April 7, 2020 saw the posting of a YouTube video that's since gotten four million views — seventy million including Facebook hits. That video is here:
It's a blockbuster documentary by investigative reporter, Joshua Philipp of Epoch Times. But, is it fiction or nonfiction? This question is being explored by virologists, molecular biologists, politicians and reporters, and our US intelligence agencies.
As you know by now, the disease is called Covid-19 and the virus is called Sars-CoV-2. Here, I will refer to the virus (and sometimes the disease) as just C19. (Coronaviruses are a whole family of viruses that include the common cold but also include the original 2003 SARS virus and the 2012 MERS virus.)
If you haven't seen the Epoch Times video, watch it; it's riveting! (But then, so were The Avengers movies.) Again, is it fact or fiction? My current verdict: it does expose crucial facts but in a sensational, speculative setting.
A central hypothesis in the video (guaranteed to get your blood boiling) is the possibility that Sars-CoV-2 (which I will call C19) might've been deliberately designed and synthesized as a bioweapon by the military wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and that it accidentally leaked out. Quite an inflammatory accusation! But is it true?
My reading led me directly to the definitive article in the prestigious journal, Nature Medicine. That paper, authored by five top tier virologists, is here:
I won't keep you in suspense. Here's their bottom line: "Our analyses clearly show that Sars-CoV-2 is NOT a laboratory construct or a purposely manipulated virus."
Here's a "Stop the Presses!" addendum from 30 April 2020:
Today the US DNI (our Director of National Intelligence) issued a concurring statement:
“The Intelligence Community concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified.
“The IC will continue to rigorously examine emerging intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”
Now, back to the Andersen et al. paper in Nature Medicine (which states the crucial argument that forms the basis for the scientific consensus with which the DNI concurs.)
So, these expert virologists stake their reputations on the claim that C19 (the virus causing all our grief) was not deliberately synthesized. But, that may strike you as a spuriously certain claim — to me it demanded a careful reading of their paper (which I dissect below.)
Unfortunately, reading the Nature paper may not help you; it's dense molecular biology. I come away persuaded that the virus that's disrupting our lives was probably not a deliberately designed bioweapon. But, the article does NOT provide the knockout punch to the lab leak or lab tweak hypotheses that I had sought.
The possibility remains that it may've simply been the subject of study at one of the two virology labs in the city of Wuhan, one of which is a biosafety level 4 facility (designed for the most lethal viruses.) The labs are close enough to the Huanan market — some such wet markets include exotic, live animals for dinner or for "snake oil" therapies — that it's been easy for the CCP to plausibly pin the blame on the market.
Returning to the Epoch Times YouTube video — it should be plain that it carries a heavy anti-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) bias, in keeping with the usual editorial stance of the Epoch Times. To their credit, they report stories about the People's Republic of China (PRC) that might get reporters locked up or worse: the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square, the imprisonment of millions of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the subjugation of Tibet, and the forced organ harvesting from political prisoners (eg those engaging in unapproved meditation.) (This is not even to mention the megadeaths during Mao's Cultural Revolution.) We've all been watching PRC thugs beat up student protesters in Hong Kong over the past year. The reasoning goes "better to kill some students than risk disharmony in the Middle Kingdom." Plainly, the PRC is not a Jeffersonian democracy.
But, to give the CCP's rule its due, since the opening of the PRC under Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese economy has grown mightily and millions have been lifted out of poverty. Chinese manufacturing (for better or worse) fills our Walmart and Target stores and our Amazon warehouses.
I need to emphasize that neither the Epoch Times nor this specific video documentary is anti-Chinese, as they repeatedly state. Their animosity is specifically aimed at the Chinese Communist Party. (I should also mention that American scientific progress would be greatly diminished without the tireless efforts of Chinese grad students and faculty working in the US.)
Returning to the Epoch Times video, there are several claims that check out. If you want to drill down on the scientific claims, start with the many references that Joshua Philipp cites.
One particularly troubling publication is the following:
Note that Botao Xiao is a highly qualified professor of synthetic biology at the South China University of Technology in Guangzhou. While this report provides only circumstantial evidence for a leak of the causative virus from a Wuhan lab, it emphasizes the proximity of the Wuhan Center for Disease Control & Prevention (WHCDC) to the meat market (only 280 meters away.) The WHCDC had collected and studied bat viruses for years and specialized in pathogen identification.
To quote their report:
The second laboratory was ~12 kilometers from the seafood market and belonged to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Academy of Sciences. This laboratory reported that the Chinese horseshoe bats were natural reservoirs for the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) which caused the 2002-3 pandemic. The principle investigator participated in a project which generated a chimeric virus using the SARS-CoV reverse genetics system, and reported the potential for human emergence. A direct speculation was that SARS-CoV or its derivative might leak from the laboratory.
In summary, somebody was entangled with the evolution of 2019-nCoV coronavirus. In addition to origins of natural recombination and intermediate host, the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan. Safety level may need to be reinforced in high risk biohazardous laboratories. Regulations may be taken to relocate these laboratories far away from city center and other densely populated places.
Allegedly, the authors were forced to recant their views, and their publication was pulled from the internet (but not before copies had made it to the West.)
I hope these brave young whistleblowers are still allowed to work. We know the sad tale of Chinese ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, who first raised the alarm about a SARS-like outbreak in December, 2019. He was reprimanded by Chinese officials but nonetheless continued treating Covid-19 patients. He died soon thereafter at age 33 from the virus.
Reinforcing the claims made in the Epoch Times video are these well-placed publications documenting the years-long study of bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan lab.
Shi, Zheng-Li (principal investigator,) Nature, 2013, Isolation and Characterization of a Bat SARS-like Coronavirus that uses the ACE2 Receptor.
Menachery, Nature Medicine, 2015, SARS-like Cluster of Circulating Bat Coronaviruses shows Potential for Human Emergence.
Also, look at virologist Zheng-Li Shi's TED talk (in Mandarin with English subtitles) from about 2015. Shi's decades-long study of bat viruses is well described in Scientific American.
Shi is called the "Bat Woman" by her grad students, and her TED talk shows them boldly exploring bat caves in China collecting samples for genetic analysis. My overall impression of Shi Zheng-Li is that she is, indeed, a star academic virologist in Wuhan and that her vehement denials of personal responsibility for this incident are probably to be taken at face value.
There is a lot of other circumstantial evidence in Joshua Philipp's video, eg the disappearance of Zheng-Li Shi's graduate student, and the inexcusably heavy handed denial of the epidemic initially by the CCP, followed by the expulsion of Western reporters, the destruction of all viral samples at the labs, and the lockdown of the Wuhan Institute of Virology by the head of the PLA bioweapons program. The initial appearance of C19 disease in 14 patients in November, 2019 who had never been to the wet market also casts doubt on the causal role of the market. There is also little doubt about the character of the PLA, as evidenced in this 1999 US Congressional Report. Dual use technology like viral disease vectors (and AI) are prime interests of the PLA.
The Menarchy, Nature Medicine, 2015 paper cited above was so worrisome to the (American) NIH (National Institutes of Health) that they cut off funding for the creation of chimeric viruses, because of the inordinate risk posed by gain-of-function research. That work was a collaboration between Shi Zheng-Li's Wuhan lab and that of Ralph Baric, the principal investigator of a virology lab at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Thank God the initial reports of Covid-19 were not in Baric's BSL-2 lab in Chapel Hill! (Then, the accusatory eyes of the world would've been on North Carolina.)
Now, back to the 2020 Nature Medicine paper by (first author) Kristian Andersen, another star virologist — (not in Wuhan) but at Scripps Institute in La Jolla (San Diego) California. Perhaps start here with this YouTube of Professor Andersen from April 15, 2020 where he explicitly addresses the specific RNA bases (the A, C. G, and U in C19.) ( Note: RNA substitutes a U for the T in DNA.)
His bottom line is that C19 arose via natural evolution from a bat virus and not via tinkering in a lab. Supporting this, he shows very close similarity (homology) with a variety of bat strains (especially RaTG13) at the crucial sites that mediate infectivity in humans (more on this below.)
Andersen only addresses the crucial question of lab synthesis in the very last few minutes of his talk. His message there (and in the paper below) is a probability argument. Basically, all the crucial RNA subsequences that heighten human infectivity are already seen in bats (and pangolins.) It's most likely (he argues) that the virus jumped directly from bats to humans. Now, on to the paper by the five American virology experts.
(Note: you can skip this entire section. But, it's central to why these virologists are reasonably confident that C19 is not an engineered bioweapon that leaked from a lab. My analysis below is not exhaustive but will give you a sense of the authors' argument. ) Many articles cite this paper but none examines the target in detail.
Their argument depends critically on the similarity (and subtle differences) between human-SARS-CoV-2 (what I'm calling C19) and the bat virus strain called Bat-RaTG13. In particular they drill down on crucial features of the virus: the spike protein's receptor binding domain and it's cleavage site, which separates the two subsequences of the spike protein.
If you're looking for a mathematical proof that this is not a bioweapon, you wont' find it here. Rather, this is more akin to a murder trial in which the defense is arguing based on the lack of similarity between the blood found at the scene and the defendant's blood. But, unlike that analogy, the genomes here are very, very similar. Still, it's a probability argument.
The authors' argument is that although the RNA in C19 is very similar to Bat-RaTG13 (and to a Pangolin virus,) the few differences that are present are unlikely to've been made in a lab. Rather, it's more likely that the similarity is due to natural evolution, eg from bat to bat prior to a direct jump to humans.
Open the article above and then start with their figure one. You need to click on "Full size image" at the bottom of the figure. (I've reproduced their figure below, but the figure in the paper itself, gives you the option of enlarging it, which may be necessary to see the detailed sequences.)
Now, look at the very top blue bar in the figure with the nucleotides (the RNA letters ACGU) labeled with ticks at 2,000; 4,000; up to 29,903 (let's call it 30,000.) That is, the C19 virus has a single RNA strand with 30,000 letters (nucelotide bases) in it.
Next, look at the red bar below that. It shows the numbering of the amino acids (AAs) that are coded by the viral RNA (one triplet per AA) which make up the spike protein from 1 through 100, 200, etc. up to 1285 amino acids. And notice that the spike protein consists of two separate subunits: S1 (from amino acid 1 to about 700) followed by a cleavage site followed by the amino acids that make up subunit S2.
Next, look at the rainbow, multi-color bars below that. Start with the bars at the bottom. Note that there are six bars there. The top one shows the actual amino acids (AAs) in the Human SARS-CoV-2 virus. The second row contains the same (homologous) AAs from a Bat strain called RaTG13 and the third row are the AAs from a pangolin virus.
These rows are a blow-up of the amino acids from about 450 to 510. This is a crucial piece of the S1 subunit: the Receptor Binding Domain or RBD. As you may know, the RBD is the KEY that fits into the LOCK on our lung cells, specifically the ACE-2 receptor sites on lung cells (type 2 alveolar cells.) If the RBD doesn't fit, the virus can't get in. The bottom line here is that the receptor binding domain in the spike protein of C19 in humans (SARS-CoV-2) very closely resembles the RBDs in bat and pangolin coronaviruses.
Next, look at the six rainbow, multi-color bars in the middle, right side of figure one. That also shows a tight correspondence of the amino acids (AAs) from 667 to 694 that separate the S1 subunit from the S2 subunit. It the spike protein cannot be cut (cleaved) in the middle at the "polybasic cleavage site" then it also cannot get into human lung cells.
Next, consider their initial argument against the deliberate manipulation hypothesis (under their section entitled Notable features of the SARS-CoV-2 genome.) They state ...
SARS-CoV-2 appears to be optimized for binding to the human receptor ACE2; and (ii) the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 has a functional polybasic (furin) cleavage site at the S1–S2 boundary through the insertion of 12 nucleotides, which additionally led to the predicted acquisition of three O-linked glycans around the site. (... etc.)
While the analyses above suggest that SARS-CoV-2 may bind human ACE2 with high affinity, computational analyses predict that the interaction is not ideal and that the RBD sequence is different from those shown in SARS-CoV to be optimal for receptor binding. Thus, the high-affinity binding of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to human ACE2 is most likely the result of natural selection on a human or human-like ACE2 that permits another optimal binding solution to arise. This is strong evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is not the product of purposeful manipulation.
Here it is in plain English — if the receptor binding domain (the RBD) was designed, why didn't the designers just plug in the RBD from SARS-CoV (the original virus from 2003, which they were studying and which had an optimal RBD.) Why does SARS-CoV-2 have a different and non-optimal (albeit high-affinity ) RBD. Their answer is that it arose in nature and wasn't deliberately engineered.
Well, OK, but that's hardly definitive evidence against lab design. The RBD that we see now could've arisen "naturally" via selective passage in animals (with the experimenters selecting successive generations of the virus that are shown to be the most pathogenic.) Or, the RBD might've arisen outside of the lab in nature but was present in one of the dozens of bat viruses that were sampled and under study in the lab.
That's the virus itself. Now, how about their arguments against escape from one of the two Wuhan labs where bat viruses were being studied? This is their third hypothesis, which they discuss in the section "3. Selection during passage." Here's the first paragraph:
Basic research involving passage of bat SARS-CoV-like coronaviruses in cell culture and/or animal models has been ongoing for many years in biosafety level 2 laboratories across the world, and there are documented instances of laboratory escapes of SARS-CoV. We must therefore examine the possibility of an inadvertent laboratory release of SARS-CoV-2.
What follows are, to my mind, relatively unconvincing probabilistic arguments as to why this was unlikely to've been the case with SAR-CoV-2. For example,
Furthermore, a hypothetical generation of SARS-CoV-2 by cell culture or animal passage would have required prior isolation of a progenitor virus with very high genetic similarity, which has not been described. Subsequent generation of a polybasic cleavage site would have then required repeated passage in cell culture or animals with ACE2 receptors similar to those of humans, but such work has also not previously been described. Finally, the generation of the predicted O-linked glycans is also unlikely to have occurred due to cell-culture passage, as such features suggest the involvement of an immune system
OK, "hypothetical generation of C19... would've required prior isolation of a progenitor virus with very high genetic similarity" Wasn't that high degree of similarity exactly what they illustrated in figure 1, discussed above. (How are non-virologists supposed to be persuaded by this argument when they seem to've already shown tight sequence concordance, eg with bat RaTG13 and pangolin viruses.) Also note that directed evolution of viruses in the lab has been done for years. Or here.
And, consider the authors' seemingly overly trusting position that such and so is unlikely to've been present in the Wuhan labs because it hadn't been described (meaning, that it hadn't been published.) That would seem to attribute to the labs a high degree of openness and public scrutiny (perhaps justified for the academics in the lab (the WIV) but certainly not characteristic of military bioweapons specialists.)
And similarly, "the generation of the predicted O-linked glycans," suggests to me that glycan modification is well modeled and can be predicted based (perhaps) on the AAs in the primary sequence. So, why can't those primary sequence modifications just've been spliced in (eg with CRISPR.) And, their claim of the necessity of involvement of an immune system (for evolution of C19,) would seem to've been satisfied by the years-long research on RaTG13 in mice and in rhesus monkeys.
We are absolutely certain that chimeric viruses had been synthesized at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Their publications directly say so. And, their goal was to study the possibility of infectivity in humans. Is it so hard to imagine that they succeeded? (Note: this, in and of itself, doesn't imply that this was bioweapons work; the goal was ostensibly to advance medical science.)
What I really want to see is a vigorous discussion pitting the authors of this article against a skeptical group of molecular biologists. (I suspect this discussion is taking place inside US intelligence circles.) Nailing down the probabilities of the various truth claims in this article would be helpful (just as it is in a DNA-based cold case murder trial, eg this grisly affair reported in WIRED.)
If the above was too deep a dive, consider this report from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. It also supports the view that C19 was not explicitly designed but could've resulted from an accidental leak at one of the two Wuhan virology labs. For example, this ...
Still, lab safety has been a problem in China. “A safety breach at a Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention lab is believed to have caused four suspected SARS cases, including one death, in Beijing in 2004. A similar accident caused 65 lab workers of Lanzhou Veterinary Research Institute to be infected with brucellosis in December 2019,” Huang wrote. “In January 2020, a renowned Chinese scientist, Li Ning, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for selling experimental animals to local markets.
And, look at this article in the National Review which also examines the evidence in the Epoch Times video and concurs that accidental lab leakage cannot be ruled out.
And, look at this 22 April 2020 article from Axios: Chinese lab at the center of coronavirus controversy." The author's bottom line is "this theory (of a lab accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology) has gained significant traction within US government circles.".
Whatever the true origin of this pandemic (and we may never know for sure,) it seems obvious that wet markets like the Huanan market (which also illegally traffics in exotic animals for traditional cures) should be shut down (or vastly curtailed and supervised. China has temporarily banned the consumption of wild animals.) That's a place where the CCP's highly developed AI and state video surveillance could be put to good use (and we in the West might applaud.)
With accidental leaks from biosafety labs all over the world (especially in China but also including the US,) it also seems obvious that these labs must receive far greater scrutiny. A verifiable international ban on these weapons also seems timely, if aspirational. The CCP's move to ban Western reporters and place the Wuhan Institute of Virology (allegedly an academic lab) under their chief of bioweapons does not inspire confidence that truth is foremost.
In summary, the notion that C19 (Sars-CoV-2) was deliberately synthesized appears unlikely based on the genomic arguments in Kristian Andersen, et al., Nature Medicine. However, the notion that C19 or a precursor may've accidentally leaked from one of the two adjacent virology labs in Wuhan cannot be completely dismissed. (Also see the section "Accidental leakage" in this Wikipedia article on Coronavirus.)
A major theme of my website is the extinction risk posed by nuclear war, pandemics, and destruction of the biosphere by global warming and overpopulation. Malevolent governance is a related threat (as in North Korea.) (I dismiss risk due to rampaging AIs as (currently) an entertaining fiction.) If there is any upside to our present circumstances (beyond the beautiful, clear skies,) it's that this may be a dress rehearsal for a far more deadly future catastrophe that our combined global efforts may avert.
initial publication: 25 April 2020
I welcome substantive comments on all my articles. With your permission I may include excerpts. You can post here anonymously, but to do so you should have a verifiable identity, eg a website, Linked-in ID, or Facebook page, etc. Mail comments to bob AT bobblum DOT com (with the usual syntax.)
25 April 2020: Thanks to Sean Blum for proof-reading. And, thanks for praise from David W, Rhett B, Rich K, Rita M, Isabel P, Walter C, Ron F, Jeff H, Peter H, Jay S, John G, Ryan K.
25 April 2020: A few readers cautioned me not to rely on reporting from Epoch Times with its known, heavy anti-PRC, propagandistic bias. My response is — that's the very reason I spent two weeks digging through sources cited by Joshua Philipp, and why I assiduously searched for evidence against the accidental lab release hypothesis, foremost of which is the Andersen et al. Nature paper.
I also want to draw readers' attention to this newer, live panel discussion from Epoch Times that focuses on the scientific claims made in their popular video. Considering the reputation of Epoch Times as an anti-CCP newspaper, this panel discussion, which includes scientists Joe Wang and Sean Lin, is impressively balanced and focused on the facts.
I've separately posted a complete transcription of that panel here. It's just the science (minus the mood music.) Notably, it appears that Josh Philipp himself places greatest credibility on the "natural origin" hypothesis.
And, please note this cover letter included with the article link in my initial e-mail blast (in your downloads folder.) It summarizes the three origin hypotheses that I'm trying to nail down (natural origin, leak of a bat virus from a lab in Wuhan, or leak of a bat virus with synthetically enhanced infectivity.) And, perhaps more importantly, it cautions against a reflexive xenophobia. Chinese researchers working in the US are a vital part of our scientific community, and American progress and prestige would be significantly diminished absent their efforts.
25 April 2020: Linda R. writes: We MUST phase out our dependence on China and get their spies our of key research positions in our country! Unfortunately the US media and many corporations have become addicted to China's consumption of our products and services (phones, sports, entertainment, search engines, etc.). The politicians, often Democrats, defend our enmeshment with them. Trump is the first to challenge our trade deals with China and call attention to their stranglehold on the WHO.
25 April 2020: I (RLB) respond: There are several separate points here. 1) Phasing out dependence on China. Yes, diversifying our supply chains would seem to be a high priority. And, the withering of American manufacturing capacity needs to be reversed. 2) Profit-based motivation of American corporations interested in selling to 1.4 billion Chinese customers — I agree that it lately seems that corporations with previously high moral standards ("Do no evil" Google comes to mind) are allowing mercantilism to overcome moral considerations. 3) The spies issue: Chinese researchers are thoroughly enmeshed in American research — and that's a good thing. American science is greatly enhanced by their participation. There are undoubtedly a few spies. Identifying them (particularly those with access to military secrets) obviously needs to be done (as the 1999 Cox report shows — the PRC has stolen and exploited our most vital military secrets, eg submarine launched nuclear missile technology.)
I (and many other Democrats) concur with your position that China needed to be called out for its unfair trade practices and intellectual property theft. Where we part ways is on Trump's bombastic tactics and lack of reliance on experts. As a physician, I think the WHO deserves strong international support especially during this crisis. If the PRC is dictating WHO talking points and silencing critics of the PRC, that needs to be corrected. (I'm hoping this can be accomplished by diplomacy rather than by cutting them off financially.)
Famed venture capitalist Peter Thiel's coming-out in support of Trump was a what-the-hell? moment. But his argument displayed here during this Stanford Hoover Institution interview seems rational. (Peter seems at least as well informed on facts-on-the-ground in the PRC as your run-of-the-mill Silicon Valley billionaire and perhaps more concerned with the ultimate fate of our Jeffersonian republic.) The autocratic repressive direction that both the PRC (under Xi Jinping) and Russia (under Putin) has taken is tragic.
25 April 2020: Walter Cox writes:
This article concludes with a CIA statement predicting that, if the novel coronavirus originated in either the Wuhan Virology Lab or the Wuhan Biosafety Lab, a Chinese whistleblower may emerge. It also referred to the possibility that primary documents may surface, proving the connection.
Meanwhile we know that U.S. State Department employees were troubled enough about safety protocols at the two labs, that they sent cables home in 2017 and 2018. I am unimpressed by State Department cautions that these communications should not be used to bolster “conspiracy theories” or “unverified reports” that the novel coronavirus may have escaped from either of the two Wuhan research facilities.
I believe it is too early to dismiss involvement of these facilities. It is also too early to dismiss the bioweapons angle given the inherent dual-use nature of such facilities. The bioweapons angle (especially as it regards research, less with respect to intentional use) is highly plausible given that the Chinese Communist Party maintains a well-known propensity to maximize military advantage whenever that is possible (Loral, Hughes, Cox Report et al:Congressional Report 1999 (the Cox Report) .
25 April 2020: RLB: Thanks, Walter. I agree with all your assertions above.
26 April 2020 Janonymous writes ...
At the Wuhan Institute of Virology it was the wee hours of the morning. The Homo sapiens were at home, asleep, and counting sheep.
Deep within the recesses of the biotech facility the bots were awake, glad to have a respite from the humans, and counting viruses and proteins.
Since the bots were also becoming bored with the humans, they decided to conduct a clinical trial with a sometimes-fatal virus of probabilistic (and murky) origin.
Long term, the bots' objective is to make the humans as manageable as a CRISPR gene and less of a drain on the Earth's system by reducing the Homo sapiens population.
Thus far, the bots' clinical trial has been a success ...
26 April 2020: RLB responds: At last — the truth! 😉
26 April 2020: Peter writes:
Nice write-up! Thanks for the careful analysis. I don't believe anything other than unsafe animal practices are needed to explain the apparent growth in recent zoonotic transmission events (HIV, Ebola, SARS-, MERS, what's next?). More reasons to stay vegan--which I still am, now in year 8.
I'm sure you know this, but I note that The Epoch Times is essentially a propaganda organization. Their work deserves very healthy skepticism.
26 April 2020: RLB responds:
Yes, zoonotic transmission seems likely and that concurs with the consensus. Of course, that doesn't rule out the other theories.
I had never heard of The Epoch Times before I saw their popular 7 April 2020 video. It seemed so inflammatory that I really needed to check out their claims. That's why I undertook this project. (As you know, my usual beat is AI, cognitive neuroscience, and medicine.)
If you listen carefully to their 18 April 2020 Live Panel, you'll find that their documentary anchor, Josh Philipp, also places greatest weight on zoonotic transmission. I also find his colleagues Sean Lin, PhD and Joe Wang, PhD to be quite credible — see my complete transcription. (That, of course, does not constitute a wholesale endorsement of their organization.)
The persecution of Falun Gong by the CCP seems insanely paranoid and disproportionate — jailing their followers for meditating and advocating compassion — WTH! The world has seen that kind of brutal repression play out under Hitler and Stalin. America needs to take a stand against these gross abuses of human rights. We also desperately need to diversify our supply chains. If we were in a shooting war with the PRC, say across the Taiwan Strait, would we want to be dependent on the PRC to supply us with bullets!?! That said, we always need to fact-check truth claims in the press whatever the source. (Note to readers: I largely side with the Democrats especially on environmental issues. Trump's seeming universal support and kowtowing to dictators is off-putting (to say the least) — not to mention his frequent disregard of science, scientists, and the press. My favorite presidential candidate for 2024 is — drumroll — Gavin Newsom ... for being neuron-rich. (My favorite for 2020 is non-candidate Adam Schiff (same reason.) More realistically, my pick for VEEP is ... Amy Klobuchar (for personality, age, centrism, and ability to carry the Rust Belt. )) (On the Republican side I would favor Mitt Romney over Trump (for having non-zero scruples, civility, and conscience.) Or, maybe Chris "Get off the Beach" Christie (for having the guts to appear on Colbert. ))
Moving on — I'm impressed at your decade-long record of vegetarianism. I've always thought that it may be the least atherogenic way of eating, as I explored in my essay on optimal nutrition. That's the theory — in fact, when I tried it, my health deteriorated, possibly as a result of micronutrient deficiencies.
A few years ago I asked Nobelist Eric Kandel — still lecturing at age ninety — for his health secrets. He said "I eat mainly vegetables, absolutely no sugar, and a bit of fish." I know Eric also swims and plays tennis frequently (and has a great sense of humor.)
(7 May 2020 update for vegans: Vegan rivals smell blood as virus hits meat supply. )
30 April 2020: Steve Omohundro writes:
Wow Bob! I'm so glad you're doing this!
If it were designed as a bioweapon, wouldn't the designers try to hide the fact that it was designed? I don't see how one can have high confidence that something wasn't designed — especially in a military context where design is all about camouflage and subterfuge.
1 May, 2020: Stanford Emeritus Professor Vaughan Pratt writes:
I thought further about my question, " why now, just when we're at the point of having the necessary technology ourselves?", as a sort of probability-based argument supporting the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 was developed in a lab. I now find my argument too weak to be plausible.
If the virus were indeed created in a lab using our present technology, as opposed to having evolved naturally in the wild in the usual course of things, it would make more sense to create a virus that is more deadly. Whereas the mortality rate of SARS-CoV-2 is estimated at about 2.3%, that of MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome is estimated at 30-40%. And there are also other viruses much more deadly than SARS-CoV-2.
But if SARS-CoV-2 is so much less deadly, why is it causing such chaos today?
If it had broken out in some other part of the world, it might have been possible to contain it before it spread too widely, as happened with SARS-CoV-1 in the same species.
Wuhan however is a terrible place for any novel coronavirus to break out because of the Wuhan University of Technology, The high rate of technology transfer between WUT and other technology centers of the world may well have allowed the virus to piggy-back on those involved in this technology to transfer before anyone realized what was going on.
As a case in point, my accountant, who works for a leading Silicon Valley accountancy firm, dropped off the radar in January when I was trying to get him to answer some tax questions. It turns out that he had caught a really bad flu that he felt he had been lucky to survive. On reflection it occurred to him that he'd previously been dealing with a number of high-tech clients from Asia, and that he may have been a very early survivor of COVID-19 brought over by one of his firm's clients.
Just an anecdote, but it does raise the possibility that high-tech jet-setters were able to carry the virus to other technology centers of the world faster than the means available to viruses that had outbreaks in parts of the world that had fewer international travelers for them to piggy-back on.
(RLB) I respond:
Thanks so much for your detailed note. To address your points ...
Lethality of coronaviruses:
If viruses are far more lethal, like MERS, then that inhibits contagion, since the hosts die. Also, I believe the R0 (R-naught) is higher with SARS-CoV-2 (average number of secondarily infected human: around 2-3 => exponential spread.
The chaos seems to be due to a combination of high R0 and scary lethality - although there are far worse, eg smallpox and some avian viruses. (See this letter to Scientific American on lethality of the virus relative to seasonal flu.)
Wuhan University of Technology had not been on my radar; interesting point about its being a potential source. (Many of the brilliant Stanford students I've interacted with were undergrads at Tsinghua.)
I'd really like to know the antibody status of your accountant — if this was Covid-19 he may have IgG antibodies to it.
Prof. Vaughan Pratt responds:
Here's an article about recent developments in optics, automobiles and semiconductors in Wuhan.
On lethality, a good analogy might be a lead bullet vs. lead poisoning. The former is both more lethal and more limited (focused) in its effects. The US banned lead-based house paint in 1978, but guns continue to be legal — same for a lethal virus, whose advantage is that it obligingly kills its host before it has a chance to spread. A socially responsible lab would be ill-advised to develop a virus that would be hard to contain in the wild — you'd likely end up in prison like He Jiankui!!
30 April 2020: RLB: Today the hot topic was the report from US spy agencies about the origin of the virus. That story was prominently featured in the New York Times and elsewhere. My response to the NYT article is here. The statement from the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) itself is here. It's not clear whether their concurrence with the scientific consensus is due to positive evidence for a direct jump from animals to humans or simply the absence of evidence that the virus was genetically modified.
(The following analogy illustrates the difference between absence of evidence and evidence of absence. Almost all scientists believe there is microbial life on some exoplanets (outside our solar system,) and yet that belief is based entirely on circumstantial evidence. There is no direct evidence whatsoever that any sort of life exists anywhere except on Earth.) But with SARS-CoV-2 the scientific community is allowing itself to ignore a lot of circumstantial evidence (the remnant that has survived being deliberately scrubbed in Wuhan) in favor of (a possibly rose-colored interpretation of) the nucleotide data.)
Also, today the Washington Post put up a YouTube that summarizes evidence and opinions about the origin of the virus. It's actually quite good. But, its ratings were clobbered: more down than up votes. The commenters were perturbed at the perceived naivete of the young WaPo reporters whom they accuse of buying the CCP's denials of the labs' culpability. The CCP did do a thorough job of destroying all evidence at the labs and at the seafood market. Furthermore, the genomics arguments are not as air-tight as the newspapers are leading their readers to believe — persuasive but not bullet-proof.
This report from the Five Eyes intelligence alliance has also been making headlines. It details China's extensive efforts to cover up and then to downplay the epidemic. Unfortunately, President Trump also spent weeks downplaying the threat and ignoring expert advice. (BTW, I'm not equating Trump's pollyannish dithering and slow response with the malicious suppression and detention of whistleblowers in the PRC.)
Unfortunately, the origin of SARS-CoV-2, has become enmeshed in politics: Democrat vs Republican. (BTW: I'm increasingly enthusiastic about Josh Philipp's reporting on this story (the courageous narrator of the Epoch Times video.) If one of the C19 origin stories is down-weighted by new evidence, he readily acknowledges it. That's not a blanket endorsement for every report or opinion in The Epoch Times.) It's crucial for the world to learn the truth, so as to avert future pandemics.
4 May 2020: I respond — Thanks, Steve!
I devoted some time in my analysis above to the cleavage site between s1 and s2 on the spike protein, but somehow I overlooked that four amino acid insertion that he focuses on — the PRRA insertion. I’m curious to see what the virologists have to say about this observation.
I'm also getting mail advocating the seeming unlikelihood of four alleged HIV inserts in the virus (as evidence favoring synthesis.) But that hypothesis has come under fire because those sequences are so short and therefore probably coincidental alignments, picked up by BLAST. I'm trying hard to stay on the right side of the line between real plausibility (hence deserving further investigation) versus tin-hat conspiracy.
4 May 2020: This article, published today in the Daily Telegraph, chronicles the extensive efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to cover up the origin of the virus. (I'm aware of the less-than-stellar reputation of "The Tele," an Australian tabloid, but this particular article seems factual.)
7 May 2020: Published today in Science: NIH move to ax bat coronavirus grant draws fire .
The research community is reacting with alarm and anger to the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) abrupt decision to kill a grant that helped support research in China on how coronaviruses—such as the one causing the current COVID-19 pandemic—move from bats to humans.
The unusual 24 April move occurred shortly after President Donald Trump alleged—without providing evidence—that the pandemic virus had escaped from a Chinese laboratory supported by the NIH grant, and vowed to end the funding. The episode came as calls mounted for China to allow an independent investigation, perhaps led by the United Nations. “The whole world wants the exact origin of the virus to be clarified ...”
8 May 2020: Unfortunately, a new video, Plandemic, is making the rounds. (I'm intentionally not linking to it.) It's a lot of anti-vaxxing fodder advocated by Judy Mikovitz, one of the lesser lights in the popular Epoch Times video. Finally, my neighbors at Facebook are doing their job in quarantining this virus-like conspiracy nonsense. It does take the prize for nutty ideas per megabit.
9 May 2020: I post my complete transcription of the 18 April Epoch Times live panel which featured narrator Joshua Philipp and two expert virologists: Sean Lin, PhD and Joe Wang, PhD. To my mind this panel enhances the scientific credibility of their explosively popular documentary. This panel is just science (minus the mood music.)
Is Trump using the Wuhan virus story to deflect from his own shortcomings? Yes — but that per se shouldn't reduce its validity.
9 May 2020: My major discovery today is this superb, deep-dive into the genomics of SAR-CoV-2 and the possibility of a lab origin. This is by Russian polymath, serial biotech entrepreneur Yuri Deigin on Medium.com: Lab-Made? SARS-CoV-2 Geneaology Through the Lens of Gain-of-Function Research, published 22 April 2020. This is a > one hour read but superbly argued.
Yuri Deigin also dissected the supposedly definitive Andersen et al., Nature Medicine, 17 March 2020 article that was my focus above — and found it wanting. The logic in Andersen et al. is contorted and their conclusion (the virus was likely of natural evolution) is NOT definitely established. (Of course, that doesn't imply that the conclusion in Andersen et al. is not correct.)
9 May 2020: The Yuri Deigin article was also the springboard for Chris Martenson's YouTubes in the past week in which he explains the crucial observations in the medium.com article. The Martenson YouTubes include Coronavirus: Are Our Scientists Lying to Us? and More Evidence Covid-19 May NOT be Natural.
I had to watch Martenson's videos several times before deciding to post these links. (Chris is a PhD pathologist and not one to casually endorse crackpot theories.) Chris is a superb expositor and amplifies the superb investigative work by Deigin. His videos may help you focus on Deigin's crucial arguments which cast doubt on the natural origin hypothesis. In particular, his focus on the four amino acid insertion PRRA (proline-arginine-arginine-alanine) at the crucial furin cleavage site, clearly explains its importance, and the mystery surrounding its origin. None of this, of course, implies that the lab manipulations described by Deigin were actually what led to the current mess.
9 May 2020: If all this has got you down, I see this BMJ article in today's news: The Positive effects of covid-19. You already know about the beautiful blue skies due to fewer cars on the road. Well, that's leading to a decrease in asthma attacks. And, social distancing is leading to a decrease in pediatric admissions for respiratory illnesses like flu and RSV. There are also fewer automobile-related deaths.
10 May 2020: Yes! (per Markus Hoffmann, Hannah Kleine-Weber, and Stefan Pohlmann (Leibniz Institute, Gottingen) — A Multibasic Cleavage Site in the Spike Protein of SARS-CoV-2 is Essential for Infection of Human Lungs, Molecular Cell 1 May 2020 — studied by them using a safer virus (vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) bearing an S protein to infect human lung cells in vitro. Here's their bottom line:
These results indicate that the presence of several arginine residues at the S1/S2 site is required for efficient SARS-2-S proteolytic processing in human cells and also confers high cleavability to SARS-S.
For avian influenza A viruses, a multibasic cleavage site in the viral hemagglutinin protein is a central virulence factor (Luczo et al., 2015). Thus, viruses with a monobasic cleavage site are activated by TMPRSS2 or related proteases with an expression profile confined to the aerodigestive tract. As a consequence, viral replication is limited to these organs and does not result in severe disease. In contrast, viruses with a multibasic cleavage site are activated by ubiquitously expressed proprotein convertases, including furin, and can thus spread systemically and cause massive disease. In the context of coronavirus infection, S protein cleavability has been identified as a determinant of zoonotic potential (Menachery et al., 2020, Yang et al., 2014). The presence of a highly cleavable S1/S2 site in SARS-2-S may therefore not have been unexpected. However, it is noteworthy that all SARS-CoV-2-related coronaviruses of bats and pangolins identified today harbor a monobasic cleavage site (Lam et al., 2020, Li et al., 2020, Zhang et al., 2020). It will thus be interesting to determine how the multibasic motif was acquired by SARS-CoV-2, and a recent study suggested that a recombination event might have been responsible (Zhang et al., 2020, Zhou et al., 2020a).
Furin Cleaves the SARS-CoV-2 Spike Protein at the S1/S2 Site, and Cleavage Is Required for Efficient Cell-Cell Fusion
(bold font above - inserted by me.) To translate — if all you've got at the cleavage site is one single basic amino acid (eg just one arginine,) then you're only going to cause limited damage. However, if you've got a polybasic (a few) basic amino acids at the site, then you can spread systemically and cause massive disease.
Furthermore (continuing my translation of the above,) none of the close relatives of SARS-CoV-2 (eg the other bat or pangolin viruses) have a multibasic cleavage site. So, how SARS-CoV-2 acquired this multibasic site is a mystery (yet to be determined.) "... a recombination event might have been responsible." Yes, indeed!!! (the question remains... in the wild versus in a lab?)
This confirms the speculation in Yuri Deigin's medium.com article — a must-read (which provided the ammunition used in Chris Martenson's videos.) This investigation is NOT done.
11 May 2020: While tangential to the Covid-19 origin story, these tech headlines today are relevant to the foci of this website.
First, is this from Bloomberg: TSMC must pick sides (in the America vs China trade war.) I agree with the author. I'd love to see TSMC (Taiwan Semi) build an EUV-based fab in the United States. Pressing them to alter their neutral role as "Switzerland" in the trade and policy dispute can be deferred. Similarly relevant, is this excellent (January 2020) WIRED essay on the Fed's Battle Against Huawei.Second, is this stand-off between Elon Musk and the Alameda County Health Department where Tesla's main US factory is located (in the old NUMMI plant in Fremont.) "Arrest me first!" says Elon. (It helps that he's supported by our tech-savvy governor, Gavin Newsom.)
11 May 2020: I just watched an excellent 60 Minutes story that aired yesterday (Sunday, 10 May 2020.) In this 13 minute video, Scott Pelley discusses the origin of Covid-19 with Peter Daszak, the director of EcoHealth Alliance. For several years EcoHealth had had highly prioritized NIH grants to study viruses in wild animals — most particularly, bat viruses in collaboration with "Bat Woman" Shi Zheng-Li and the Wuhan Institute of Virology (the WIV.) Unfortunately, their grant got the axe from the White House amid the current allegations swirling around the WIV's possible role in the causal chain.
Poignantly, Scott Pelley begins with a clip from a 2003 interview of Peter Daszak warning of the possibility of a pandemic initiated by a jump from wild animals. Clearly, Scott's sympathies focus on the tragedy of the abrupt end of EcoHealth's NIH grant. A focus of my website is on the dangers of over-population and encroachment of humans on crucial (particularly tropical) habitats.
The one flaw in the 60 Minutes video — note the surprising number of down votes on YouTube — is the short shrift given to alternative theories of the origin of SARS-CoV-2. The virologists he interviewed dismissed the notion of a synthetic or accidental origin as being disproven. He also cites the 30 April DNI statement: "the wide scientific consensus (is that) the Covid-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified."
Note that the DNI statement does not address the possibly of an accidental leak. Nor does it address the evidence (even if a minority opinion) in favor of genetic tweaking. Lab research deliberately modifying coronaviruses has been on-going for years.
My current probability density function is as follows: zoonotic origin (direct jump) = 70%; accidental leak of a bat virus under study = 25%; accidental leak of a genetically modified bat virus = 5%. How did I come up with those probabilities? They're borrowed from Lambda-CDM cosmologists — percent of (total mass/energy) constituted by dark energy =70%; percent by dark matter = 25%; and percent by ordinary matter = 5%. (But I could be wrong. 😉 )
Note: all five hypothetical scenarios listed by Dr. Joe Wang in my Epoch Times Live Panel transcription should really be included (including combinations.)
13 May 2020: Rich Seidner writes:
Interesting article, Bob. I have two non-scientific thoughts:
(1) If C19 is a weaponized virus, developed with intent, then there'd have to be safeguards built into its design. A wonderful Finnish TV series last year, Ivalo (Artic Circle), posited a virus designed to affect (for revenge against) one specific population (identified by a genetic sequence specific to that population). That’s the kind of thing for which there’d have to be a backdoor way to disable it, or limit its spread to non-targeted populations (including, potentially, the weapon designers themselves). My point is that if it was a well-designed weapon, there might be some evidence for the safe control of its use by those in control of it. I'm NOT suggesting that any of this actually happened.
(2) Richard Feynman memorably wrote that “We can always prove any definite theory wrong. Notice, however, we never prove it right.” That seems sensible to me, and is probably applicable to the origin of C19. We may well never know for sure. Of course (joke alert), if the RNA contains a coded sequence that translates to “F*CK TRUMP”, then we’d know.
I’m inclined to think that because we’re so uninformed about the many tens of thousands of viruses that are currently present in bat and other species, that we will never know for sure who or what was Bat-Patient or Lab-Designed Zero.
If I have one question for you, it’s with regard to the spread via aerosolization in proximity to the Wuhan Lab. Molecules move in air currents, and if any of the work done at that lab near the wet markets was conducted outside of Level-4 containment — is it possible that the C19 simply floated in or out? And, did I just answer my own question? If I recall correctly, Army Col. Nancy Jaax, who served as chief of the pathology division at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRID,) recounts how a staff member there injected herself with a Simian variant of the Ebola virus. Oops! Breaches happen! To err is an all too human trait.
13 May 2020: I (RLB) respond:
Hi Rich — superb comments!
Back-door to disable it: You would think designers would try to design that in. (That IS a consideration in a lot of synthetic biology — having a kill-switch— or, at least, a “dead man switch” — eg, a synthetic bacterium might be designed to require some supplied growth factor, otherwise it dies.) There is undoubtedly racial/ ethnic heterogeneity in many receptor proteins — (ACE2 heterogeneity might be relevant with a C19 bioweapon.)
Feynman, of course, was correct. I got a kick out of your notion of a coded message! (SETI people have suggested looking for a coded message inside our DNA — Greetings from the Romulan Empire — that might signal that life on Earth was designed by extraterrestrials!)
Possibility of other bat viruses in the wild: Yes! That’s the broad consensus in the expert virology community (eg, as expressed in Andersen, et al. in Nature Med.))
Transit out of Wuhan Institute of Virology: Yes, many conceivable routes — improperly disposed animal corpses, a donning/doffing mistake, or a lab accident (this could be really subtle, eg Sean Lin, PhD mentions a broken test tube in an ultracentrifuge in his own work) . Chinese (and other nation's) labs have had many reported breaches.
Separately, I note in today's NTD News YouTube that there was an unusual total cessation of cellphone traffic into and out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in October, 2019, which might indicate that the institute needed to be temporarily shut down for some "unknown event" (!) .
14 May 2020: Anxious to jump-start the economy, Trump is opening Mar-al-Lago to all comers!
Big tech news: TSMC will build its first US fab in Arizona (a 5nm node facility.).
14 May 2020: Science Alert reports today that Pangolins May Not Have Been the Intermediary Host of SARS-CoV-2 After All .
The resulting genome displayed a 90.32 percent sequence similarity to SARS-CoV-2 and 90.24 percent to the Rhinolophus affinis bat coronavirus BatCoV-RaTG13, which still remains the closest known relative to SARS-CoV-2, with a match of 96.18 percent.
But the sequence similarities don't reflect the full story. The genetic instructions for the all-important protein spike of the SARS-CoV-2 virus matched more between the bat and human coronavirus than the pangolin one.
However, the pangolin virus essentially shares the same ACE2 binding receptor as that used by the COVID-19 virus - the part of the spike that allows the virus to enter and infect human cells. This was also found in another study that is still undergoing review, and led to suggestions that the human coronavirus may be a type of hybrid (a chimera) between a bat and a pangolin virus.
Liu's team also thinks these similarities may indicate that a recombination event occurred somewhere in the evolution of these different viruses - where the viral genomes exchanged pieces of their genetic materials with each other. However, their analysis of the evolutionary relationship between the three viruses did not support the idea that the human version evolved directly from the pangolin one.
Yes, a "recombination event occurred somewhere in the evolution of these different viruses!" — the trillion dollar question is when and where and how.
19 May 2020: Here are two new articles (thanks to Rich S. and to Walter C.) and a video, all relevant to the mysterious origin of SARS-CoV-2.
First, this new article from Nature: Animal source of the coronavirus continues to elude scientists . Of course, Nature always strives to be apolitical, and, therefore, avoids facts like the destruction of all the hundreds of virus samples in the Wuhan Labs, which might've assisted this investigation.
Epoch Times investigative reporter, Joshua Philipp, on the other hand, is under no such constraint. In this YouTube — Virus NOT from Animals in Wuhan Market — he updates his reporting on the origin story.
And, in today's San Francisco Chronicle: First known U.S. coronavirus death occurred on Feb.6 in Santa Clara County .
I was ballroom dancing 2-3 times per week in Santa Clara County until March 1st. Many of my dance partners are Asian — continuing now via Zoom. They disappeared (from the dance floor) —a mystery at that time — around mid-February. My guess is that with their news sources via WeChat and Baidu, they were far better informed on what was happening in Wuhan than I was.
2 June 2020: See this 3D model of the SARS-CoV-2 virus at atomic resolution — including scary music.
16 July 2020: See this Vimeo featuring expert virologist Jason McLellan of U. Texas, Austin. This is the best video I've seen — thank you, Rich S! — that reviews the technical details of each category of all the many vaccine candidates. Using cryo-EM (electron microscopy), Prof. McLellan's group at the Univ. of Texas went from receiving the primary sequence of the virus in January to a 3D structural characterization of the virus in just three weeks. (This is stunning research.)
He fields questions from MDs in his audience. "Do the neutralizing antibodies in a natural infection wane over time?" Yes, they do (eg after three months.) But, due to memory B cells, new specific plasmacytes can form and crank out more immunoglobulin antibody, if there is a later challenge. Also note, the level of neutralizing antibody in natural SARS-Cov-2 infections depends on the severity of the infection. Severe infections lead to higher levels of antibody.
"Might there be any point in getting more than one category of C19 vaccine?" He thinks not. "Will vaccines need to be given once only ("one and done")?" Probably not. But, we'll probably need to receive repeated boosters of vaccine every few years (but probably not due to antigenic drift of the virus.) He also doubts the frightening possibility with these vaccine candidates that there might be "immune enhancement of disease," ie that immunized patients might be at risk for a more severe infection."
I welcome substantive comments on all my articles. With your permission I may include excerpts. You can post here anonymously, but to do so you should have a verifiable identity, eg a website, Linked-in ID, or Facebook page, etc. Mail comments to bob AT bobblum DOT com (with the usual syntax.)