examples is the unsubstantiated claim that the virus that causes COVID-19 escaped from a Chinese laboratory.

Despite mounting evidence that the virus has reached humans through natural routes – from infected animals such as bats – the laboratory leak hypothesis has recently returned to the news, thanks to CNN, the site. Investigative Information The Intercept and the Atlantic.

All treat the idea that the virus escaped from a lab with gullibility. They downplay or totally ignore the latest scientific findings that support the theory that the origin of the virus can be found in the animal kingdom – the view accepted by a preponderance of virology experts.

It is likely that this one also comes from animals. But there is also the possibility that the virus escaped from a laboratory.

CNN’s Sanjay Gupta exaggerates lab leak theory

This is called the zoonotic theory, from the term for a disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans.

We have already noted the virtual absence of evidence of a laboratory leak, whether or not the product of a deliberate act.

Ever since the lab leak allegation first surfaced under the Trump administration, where it was part of a White House information campaign demonizing China, one of the arguments in its favor has been that the evidence for a zoonotic origin was also patchy.

This argument has never been entirely true – virologists know animals are the root cause of most of the viral diseases plaguing mankind – but it has grown weaker than ever over the past year.

The question of the origin of COVID-19 is not only of academic interest. The response could guide the world’s preparedness for future pandemics; if the virus has emerged from a laboratory, improving laboratory safety measures will be a priority. If scientific opinion continues to converge around animal-to-human transmission, this will underscore the importance of regulating human-wildlife contact.

In other words, if we focus on the wrong answer, the right actions will not be taken. In a real sense, the future of humanity depends on not being distracted by an unsupported, politically motivated claim about Chinese labs.

Before looking at the flaws in CNN, Intercept, and Atlantic processing, let’s take a look at what has been published recently on the zoonotic pathway.

For context, keep in mind that the first cluster of COVID-19 cases, in late 2019, were identified in the vicinity of the Huanan seafood market in the Chinese metropolis of Wuhan. Laboratory leak theorists find this important, as it is 12 km from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which researches bat viruses.

An article published online earlier this month primarily by researchers at the Institut Pasteur de France and being considered for publication in a journal Nature, however, reports that three viruses have been found in bats living in bats. caves in northern Laos with characteristics very similar to those of SARS-CoV-2. , the virus responsible for COVID-19.

As Nature reported, these viruses are “more similar to SARS-CoV-2 than any known virus.”

Another article, published in late August by researchers at the Wuhan laboratory, reports viruses found in rats also with characteristics similar to those that make SARS-CoV-2 infectious in humans. Two other articles posted on the virological.org discussion forum present evidence that the virus has passed from animals to humans at more than one animal market in Wuhan, not just the Huanan seafood market.

Since these so-called wet markets have long been suspected of being points of virus transmission from animals to humans because they sell potentially infected animals, this makes the lab’s origin much less likely, according to a co-author. of one of the articles.

“It’s pretty unlikely that a lab leak would go to where you’d expect to find zoonotic transmission,” Joel Wertheim, associate professor at UC San Diego School of Medicine, told me. “For it to find its way to multiple markets, the exact spot where you would expect to see the intro is incredibly unlikely.”

As virologist Robert F. Garry of Tulane, one of Wertheim’s co-authors, told Nature, the discovery is “a dagger at the heart” of the lab leak hypothesis.

Garry and Wertheim are among 21 expert co-authors of a “critical review” of virological findings on the origins of COVID-19. The review concludes: “There is currently no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 has a laboratory origin.”

Let us now examine recent reports supporting the theory of laboratory leaks.

On September 19, CNN aired a one-hour documentary titled “The Origins of COVID-19: Finding the Source.” Hosted by the channel’s star science presenter, Sanjay Gupta, the program bears the veneer of an unbiased approach.

Proponents of the zoonotic origin theory receive airtime, including Kristian Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla and Peter Daszak, a prominent virology grantor.

But the same goes for proponents of the laboratory leak theory. Among them, Alina Chan, researcher at the Broad Institute, a biomedical research center, and Josh Rogin, columnist for the Washington Post. Neither has any previous virology experience. Chan is co-authoring a book on the origins of COVID that should highlight the theory of lab leaks, a fact not mentioned by CNN.

Yet at the top of the hour, referring to the common pattern of viruses jumping from animals to humans, Gupta said, “It’s likely that this one is also from animals. But there is also the possibility that the virus escaped from a laboratory. ”

By posing these two theories as just two equally plausible solutions to a mystery, CNN glosses over the fact that the virological community views animal origin as far more likely than a lab leak. In fact, the two hypotheses are miles apart in terms of credibility.

One of the main goals of the program is a report by a World Health Organization team released in early 2021 which found that an animal host overflow was “likely to very likely” and that a laboratory incident was an “extremely unlikely route”.

Gupta calls the WHO report “the only scientific study into the origins of COVID to date.” This is not correct from a distance. There have been countless scientific studies, both before the WHO report and since. Indeed, Gupta mentions one of them, a seminal article by Andersen and colleagues, published in March 2020. This article called the laboratory leak theory “an incomplete speculative hypothesis without any credible evidence.” .

Much of the rest of CNN’s schedule is filled with speculation about the Wuhan Institute, usually presented with ominous music on the soundtrack, subliminally suggesting that something sinister is going on there. The lack of information from the Chinese institute or government is generally equated with an admission of guilt.

“During 2020,” Gupta says, “more and more revelations have emerged regarding the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”

One of those revelations concerned three staff members who allegedly sought hospital treatment for flu-like illness in November 2019, before the outbreak of the COVID pandemic.

Nothing ever happened to suggest these workers had COVID – November is flu season, after all. Whether they received treatment in a hospital does not matter, as it is well known that Chinese people often visit hospitals for primary care, which residents of other countries would tend to receive in a hospital. doctor’s office.

An on-air CNN reporter exaggerated the case, saying the patients were “hospitalized with an unknown illness.” There is no evidence that they were admitted to hospital or that their illness was “unknown”.

CNN does not make its audience aware of any of the latest research supporting the zoonotic theory, although it was published long before the broadcast date and replaced what Gupta described as “the only scientific study” on the origins of COVID.

More recently, the Intercept trumpeted an alleged scoop based on a leaked document – a grant proposal submitted in 2018 by Daszak’s organization, the EcoHealth Alliance, to the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

The proposal, for laboratory manipulation of a virus linked to SARS, the viral disease that caused an epidemic of lung disease in China in 2003. DARPA, however, rejected the proposal, and there is no evidence that it has been submitted, let alone approved by, any other funding body.

“Many questions remain about the proposal, including whether any of the research described therein has been completed,” admitted Intercept.

Commentators on the Intercept revelation have shown, perhaps unwillingly, that they lack the courage of their own convictions. In an article published on September 24, the Atlantic, unable or unwilling to delve into what the Intercept document really meant, contented itself with saying that it made the debate over lab leaks “even more complicated.”

Daniel Engber and Adam Federman of the magazine wrote: “Did the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic have an unnatural origin? The answer has not changed: probably not. But we’ve learned something quite unsettling over the past few days, just from how and when this information came to light. ”

By pretending that the debate itself is important, as if both sides have something to offer, they manage to account for a claim that has no basis. The approach also shields journalists from their lingering fear of landing on the wrong side of things – the authors preserve a loophole in case the lab leak hypothesis turns out to be true, unlikely as it is. If that happens, they can point their finger at their observations on the lily liver and say, “See, we knew that from the start. ”

In this debate, however, the zoonotic camp has evidence and the lab leak camp only offers innuendo.

Here is the real state of the discussion. There is no evidence that the virus leaked from the Wuhan lab or any other lab. There is no evidence that the Wuhan lab was working with a bat virus that bore anything other than a very distant resemblance to SARS-CoV-2. Viruses that look much more like him have been found in natural environments thousands of kilometers from Wuhan, as the crow flies or bats.

Evidence that artificial manipulation of a virus gave rise to SARS-CoV-2 has faded as scientists find more and more evidence that characteristics of SARS-CoV-2 that were thought to be unnatural occur in nature. Meanwhile, evidence of zoonotic transmission is constantly accumulating. No one should be trusted to report the problem without recognizing these two tendencies.

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