On COVID-19 origins and conspiracies

At NRO Jim Geraghty has a piece, The Wuhan Lab-Leak Hypothesis Goes Mainstream, where he links to the piece in New York Magazine, The Lab-Leak Hypothesis: For decades, scientists have been hot-wiring viruses in hopes of preventing a pandemic, not causing one. But what if …?. Geraghty gets to toot his own horn because he’s been soberly pointing out the possibility of a lab leak since the spring. Of course, back then he was a “conspiracy theorist” who was attacked and dismissed by “Very Serious People.” Now that it’s in NY Mag, well, those editors know their stuff, right? Authority from on high has spoken, and now you can think about this possibility.

This shows the value of outlets like National Review outside of the mainstream media. They can actually break out of the group-think and conformity which has journalists herding together. As an example, Jake Bittle, a climate reporter, in The New Republic on June 15th, 2020, Why Conservatives Believe a Chinese Lab Created the Coronavirus: The conspiracy theory sprung from an amateur YouTube video. Then, the National Review picked it up:

As the United States struggled to contain the initial onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic, a few conservatives peddled an outlandish theory to explain the origins of the disease. The virus, they claimed, did not emerge in the Wuhan market where most experts believed it had appeared, but at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a research laboratory about eight miles away.* In late January, The Washington Times suggested that scientists at the lab had developed the disease as part of China’s biowarfare program. Even after an article in Nature found that the chemical structure of the virus proved it could not be a “laboratory construct,” the theory had no trouble mutating into a new, more durable form: If the virus hadn’t been manufactured, perhaps it had escaped the lab by accident, the product not of biowarfare but of unsanitary Chinese negligence.

The piece has an asterisk in the first paragraph because of this: “This piece has been updated to reflect the Chinese CDC’s belief that the Wuhan market was not the source of the coronavirus, but a super-spreader.” Some of the theories are clearly outlandish. But the idea of lab escape in the generality really isn’t. The consensus is a moving target.

Now the consensus has moved on. Why? This is part of it is because of a change in politics according to the piece in NY Mag:

Everyone took sides; everyone thought of the new disease as one more episode in an ongoing partisan struggle. Think of Mike Pompeo, that landmass of Cold War truculence; think of Donald Trump himself. They stood at their microphones saying, in a winking, I-know-something-you-don’t-know sort of way, that this disease escaped from a Chinese laboratory. Whatever they were saying must be wrong. It became impermissible, almost taboo, to admit that, of course, SARS-2 could have come from a lab accident. “The administration’s claim that the virus spread from a Wuhan lab has made the notion politically toxic, even among scientists who say it could have happened,” wrote science journalist Mara Hvistendahl in the Intercept.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a feature of 2020. It’s ridiculous to talk about rock-hard scientific truths when the science is being discovered, made, and established. The first time I heard about the possibility of lab escape as credible from a person with a Ph.D. in biology whose work related to pathogens was in February of 2020. I didn’t pay much attention because I was focused on other things, like the US’s lack of total response. In the spring a few other people I knew looked into it, but they didn’t have the bandwidth, and it was clear there was going to be political and possible professional risks, and scientists are on the whole institutionalists who aren’t going to take these risks (with a few exceptions).

Additionally, friends in politics were saying that the Chinese government can be quite aggressive in targeting people who point fingers at them, so that was another major risk that people didn’t want to take on. Do you want to get on the government of China’s radar? Do you want your friends thinking you are a kook? Finally, the Trump administration’s aggressive and volatile politicization, along with the cult of “We Believe in Science” on the other side, made things really difficult for anyone who wanted to move provisionally and with some uncertainty. Remember all the grandstanding about how masks were verboten until they were mandatory? (it’s trivial to find the people who flipped one from one smug position to the other, but the media never highlights this because honestly, I think they don’t want to undermine trust in “experts”)

For me, something changed when the Boston Magazine piece that highlighted the theory came out in September. I started hearing from friends that really credible and high profile scientists thought that there needed to be an investigation about the lab escape theory. Even if they weren’t brave enough to say anything in public about it (you become high profile by not rocking the boat outside of your narrow field, so that’s to be expected). In November I did a quick interview with Spanish television. They reached out to me for comment because so many scientists who off the record would credit the idea of lab escape wouldn’t go on the record. The journalist told me he was quite depressed by the difference in how scientists would talk off-camera and what they were willing to say on the record. It basically made him not trust science at all.

I don’t really have much of a positive spin on this. But I figured I should report and tell you what I’ve heard and seen. The first time someone brought up lab escape was on a Zoom call in February, and he was shushed by others. A lot of the orthodoxies related to COVID-19 are bullshit. That doesn’t mean that all ideas are on the table. But you have to be personally critical-rational. Worried that people will make fun of you? Well, it’s not AIDS, but it’s not the flu either (unless you’re 20 or under).

Also, I’m going to drop the Alina Chan podcast later this week (Thursday night/Friday morning) for subscribers. Two weeks later for everyone else. One thing Alina says several times is that the truth is what matters, and we need to investigate the truth, even if it’s not convenient to a particular narrative. This is admirable, but to be frank I find it to be a rare trait in its execution in these days.

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COVID-19 at the beginning of the 2020 “Holiday Season”


Like most people I initially underestimated coronavirus. Unlike most people I have a blog where I can see what I actually thought. My first mention of coronavirus is on January 26th, 2020. This is what I said:

In Coronavirus, a ‘Battle’ That Could Humble China’s Strongman. One thing I will say is that public health professionals are focused on the tail risk. The risks are real. But please note that the worst-case scenario may not be the most likely scenario.

My worries about tail risk increased gradually until the middle of February (I was still relatively sanguine in early February, though that is when we began to stock up). On February 24th I sent out a very alarmed tweet, and several people privately have told me that that’s when they also became alarmed (I tweeted in reaction to a private query from “Default Friend”).

So where are we at? I’ve been wary about giving predictions for a while because though the worst, worst, case scenarios were avoided (people have taken precautious), there are some pretty grim numbers out there. All that being said, I’m going to be cautiously optimistic. I don’t think we’ll double the death toll over the rest of the pandemic for a variety of reasons. If I had to bet. Unfortunately, I might turn out to be wrong. Who knows?

Finally, there is an intense bittersweet aspect to the stories about China in January and February. I’m glad China didn’t collapse in the plague. But as 2021 starts China is in a good position to keep pushing ahead in the great power race. I have a piece to come out in City Journal soon that ruminates on this tentatively titled “Twilight Empire.”

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Selection in E Asians due to coronavirus epidemics


The above map shows cumulative coronavirus cases. One of the things that I’m still confused by are some geographic patterns. For example, Thailand with 70 million people has had fewer than 4,000 cases and 60 deaths attributed to COVID-19. Bolivia with 11 million people has had 8,900 deaths. Why? There are many theories out there. One thing that is hard to deny: mainland Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia seem to be handling the pandemic “well” (at least after the Wuhan outbreak).

A new preprint on bioRxiv has gotten people even more curious, An ancient coronavirus-like epidemic drove adaptation in East Asians from 25,000 to 5,000 years ago:

The current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has emphasized the vulnerability of human populations to novel viral pressures, despite the vast array of epidemiological and biomedical tools now available. Notably, modern human genomes contain evolutionary information tracing back tens of thousands of years, which may help identify the viruses that have impacted our ancestors – pointing to which viruses have future pandemic potential. Here, we apply evolutionary analyses to human genomic datasets to recover selection events involving tens of human genes that interact with coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2, that started 25,000 years ago. These adaptive events were limited to ancestral East Asian populations, the geographical origin of several modern coronavirus epidemics. An arms race with an ancient corona-like virus may thus have taken place in ancestral East Asian populations. By learning more about our ancient viral foes, our study highlights the promise of evolutionary information to combat the pandemics of the future.

The evidence in the preprint is pretty persuasive. First, I need to communicate something the last author told me: there is no evidence in their results that East Asians have particular robustness or vulnerability to COVID-19. That is due to the fact that these selection sweeps can cut both ways with this particular virus. The GWAS themselves need to be done, and they haven’t been (something like the GWAS done in Europeans).

But, if you eliminate this possibility that makes us ask, why are diverse East Asian societies doing relatively well? Thailand is not Confucian. Vietnam is somewhat, and South Korea is a great deal. But all these nations have been doing well (Confucian South Korea actually has about 10 times more per capita deaths than Thailand).

Second, what was going on 25,000 years ago? One of the things I learned in a book like Fate of Rome is that pandemics are a feature of civilized dense global empires. So it seems unlikely that the ancient proto-Asians were subject to pandemics. But I have read that even endemic infectious diseases may have had issues at hunter-gather population densities. But the results from this preprint indicate a massive sweep for many generations right before the Last Glacial Maximum. Figure 1 in the preprint makes it obvious that this is restricted to East Asians. That being said, the signal in Japanese seems a bit attenuated compared to the Kinh and groups from China, so I wonder if this did not impact to the Jomon (25% or so of Japanese ancestry) but was restricted to somewhere in mainland East Asia?

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Alina Chan is credible

A question from long-time reader Riordan:

Razib,

I’ve been seeing this Twitter thread being passed around my Facebook circles yesterday:

You’ve been tracking the pandemic deeply for quite some time. How plausible do you regard the theory from Alina Chan that COVID19 originated as a accidental/criminally incompetent lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology?

“Tracking the pandemic” is a big job, and really you can only focus on a small subset of what’s going on. In mid-November 2020 we know a lot, but there’s a lot we don’t know. In fact, to be frank, we know a lot less than I would have thought in the spring of 2020. I haven’t been focusing much personally on the various ideas related to the origin of the current coronavirus that’s responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. So I will pass on a few things:

– As early as late February a friend who has done work in evolutionary genetics and pathogens mentioned that both they and their mentor suspected the Chinese were covering something up, perhaps lab escape, on a Zoom call with a few others and myself. This person was told to not even bring up such views by others at the time.

– Another friend, whose own area of expertise is molecular genetics, arrived at the same conclusion independently (lab escape) and devoted some time in the late spring to the topic and queried me about my own opinions (unfortunately I had far less clear or informed views than they did, though I did tell them that others had come to the same conclusion).

– A contact of mine who is well-connected in D.C. political circles told me at about the same time that there was worry that the Chinese were covering things up, but that the PRC has a track record of “going after” people with credibility that came after them, so many people were wary of sticking their necks out (obviously no one cares about Alex Jones’ opinion,  so he can say whatever he wants).

– Finally, I think I can say that there are many people who find Alina Chan’s critiques and concerns quite credible within science (e.g., people who have spoken positively about her courage and views privately to me who work in academia or industry). I am included in that number. This does not mean she is correct. But, it does mean that the time has come to evaluate various possibilities in a calm and objective manner. It looks plausible that we will have a vaccine in 2021, and COVID-19 will be in the rear-view mirror. We need to take stock and examine what happened in January once we have the spare bandwidth.

I am by no means a Sinophobe. On the contrary. But the behavior of the PRC as a whole needs to be examined with clarity, rather than hopefulness. China deserves accolades for its ability to contain and crush COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean that their record is unblemished. At a minimum, the PRC was using WHO as its mouthpiece in January. But, it is not out of the realm of possibility that elements within the PRC are engaging in disinformation to cover-up their own culpability.

Note: Here’s a Boston Magazine profile of Chan and her ideas. If you don’t follow her on Twitter, I would suggest you do so.

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