Online home of Jeremy Scheff

My COVID origin take

There are three major hypotheses for the origin of COVID:

  1. Natural zoonosis - jump from animals to humans, such as at the Wuhan wet market
  2. Lab leak of engineered virus - leak of an engineered virus at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) through gain-of-function research
  3. Other WIV-related origin - non-engineered virus exposed to humans somehow through the activities of the WIV (such as a lab leak, or infecting someone out collecting samples for WIV in some bat cave)

#1 is the mainstream opinion, advocated by most prominent scientists and government officials.

#2 is treated by some as a conspiracy theory, but certainly seems like less of a crazy conspiracy theory than it did a couple years ago.

#3 is kind of mundane compared to #2, so maybe gets less attention, but IMHO it is very plausible.

Why? Because the evidence for either natural zoonosis or an engineered virus is pretty weak.

The major arguments for zoonosis is in two papers (Pekar et al. and Worobey et al.), both published a few months ago in the same issue of the prestigious journal Science.

But both are just very unconvincing to me. Like they could be right, but they provide extremely little evidence of that. Instead, they seem to ignore major flaws in their data and analysis (including but not limited to sampling bias) and jump to very strong conclusions.

I am not the only one who thinks this, but my impression is that this skepticism has not made its way to mainstream media coverage and that most people think the evidence of natural zoonosis is strong.

On the other hand, the case for a lab leak of an engineered virus has largely been circumstantial. Like really, a coronavirus pandemic happens right next to one of the very few labs in the world studying coronavirus pandemics, and that's just a coincidence?

But it's not just that. It's so much circumstantial evidence. The whole point of the coronavirus research program at WIV was to help prepare for a pandemic. So when the pandemic happens, why was their response to hide, misdirect, and obscure rather than share everything they knew?

We might expect the Chinese government to cover things up, even if not guilty. That's just what they do. But why did their American collaborators (EcoHealth Alliance, NIH, UNC, etc.) act the same way? Why are WIV-affiliated people like Peter Daszak working so hard to craft a narrative and cover up conflicts of interest, rather than sharing the results of their research?

Even back in 2020, it was a really bad look. And it got even worse in 2021 when a DARPA proposal leaked showing that they wanted to create engineered viruses similar to SARS-CoV-2 and experiment on them at WIV. Why was this kept secret for so long?

I'm only scratching the surface of describing the incredibly shady behavior of these people, because that's not really the purpose of this blog post. The point is, the behavior of WIV-associated Americans has only added to the massive circumstantial evidence pointing at WIV.

But what about non-circumstantial evidence of an engineered virus? Is it possible that there could be hard, conclusive evidence, without any cooperatoin from WIV? A recent prepreint says maybe yes, through statistical analysis of the virus's genome. Ultimately, I find this about as convincing as the Pekar and Worobey papers supporting natural zoonosis. The main difference is that the zoonosis papers got mainstream media coverage as preprints and were published in Science. This lab leak preprint got a small amount of mixed coverage in the media, and technically I don't know where it will ultimately be published, but it's not going to be Science, and it might not be anywhere at all.

Part of the mixed coverage was due to scathing criticism from zoonosis supporters like Kristian Andersen. Many of these people are quite smart and have a lot of domain knowledge. Many of them are also extremely aggressive in criticising anything that interferes with their narrative. It is unfortunate that they can't turn their angry skepticism inward and give the same evaluation to shoddy work supportive of zoonosis. Of course, the same could be said of some on the lab leak side. That's not to "both sides" this - I'd say the zoonosis people are behaving worse, because they tend to be the ones in power, and they are the ones whose voices could actually give some significant pressure towards doing a real investigation of COVID origins. Like an investigation done with full backing of the US government, rather than obstruction from the US government.

Even that might not result in real conclusions, without Chinese support. It's possible that nobody on the US side knows much more than is already public. But that's very unclear. So much of what we know of US involevement has come from leaks, FOIA releases, and independent detective work. Who knows what else is out there?

(Side note - if you had to pick just one person to follow to learn about news of COVID origins, I vote for Alina Chan. She is the one person in this debate that I have not seen fall prey to promoting bad science or viciously attacking others.)

But going back to the original topic of this post, that option #3 (SARS-CoV-2 was not engineered, but was exposed to humans somehow through the activities of the WIV) still seems like the most plausible answer. Lab accidents happen all the time. Including for SARS-CoV-2. And all that effort poking around in bat caves looking for viruses could infect people before samples even reach the lab. This was a criticism of WIV research prior to the pandemic - that they'd go out collecting a bunch of viruses, exposing people in labs and out of labs to risk. And the research was going to be useless because collecting a bunch of viruses doesn't tell you much about which are going to cause pandemics, or what should be done about them if they do. We can make mRNA vaccines in a matter of days.

And that's probably the most important take home message. This type of research seems both very dangerous and not very useful, even before you get to the "gain-of-function" part which often just makes it even more dangerous.

I re-read Cat's Cradle recently. Obviously it's about the risk posed by the development of nuclear weapons. But as I was reading it, I found it works just as well today as a novel about the risks of reckless gain-of-function research.