376 Comments
Comment deleted
Expand full comment
founding

It's a big issue not because "it couldn't possibly have gotten to Wuhan", but because "why *Wuhan*?". Yes, it's easy to get a box of animals from point A to point B even when they're a thousand miles apart, but it's also easy to get that box to points C, D, E, etc, etc.

If there's something suspiciously unique about point B, then "why point B instead of C, D, E...?" is a legitimate question, and one that should update your prior about the suspiciously unique aspect being significant. It's like if the leader of the Proud Boys shows up in the city where the leader of ISIS lives, that's not *proof* of a conspiracy between the two, but neither is it "meh, it's easy for American tourists to visit random cities in the Middle East" and we should probably investigate further.

If Wuhan were next door to rural northeastern Laos, or if it were the main commercial hub for rural northeastern Laos, or if it were the main hub for the entire East Asian bushmeat trade, or something like that, then we'd shift priors back towards "wild animal to wet market", but those things aren't true and Wuhan being the main hub for sketchy East Asian bat-virus research is.

Expand full comment
Comment deleted
Expand full comment
founding

Nothing really great, but there's this:: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Li-Zhang-9/publication/225329213/figure/fig2/AS:393615370145797@1470856625759/Map-of-the-wildlife-trade-routes-in-key-regions-in-southwest-China.png

More generally, I obviously looked into that as soon as I started considering the lab leak hypothesis. Guangzhou is frequently cited as the main hub for China as a whole, and nobody ever mentioned Wuhan as being particularly significant.

Expand full comment
deletedJul 30, 2022·edited Jul 30, 2022
Comment deleted
Expand full comment

Yeah I think it would be easy enough to do some phylogenetic analysis and figure out recently it entered the animal population (before or after the human pandemic) by looking at the mutation profile.

Expand full comment
deletedJul 30, 2022·edited Jul 30, 2022
Comment deleted
Expand full comment

Agreed! I say the same thing in Section 5 of the review:

"It’s possible that the Chinese government was trying to cover up a lab leak, but it’s also possible that this was just regular authoritarian government behavior. Interestingly, Chan and Ridley describe similar attempts at obfuscation during the original SARS epidemic in 2003 (which had a natural origin), in which the Chinese government hid infected patients so that they wouldn’t be discovered by international health authorities. So I don’t think these attempts at obfuscation should necessarily be taken as evidence for a lab origin."

Yeah, I think there's a misconception on the pro-lab-leak side that the Chinese government is pushing the natural origins / wildlife trade origins hypothesis. In fact both a lab leak and a pandemic caused by the wildlife trade look bad for the Chinese government, so the hypotheses they're pushing are more fringe and kinda bizarre -- like a lab leak at Fort Detrick in the US, or that the virus arrived in frozen foods shipped to China from other countries.

Expand full comment

Given that both stories are bad, the best outcome for the chinese government is an endless "controversy" over which explanation is true. Coming definitively down on one or the other side would require action, whereas endless internet argument over which is true results in the status quo.

In short, those people who advocate the conspiracy theory would in fact the conspiracy's most important servants. Conspiracy squared!

Expand full comment

I mean, who doesn't take a deep breath of air filtered through their frozen meat when it arrives.

Certainly not me.

‹looks guiltily at his freezer stuffed with chicken repackaged into human-vacuum-packed freezer bags from the giant box it came in›

Expand full comment
Comment deleted
Expand full comment

Not sure if it's sampling bias, I had assumed that bats in all the regions of China where they live (just an assumption, I don't really know).

But yes if a bat coronavirus similar to SARS-Cov-2 is found in the wild, close to Wuhan I would consider that circumstantial evidence in favor of natural origins -- it's just that we're now 2.5 years into the pandemic and that hasn't happened yet.

Expand full comment

There are certain areas of China (like Guangxi and parts of Guangdong) that are well known for their huge bat caves. You can visit these areas at dusk and see the clouds of bats emerging.

As far as I know, there is nothing like that near Wuhan. There are certainly bats, but not living close together in huge numbers.

Expand full comment

Digging around in disease ridden bat shit for dangerous viruses to pull into labs for study is, as I understand it, the keystone of the lab leaker concern about viral research. It would be odd that they'd want us to do more of it.

Expand full comment

If it got the Wuhan lab off the hook, then the CCP would be shoveling through guano like a good 'un.

Expand full comment

Doing more of it while being aware of the risks and taking extra precautions may be precisely what is called for. Like surgery to fix an injury caused by shrapnel.

Expand full comment
Jul 30, 2022·edited Jul 30, 2022

It's worth noting that the lineages of SARS-CoV-2 and RaTG13 are believed to have diverged in 1969: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41564-020-0771-4#Sec2

My current belief (based on a steady drip of "related virus found in X" stories from all over E/SE Asia) is that East and South-East Asia is awash with a huge diversity of coronaviruses, of which we have seen only a tiny fraction.

Expand full comment

The absence of a confirmed wild animal reservoir, nearly 3 years after the initial outbreak, should update your priors significantly in favour of the lab leak hypothesis.

Expand full comment

I would think that a lab leak would need a wild animal reservoir too.

Expand full comment

Only if it is unmodified.

Expand full comment

Even a modified one needs a wild source to have been modified!

Expand full comment

Yes, but has it been modified so much that the wild source is no longer obvious? (Like many agricultural cultivars for example.)

Expand full comment

We don’t know the reservoir for Ebola and we’ve been looking for decades. It can be quite hard to determine the reservoir.

Expand full comment

Lab Leak!!! It's proof!!

Expand full comment

Bats in Hubei province have been found to have antibodies to SARS-like viruses:

https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.1118391

And masked palm civets in Hubei have also been to be PCR positive for a SARS-like virus:

https://journals.asm.org/doi/10.1128/JCM.43.5.2041-2046.2005

Both those papers are from 2005. But Shi Zhengli and Peter Daszak are authors on the first paper, so perhaps they planted that evidence 14 years in advance to hide the future lab leak conspiracy they intended to commit.

It would be great if someone where to go back out today, take more samples, sequence them, and compare them to SARS-CoV-2. I suspect it would take a lot of luck to find the exact ancestor species, though.

Expand full comment

It absolutely is sampling bias. The most closely related bat coronaviruses have been found in those two areas because that's almost exclusively where sampling has been done. We really know comically little about what SARS-like viruses are out there, and where they are distributed.

It's one of those points that the authors willfully misrepresent that makes it very hard to take anything of what they are writing seriously.

Expand full comment
Comment deleted
Expand full comment

I'm not sure about "way more suspicious", but yes if it were conclusively proven that the first super-spreader event occurred at Huanan seafood market that would be suspicious and would be a piece of circumstantial evidence in favor of the natural origins market-spillover hypothesis.

The recently published Worobey et al. paper claims to show this:

https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abp8715

But the main critique of the paper is that the early data points may have been collected with ascertainment bias (specifically looking for cases around the market and nearby hospitals):

https://ayjchan.medium.com/evidence-for-a-natural-origin-of-covid-19-no-longer-dispositive-after-scientific-peer-review-af95b52499e1

So the question is, did the first super-spreader event occur at the market? Or did people begin to suspect the market as a potential source and look for cases around it?

But I agree with your logic that if the Worobey et al. paper is right (which I'm not sure about), then the same logic of suspicion about occurring near a virology lab can also be applied to the first super-spreader event occurring in a market.

Expand full comment

If you are only adjusting your priors on, "conclusively proven," then you are already living the conspiracy theory. You should be adjusting your priors on, "a reasonable chance," albeit less significantly.

Expand full comment
Jul 30, 2022·edited Jul 30, 2022

There are way, way, more wet markets in the world than there are virology labs that study bat coronaviruses. This is even more true for virology labs that contain massive collections of samples of bat coronaviruses and do gain of function research on some of them. Because such labs are so rare, it would take much more of a coincidence for the virus to start spreading near one.

Expand full comment

Excellent review!

To me, the main factor I don’t see much discussed is how likely the Huanan market would be the ground zero for an introduced wildlife virus likely from a distant source. I gather from sources like a pre-pandemic paper on Guandong Province that there are dozens of wildlife markets just there; it makes me imagine that Wuhan would be an unlikely initial landing place for an infected animal from another province. Or was Huanan a sort of epicenter of wildlife markets? (I imagine a foreigner researching an outbreak of furniture beetle traced to a High Point, NC, furniture market might be puzzled as to why a desk shopped into Detroit would end up in a small city in NC unless they knew that High Point was the epicenter of furniture markets in the US.)

If Huanan is literally one of scores or 100s of equally likely destinations for an infected animal most likely gathered from a distant province… my priors have to shift towards that lab, which was THE epicenter of Chinese coronavirus study. Right?

Expand full comment
Jul 31, 2022·edited Jul 31, 2022

Yeah this argument seems right. If the Huanan market was the epicenter for the trade of wildlife likely to have viruses, then that would make it less surprising that covid happened to spread near WIV. But I don’t think anyone has claimed that is the case.

As for your last comment, I’m not 100% sure that WIV was the epicenter of Chinese bat coronavirus study, but it at least was a very significant player (and as per my current understanding was likely the biggest). As some evidence towards this, I searched ‘bat coronavirus’ on Google scholar for papers from 2017 through 2019 and about half of the papers I looked at had some affiliation to WIV.

Expand full comment

Huanan was not the only market based super spreader event.

Given this, the fact that a super spreader event happens at a market proves little. It could have spread from wildlife to humans there or elsewhere.

Expand full comment

Hi everyone! Thanks for reading my book review! I originally wrote the review in March, so I thought I’d leave a comment with an update on how things have progressed since then.

As far as I can tell, there is still no direct, conclusive evidence in favor of either hypothesis, and neither can be ruled out. However, earlier this week one of the pre-prints I linked to in Section 1 (Worobey et al.) was published in the journal Science, and has been getting a lot of coverage in the media and on Twitter. Although it does not offer any direct evidence, it might offer a piece of indirect, circumstantial evidence for the natural origins hypothesis — or it might not.

Here’s the paper:

https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abp8715

And here’s a post by Alina Chan (author of Viral) with technical critiques of the paper:

https://ayjchan.medium.com/evidence-for-a-natural-origin-of-covid-19-no-longer-dispositive-after-scientific-peer-review-af95b52499e1

The main issue appears to be the same as I described in Section 1 — the paper is heavily based on a geospatial analysis of early COVID cases, and shows that they seem to cluster around the Huanan seafood market. Chan claims that this analysis is invalid due to ascertainment bias, since early investigators were specifically searching around the seafood market and surrounding hospitals for cases. Worobey et al. deny this claim of ascertainment bias.

There is also some debate over how well the Worobey et al. paper can distinguish between a scenario in which COVID first spread to humans from animals in the market, and a scenario in which a human brought COVID into the market and caused a super-spreader event.

I’m not knowledgeable enough on these technical issues to know who’s right. To me it looks like the Worobey et al. paper is either moderate, circumstantial (but still inconclusive) evidence in favor of natural origins, or neutral between the hypotheses.

By the way, I still stand by my strongest conclusion from the review — that the people who prematurely dismissed the lab leak hypothesis without sufficient evidence got it wrong, and the people who called for a full, open investigation of both hypotheses got it right. And this is still going to be the case even if the lab leak hypothesis turns out to be incorrect.

Expand full comment

Thanks for writing this review! I really enjoyed your reflection on the points of the book, even if toward the end there was a large chunk of 'I don't know enough to update on this' - or especially because of that, I suppose! I really enjoy it when people easily admit to uncertainty and are this transparent as to which parts their uncertainty is about.

Expand full comment

Thanks for the kind words! Yeah I think writing a book review (or any kind of review of evidence) is easier than writing a thesis essay, because it's ok to just summarize other people's points, while still remaining uncertain and not pretending otherwise.

Expand full comment
Jul 30, 2022·edited Jul 30, 2022

One thing you did not address in your review was the question of motivations.

If my friend tries to convince me that the coin is going to come up heads, why would he do that? Why would he claim to know something he does not?

We need to ask the same question about those who tried to claim at the beginning of this incident that the natural origins hypothesis was an open and shut case.

Why would they have been so eager to shut down discussion unless they had, at minimum, very strong suspicions that any real investigation would strongly indicate a lab leak?

This also casts doubt on the integrity and veracity of anything else that comes from these people. Worse, how can I, an educated layman, determine whether any new analysis coming out that argues against the lab leak hypothesis is part of the same misinformation campaign? Heck, your apparently well-reasoned and neutral review could be an effort to move people like me away from assuming lab leak and to a more agnostic position.

At this point, is it worth my time to try to understand this stuff in detail so I can draw my own judgements? Or should I lobby my elected representatives to do an in depth investigation of who was pushing natural origins, why they were doing so, the extent to which this was due to Chinese government influence / pressure, whether any of the people involved were unregistered foreign agents, and whether any violations of US law can be prosecuted? Should I try to figure this stuff out or should I just assume lab leak at this point since any argument or analysis against it is suspect?

Frankly, at this point I am far more interested in understanding why so many scientists seemed to consider it their mission to shut down lab leak speculation and to what extent the Chinese government was controlling them than to find out whether or not the original cause of COVID was a lab leak.

Expand full comment
Jul 30, 2022·edited Jul 30, 2022

I totally agree that section was the weakest part of the the review and I really liked it overall. If my friend tells me the coin is 100% going to turn up heads, my first reaction isn’t, to get annoyed, it is to assume he is trying to scam/trick me.

And I also definitely wouldn’t update to 50/50, especially if the coin wasn’t one I produced.

Expand full comment

> Why would they have been so eager to shut down discussion unless they had, at minimum, very strong suspicions that any real investigation would strongly indicate a lab leak?

Well, that's just standard operating procedure for the CCP. They don't allow anyone to suggest that the government has fucked up, even if they're confident that a full investigation will show that the government hasn't fucked up in this case, because merely making the idea of government fuck-up *thinkable* is dangerous to them.

Besides, the people who are in charge of covering things up aren't necessarily the ones with enough information to know what's true and what isn't. The Chinese government is certainly big enough that the right hand doesn't know what the left is doing. If there was a lab leak then the number of people who know for sure is very small.

Expand full comment

I am not talking about China or the CCP. I am talking about the US researchers - people like Peter Daszak.

Expand full comment
Jul 30, 2022·edited Jul 30, 2022

I think you could satisfactorily account for most of that with, "It came from a Chinese lab" being sounding right-wing; in early 2020, the respectable position on Covid was that it was all a storm in a teacup and worrying about it was racist against asians.

Daszak himself seems to have been funnelling money to WIV (not the other way round), so may have been keen to cover up his own complicity in creating the virus, and protect his NIH grants. There are undoubtedly people in the West taking money from China/who the CCP have their talons in, but nothing like the scale that the Russians used to. Although I will go to my grave insisting that David Cameron was a Chinese spy (and I love that this is now becoming a proper conspiracy theory, not just a thing I think).

Expand full comment
Comment deleted
Expand full comment

That's pretty uncharitable. America has a state ideology, and if you don't adhere to at least its minima then you don't have a career. The best approach is to quietly discuss what you think the truth might be with your colleagues, make sure there's a consensus and it's not just you, then slowly feed up the food chain that they need to turn the ship. They managed to do that, and have made the lab leak hypothesis acceptable. That's really a massive win, and is down to their commitment to the truth. It's just that not letting the proles in to gawk at everything while it's happening is necessary to actually achieve anything.

Expand full comment
Jul 30, 2022·edited Jul 30, 2022

The WHO report stinks of meddling, but mostly in the realpolitik "if we say anything else then the PRC will stop co-operating with us which, since China is the source of many pathogens, is very bad" sense rather than the "PRC has suborned WHO" sense.

It's, uh, not good that a government this willing to take hostages is a superpower, and in terms of the WHO's credibility regarding anything involving China it's still a burn notice, but... it's probably not actively controlled by the CPC.

Expand full comment

It depends on how cynical you are about these sort of organisations anyway - the WHO was (is?) led by a former Ethiopian apparatchik, and staffed in large part by people connected to similarly dubious regimes. They're not selected for competence or honesty, so you get stuff like this.

If your prior for international organisations is that they'll behave like the average of the countries involved in them, a lot of them (the WHO included) are surprisingly alright. Just pretty rubbish on an objective scale.

Expand full comment

If the WHO can't say anything that will offend the CCP because they're too afraid of losing Chinese cooperation, is that really meaningfully different from being controlled by the CCP? I guess the former leaves open the possibility that other powerful countries might also be able to similarly veto any attempt by the WHO to promote conclusions they don't like... is there any evidence that countries other than China have been able to do this?

Expand full comment

Honestly I don't know enough about Peter Daszak to speculate on him in particular.

One thing I will say is that the lab leak hypothesis certainly pattern-matches to crazy, if you're not paying attention. The idea that a naturally-occurring disaster was _actually_ caused by some kind of government malfeasance somewhere is a common conspiracy theory trope; for instance hurricanes or earthquakes being cooked up in a lab somewhere in Alaska https://melmagazine.com/en-us/story/the-insane-logic-of-weather-truthers-who-think-hurricanes-are-created-by-the-government ... similarly, there were those who claimed that SARS-1 and AIDS were created in a lab too. And even for Covid-19, there were some crazy flavours of lab leak hypothesis (e.g. that it was a deliberate release designed to be a bioweapon against the West).

If you're not _really_ paying attention, it's so easy to pattern match "Covid came from a lab in Wuhan" to all the crazy theories that rhyme with it, without bothering to investigate or think too deeply about it.

Expand full comment

People like Daszak and any scientist who speaks on this issue are supposed to be _really_ paying attention.

Expand full comment

Yeah paying attention to the culture war. I swear that is the main concern of a good 35% of academia these days, including a disturbing amount of STEM people.

How will twitter activists feel about my research is practically the first step of an unofficial self-IRB.

I have friends in pretty unrelated fields who are typical professors, liberal etc. They claim no chilling effect, but when presented with scenarios of results in their work they might plausibly find that would be verboten, they to a person say they might not publish, or would have trouble publishing, or it would ruin their career, or they would need to enlist coauthors of the right sort and it still might ruin their career. Some of them are in math departments…

Expand full comment
founding

I don't think there's any doubt that Daszak himself was paying very close attention. He's one of the few people outside China who knows with high confidence whether this was a natural or artificial plague. Unfortunately for the rest of us, Daszak almost has to say "perfectly natural, no lab leak, anyone saying otherwise is a nutbar conspiracy theorist" either way. In the one case because it's true and helpful, in the other case because saying the truth would open him up to six million wrongful-death lawsuits.

People like the editors of The Lancet and the administrators of the WHO, should have been paying attention to Daszak's clear conflict of interest before basically putting him in charge of telling the world whether there had been a lab leak, but that's another matter.

In some cases, yes, "I might be on the wrong side of the culture war" is a real concern in academia. The stakes are much higher in this one, at least for Daszak and his team.

Expand full comment

Also dont forget Kristian G. Andersen who strongly excluded the lab thesis from the beginning and now is also Co-Author of the new paper. I totally agree that those guys lost credibility by giving those statements without knowledge in the first place.

Expand full comment

The US government does not permit gain-of-function virology research, thanks to the lobbying of scientists warning about how dangerous it is. The US government also funded Daszak's EcoHealth alliance, which used such funds at WIV. Even if this wasn't a leak from WIV, I doubt he wanted anyone to notice that the funds were being used for something prohibited.

Expand full comment

This suggests potentially criminal acts. Where is the criminal investigation?

Expand full comment

It isn't forbidden to spend money on such research elsewhere - even if that goes against spirit (but not the letter) of prohibiting such research in US.

Expand full comment

Arguing from personal incredulity should be done with great care.

I wrote a related comment:

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/your-book-review-viral/comment/8068083

Expand full comment

Different people had different motivations to shut down investigation into the lab leak hypothesis. But I think anyone who does anything that they think has a potential to be misunderstood by outsiders is going to have an incentive to shut down investigation into them, whether they think the thing the investigation is about is relevant or not.

A school where teachers regularly encourage students to question the religious and political beliefs of their parents doesn’t want an extensive sexual harassment investigation to go on, even if they are confident there was no sexual harassment.

A sausage factory that regularly uses discarded turkey and pig parts in their sausages doesn’t want a highly publicized investigation into alleged food poisoning even if they are confident there was nothing unsanitary about their sources, just distasteful.

A profession that regularly modifies viruses and infects humanized animals with them, and where it is known that researchers often get slaps on the wrist for improper safety practices, doesn’t want a major investigation even if they are confident that this particular pathogen didn’t come from their lab.

Expand full comment

> Why would they have been so eager to shut down discussion....?

Try this hypothesis. They started out knowing that the probability this came out of a lab was fairly low, but far from entirely insignificant. They want to get the general public's understanding of the probabilities as close to their own as possible, and this will be effected through what they say and how they say it.

However, they're well aware that communication is not some simple linear function; certain things they say will be enormously amplified because the media emphasises not the most probable points but the most surprising and shocking points, and whatever increases "engagement," and certain groups within the target community will also greatly amplify certain explanations that they prefer for non-scientific reasons.

This is coming out of not just an intellectual understanding of how these things work, but also direct experience with past communications attempts and their ongoing effects. Think about how the _Lancet_ editors and the reviewers of Wakefield's 1998 paper must feel right now. Fair or not, they surely know that if that paper had been rejected there was a much lower possibility that the whole anti-vaccine movement would have been so powerful, and thus they may (correctly or not) feel some responsibility for the many thousands of deaths that can be attributed to that movement.

They're also aware of the well known psychological phenomenon that the initial explanation that people believe, whether it's correct or not, is "sticky"; for some people it will never change no matter how much evidence to the contrary is found.

So put yourself in the shoes of these scientific spokespeople. If you're playing this communications game, your goal is that as much of the public as possible in the long term will settle on the (as-yet unknown) correct explanation, whatever it may be, and you have a decent understanding of how public communications works and how the various scenarios you discuss will be interpreted an amplified. What would you have done differently in your communications, and how do you anticipate the results would have been better in the long run?

Expand full comment

"We don't know yet. What we do know is x,y and z. We will continue trying to figure it out."

Results; there's no suppression of a perfectly reasonable hypothesis, millions of people have one less reason to mistrust "the experts" and people are more willing to participate in a vaccination program because they trust that the experts are not politically motivated on this topic.

Expand full comment
Aug 4, 2022·edited Aug 4, 2022

You mean the way the Wakefield MMR-vaccine-autism paper explained that no causal connection had been proven? And how did that work out for people accepting vaccines?

That wasn't some weird special case. Science communication works very differently when talking to other scientists, people with a science background, and members of the public willing to spend the time and effort (both intellectual and emotional) to come to rational conclusions about these things. Most of the population won't do the work to overcome the psychological biases and other issues related to things like preferring to listen to the most exciting explanation, being unable to change your mind after deciding on an explanation, and so on. Lots of otherwise rational people would _love_ to ignore this (ironically enough), but if we want to avoid things like massive anti-vaccination movements, we need to take this stuff into account.

Expand full comment

Given that the "let's play games to manipulate the public" approach led to a massive increase in the anti-vaccine movement with far wider implications than the MMR stuff as well as a massive drain of public trust in scientific institutions, I'd say Ian's approach is still the correct one. I'd liken the anti-vaccine implications of the 2020 approach to be stepping on a landmine to avoid crushing a stinkbug. I think this is a broader issue than just vaccines though, like how everyone seems to update to "how will twitter react to X,Y,Z", which is really just the vocal subset of twitter users who are a subset of the population at large: the tail is wagging the dog. The correct response is to not give a damn how twitter, or cnn, or alex jones will react and go back to figuring out how reasonable people will react like you did before they were around. At it's simplest: you don't build trust through manipulation, that's how you destroy it, and coming up with rational sounding arguments of how the public needs you to manipulate them doesn't change that (and as we've seen: spectacularly backfired). You can craft your message to try and maximize the people you reach, but the overall message should still be one of truth and openness regarding what you do and don't know.

Expand full comment

Great review. Not sure if Viral covered the DEFUSE proposal? That was something the computational biologist Nick Patterson recently said swayed him towards considering accidental leak of an engineered virus was the most likely scenario. One response to that is DARPA didn't fund it as it was too risky but Patterson notes work sometimes starts before the funding and could well have gone ahead anyway. It certainly explains the features of the furin site.

https://npatterson.substack.com/p/more-regulation-please

In terms of the Science papers, it's hard to take several of those authors seriously after it was shown they privately considered the virus looked unlikely to have arisen naturally but publicly rubbished the lab leak scenario which would be damaging to Chinese-US collaboration and put the NIAID in an awkward position having funded the research in Wuhan. I also wasn't aware there had been a moratorium on gain-of-function research on potential pandemic pathogens like SARS from 2014-2017. Several scientists warned that lifting it would risk a pandemic and here we are.

I would recommend reading the comments of Gilles Demaneuf on some of the ascertainment bias issues with the latest papers. The retrospective case counting often involved a market link requirement so unsurprisingly they found a lot of cases at the market.

The two jump theory also hinges on a single sample of lineage A from a glove. There is a competing analysis from Sridhar Kumar and colleagues that shows a single jump and emergence in September or early October 2019.

Ultimately, the virus backbone had to get from either Yunnan or Laos to Wuhan. The Wuhan Institute of Virology was sampling from both places and across SE Asia. They won't share their virus database but as the chair of the Lancet Covid19 Commission suggested US based agencies may hold information that could shed light on what occurred.

https://www.project-syndicate.org/onpoint/did-us-technology-help-create-covid-19-in-china-by-neil-l-harrison-and-jeffrey-d-sachs-2022-05

Expand full comment
Aug 3, 2022·edited Aug 3, 2022

I enjoyed this review, mostly because it roughly matches my pre-existing beliefs, so of course I'd be pre-disposed to like it. I didn't learn much personally, but hopefully it will Knock Some Sense Into Those Other EvilWrong People On The Internet.

The one section I found very frustrating was the vague attacks on "public health officials, scientists, journalists, and tech companies". Instead of looking into any specific claims by specific people and assessing how true they are and whether they were justified based on the evidence available at the time and what different actors motivations might have been, you just sort of gesture vaguely about "elites and institutions" and hope the audience will nod along in outrage (which they usually will, since this is a bias that is common in the rat-sphere.) Sometimes it seems like you go to more trouble to understand the action of the Chinese government than Americans!

Expand full comment
Jul 30, 2022·edited Jul 30, 2022

One unfortunate aspect of writing is that published words are frozen in time but our understanding of reality is not.

Just three days ago, work was published in Science that seems to strongly support the natural origins hypothesis: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abp8715

I am not an expert, but I know those who are, and we were all convinced by this latest paper. It ties together statistical arguments that:

- Early cases clustered close to the market

- Early cases clustered on the side of the market with mammals

- BOTH early strains are tied to the market

And crucially, it makes the claim that these early cases were not due to ascertainment bias, because they were detected before people even realized there was an outbreak around the market.

If the strain came from a lab worker, it seems unlikely that (a) they'd spread it at the market and not any other possible superspreader site, (b) it would just so happen to be on the side of the market with mammals, and (c) it would have happened TWICE, with TWO STRAINS. It's possible, but implausibly so.

Twitter summary for those who don't want to read the article: https://twitter.com/angie_rasmussen/status/1551937826580824070?fbclid=IwAR3-tllY2CsR4UWE2812f1pGt-2Jr3x0jmVFyZhbO1x63Rh0L0Zy33-xvBA

Before this Science article I was open-minded to both possibilities. After it, I am convinced.

Expand full comment
Jul 30, 2022·edited Jul 30, 2022

That said, the author of Viral is skeptical that the December 2019 data are free of ascertainment bias and therefore thinks COVID's origins are still a open question: https://ayjchan.medium.com/evidence-for-a-natural-origin-of-covid-19-no-longer-dispositive-after-scientific-peer-review-af95b52499e1

I would have liked a more quantitative argument about how much ascertainment bias would have been needed to get results as extreme as those shown in the paper. But I recognize that would have been a lot of work.

Expand full comment

Hi Ted, thank you for the comment! Yes I saw that paper a couple days ago (actually I mentioned it in Section 1 of my review, although that was the pre-print version).

Here is a link to Alina Chan's critiques of the paper:

https://ayjchan.medium.com/evidence-for-a-natural-origin-of-covid-19-no-longer-dispositive-after-scientific-peer-review-af95b52499e1

Basically the main technical critique is still the ascertainment bias issue. Chan says the data were obtained with ascertainment bias, and Worobey et al. say they were not. I'm not sure who to believe, and am not really knowledgeable enough to evaluate the opposing technical claims being made here. My understanding is that the issue is the murkiness of the dataset Worobey et al. used, and how exactly that data was collected.

I would also add that in past coronavirus epidemics like SARS and MERS, things were only resolved when the actual animal source of the disease was found (direct evidence, rather than circumstantial). Here's an article explaining this standard of evidence:

https://thebulletin.org/2022/03/the-origins-of-sars-cov-2-still-to-be-determined/

So my understanding is that even if Chan's critiques of the Worobey et al. are wrong and the paper's analysis is valid, it only constitutes circumstantial evidence in favor of natural origins, not definitive proof.

One thing I liked about the Worobey et al. paper though is that it presents a hypothesis for which animal species might have been the intermediary hosts between bats and humans, so maybe that will lead to some investigations of specific farms and wildlife traders, and could yield more definitive proof.

Expand full comment

The demand for an animal source is requirimg a burden of proof that is, at this point, impossible to meet. But as you point out, the burden of proof is on the conspiracy theory, and there is zero evidence which requires anything other than a natural explanation.

Expand full comment

I'm not sure that "Chinese government had a standard-issue fuck-up and covered it up" counts as a conspiracy theory in anything other than the most pedantic sense. OK, a government coverup would presumably require at least two people to conspire at some point, but it certainly doesn't require the sorts of implausible conspiracies that are usually entailed by the term "conspiracy theory". If there _was_ a lab leak, then a Chinese government coverup would be not only plausible but inevitable.

In a case like this I don't think there's any "burden of proof" either way. This isn't a court of law, where we have to reach near 100% certainty on one hypothesis or accept the other. We can continue to entertain both hypotheses, which seems reasonable because they're both intuitively plausible and I haven't seen any evidence which pushes it strongly one way or the other. (Though I consider myself insufficiently qualified to properly weigh up evidence about furin cleavage sites and the like.)

Expand full comment

Going through Scott's list at Too Many People Dare Call It Conspiracy:

A. The CPC is not secret and "covering up things that embarrass China" is a known thing it does

B. Virology researchers do have an interest in not being considered hostis humani generis, but there would be a need for some actual co-ordination in this case.

C. Internal culture of the PRC government is definitely "covering up things that embarrass China is prosocial" - this is not remotely secret.

D. This wouldn't need a huge conspiracy; maybe a couple dozen people actively "in on it" plus some people who follow orders without too many questions.

That's 3/4 heuristics "more plausible", and one somewhat ambiguous but leaning toward "less".

Expand full comment

Furthermore, the idea that any theory involving a conspiracy is inconceivable is simply ridiculous for many reasons.

1. Those who hold that belief are the same people who just spent 6 years seriously entertaining the Trump-Russia conspiracy theory (they literally used the synonymous term "collusion theory" to avoid calling it a conspiracy theory).

2. The primary argument against conspiracy theories in general is "that many people couldn't keep a secret for that long, eventually somebody would say something"... and then when people like Haim Eshed, Bob Lazar, the fraudster who talked to Jon Levine, and Brook Jackson blow the whistle on conspiracies, they are dismissed as "crazy conspiracy theorists". When someone blows the whistle on an actual conspiracy, we simply won't believe them, because we've defined the act of blowing the whistle on a conspiracy to itself be evidence of being "a conspiracy theorist" which then makes one inherently untrustworthy.

3. Conspiring is one of the most basic, fundamental human behaviors. People have conspired with each other throughout all of history, and there's no reason to expect that they will stop anytime soon.

Expand full comment

This is why there actually _is_ a 10% or 15% chance of non-natural origin. \S

Expand full comment

"We should assume that my position is correct by default, and you have to prove otherwise" is doing a lot of work here. Is there some reason should we assume you are correct, or is this based on some fundamental principle of rationality that I just haven't heard about?

*The Iron Laws of Reason*

Law 1: Q -> P === ~P -> ~Q

Law 2: P(A|B) = P(B|A) * P(A) / P(B)

Law 3: It is absolutely impossible for people to conspire with each other.

The same argument could be used against an animal source. The non-conspiracy truthers are demanding a burden of proof that is impossible to meet, but there is zero evidence which requires anything other than a lab leak explanation.

Expand full comment

You seem to purposely ignore the TWO STRAINS part of the commenter's argument and the Science paper. To me, it is the strongest evidence for the natural origin so far.

Expand full comment
founding

Can you explain to me like I'm 5 why two strains is evidence for the first human host being infected by an animal at the market instead of any source inside the lab?

[For bonus points also consider the case where the animal host at the market came from the lab, but I think this is a small fraction of possibility and so fine to ignore so long as it's smaller than other plausible routes coming from the lab.]

Expand full comment

It doesn't make any sense.

Expand full comment

Lab leak of two strains would imply

1) two different but closely related strains studied in the lab. Why? Scientists generally keep experiments tightly controlled and two strains would complicate the interpretation of any data.

2) The researcher in the lab getting infected with two strains (two low-probability events) or two researchers independently getting infected with different strains and brining to the market (very low probability).

Expand full comment

I don't know why 2 strains is less parsimonious inside a lab but magically more parsimonious outside a lab.

Expand full comment

Because transmission in wildlife market is uncontrolled and lead to lots of mutations. Scientists who do specifically do mutations in the lab like too keep things under controlled conditions. Otherwise, the research is unpublishable and worth very little.

Expand full comment
founding

Beyond "beware the man of one study" in general, we already know this is a particularly thorny issue where people are pretty partisan; why trust *these authors* in particular, or *this journal* in particular?

As for the paper specifically--I don't buy it, because they test the market compared to a null hypothesis of *the population distribution of Wuhan*. Shouldn't they be comparing it to something like "distance from the WIV"?

Expand full comment

Yeah the way Worobey treats their “geospatial analysis” like it’s the Michelson-Morley experiment and not a social science-style statistical analysis with about a thousand researcher degrees of freedom definitely causes me to reduce my trust in any of their results.

Expand full comment

Beautifully put, thanks :-)

Expand full comment

My thought as well.

Expand full comment

There's something about the tone with which these recent studies are being presented that raises my hackles, too - like they're triumphantly smashing an insurgency. That combined with preprints (i.e. documents that are by definition not ready for publication) being widely publicized with aforementioned triumphalism has me fairly certain that objectivity has left the building at this point.

Expand full comment

Agreed. It looks like peer-review has resulted in them toning down their claims, but not in them addressing the actual methodological and data problems: https://ayjchan.medium.com/evidence-for-a-natural-origin-of-covid-19-no-longer-dispositive-after-scientific-peer-review-af95b52499e1

Expand full comment

Not sure if I really agree with your second point. It seems to me that if the early case data were collected in an unbiased way (which I'm not sure about), then comparing the early case distribution to the underlying population distribution makes sense. Can you explain further?

Expand full comment

Say WIV was located next door to the market. Would the alleged fact that the outbreak was centered on the market prove anything? Obviously not.

If you want to provide evidence against the WIV lab leak hypothesis you have to compare the distribution of cases with distance to market as an independent variable to the distribution of cases with distance to WIV as an independent variable.

In addition, you have to explain how you rule out that the first super spreader event was at the market caused by a WIV researcher infected at work stopping there to buy food.

Expand full comment

Nobody has to provide evidence AGAINST lab leak. Being the more complicated and unlikely explanation, the burden of proof lies with the conspiracists.

Expand full comment

I've heard this claim before.

Can you please explain in more detail?

Why is it more complicated and unlikely that a lab that collects virus samples from bats would have an accident that results in an outbreak of a bat virus than that a bat virus somehow traveled over 1,000 kilometers to a wet market in a city that just happened to have the only facility in China that did this kind of research?

I would actually see it as the reverse.

As an example, if there was an outbreak of Ebola 5 km from Fort Detrick and it was known that Fort Detrick researchers had travelled to Africa and taken samples from Ebola outbreaks, would your default hypothesis be that someone had travelled from Africa to Maryland and spread the virus or that either Fort Detrick had had an accident or a Fort Detrick researcher on a sample acquisition trip had been infected (perhaps asymptomatically) and then passed it on?

Expand full comment
Jul 31, 2022·edited Aug 1, 2022

I mean, to be clear, we haven't found a close relative to the virus. Yes, the closest one we've found is fairly far away, but that one is many MANY generations distant from COVID. If this is a natural virus it likely didn't come from that population of animals. Noone thinks that COVID evolved from that virus over the lifespan of a single captive animal being transported to a wet market.

Edit: and the real reason our priors should be on a natural source for the virus isn't the relative complexity of the theories (which is pretty subjective.) It's because we know that the vast majority of zoonotic pandemics, including the most closely related one, did have natural origins.

Expand full comment

The lab leak people aren't saying the lab leak itself was a conspiracy. They're saying that the PRC conspired to cover it up.

We know the PRC conspired to cover things up in this case (first-off trying to suppress knowledge that COVID was real - this is well-documented, nobody disputes it - and then the issues with the WHO investigation), so "the interference with the WHO investigation was to cover up either a known or a suspected lab leak of COVID" is one of like three plausible hypotheses (the others being "WIV is up to something else that they don't want to come out, like non-COVID-related bioweapons" and "covering up on general principles" - this last is not actually foolish from a game-theoretic point of view, since it reduces the information people gain from the existence of a coverup on a matter).

Expand full comment

Even if they were saying it was a conspiracy, what makes a conspiracy inherently less likely than any other type of theory? You'd have to justify that on a theory-by-theory basis.

Expand full comment

Why is it more unlikely?

Expand full comment
Jul 30, 2022·edited Jul 30, 2022

I don't think this is how "determining what is true" works, in this particular case.

That is: He's not saying "you have to do this if you want us to consider a natural origin", he's saying you have to do this *if you want to show that the paper he's responding to provided good evidence against the lab leak.*

Compare: suppose someone advances a theory that education doesn't actually do anything to improve learning or life outcomes before 8th grade. We publish a rebuttal by pointing out that college students out-earn the general population; the individual replies that "to provide evidence against my theory, you have to compare 'no school before 8th' to 'school before 8th', not 'college vs no college'."

That schooling before 8th grade matters could reasonably be our default position, yes. But if we then say "we don't *have* to do that; the burden of proof is on you!", it would obviously be unreasonable: we have been given a plausible reason why our attempted rebuttal was flawed, and now we do have to provide a response — or we're not actually participating in discovering the truth, just scoring points.

Expand full comment

But twitter told me scoring rhetorical points is all that matters anymore, and my department meetings reinforce that message?

Expand full comment

When the most likely species to have caused the crossover infection doesn't have habitat within a thousand kilometers of the market and wasn't known to have been sold at the market, it's a bit rich to suggest that lab leak is the more complicated and unlikely explanation.

Expand full comment

This is a bit like saying, "Morphine pills were not known to be sold at the open air drug market." Sure, they weren't specifically known to be sold. They are however, a frequently sold drug and are generally sold in locations that sell lots of other drugs.

Expand full comment
founding

Like Shanghaied points out, we're trying to compare two different hypotheses: was human patient 0 infected at the lab, or at the market?

The paper instead asks the question: "when we infer a geospatial distribution of reported infections in Dec 2019, where's the center?". The market is near the center; is the WIV *also* near the center? They don't ask, which seems pretty critical to comparing the two hypotheses, instead of just stacking up evidence that seems likely given your favored hypothesis.

As far as I can tell, the WIV is *not* near the center of the distribution, and so it's evidence against the theory that the first major superspreader event was at the WIV. But I don't think anyone was pushing that theory?

In more detail, the right way to do this is to build a bunch of models, assign probabilities of how things would go, and then calculate the posterior. The actual thing that happened is highly conjunctive and so will be unlikely under any hypothesis, and so the question is how the two compare.

For example, if you think 'the pandemic starts at a <wild animal market>", how many wild animal markets are there in China which it could have been? If you think 'the pandemic starts in a lab with a single infected worker, who then spreads it at a <superspreader event>", how many possible places for a superspreader event were there in Wuhan?

Like, in Rasmussen's tweet thread:

> Try fitting this into a lab leak scenario:

> Worker 1 gets infected with lineage B at WIV and immediately goes straight to the market, only infecting other people once there.

> A week later, worker 2 gets infected with lineage A at WIV & also immediately goes straight to Huanan.

> There's a much simpler explanation:

> Human at market 1 gets infected with lineage B from a live animal sold at the market.

> A week later, human at market 2 gets infected with lineage A from another live animal sold at the market.

> This is very plausible, because the animals were kept in such close quarters and were part of a common supply chain. One infected animal would spread virus to others, allowing for the divergence of the two lineages prior to zoonotic transmission to humans.

Alternatively... a human gets infected with lineage B in the lab, infecting both humans and animals at the market, and then lineage A develops at the market (either in an animal or in a human), infecting humans.

Like, if anything, two lineages sounds to me much more like "worker from lab that collected and developed variants" than "business-as-usual at a market". [If the same market had two different strains like this across two weeks, doesn't that seem very unlikely given the background rate of zoonotic transmission at markets like this?]

But they're not building large webs of possibility and trying to integrate; they're looking at something that has a Bayes factor of 1-2 and pretending it's a smoking gun.

Expand full comment

>Like, if anything, two lineages sounds to me much more like "worker from lab that collected and developed variants" than "business-as-usual at a market". [If the same market had two different strains like this across two weeks, doesn't that seem very unlikely given the background rate of zoonotic transmission at markets like this?]

This is a very good point.

Expand full comment

Sorry, but I think the idea that a "lab leak of the virus" can only be proved by a Snow-like map of cases concentrically centered on the front steps of the lab itself is comically simplistic, so much so that it's borderline disingenuous.

Expand full comment
founding

Whoa, I'm not saying "can only be proved"! I'm being Bayesian about this whole thing.

Think thru this case with me: suppose a tech catches COVID from the stored viruses at the lab, and then keeps going to work / their regular community events / etc.; isn't it a surprise that they *didn't* spread it at the lunch room at the lab?

The hope of reasoning about things in a Bayesian way is that if you carefully keep track of all of the surprises, you can tell which of two stories is more surprising overall. Maybe this is just a small surprise (maybe the virology lab has very generous sick leave, so in fact the tech didn't come back to work, or Chinese work culture often has people eating off-site so there's less worker-to-worker spread, or so on), but it should still go on the pile of surprises so you can accurately weigh the whole stories.

Expand full comment

What about the "worker sells animals used for research at WIV to someone at the market on the sly" hypothesis?

Expand full comment

Good point. I have personally eaten lab animals in the US (chickens and lambs), although my only connection with the research was being a friend of a friend of a lab worker. They said they were controls, and they tasted fine. Although there is no evidence for it, it does not sound crazy.

Expand full comment
founding

Against that particular hypothesis, the WIV was working on bats and I think cell cultures from other mammals but not live animals. The Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, in spite of its name, sold a fair number of live mammals, but it appears to have not sold bats in the period of interest.

Expand full comment

Of course, we also know that Covid can be carried and communicated to humans by dozens of other animals including, cats, dogs, deer, mink, and hamsters. So really, any of a number of animals could have been an intermediary and the bat could have merely been proximate during some part of shipping.

Expand full comment

My understanding is that the two strains are different enough that it would have taken longer than a week or two evolve.

Expand full comment
founding

I haven't read the paper, so maybe "geospatial analysis" means something more sophisticated than I think it does. But I don't think that "near the center" in *geographic* terms is particularly relevant, because the disease spreads among humans and humans aren't anything like particles moving by brownian motion in a uniform fluid. What matters is social rather than geographic distance, and weighted by local suitability for superspreader events.

E.g. the Atlanta International Airport is way on the outskirts of Atlanta. But it's a really good place for a superspreader event. And it handles about as many outgoing passengers as incoming. So if there's a disease outbreak there, then a priori it's as likely to have been brought there by someone from Atlanta, as it is by someone on an incoming flight. And if the disease is suspiciously similar to something being researched at the CDC, then "but the CDC is on the other side of the city!", is not a strong counterargument.

Shopping for seafood and the occasional live mammal is something lots of people in China do, in roughly the way airline travel is something lots of people in America do. A laboratory technician might do either, on any given day. And if a someone is going to do that, then they're going to deliberately travel to the place where that thing is done, even if it's on the other side of the city.

There's probably a way to do an analysis that quantifiably addresses actual human patterns of movement and interaction, weighted by probability of airborne virus transmission. But I expect that it would be very hard to do, particularly without the cooperation of a trustworthy Chinese government. And I don't think the results would normally be described as "geospatial".

Can someone who has read the preprint say whether it properly addressed these factors?

Expand full comment
founding

Which question are you trying to answer? As noted elsewhere, the paper is answering the question "where was the first superspreader event?", not "where was patient 0 infected?". [Why the commentators or the authors are pretending the second is beyond me.]

I do think the paper is pretty convincing that, of the cases we're familiar with from December, a huge fraction of them are downstream of transmission at the market. [I don't think they have the statistical power to detect whether it's 90% or 100%, especially if some cases were strategically deleted from the records as part of a coverup.]

I would have liked for them to be more quantitative with two main questions to answer something more like "where was patient 0 infected?":

1) what fraction of early cases would you expect to be 'tied to the market' if the disease originated there instead of simply spreading there?

2) is the move towards the population center of Wuhan from Dec to Jan/Feb above, at, or below the expected move if the market were the only early source of infections?

Expand full comment
founding

If the only thing the paper is relevant for is the location of the initial superspreader, then what was your "is the WIV *also* near the center" about?

Yes, the initial superspreader event was almost certainly at the market. If someone is claiming that the geographic distance between the WIV and the first superspreader event is in any way relevant, that person is almost certainly wrong. I was unclear as to whether it was you or the authors of the preprint who were making that argument, or if those authors were at least providing something that supported your claim.

Expand full comment

"Near" is a relative term, no? To know that you'd need to have things like Wuhan public transit routes and location of staff residences relative to WIV and the market.

For example, I have a coworker whose preferred grocery store is 25 kilometres from our place of work.

Expand full comment

> And crucially, it makes the claim that these early cases were not due to ascertainment bias, because they were detected before people even realized there was an outbreak around the market.

Regarding ascertainment bias, there’s a relatively uncontroversial claim that much of the data used for the main analysis is probably subject to ascertainment bias. The “bias free” data is limited to a small number of very early cases (41 cases, 27 linked to the market).

Regarding the claim that these early cases are bias free, I think laypeople can reasonably try to evaluate this claim themselves. It’s not like the paper authors are experts in Chinese medical bureaucracy. My take (based on the preprint): they establish a few cases linked to the market before official mechanisms recognised the disease, but there’s ample evidence that official mechanisms often lag behind informal chats and rumours by a substantial margin, so it’s still quite plausible that a link to the market was presumed when the earlier cases were identified. In short, they present weak evidence (Bayes factor 1.5 ish) against ascertainment bias.

Expand full comment

Ascertainment bias would also apply to the first cases being identified in Wuhan at all. There's no way to rule out that earlier cases of covid appeared elsewhere in China but were never identified. Chan appears to want to have it both ways: throw out the wet market connection for ascertainment bias but keep the Wuhan/lab connection, even though the latter has an inherent ascertainment bias mechanism baked into it (the lab would be a very good place to first identify COVID).

Expand full comment

Indeed, it might not have originated in Wuhan. However, you can easily check if the virus was discovered by the WIV and you should do things like this before wasting everyone’s time with silly comments.

Expand full comment

This whole topic is a massive waste of time, sooooo

Expand full comment

1. Is the analysis done by people under the control of or influence of the Chinese government?

2. Was the data obtained with Chinese government cooperation?

3. Is the future access to data about the outbreak by these researchers dependent on Chinese government cooperation?

4. Were any of the researchers on the paper part of the early effort to shut down discussion of the lab leak hypothesis?

If any of these are true, how can we trust the analysis?

In addition, how can any of the points you list distinguish between the outbreak starting at the market and the outbreak starting with a WIV researcher who went to the market to buy food and infected someone there? The early strains could have diverged there.

Expand full comment

So now we have TWO zoonotic spillover events in the same place within a few days of each other? That itself strikes me as a very improbable event that should reduce our confidence in any hypothesis that requires it. But a lab doing work on two (or more!) infectious strains simultaneously would not be at all surprising, and if their containment protocols are lax enough for one to get out then so could another. You do still have the implausibility of "the infected researchers both go to the wild-animal section of the Huanan Seafood Market, which is not the most convenient market for WIV" though.

Expand full comment

Wouldn't it make more sense that it was one researcher who was infected with both strains in a single accident?

Two accidents in close succession seems unlikely.

Expand full comment

Easy to account for this by someone at WIV making renminbi on the side by selling no longer needed research animals.

Expand full comment

Unlikely. Bats are not eaten in Wuhan and lab mice aren't the type of rats that people might eat.

Expand full comment
Jul 30, 2022·edited Jul 30, 2022

But would it make sense to feed the "no longer needed" lab mice to some of the animals sold in the wildlife market?

Expand full comment

No.

1. Humans rarely eat carnivores

2. For the most common ones (ie. dogs and cata) you do not need to feed them live meat.

Expand full comment

You would have to know where all the WIV workers actually live to even start to assess how convenient that market is, though, right? There's a Superstore mere steps outside my office, but I prefer the Safeway near my house (and not even the Safeway nearest my house, since it's in a busy mall and I don't like the fight for parking).

Expand full comment

Even that would not help.

If Hunaan sold exotics then it may have been the only source in Wuhan for many animals. If someone from WIV was planning a special meal they would have gone there to get special meat even if not convenient.

Expand full comment

Except, the market origin doesn't even slightly deprecate the chance of lab origin. I'm not sure why the natural-origin advocates believe it does. Market origin != natural source.

Personally, my money is on the casual, incautious, opportunistic disposal of WIV lab animals that didn't seem overtly sick, so (junior lab janitor 7) decides he can make a few bucks selling them to a friend that has a "don't ask questions about where this came from" stall at the wet market.

Expand full comment
Jul 31, 2022·edited Jul 31, 2022

This is unlikely.

Animals sold in wet markets are very different from lab animals.

Bats are not eaten in Wuhan and lab mice are a lot smaller than the rats that get eaten. I am not aware of any evidence that WIV worked with dogs or cats, which would otherwise be the best candidate as both a lab animal and a potential dinner.

If the lab leak hypothesis is correct then the most likely route from WIV to the market was people. It could be a researcher. It could also be something as simple as poorly disposed garbage resulting in a refuse collector being infected and his wife worked at the market.

Expand full comment

(Never been to Wuhan myself, my only impression is from someone who worked near there for about 4 months which I take as significantly more credible and less prone to 'spin' than professional media sources whose motivations are unclear to me.)

While I appreciate your comment that 'bats aren't eaten in Wuhan'....In my acquaintance's experience of Wuhan and poorer regions of China, and my own experience of such markets in third world countries, I'm pretty sure that attractively-priced meat protein of ANY KIND is eaten in Wuhan and in a certain context, the provenance is basically irrelevant.

But to your latter point, yes, it could also well be an infected worker that just wandered through a hot, damp, crowded, high-throughput place like the Wuhan market. My only take would be that I'd assume the typical safety standards and in/out testing is pretty high at such a facility, so that route would have to inadvertently 'beat' such checks/practices. OTOH, someone doing something shady like selling disposed test animals for a little $ is going to be already and deliberately skirting the rules.

Which is more likely? At that point it's a sheer guess.

To a tangential point, though: pretty much all the comments I've seen to this review, and frankly much of the online commentary in places like Slashdot are rather impressively intelligent people (at least they write so).

So (not to you but generally) from such people, why the oversimplification that:

Wet Market = natural source, and

Lab origin = must be deliberate leak or spread from the Wuhan lab

...as if there aren't tons of ways those could be blended in different narratives?

There are a number of variables in the process that are being conflated, I don't know why...as strawmen, maybe? The only one I think in actual play here is if the virus itself was a natural mutation passed from a natural source with no real human intervention aside from being the recipients, or was the virus (which in any case originally came from a natural source) somehow manipulated/edited by humans?

Was it a deliberate leak by the Chinese, or inadvertent? Personally, I overwhelmingly believe inadvertent. Not just because incompetence is vastly more likely than malice most times, but because if it would have been deliberate it a) pretty certainly wouldn't have been down the street from the lab (lol) and b) the Chinese would have had a far better cover story than their hasty, reflexive fibs, lies, falsehoods, and stonewalling.

Expand full comment

I have been to Wuhan several times and my wife is from a nearby town.

1. Wuhan is not poor. It is generally considered a second tier city, one step behind Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, etc. The US equivalent of San Francisco, one step down from NYC, Chicago, LA.

2. Like in most third world countries, what food is on the menu is culturally dependent unless people are starving, and they are not starving in Wuhan. Chinese make fun of southern Chinese for eating anything with its back to the sky (think about it) or anything that flies except an airplane and anything that swims except a submarine. Outside of Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangzi, and parts of Sichuan most "exotic" foods are things like pig brain and dog. Some insects as delicacies. You do not find the exotics in places like Wuhan. In addition, I have been in wet markets all over China including Yunnan, Guangxi, and Guangdong and I have never seen bat. You definitely will not find bat in a Wuhan wet market unless you do some kind of special order (ie. a Guangxi cuisine restaurant ordering it for a special dinner. In a case like that it would also be Guangxi customers.)

3. In general, things like bat, rat, pangolin, cat, dog, centipede, scorpion, etc. are specialty foods. They are more expensive and people want to eat them buy them in recognizable form so they are not cheated. No one buys anonymous unidentifiable meat in a Chinese market - you have no idea what it is, how old it is, etc.

4. I have no idea what "in/out testing" you think goes on at a Chinese wet market or whether you think it applies to people or animals. I can guarantee to you that customers walk in and out with no testing, workers walk in and then go home without any testing, and animals are brought in without testing and animals (alive or dead) leave with no testing.

5. Safety standards are minimal. In a place like Wuhan, they have refrigeration. That is still relatively new. I have been in many smaller wet markets where fresh meat hangs from hooks and you smell it to make sure it has not been out too long. Drainage gutters usually exist. The floor is not particularly clean. Toilets are squatters, there is no soap, and butchers squat down still wearing their work aprons. In supermarkets workers usually wear a mail glove to protect their hands while chopping meat. In markets that is less common.

6. I'm not sure how this blends. Original source was either the wet market or the lab (or, less likely, something else). If it was the lab, then the wet market was one of the earliest super spreader events.

Expand full comment
founding

One of my pet peeves about this whole subject is the tendency for people to conflate "it clearly spread from the Wuhan Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market" with "it is clearly a natural zoonotic event". The Huanan market was pretty clearly the first Covid-19 superspreader event, but the Huanan market would have been a really good place for a superspreader event even if it only sold seafood (and gamma-sterilized at that). It's a big crowded noisy poorly-ventilated building(*) with thousands of people coming and going every day.

So either version requires a coincidence. In the lab-leak version, it's certainly possible that a WIV lab technician exposed himself to proto-COVID, went to buy some seafood after work, and then went about his business. But why the seafood market, instead of one of a hundred other places in Wuhan just as suitable for a superspreader event? Unlikely, but not impossible.

In the natural zoonotic version, it's certainly possible that someone shipped an infected [unknown not-bat animal] from Yunnan or Laos to Wuhan, where it was sold in Wuhan's not-exclusively-seafood wet market. But why the *Wuhan* wet market, rather than one of a hundred others at least as closely tied to Yunnan/Laos? Also unlikely, but not impossible.

The existence of two strains doesn't change that, because it requires the same coincidence in both cases. The research being carried out at WIV was likely to create multiple related strains, but someone or someones being infected with both and then visiting the Huanan market is unlikely. OTOH, while a wild reservoir might have two strains in circulation, the odds of animals infected with both being transported to Wuhan but neither to any closer city is also unlikely.

And if, more likely IMHO, the second strain only emerged when the virus first had a chance to play pinball among crowded human hosts, then that's equally likely whether the first strain shows up in an [unknown not-bat animal] or in a recently-infected lab technician.

Both hypotheses are credible and require investigation, even if we are 100% certain that the first superspreader event was at the Huanan market and that there were two early strains.

* Some extrapolation from my experience in other Chinese markets involved; I've never been to Wuhan.

Expand full comment

I'm still not sure why this isn't the only thing people are talking about.

Expand full comment

Completely agree. Whether the pandemic was caused by a lab leak or the wildlife trade, it seems like we brought this thing on ourselves either way and need to take steps to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Expand full comment

Though in some sense it doesn't matter: since both possibilities are plausible, we should shut down the wild animal trade *and* demand higher biosecurity standards for virology work and tighter controls on gain-of-function research.

Expand full comment

I should note that there aren't a lot of easy gains for Westerners trying to improve standards at either Chinese wild animal markets or Chinese research labs, because the PRC just goes "fuck you and fuck your international order".

There is one and only one threat that the PRC will listen to, which is "do this or Global Thermonuclear War", and even then you'd have a substantial likelihood of having to actually follow through on that threat.

Are there things worth going to Global Thermonuclear War over? Yes. Are there biolab things worth going to Global Thermonuclear War over? Also yes (the obvious case is Life 2.0 X-risk). Is specifically "you might do another COVID by accident" worth Global Thermonuclear War? Probably not. Which means the ability of this dialogue to actually produce an order-of-magnitude decrease in the rate of lab leaks is essentially nil - we can improve Western standards, and the PRC may of its own initiative improve Chinese standards, but we can't improve Chinese standards and lots of the low-standards work is in China.

Expand full comment

I don’t think improving western lab standards is a waste of time at all.

Expand full comment

Hence my mention of "order-of-magnitude". Even if you take the West to 0, the sheer amount of biotech research in PRC territory means it's only a moderate downgrade in total risk.

Expand full comment

We can stop funding research in Chinese labs, or insist on tighter standards and random inspections as a condition of doing so (which I expect is equivalent to stopping all funding, because CCP).

Expand full comment

A ten to twenty percent tariff on all Chinese exports would also probably work. No need to start a war.

Expand full comment

I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that Chinese research labs are uniquely lax in their security precautions, given the litany of close calls that have happened in the US, UK, Singapore, and Russia.

Expand full comment
founding

Covid killed 5 million people; expected casualties in a US-China nuclear war are <500E6 (and most of that is from the possibility of Russia being drawn in against the US). So if we assume that status quo means another Covid sometime in this generation, and there's a 99% probability that China will back down on gain-of-function research and wet markets if seriously threatened with nuclear war, then by strict first-order consequentialism we should seriously threaten nuclear war.

As it turns out, I'm not a strict consequentialist, or even a moderate one; there are other values at play here. And higher-order terms to the consequential math. So I don't think we should actually do that. But it's kind of alarming that the first-order math suggests that this is something we should be at least considering.

Expand full comment

I'm more pessimistic about both likelihood and casualties of nuclear war given the hawk option.

But yes, I was that specific for a reason and this is pretty disquieting.

Expand full comment

First-order math is misleading.

Consider that people dead from COVID were mostly old and had just a few QALYs left - let's Fermi estimate as ~2-3 on average, once the "quality" part is taken into account. A nuclear strike would kill indiscriminately.

Also, I'd rather have long COVID than radiation sickness, nevermind the massive economic and logistical disruption of even a limited nuclear exchange. IIRC in a nuclear war you're most likely to die of hunger, not because of nuclear winter (vastly overblown risk) but because all the supply chains collapse at once.

Expand full comment

Covid killed 22 million, and counting. https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/excess-deaths-cumulative-economist-single-entity?country=~OWID_WRL

OTH, " a real dog" is correct that those deaths were seldom among kids or healthy working-age population.

Expand full comment

But the funniest thing here is that the US government and scientific establishment both funded the lax Chinese GoF research, and engaged in early coverup of the possibility of the lab leak, so maybe you should consider thermonuclear bombing of them as well, just to be safe?

Expand full comment

While I agree with you and John Schilling below, I don't think nuclear war would be necessary even as a threat. The US/Europe could ratchet up sanctions until demands are met, especially if you got the third power (Russia) on board with it. The bigger issue is that the West can't even coordinate their own long-term response to COVID, much less produce a united front to investigate the conditions that created it.

Expand full comment

Considering both that there is a certainty that we will have more natural origin diseases, as well as the improbability of "perfect" security in disease research, I'd say it's just as important if not moreso that we understand WHY our ostensibly science driven experts, government, and media were so wedded to a single unproved narrative and (not trivially) the suppression of apostates, heretics, and even agnostics.

I'm not saying there was a conspiracy, that's Alex Jones nutter territory. There certainly was however dogmatic consensus across groups who should, theoretically, be checking each other and weren't.

Expand full comment

What I gleaned from my own study of this (including reading a lot of Alina Chan essays) is that while we may never know what caused COVID-19, we have more than enough evidence that the international study of virology resembles Jurassic Park and needs to be much more tightly regulated and supervised.

Expand full comment

Funny, I encounter the topic so often I'm totally sick of it, and there's essentially zero value added. Plus it indulges a preexisting love for conspiracy theories which is definitely not healthy.

Expand full comment

What was the evidence that convinced you that zoonotic spillover in the wild was definitely the origin of the outbreak?

Expand full comment

Zoonotic spillover is the default assumption, since that's how contagious disease works in the overwhelming majority of historical cases (we didn't even have pathogen labs until the last, what, 100 years?). The particular vector is not even that interesting to me, since from a big picture POV 1. zoonotic spillover will continue to happen and 2. interventions to prevent it are not really practical on a level that would actually do anything useful.

Playing whack-a-mole with 1001 flavors of lab leak is not even useful.

Expand full comment

Well, the review above has enough examples of lab-originating disease outbreaks to dent one's confidence that natural outbreaks are the only reasonable cause.

Expand full comment

And all the risks of pandemic disease research are still there regardless of whether this particular case was of natural origin or not. If the research has a bad risk-reward ratio, we should stop it regardless of where this or that disease happened to come from. If safety standards are lax, we should tighten them. COVID coming from a lab has zero meaningfully different consequences relative to normal zoonotic origin.

Expand full comment

Of course it does! If it had a natural origin it means that we should increase disease surveillance of the host reservoirs. If it had a lab origin then a global agreement on proper biolab security, regulation and probably inspection is necessary.

Expand full comment

>If the research has a bad risk-reward ratio, we should stop it regardless of where this or that disease happened to come from.

How would we *know* the risk-reward ratio without a thorough investigation of whether a pandemic is natural or a lab accident? I feel like that would be a huge factor in that calculation!

Expand full comment
founding

> Zoonotic spillover is the default assumption, since that's how contagious disease works in the overwhelming majority of historical cases (we didn't even have pathogen labs until the last, what, 100 years?).

First and most importantly, do you count it as "zoonotic spillover" if Alice collects a virus from a wild animal, ships the virus to Bob, and then Bob mishandles it and gets infected? In my view, this looks pretty similar to the case where Alice collects the wild animal, ships the animal to Bob, and then Bob gets infected by it. [If you think maybe people shouldn't ship wild animals to cities for disease risk reasons, maybe also you should think people shouldn't ship viruses to cities for disease risk reasons!]

Second, doesn't this logic seem weird to you? Let's pretend we're instead talking about a murder victim.

Suppose I noted that death-by-club is the default assumption, since that's how human-on-human violence works in the overwhelming majority of historical cases (we didn't even have guns until the last, what, 500 years?).

You might fairly call me confused. After all, the invention of guns resulted in a substantial change to the dynamics generating the historical record; we should heavily discount data from the distant past compared to data from the recent past.

How relevant is the example that SARS-COV-1 was a zoonotic spillover in 2003? Well, according to me, it depends on how many labs we had in 2003 and how many we have now.

There are a bunch of papers that talk about this in detail (mostly noting that the explosion in labs happened in the wake of 9/11 and significant anti-terrorism funding), but few of them give the numbers that I want. As an example, let's lookat wikipedia's incomplete list of BSL-4 labs ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biosafety_level#List_of_BSL-4_facilities ) that have the date of when they were founded. 13 of them date from before the SARS-COV-1 pandemic and 19 of them date from after the SARS-COV-1 pandemic. Presumably the likelihood of a BSL-4 lab escape increased to 2.5x if the number of labs increased to 2.5x, right?

[Which labs are the relevant ones? I remember hearing that WIV was BSL-2 and was working with viruses designated BSL-3, so maybe the reference class is just "labs doing thought-to-be-unsafe work", which would probably take a research effort to uncover.]

> The particular vector is not even that interesting to me, since from a big picture POV 1. zoonotic spillover will continue to happen and 2. interventions to prevent it are not really practical on a level that would actually do anything useful.

Why do you think interventions are impractical? Can't we just shut down biosafety labs inside cities? Like, if we did all of our virology research on floating research vessels, then we could both 1) still collect lots of viruses for research and 2) keep it away from major population centers, reducing the chances of new pandemics or endemic diseases.

Expand full comment

On the contrary, playing whack-a-mole with 1001 flavors of lab leak seems just as useful to me as cancer research, which is playing whack-a-mole with 1001 sources of cancer.

Expand full comment

Nothing about this is a conspiracy theory.

Expand full comment

"Hey, maybe we should try to figure out the cause of this thing that killed millions of people and kept billions of people locked down for several years"

"No, don't do that! Why do you even care about this, stop investigating it right now you racist conspiracy theorist!!!"

Be suspicious of people who really don't want you to investigate stuff.

Expand full comment

the deadliest fuckup in human history, potentially.

Expand full comment

What's not healthy about loving conspiracy theories, and how does it compare to repeating whatever is convenient for the current authorities?

Expand full comment

Conspiracy theory patterns of thinking tend to lead away from the truth more often than towards it. "Conspiracy theories resist falsification and are reinforced by circular reasoning." The superficial similarity with actual attempts to find truth (such as the scientific method) can fool others into following the conspiracy theorists down this path where "Do your own research" turns into, "play these videos on YouTube and then see where YouTube's suggestion algorithm takes you."

The Wikipedia page on conspiracy theories has plenty of information on the harm, both individual and societal, caused by conspiracy theories and that general type of thinking, along with 153 references you can follow up on, if you like.

Expand full comment

This seems to just be a case of reversed stupidity not being intelligence. I still see no reason to update against, or for, a theory just because it sounds like a conspiracy.

How much harm, individual and societal, was caused by following the authorities? How many reasonable Jews obeyed the law right until their death during WW2? (see "The Pianist" for a really good illustration)

Expand full comment

"I still see no reason to update against, or for, a theory just because it sounds like a conspiracy."

Quite. That's the vast difference between you and a conspiracy theory lover. Remember, you did ask originally, "What's not healthy about _loving_ conspiracy theories?"

Expand full comment

Because it doesn't really matter all that much? Even if tomorrow it was shown beyond any reasonable doubt that COVID-19 had a natural origin, I would *still* think that gain-of-function research is a lot more dangerous than most people thought in 2019 and that it should be much more strictly regulated.

Expand full comment

Hard agree. i used to think there are very few examples of truly dangerous research, and certainly no one was actually doing that research anyway, but that was a horribly mistaken view.

Expand full comment
founding

So while I agree that the cost-benefit analysis is obvious, and has been obvious basically forever, for some reason virologists don't seem to agree. (Look at the 2014 and 2016 symposia on gain-of-function research, for example.) If we can't agree on forecasts about the future, maybe we can hope to agree on stories about the past, and use them as our forecasts. [Obviously making your predictions about the future by thinking about the future is better, but coordination :( ]

I think if COVID-19 has a lab origin (even if just "oops it was a mistake to put all of the wild viruses we could find in a big city"), then it becomes likely that virology in the last few decades has killed more people than it's saved. I think if COVID-19 has a natural origin, then the retrospective view becomes non-obvious.

Expand full comment

it’s not obvious to experts because experts, by definition, need funding.

Expand full comment

It matters geopolitically. Just as Chernobyl hastened the end of the Soviet Union, we could reasonably hope that if Covid-19 is shown to be the result of a massive Chinese Government fuckup and coverup that it might hasten the end of Communist rule in China.

Maybe that's overly hopeful but, hey, it couldn't hurt.

Expand full comment

It doesn't matter if we know the truth about the lab leak hypothesis because there's no path from "we know it was a lab leak" to "the Chinese improve safety standards"

If it was a lab leak, the Chinese already know. Their best incentive for improving safety standards is "we caused a massive plague in our own country, and it's genuinely screwing us up".

"Other countries are mad at us" is a comparatively trivial reason for them. If they won't try to avoid a second plague for their *own* sake, they certainly won't do anything for anyone else's.

We might possibly be able to put enough pressure on to make them lie convincingly about it.

Expand full comment

My read of some of these revelations is that this is not really a chinese problem. The chinese only have a naturally occurring reservoir of disease. The US brought the know how (Baric), the middleman (Daszak), and probably the money (NIH, NSAID, DARPA) as well.

Expand full comment
Jul 30, 2022·edited Jul 31, 2022

Sure there is? What kind of bizarre political rearguard statement is that? Bare minimum western governments and firms could (threaten or actually) pull all their experts and money out of that space. That would have SOME impact on Chinese behavior surely.

This almost seems like climate change deniers. Partisans fighting for a year against lab leak, then when they need to grudgingly admit it is possible, they shift to “doesn’t matter anyway”. They why was the party line so important for the last year?

Expand full comment
founding

There are 40X as many BSL labs in the US than are in China, and the worrying research at the WIV was paid for by Americans. If labs and this research goes from being subsidized to being taxed, this dramatically changes the landscape (and dramatically reduces risk, if labs are in fact net negative).

Expand full comment

Laura Kahn’s article is great, thank you for linking to it.

Expand full comment

Yeah, amid all the speculation and hand-waving she did a great job of laying out exactly what standard of evidence would be required to conclusively show a natural origin.

Expand full comment

It’s really helpful, I had no idea what the standard would be or had been and reading what was done for MERS and the first SARS was very interesting. The presence of antibodies in animals and then the presence of antibodies in people who spend time with those animals, at much greater likelihood than the general population. That’s neat.

I can come up with any gradation of conspiracy theory necessary for the different spins on “lab leak” (I admire your resistance there.) So having a standard for “zoonotic” is really good.

Expand full comment

Saar from Rootclaim here. Thanks for the mention!

While there have been many developments since we published, I don't expect the conclusion to change once we update (hopefully soon).

The nice thing about a good probabilistic model is that it takes into account that some of the evidence will turn out to be wrong, and new evidence will come up, so you rarely get large swings in the likelihoods over time.

Note that as with most of our controversial conclusions, we offer a $100,000 challenge to anyone who can convince unbiased judges that a natural origin is more likely than a lab leak.

None of the experts confidently claiming "case closed", "dispositive evidence", or "99.99% zoonosis" have even inquired about the challenge, despite readers repeatedly pointing them to it. I believe this gives a much stronger indication of their true confidence than their public statements.

Expand full comment
Comment deleted
Expand full comment

We are willing to reduce the stakes as low as $10,000 (or even 0) for applicants already involved in public debate on the issue. The high amount is to discourage time wasting. If we feel a debate with that applicant will promote rationality, we'll gladly do it.

Counterparty risk is negligible. Money will be in escrow.

Yes, we are open to using criteria other than a judged debate, but its conditional probability needs to be roughly equal for both sides. For example "Within 2 years China convicts the scientist responsible for the leak" is not a good one.

Expand full comment

Hey Saar, big fan of your work! Rootclaim is awesome.

The $100,000 challenge sounds interesting. Reminds me of the famous James Randi million dollar prize for anyone who could demonstrate a paranormal ability in a legit experiment (of course nobody ever could do it).

Expand full comment

That was exactly the inspiration!

Expand full comment

Don’t you think the BANAL sequences indicate the analysis of bat/pangolin cohabitation isn’t very relevant, and in particular sars-cov2 could have come from recombination of two bat viruses?

Also, an idle question: if I wanted to challenge you and I think the evidence is more consistent with a 50-50 natural/lab credence, how would you propose deciding who wins? I’m not likely to actually challenge you, I’m just curious.

Expand full comment

Definitely. The 'chimera' section in our analysis is no longer relevant. It's normal for some evidence in a Rootclaim analysis to be found as wrong later on. What hasn't happened yet is for a whole analysis to fail. That's the advantage of probabilistic inference over logical inference.

In this case, once we update the analysis I expect the new evidence (for all hypotheses) to compensate for that, and for the likelihoods to remain about the same, but we won't know for sure until it's done.

Expand full comment

How do you define unbiased and who applies that filter to the judge selection process?

Expand full comment

Both sides agree on the judges, and the selection process is done publicly, so it is clear if one of the parties is trying to manipulate the process.

Expand full comment

I really like the format and the amount of work you put into the analysis.

But I do think that the magnitude of a lot of the updates are out of proportion to the presented levels of evidence, and I do think that some of the analysis is prey to a lack of understanding of the underlying biology. These two factors come together strongly in the furin cleavage site section, which I would consider as a ÷5 for bioweapon and even for everything else.

I'm curious, did you have anyone with a strong background in virology and/or biological sequence analysis go through your analysis?

Expand full comment

I think you misunderstood the effect analysis of the furin cleavage site. We're giving its existence zero effect, and all the effect is due to it being cleanly inserted rather than mutated, and for using the rarest codons.

As to virology background: Rootclaim is about mapping the existing claims made by experts into a probabilistic framework. Think of it like a judge and expert witnesses. We therefore try to avoid original research. When we do feel it is required, we will consult top experts.

Expand full comment

From the review: "According to the US Federal Select Agent Program, which oversees the possession and handling of dangerous biological agents and toxins, there were 219 accidental releases of these 'select agents' in 2019. So, while accidental lab leaks are uncommon, they’re not unheard of."

Am I mis-reading this sentence? Because "uncommon" doesn't seem quite how I would describe over 200 accidental releases per year.

Expand full comment

One needs the denominator. The list of items dubbed 'dangerous biological agents and toxins' is quite long and includes multiple naturally occurring pathogens that are found, suspected, or tested for across the country. When one adds testing reagents to the list, the *potential* for bad handling gets surprisingly common.

Expand full comment

So I should think of this as I do the ~400 pool drowning per year in the US? Given the number of *opportunities* 200 'select agents' accidental releases in a year is still uncommon?

Expand full comment

Yes, exactly. Also nearly all of those "select agent" accidental releases are immediately contained and do not cause any outbreak of anything. Accidental releases that cause outbreaks are even more rare (but still not unheard of).

Expand full comment

Eh. I am more dubious on this point, esp considering that China had SARS1 slip out on them more than once.

Both accidents in handling and disease resulting from accidents in handling are more common than one might think, and this was (imo) grossly downplayed in the initial days of the outbreak. Denying the possibility of error by institutions doesn't create a universe where errors are not made by institutions.

(And it's not a case of "oh, those ChiComs, so incompetent" - the UK had a fairly devastating example with FMD - https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2007/08/report-lab-leak-likely-caused-uk-foot-and-mouth-outbreak.)

(To clarify for the casual listener, this wasn't the huge outbreak in the early 00's, but a smaller one later.)

On edit: it sounds like I am saying one thing and then an opposite thing. Lab release accidents are rare in terms of opportunities and probably not even a daily occurrence, world wide. But they do happen more than once a week and should always be considered a potential player in outbreaks.

Expand full comment

I'm not really sure this matters. We aren't trying to evaluate risk *per unit of agent handling*; we're trying to see how reasonable it is to suppose that "this thing happened during a given time period".

That is, if we had 200 potentially catastrophic impact events forecast for the next year, we don't care if impact events are rare *relative to the number of asteroids* in the solar system -- 200 might be a pretty low rate if there are 500,000 similarly-sized celestial bodies flying by without impacting; but in absolute terms, it's not at all uncommon, and there's no reason to penalize any hypothesis that suggests "maybe this happened before too".

(I mean, obviously in that case the evidence wouldn't really be possible to ignore, but it's just an analogy, all right.)

Expand full comment
Jul 30, 2022·edited Jul 30, 2022

Note that this includes toxins. If I spill botulinum toxin or tetrodotoxin somewhere, that's bad and might get people killed, but it's not self-replicating so there's literal zero chance of an epidemic.

Also, there are a lot of diseases that can kill or sicken you but that don't spread well among humans in reasonably-hygienic conditions (e.g. anthrax, which spreads dead-to-living and is thus only an epidemic risk if corpses are routinely lying around in the street for hours/days - which implies Bigger Problems - or the zillion "abattoir diseases" (leptospirosis, bruscellosis, Q fever...) which you can get easily from working with animals but which humans don't transmit to other humans).

Expand full comment

“Accidental release” doesn’t mean an outbreak - it could mean one person infected, or one person spilled it on their skin and didn’t get infected, or one person dropped a beaker in a clean room and it didn’t get on anyone, and maybe even someone using the pipet a second time when they weren’t supposed to.

Expand full comment

Well done.

Expand full comment

Thanks for reading Shaun!

Expand full comment

This is a GREAT review. FYI, I work in an organization directly affected by the pandemic-I spent hundreds of extra hours supporting people responding directly to the pandemic., so I have a bit of an inside view (with all the good and bad that brings). As best I can tell, this is an even-handed, insightful review. Thanks!

Expand full comment

Thanks for the kind words! If you liked the review, I also recommend checking out the book itself. It's quite good, although I recommend it with the caveat that it should be read in combination with more pro-natural-origins sources to get a balanced view.

Expand full comment
Jul 30, 2022·edited Jul 30, 2022

The closing of the cave - a sign that the Chinese themselves suspected the source of their Wuhan samples was the source of (ETA: some version of) the virus, and not the wet market?

Expand full comment

I'm not sure. It might be because they suspected the lab leak hypothesis to be correct, but it could also just be regular authoritarian behavior where they're covering up anything that could possibly make them look bad.

An interesting point in the book is that the Chinese government also engaged in coverup attempts during the SARS1 pandemic in 2003, even though that pandemic had a natural origin. So I don't think we can necessarily take coverup attempts as evidence for a lab leak.

Expand full comment

The CIA has been suspected of doing this sort of thing as well, launching coverups for things that they weren't actually involved in, because the higher ups couldn't be sure whether they were involved or not.

Expand full comment

I think it's just the behavior of many totalitarian states, where any information related to COVID (in this case) was suppressed and classified. They didn't carefully evaluate what each piece of evidence might mean, or guess what could be found. They just hid it all, and punished anyone trying to find out for themselves. Like the Soviet Union and Chernobyl (or anything related to nuclear power, or the military, or many other things).

Expand full comment

The geospatial analysis studies are amazing in all the worst ways. Note one of the coauthors on the latest preprint is Kristian Andersen, who (imho) is intent on releasing one misleading study after another to disprove lab origin, but only after: 1) emailing Fauci in early 2020 to express serious concerns COVID-19 has hallmark signs of engineering; 2) joining a private Fauci-convened call with virologists, the majority of whom expressed private concerns this was probably engineered (notes from the call redacted); 3) days later doing a 180 and saying this absolutely couldn't have been engineered because a) pangolins and b) the spike protein isn't what his computer model would've optimized for; 4) receiving millions in subsequent NIH grants; 5) deleting all his tweet history after being called out for hypocrisy and inconsistencies, then claiming he didn't do it but rather Twitter autodeleted his tweets (as they do...?)

Expand full comment

I don't know much about Kristian Andersen specifically, but definitely a lot of scientists and public health officials have behaved unethically and incompetently throughout the pandemic.

Still, I think we need to judge the geospatial analysis on its merits, not on the past behavior of some of its co-authors. Unfortunately I don't know enough about the ascertainment bias issue to know which side is right about it.

Expand full comment

Normally, one judges a scientific study based on the assumption that the authors are telling the truth - they may be wrong, but they are not deliberately committing scientific fraud.

Should that still be the assumption if @Ido's claim above is correct?

Expand full comment