I chanced to glance at my toothpaste tube the other day, and noticed written there the words “Made in China.” That was a Colgate origins update for me, you might say. I then scrambled to find something that was not made in China: my M100 mouse, my Sony wireless speaker, both bore the fated words. But at least the Bamix kitchen wand I was about to use to froth some soy milk had something else written on it: Made in Switzerland. So not everything was made in China. Although by way of a slap in the chops, a nearby box of lateral flow tests was (see featured image).

With “Made in China” echoing in my mind, my thoughts turned to Covid. In a way, I thought, it didn’t matter whether Covid escaped from a laboratory or arose because of squalid conditions in a wet market: it still bore the same stamp. Made in China. Intent to inflict harm does not accompany either origin scenario, but recklessness certainly does. There is though a third possibility, which would absolve China of recklessness too: that guano collectors picked up Covid in a cave and brought it to Wuhan as unwitting carriers.

[Aside: we in the UK need not gloat about our record of animal husbandry, given what happened re: BSE. Prions are intrinsically rather frightening. From wiki:

In 2015, researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston found that plants can be a vector for prions. When researchers fed hamsters grass that grew on ground where a deer that died with chronic wasting disease (CWD) was buried, the hamsters became ill with CWD, suggesting that prions can bind to plants, which then take them up into the leaf and stem structure, where they can be eaten by herbivores, thus completing the cycle. It is thus possible that there is a progressively accumulating number of prions in the environment.

This story seems unlikely to me. Still, unlikely stories make for great fantasy apocalypses.]

Anyway, it seemed like a good time to update myself on the state of evidence regarding Covid origins theories. If you remember the evidence I listed as compiled in the article by Nicholas Wade, [who by the way now has a book out on Covid’s origins he’d like you to buy] you will know that the odds seemed to be heavily stacked in favour of a lab escape, but that the natural origins theory could not be discounted. What have developments been since?

JULY

Senate Committee hearings:

Senator Rand Paul, KY: Dr Fauci, knowing that it is a crime to lie to congress, do you wish to retract your statement of May 11th where you claimed that the NIH never funded gain of function research in Wuhan?

Dr Anthony Fauci: Senator Paul, I have never lied before the congress and I do not retract that statement.

… a debate about what constitutes gain of function …

Dr Anthony Fauci: Senator Paul, you do not know what you are talking about, quite frankly, and I would like to say that officially. You do not know what you are talking about…

AUGUST

Top of the pops for August has to be the US intelligence services analysis. This first landed on the gawping Joe Biden’s desk, and he read it thoroughly, comprehended it well, and then authorised an unclassified summary to be released to the public on the 27th. Of eight (count ’em) intelligence community “elements”, four thought the outbreak began via natural exposure to an infected animal, one thought it escaped from the laboratory, and three could not make a determination either way. The “consensus” was that the coronavirus was not a bioweapon & that the authorities were blindsided by its appearance.

The IC judges they will be unable to provide a more definitive explanation for the origin of COVID-19 unless new information allows them to determine the specific pathway for initial natural contact with an animal or to determine that a laboratory in Wuhan was handling SARSCoV-2 or a close progenitor virus before COVID-19 emerged.

Interesting that they should make such a sweeping statement when it seems obvious even to an informed bystander that there is plenty of information lurking in the viral genome. We have come a long way in the 100 years since the New Synthesis. To make an obvious point: an outbreak commencing from a single locus has an entirely different genetic construction than an outbreak arising from a population of virus adapting to a new host. So also does the unfolding future of a virus’s genetics vary depending on whether it was acquired from an animal in the wild or an animal in a lab, even if both alternatives represent a single species-jump event. How so? A hapless bat-guano collector would acquire a virus that is better adapted to living in a bat than a human, which must perforce undergo rapid selection to improve its fit to people. A virus that had been cycled through e.g. humanised mice would already be well adapted to infecting people, and would change less substantially. Plenty of scope there, one might think, to discriminate between the alternative origins theories. [The infectivity of Covid at its appearance is a measure of its adaptation to humans, and an inverse measure of the likelihood of a natural origin.]

SEPTEMBER

After suing the NIH for failing to release requested information under FOI laws, The Intercept finally got the goods in September:

Documents obtained by The Intercept contain new evidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the nearby Wuhan University Center for Animal Experiment, along with their collaborator, the U.S.-based nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, have engaged in what the U.S. government defines as “gain-of-function research of concern,” intentionally making viruses more pathogenic or transmissible in order to study them, despite stipulations from a U.S. funding agency that the money not be used for that purpose.

The experiments involved making a Frankenvirus and infecting Frankenmice, which suffered more from an infection by the new virus than the original.

Not to worry, these Frankenviruses don’t remotely resemble Covid, so these cackling mad labcoats could not have started the pandemic that way. I also refer the reader back to the exchange between Paul and Fauci above.

==

Another piece of evidence emerged a fortnight later in the form of another grant proposal by our friends the EcoHealth Alliance unearthed by the team of, ahem, oddballs, calling themselves DRASTIC, which apparently stands for “A bunch of people on the internet searching for clues.” The grant proposal was rejected by DARPA, but so apparently was Victor Frankenstein’s. According to The Intercept again:

…the proposal describes the process of looking for novel furin cleavage sites in bat coronaviruses the scientists had sampled and inserting them into the spikes of SARS-related viruses in the laboratory.

The Intercept quotes Alina Chan, who has an upcoming book about Covid she’d love you to buy:

“Let’s look at the big picture: A novel SARS coronavirus emerges in Wuhan with a novel cleavage site in it. We now have evidence that, in early 2018, they had pitched inserting novel cleavage sites into novel SARS-related viruses in their lab,” said Chan. “This definitely tips the scales for me. And I think it should do that for many other scientists too.”

Yes, it’s that darned furin cleavage site again. Covid isn’t supposed to have it, but it does. It might have evolved naturally, but that seems like a long shot. Now we know that our giggling splicer friends wanted DARPA to pay them to insert one, but DARPA said no. We don’t know whether an alternative funding stream was tapped for this vital and risk-free experiment.

==

Also in September came a strike in favour of the natural origins theory. Bat coronaviruses were found in Laos that had a 95% match to Covid:

To make the discovery, Marc Eloit, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris and his colleagues in France and Laos, took saliva, faeces and urine samples from 645 bats in caves in northern Laos. In three horseshoe (Rhinolophus) bat species, they found viruses that are each more than 95% identical to SARS-CoV-2, which they named BANAL-52, BANAL-103 and BANAL-236.

Why they had to give them such portentous names is a mystery.

Researchers say that parts of [the three BANAL viruses’] genetic code bolster claims that the virus behind COVID-19 has a natural origin.

However, 95% similar is not that similar. Not similar enough that these BANAL strains might have given rise to Covid directly. In fact:

…the Laos viruses don’t contain the so-called furin cleavage site on the spike protein that further aids the entry of SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses into human cells.

Right, so it’s got this key piece missing that no other coronavirus has, this piece that our humanised mice jugglers wanted to insert into a coronavirus, and that makes it perfectly obvious that it has a natural origin.

OCTOBER

Covid-19: Lancet investigation into origin of pandemic shuts down over bias risk

The work of a task force commissioned by the Lancet into the origins of covid-19 has folded after concerns about the conflicts of interest of one its members and his ties through a non-profit organisation to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Task force chair Jeffrey Sachs, economics professor at Columbia University in New York, told the Wall Street Journal that he had shut down the scientist led investigation into how the covid-19 pandemic started because of concerns about its links to the EcoHealth Alliance, a non-profit organisation run by task force member Peter Daszak.

BMJ

Daszak is a name we remember, as the orchestrator of an early letter to the Lancet referring to the lab-leak hypothesis as a “conspiracy theory.” The authors of that letter declared that they had no conflicts of interest. It subsequently emerged that Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance had been funding the WIV for research that might in hindsight be considered reckless:

But Daszak’s story began falling apart last November when the non-profit group US Right to Know published emails gathered through a freedom of information request that showed he had orchestrated the Lancet statement without disclosing that he was funding Shi Zhengli [Bat Lady] through grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Daszak’s EcoHealth was also mentioned above in connection with Frankenvirus grant proposals.

==

On 5th October, the WSJ carried an opinion piece titled: “Science Closes In on Covid’s Origins” by Richard Muller and Steven Quay. The authors were in no doubt that the “natural origins” theory is kaput. Top on their list of reasons is the lack of evidence of a host shift. As already mentioned, a bat coronavirus is, naturally, adapted to infect bats. If it infects a human, it is likely to do so in a suboptimal way, to the extent that said human is unlikely to pass on the virus to another human:

Within months of the SARS-1 and MERS outbreaks, scientists found animals that had hosted the viruses before they made the jump to humans. More than 80% of the animals in affected markets were infected with a coronavirus.

Naturally if the animal reservoir for Covid had been found, it would have been trumpeted from the ramparts, and people would have poked conspiracy theorists in the chest saying, “See! We told you so, you losers.” That it was so easy to find such a reservoir in the previous two analogous coronavirus outbreaks, but rather difficult/impossible this time is an obvious strike against the natural origins theory.

This, together with the presence of the anomalous furin cleavage site, means that,

…the odds enormously favor a lab leak, far more significantly than the 99% confidence usually required for a revolutionary scientific discovery.

Muller is an emeritus professor at UC Berkeley (and I presume the same Muller as in Berkeley Earth), and Quay, by some uncanny confluence of events, has a book out on Covid’s origins he’d like you to buy.

==

Also on 5th October, an article in the Telegraph discussed the grant proposal rejected by DARPA, as well as the new Laotian BANAL strains:

So far the closest naturally occurring virus to Sars-CoV-2 is a strain called Banal-52, which was reported from Laos last month and shares 96.8 per cent of the genome. Yet scientists expect a direct ancestor to be around a 99.98 per cent match – and none has been found so far.

The Telegraph quotes “a WHO collaborator, who has asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.” Perhaps “collaborator” is a poor term. “Reprisals” is certainly an ominous one. But the anonymous expert explained the grant proposal in terms that anyone could understand: the plan was to harvest multiple virus strains, sequence them, create an “average”, build the RNA sequence for that average form, then use living cells as teeny-weeny factories to manufacture the actual virus that the RNA coded for.

The plans are in addition to other proposals made in the Darpa documents, including inserting a section into existing viruses to make them more infectious to humans and inoculating wild bats with aerosolised engineered spike proteins from viruses.

The idea seems to have been to try to create an aerosolised vaccine: you synthesise the spike proteins and hose them around the place, then see if your victims, er, experimental subjects, develop immunity to the actual virus. Seems like a rational approach to me.

==

Finally, I wanted to mention a story in the Mail:

What are they hiding? At the start of Covid many scientists believed it likely leaked from Wuhan lab – until a conference call with Patrick Vallance changed their minds. We asked for his emails about the call. This is what we got . . .

’nuff said. We obviously need those armchair warriors at DRASTIC to get in on the game to find out more.

18 Comments

  1. Good to see that Richard Muller has weighed in. He would also be a good person to comment again on the bad science behind the hockey stick, to start to educate those behind ‘The Trick’.

    Alina Chan “has an upcoming book about Covid she’d love you to buy” like others but she’s the only one with Matt Ridley willing to be her co-author. I’d probably start there, if I was going to buy a book about it.

    Great overview, thank you.

    Like

  2. Statistically nearly everything is outsourced to China. And financed by America. It is done to save money without worrying much about safety and accidental spills.
    So why not illegal viral research?

    Like

  3. Thanks for the update JIT, very interesting post.

    It reminded me about this BBC piece from 10 July titled “Covid origins: Scientists weigh up evidence over virus’s origins”
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-57782955

    this snippet –
    “Around that time, some scientists who had publicly dismissed the lab leak scenario came under attack, particularly on social media.
    One who has worked on Sars-Cov-2’s evolutionary origins since the pandemic’s early days says the evidence points to a natural spillover. He told me he considered leaving his field of research because the abuse had become so bad.
    The researcher, who did not want to be identified because they feared further harassment, said: “I’ve had email hacks, emails that attempt to entrap me, and claims that I’ve faked data and am part of some sort of a systemic cover-up. And others have had it far, far worse.”

    ring any bells !!!

    Like

  4. On the wet market story:
    1) We were told that the most likely transmission path was from bat to pangolin to human. But people in Wuhan don’t eat bats, and the relevant bats lived hundreds of kilometres away. And pangolins are very large river beasts which are not eaten, don’t live in China, whose sale is illegal, but parts of which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. So the market theory requires unsaleable inedible bats being stocked above a large tank containing an unsaleable, illegal and highly visible beast imported from hundreds of kilometres away.
    2) We were told that people who’d been to the market had fallen ill. We weren’t told what they’d bought and eaten, though presumably they were asked.

    The letter to the Lancet describing the lab leak hypothesis as a conspiracy theory was signed by a number of intelligent people who must surely understand the meaning of the word “conspiracy” and that it can’t possibly be extended to mean “accidental leak from a lab.” Scepticism about the accidental leak theory is not conspiracy theorising but could be more accurately defined as “distrust of the (official) science.” The key scientific paper claiming to establish a link between distrust of science and conspiracy theorising was one by professor Lewandowsky, whose move to Bristol was aided by a five figure cheque from the Wellcome Trust, which I believe was active in promoting the letter to the Lancet. There seems to be a bit of fake news floating around in the higher reaches of the medico-academic complex to the effect that distrust of experts is the same thing as conspiracy theorising.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Richard, The Intercept did not mention Chan’s co-author so I was unaware he was Ridley. I somehow doubt that an authoritative history of this pandemic can be written yet, what with constant updates from FOI etc.

    Hunterson, yes, we can’t even manufacture our own Frankenviruses, which was a joke I was going to splice in to the post but thought better of it.

    Dougie, it does ring bells (in a climate sense) and I would hope that people do not hound someone who is pursuing the truth, even if they vehemently disagree with said person’s conclusions. It’s interesting here that to judge from your excerpt, the fear of reprisals is on both sides.

    Geoff, there is evidence that the declaration of conspiracy was self serving, because even if the key author of the letter had an absolute confidence that Covid had not escaped from the lab, he ought to have laid out, in a Feynmannian style, all the evidence from the other side, which has instead been unearthed by degrees as in a large-scale archaeological dig (and to judge from the Mail, is incomplete). We might surmise that mentioning the various grants, approved and rejected, would have been “giving fodder to sceptics.”

    The Lancet letter was February 19, 2020. Would we be in a different place now if it had said: “There is a very real possibility that this outbreak began with an accident in a virology lab”?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Here’s another protagonist trying to dismiss a lab-leak as the territory of conspiracists:

    We’ve seen such attempts to combine perfectly reasonable ideas in climate with the utterly ridiculous, as if they’re all equal, and yet, surprise surprise, contradictory.

    The whole thread by Courtier Orgogozo is “devastating” according to Matt Ridley.

    Lessons for other areas can be learned from all this.

    Like

  7. Geoff: ‘And pangolins are very large river beasts…’

    Wot?

    ‘… which are not eaten…’

    Wot?

    ‘…don’t live in China…’

    Wot?

    ‘…whose sale is illegal…’

    In China?

    ‘…but parts of which are used in traditional Chinese medicine.’

    Oooh, you got something right.

    Have I misunderstood a Chambers joke? Wouldn’t be the first time.

    Like

  8. Richard, from the Rasmussen article:

    Unfortunately, this did little to quell often contradictory and sometimes outright ridiculous conspiracy theories that spread faster than the virus itself: SARS-CoV-2 was the result of a laboratory accident or was intentionally engineered, and this was concealed to hide either spectacular incompetence or a complex international conspiracy involving Bill Gates, the Chinese Communist Party and 5G wireless network infrastructure with an end goal of ushering in a new world order.

    Climate sceptics have of course been on the receiving end of such strawmannery. Its easier to deal with hard arguments if you bundle them up with absurd arguments and dismiss them all. As a consequence of the silencing of contrary voices, it has become difficult to criticise even the most irrational climate policy ideas. If the obvious answer to sky-high global gas prices is home-grown production, the media are keeping very quiet about it. That prices in the US are nothing like those in the UK seems to be a censored fact.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Vinny Burgoo (10 Oct 2021 6.12pm)

    I should be more careful, I know, but:
    1) Pangolins are 30-100cm long (Wiki) – so biggish. A three-foot-long scaly turd is not something I’d like to find curled up in the compost heap.
    2) You’re right, they’re eaten.
    3) I couldn’t find anything about them living in China, probably because of 2) above, though a BBC article has them in Vietnam near the Chinese border, and talks of 30,000 being exported to China.
    4) Certainly they’re illegal. China has signed all the right UN conventions. You may argue that the Chinese have little respect for the law, to which it can be replied that punishments are often harsh. On balance I suspect that a live pangolin on show in a tank (and apparently they’re very hard to keep in captivity) in proximity to a live bat from a cave hundreds of kilometres away is an unlikely thing to happen.

    And isn’t it odd that in the dozens or hundreds of articles I’ve seen about the likely source of Covid, I’ve yet to see a single picture of the wet market? Perhaps an image of hundreds of live chicken and crayfish would be too upsetting?

    [added 9.15pm. From French Wiki, on “Manidae, or Modern Pangolins,” but missing from the English version: “With the exception of the giant pangolin, which can weigh more than 30 kilos and attain a length of more than 1.5 metres, the seven other species living in Africa and Asia are about the size of a big coypu.”

    Hence the Chinese expression: “inconspicuous as a giant pangolin in a wet market.”]

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Geoff, I did a bit of googling and was surprised to find that pangolins can swim. For some reason that seems as unlikely as hedgehogs being able to swim – and that turns out to be true as well.

    Anyway…

    A recent paper found that bats and pangolins weren’t sold in Wuhan’s wet markets.

    Serendipitously, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, over the period May 2017–Nov 2019, we were conducting unrelated routine monthly surveys of all 17 wet market shops selling live wild animals for food and pets across Wuhan City (surveys were conducted by author X.X.).

    I believe you, X.X of China’s Ministry of Education.

    https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-91470-2

    Geoff: ‘And isn’t it odd that in the dozens or hundreds of articles I’ve seen about the likely source of Covid, I’ve yet to see a single picture of the wet market? Perhaps an image of hundreds of live chicken and crayfish would be too upsetting?’

    The Nature paper includes photos of hedgehogs, marmots and other caged mammals at Wuhan’s oddly named seafood market.

    https://media.springernature.com/full/springer-static/image/art%3A10.1038%2Fs41598-021-91470-2/MediaObjects/41598_2021_91470_Fig2_HTML.png?as=webp

    Like

  11. VINNY
    Looking at the photos in the article, you can see why Western media didn’t make a big thing of the scandal of Chinese wet markets. It’s difficult to drum up much sympathy for the king rat snake, the racoon dog or the Chinese bamboo rat.

    Like

  12. Wot? Those are all gorgeous.

    And what about the marmot? Skeptical Science used to list bigger marmots as one of the few benefits of global warming. Why would they have done that if marmots weren’t sympathique? (I don’t think they were talking about culinary benefits.)

    Like

  13. billbedford, it seems so. Have you read this interesting (and currently unpaywalled) article* in History Today positing marmots as big players in the Black Death?

    URL:www.historytoday.com/archive/natural-histories/black-death-new-culprit

    Still, does being a plague reservoir mean that you can’t be cute? Marmots are like fat angry hamsters. John Belushi with a tail. What could be cuter? (I’m not saying that Belushi spread diseases.)

    ===
    *A 1990 photo in that article shows a Mongolian marmot-hunter wearing red and perhaps bloody rabbit-like ears on top of his head. The caption says he was ‘disguised as his prey’, which seems an unlikely explanation for such attire.

    That monocular hanging from his neck, though. I’m almost certain that I own exactly the same model. I bought it in a shop near Victoria Station in the 1980s. Made in the USSR. Still my favourite ‘binoculars’ when out and about.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. ‘…which seems an unlikely explanation for such attire.’

    Or perhaps not. From a 2008 paper:

    The traditional Mongolian tasseled hat (“daluur”) worn by marmot hunters may have originally been adopted to help hunters avoid plague-infected populations (Formozov et al. 1994). The unique hunting costume was meant to elicit alarm calling behavior from their quarry and, because alarm-calling behavior declines greatly in plague-affected colonies, animals which were obviously sick were more easily avoided (Formozov et al. 1994).

    A more recent photo of a marmot-hunter wearing a ‘daluur’ bunny hat:

    chasseurs de marmottes mongols, woodchuk hunters

    No MP2 8×30 monocular, alas.

    Like

  15. Just started reading “Failures of State – the inside story of britain’s battle with coronavirur”

    seems to going after Boris/Tories, but only read 1st chapter titled “the best clue to the origins”

    reason I mention it because it quotes a paper 2016 by Dr Shi Zhengli – https://www.nature.com/articles/nm.3985/

    which has this comment – “30 March 2020 nature medicine Editors note, March 2020: We are aware that this article is being used as the basis for unverified theories that the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 was engineered. There is no evidence that this is true; scientists believe that an animal is the most likely source of the coronavirus.”

    Like

  16. long read to the end, where the paper states – Key Laboratory of Special Pathogens and Biosafety, Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Wuhan, China

    Xing-Yi Ge & Zhengli-Li Shi

    Like

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