Opinion: Why the Pandemic Probably Started in a Lab
June 8, 2024 5:55 PM   Subscribe

While several natural spillover scenarios remain plausible, and we still don’t know enough about the full extent of virus research conducted at the Wuhan institute by Dr. Shi’s team and other researchers, a laboratory accident is the most parsimonious explanation of how the pandemic began.

By Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of M.I.T. and Harvard, and a co-author of “Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19.”
posted by latkes (118 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well, that's, like, your opinion man.

I wish Dr. Chan a lot of luck with her book sales.
posted by AlSweigart at 6:08 PM on June 8 [21 favorites]


I'd be interested to see these arguments side-by-side with counter theories. I guess what's confusing to me is there seems to be a reflexive anti-lab perspective from lay people on left. I know I lack enough knowledge to meaningfully evaluate any of this but I think that's also true of a lot of folks who seem convinced that there is no way it came from a lab. [shrug emoji]
posted by latkes at 6:11 PM on June 8 [9 favorites]


The bullet points use a display technique where alternating ones are shown at alternating tilt just before aligning, which is pretty neat, and I've never seen before.
posted by oonh at 6:12 PM on June 8 [4 favorites]


reflexive anti-lab perspective from lay people on left

Speaking purely for myself, the China Lab Hypothesis just seems too convenient for the Right Assholes.

...like, if someone says "well that accident happened because THOSE PEOPLE" I'm gonna doubt their argument.

Even if they end up being correct (I'm not saying they're correct).
posted by aramaic at 6:15 PM on June 8 [41 favorites]


One alarming detail — leaked to The Wall Street Journal and confirmed by current and former U.S. government officials —

Sure it's a bunch of conjecture and circumstance, but it's conjecture and circumstance reported by the Wall Street Journal from former U.S. government officials. That's, uh, kind of like evidence I guess.

(It's really exhausting keeping an open mind and reading through all this, waiting for the solid bit of evidence amongst the fluff, and then getting to the end of the article unfulfilled. Then invariably I'll be accused of not having an open mind )
posted by AlSweigart at 6:15 PM on June 8 [44 favorites]


One thing I appreciated about this was the focus on the US funding and collaboration.
posted by latkes at 6:16 PM on June 8


Wasn't the Defuse proposal unfunded? The article makes it sound like the institute could possibly possibly have conducted an extremely expensive project with zero dollars and I can tell you that is not how research works.

I mean, I dunno, I've been following a lot of virologists since covid started and both the Defuse proposal and the furin cleavage business in this article are wrong. I don't see a lot of lab scientists agreeing with this article.

I'm not a virologist, but I worked for virologists for quite a while and none of them that I've talked to feel that this was a lab leak. Several of their collaborators in the US studied coronaviruses, and while the lab didn't have any direct projects with Chinese labs, we did know a number of Chinese virologists.

~~
I am not an expert and would not stand up at a podium and proclaim my view, but my gut feeling is that for a pandemic to take off it requires multiple introductions of the disease and a lab leak just wouldn't have produced enough introductions. Lab leaks happen, but people aren't just, like, throwing virus in the breeze every day.
posted by Frowner at 6:21 PM on June 8 [32 favorites]


I'll say this for a second time today: The NYT has got their progressive-bashing ragebait down to a science at this point.
posted by AlSweigart at 6:23 PM on June 8 [45 favorites]


I tend to think that because most people don't know anything about how sponsored research happens, they envision it as just a bunch of mad (or shadily brain-washed communist) scientists doing sketchy stuff in a lab with little oversight and no interest in safety. I know for a fact based on a bunch of conversations I had about the vaccine that many Americans have no real idea that bench science is extremely slow and major discoveries are always the result of work over time by many labs. Mad scientists cooking something up and loosing it on the public, that's people's mental image.
posted by Frowner at 6:23 PM on June 8 [19 favorites]


I don't know why other people are reflexively against a lab-leak hypothesis, but I'm knee-jerk against it because there's no evidence, and really no need for it to be a lab leak. Viruses mutate in the wild all the time.

If it hadn't originated in China, I doubt this whole conspiracy theory would've gained much traction at all, but with xenophobia and all, naturally it has.
posted by Ickster at 6:26 PM on June 8 [57 favorites]


I guess what's confusing to me is there seems to be a reflexive anti-lab perspective from lay people on left.

My mental timeline has Donald Trump calling COVID the "China Virus" and this directly resulting in physical attacks on people of apparent Asian ancestry. After that, a lot of people seem to have decided that the best way to avoid further violence was to downplay any connection between COVID and China.
posted by Slothrup at 6:33 PM on June 8 [14 favorites]


Speaking purely for myself, the China Lab Hypothesis just seems too convenient for the Right Assholes.

All the people who have been yelling about Chinese bioweapons from day one have also been tireless advocates of doing as little as possible to protect anyone from the ostensible foreign adversarial bioweapon.
posted by Vulgar Euphemism at 6:40 PM on June 8 [53 favorites]


Looking forward to counter arguments but I would have to agree with the commentators in the NYT who are wondering what the purpose of this article is. It's not been peer-reviewed and she states valid alternative scenarios remain. And her stated goal that this information will somehow bring about world unity on how to handle pandemics completely misses the point that the divide over this was never over whether it started in a lab or a meat market, but more so on how it should be handled and could have been better handled once the pandemic was in the world.
posted by beaning at 6:41 PM on June 8 [19 favorites]


I mean, I definitely don't envision a lab as a bunch of mad or shadily brain-washed communist scientists doing sketchy stuff with little oversight and no interest in safety! I am an RN with a strong belief in evidence and the scientific process (despite how it is constantly undermined by capitalism, bad incentives, and just run-of the mill human failures).

But it seems to me that there is a reflexive assumption that COVID has to have come through 'natural' animal to human transmission, and any other possibility carries a high burden of proof. But why isn't every option on a flat playing field of options? We truly don't know, there is weak evidence for every theory that I know of. I'm not sure what strong evidence would look like - perhaps there are forensic epidemiologists or something who have a standard of evidence we should consider. But I tend to think most of us are just looking to confirm our priors when it comes to the origins of COVID.

Ultimately, I'm convinced we should enact safer laboratory practices, and we should limit human incursion into the animal world, and whatever else we need to do reduce the frequency of future pandemics. But if we do think that the origin of COVID matters, we should remain open to varying theories.. IMHO. Perhaps I"m just not qualified to assess the available evidence, but I don't think there's anything incontrovertible that exists for the Wuhan market thesis.
posted by latkes at 6:46 PM on June 8 [14 favorites]


One more comment and then I'll knock it off - I add only because I feel that this is directly relevant.

I have experience with research grants.

1. The Defuse proposal was submitted in 2018. If they were already making little covids, they would not have needed the money.

2. The Defuse proposal wasn't funded, but for the sake of argument let's say that a shady organization stepped in with the money some time in mid-2018.

3. I personally do not believe for one hot minute that you could have a lab leaking covid by fall 2019 if you got funding in mid-late 2018. I have never, never known lab research to move that fast.

4. This would be extra true if things followed the normal course after the Defuse proposal was rejected - typically, if people wanted to continue with the project, they would rewrite and resubmit the proposal somewhere else and it would have to go through review and then it would take ten million years to get the funds and start spending.

~~
On a grimmer and more speculative note: I just...like, I've known a lot of research scientists, both Chinese and American, and I have trouble believing that there would not have been some suicides and probably some whistleblowing if the researchers truly felt that it came from their lab. I've known some virologists who were extremely vain jerks, but the type of people who do lab science just aren't the type to diabolically rub their hands and say "aha, we released a virus that killed millions of people, I guess that proves we knew what we were doing, on with our master plans". People would be absolutely destroyed if they thought they had released covid by mistake.
posted by Frowner at 6:46 PM on June 8 [61 favorites]


counter theories

counter arguments


You mean, like, "someone got it off a dirty counter"?
posted by Greg_Ace at 6:47 PM on June 8 [3 favorites]


It's just so exhausting when apparently all the lab leak folks need to do it wave vaguely at Wuhan and say "COINCIDENCE??!?" - like, yes, there's a major center of virology there for the same reason you have big train stations in cities, because that's where the action is. I found this take on bluesky by immunologist Kristian Andersen to be pretty rational. In summary: you can't leak something you don't have, and despite people feverishly searching for evidence there is zero evidence covid was present inside the lab before it was present everywhere else.
posted by range at 6:51 PM on June 8 [27 favorites]


Right now there's too much missing data for me to move past being on team 'Why not both? ' The virus escaped into the public from people who had picked it up from lax lab standards or insufficient lab protections and then once outside a other mutations happened which made it much more contagious and deadly. A lot of the data is missing from the Chinese lab and government, but as has been noted by those who know the people in those labs, there's not been an incredibly high death rate among those, and as the first round of those exposed, I would have expected some unusual statistics out of that population. But again, too much data has been hidden or destroyed or presented with bias at this point
posted by beaning at 6:52 PM on June 8 [2 favorites]


there seems to be a reflexive anti-lab perspective from lay people on left.

As opposed to the reflexive conspiracy theory perspective from lay Fox News viewers?
posted by AlSweigart at 6:52 PM on June 8 [8 favorites]


I wrote my very first letter to the New York Times about this editorial. Here it is:

Dear Editor

On June 3 2024, the day Dr Anthony Fauci was scheduled to testify in Congress, the New York Times published an essay by Dr. Alina Chan entitled "Why the Pandemic Probably Started in a Lab, in 5 Key Points". Nothing unusual, the NYT often publishes controversial and even inaccurate editorials. They are, after all, called opinions.

What was strange were the graphics accompanying the essay. I've never seen that before with an opinion piece. I associate them with the best investigative journalism of the NYT. This essay is not that. It is speculation and conjecture. Did the NYT team create those graphics for Dr Chan's editorial?

Dr. Fauci is being accused of hiding knowledge of a lab leak origin of Covid. This essay is about how the virus "probably" started in a lab. Are you at the NYT taking sides in the Freedom Caucus MAGA persecution of him?

Dr. Fauci is a hero who guided us through a horrible pandemic with no help from the administration he worked for and it is outrageous to even suggest otherwise.

Sincerely
REDACTED
posted by Alcedinidae at 7:00 PM on June 8 [65 favorites]


But why isn't every option on a flat playing field of options?

Mostly because there have been very many epidemics started by crossover transmission from animals in the decades since virology has been a thing, and while there have been a handful of breaches of lab safety, to my knowledge (a) it’s really a very small handful and (b) none of them have ever started an epidemic, that I’ve heard of. So based on past evidence, the probabilities are very heavily weighted toward zoonotic origin, such that some more concrete evidence would be needed to make the lab leak origin plausible.
posted by eviemath at 7:03 PM on June 8 [38 favorites]


But it seems to me that there is a reflexive assumption that COVID has to have come through 'natural' animal to human transmission, and any other possibility carries a high burden of proof. But why isn't every option on a flat playing field of options?

The playing field is not actually flat, though. There are vastly more opportunities to hop from animals than emerge from a lab leak. There are so many animals, so many viruses, and so much contact at these sorts of animal markets that biology has a huge number of chances for a coronavirus to take the evolutionary steps to be able to hop to humans from some other host. There are two scenarios where a lab leak could occur. Either the wild base strain of SARS-COV-2 was collected and escaped, in which case it was already present in nature and thus was ready for zoonotic transfer anyway (in which case odds are good that it would happen naturally), or there was a still-hidden gain of function experiment that was difficult to detect from even early genetic evidence and these specific results happened to get out from a collection of competent scientists. The intuition of people who study viral evolution is that the vast parallel possibilities of evolution present a much, much stronger likelihood of being the origin than a leak of a manipulated virus. In the absence of smoking gun evidence, the data is entirely consistent with an origin from animals at the wet market and that fits a well-established mode of disease transfer. I don’t think many people would seriously say that a lab leak is actually ruled out, but it’s just not nearly as likely based on what we know.
posted by Schismatic at 7:07 PM on June 8 [29 favorites]


Also, while not 100% conclusive, the available evidence there is, eg. from geographic case mapping and contact tracing of the earliest known cases, points toward zoonotic origin. So there would need to be at least as convincing, if not more so, evidence in support of the lab leak hypothesis to level the playing field of options as it were - and that evidence is lacking.
posted by eviemath at 7:07 PM on June 8 [14 favorites]


Actual biologist and oft cited on MeFi, PZ Myers explains why she is full of bullshit. And the NYT should be ashamed of themselves for publishing such nonsense.
posted by TedW at 7:17 PM on June 8 [52 favorites]


On the non-evidentiary, “it stands to reason” front, it’s also important to keep in mind that there are a very many people in China who are not government functionaries, and COVID-19 disrupted life in China to a far greater extent than it did in the US. The lab leak theory is tempting because it is less chaotic or more controllable than the many epidemics that have zoonotic origin - you can punish the one or handful of specific individuals responsible, change some procedures or stop some research, and not have to worry about a recurrence. (The basic appeal of any conspiracy theory.) That would be every bit as reassuring to people in China (who are susceptible to conspiracy theories to the same degree as Americans, both being just average people) as it is to the US, and is the sort of thing that could impact regional political stability in China as well. Yet no sacrificial scientist has been offered up as the culprit.
posted by eviemath at 7:26 PM on June 8 [10 favorites]


I'm not a scientist at all, and I don't remember enough to summarize arguments well here, so I offer up some links.

There was the thing where some guys named Rootclaim put up a $100k debate challenge for someone to counter their lab leak arguments, and lost. Of course, anyone can win or lose a debate, but I think both sides tried pretty hard. The judges' summaries are worth reading I think.

There was also that survey that showed that experts overwhelmingly don't believe the lab leak, I'm sure everyone remembers that. That seems important?

But overall, I trust Chris Kavanagh (on this issue at least) and I think Decoding the Gurus did a good podcast episode presenting evidence by experts for the natural origin case. (DtG just put out a response to the NYT article.)

About this particular article, Kavanagh says it's the same weak arguments as before, so I don't think I'm going to RTFA forgive me.
posted by fleacircus at 7:46 PM on June 8 [10 favorites]


PZ Myers article abridged here:

The newspaper of record did it again, revived the lab leak hypothesis with a stupid opinion piece that is light on the evidence and heavy on the presuppositions. This is not helpful. We already have a popular bias that is contrary to the science, so this is just fueling more error.

The article was written by Alina Chan, who previously coauthored a book on the topic with Matt Ridley. Ridley is, unfortunately, a bit of a loon on many topics, including climate change as well as the lab leak hypothesis, and I guess he’s infectious, because Chan has got it bad. Their book, Viral, was terrible.

If you want a brief, straightforward rebuttal of Alina Chan’s editorial, Larry Moran has you covered.

I don’t understand why the lab leak hypothesis is popular at all, but I suspect it’s because most people are uncomfortable with the idea that natural processes can produce surprising effects in the absence of intent. It’s the same bias that drives creationism.


Oh, MATT RIDLEY. That guy. Cool. Cool.

If you want to know more about him, here he is being interviewed by Jordan Peterson about the lab-leak hypothesis. (Or you could not waste your time because it's, you know, Jordan Peterson.)
posted by AlSweigart at 7:48 PM on June 8 [31 favorites]


Speaking purely for myself, the China Lab Hypothesis just seems too convenient for the Right Assholes.

I’d also add that Trump said that the virus was the Democrats trying to make him look bad. The lab leak idea falls right into that and his followers lean heavily into that hypothesis. (Which is weird because the pandemic could have been his Moment, if he’d done a half competent job of handling things with Covid, he’d have won re-election in a walk. Instead he’s rambling like a madman, standing in the way of those fighting the pandemic and telling people to drink bleach. I guarantee you Dubya would not have wasted this crisis.)

And the NYT should be ashamed of themselves for publishing such nonsense.

They ran out of shame years ago.
posted by azpenguin at 7:49 PM on June 8 [9 favorites]




Luckily the evidence for why this editorial exists is easier to find than evidence of COVID-19's origins:
A credible investigation would also deter future acts of negligence and deceit by demonstrating that it is indeed possible to be held accountable for causing a viral pandemic.
In other words -- it's high time we hold China accountable for their crimes.

Look for Trump's camp to start echoing these points as part of his campaign platform. Justice for victims of the China virus! Economic reparations! Sleepy Joe is too soft on China!
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 7:51 PM on June 8 [8 favorites]


And the dramatic dataviz treatment NYT editors lavished onto this piece is a pretty good tell of their priorities in this election season.
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 7:53 PM on June 8 [10 favorites]


Myself, I am just glad that the world, countries ll over the world, did good work to keep it from being so much worse than it was. I'm not sure I got it twice but I think so, after vaccinne. It was a horror show, both times, and without the spectacular medical care I got I would almost certainly be dead.

I too have heard left lean ppl be adamantly "No! No way!" and I lay it at Trumps feet. As others in this thread have noted, anything Trump said is bs. I've felt it myself. But it's just natural, the guy is vile so *anything* he said is hogwash.
posted by dancestoblue at 7:55 PM on June 8 [2 favorites]


The Wikipedia page on this, and also the one on the origin of covid, are very detailed.
posted by panhopticon at 7:58 PM on June 8 [2 favorites]


Like others above, I'm baffled by that NYT piece. Yes, it's labeled as "opinion", but dressed up quite a bit. Generally NYT opinions are supposed to go through rigorous fact-checking, but this bit doesn't even bother to give lip service to the general consensus on the issue among experts. On top of that, the author is barely past the student stage, and is known primarily for pushing this particular viewpoint.
posted by epimorph at 7:59 PM on June 8 [9 favorites]


If it hadn't originated in China, I doubt this whole conspiracy theory would've gained much traction at all, but with xenophobia and all, naturally it has.

Nah. If it had originated in the US, people would still find a way to blame China for it.

What with xenophobia and all.
posted by AlSweigart at 8:05 PM on June 8 [4 favorites]


Jonathan Katz, who helped track down the UN Cholera outbreak in Haiti, talks about this and makes really good points I thought..

OK, so then, what are we even arguing here? Is the “lab leak theory” that an engineered supervirus was released from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in November 2019? (Or October?) Or it is that a natural virus emerged from a totally different lab on the other side of the city in December?

Is the theory that the reported three sick WIV workers carried the virus to a nearby hospital? Or are they irrelevant, which is why they don’t even bear mentioning in the Republican House Intelligence report? How can Chan and Ridley — who wrote an entire book implicating the Wuhan Institute of Virology — shift seamlessly to offering evidence that a totally different facility was at fault? Does Carlson think the FBI and DOE are lying deep staters when they say COVID wasn’t a bioweapon, but telling the truth when they say — for apparently different reasons! — that they think it is most likely that it came from … some lab? Somewhere?

posted by Carillon at 8:24 PM on June 8 [11 favorites]


A thorough investigation by the U.S. government could unearth more evidence while spurring whistleblowers to find their courage and seek their moment of opportunity. It would also show the world that U.S. leaders and scientists are not afraid of what the truth behind the pandemic Bigfoot phenomenon may be.
posted by torokunai at 8:25 PM on June 8 [7 favorites]


Eviemath and Schismatic, thanks for your responses. They were helpful. As with anything, there's a "how" as well as a "what" to claims and counter-claims. Sometimes it is hard to see past certain "hows" to get the "what."
posted by mph at 8:33 PM on June 8


This theory is a favorite of the MAGA right of course, but reading the piece, it's noteworthy that the current administration also finds it plausible, at least enough to suspend funding to the WIV.
posted by jy4m at 8:33 PM on June 8 [2 favorites]


What difference would it make? What would anyone do if this fantasy were found to be 100% true?
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:44 PM on June 8 [10 favorites]


The editor of Scientific American posted this 2022 article on Bluesky the day after the NYT opinion piece went up.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 8:46 PM on June 8 [2 favorites]


The lab leak theory is important because then Someone Very Clever Did This To Us. The alternative is that We Really Fucked Up.
posted by Slackermagee at 8:54 PM on June 8 [23 favorites]


I understand the argument that the lab leak theory is less likely than natural spillover, which is the consensus scientific view. I don't understand the "what difference would it make" argument. The same difference that knowing what makes an RMBK reactor explodes makes. Because it would be the truth. In this case the truth seems likely to not be a lab leak but if it were a lab leak that would be important to understand.
posted by Justinian at 8:58 PM on June 8 [4 favorites]


But why isn't every option on a flat playing field of options?

Aliens.
posted by swr at 9:06 PM on June 8 [9 favorites]


I think that the lab-leak hypothesis is problematical - not because it's true or not - but because it minimises the possibility of the next breakout happening in the wild - particularly at a time when it looks seriously like H1N1 crossing into humans is likely to come from Texan dairy herds, not a lab
posted by mbo at 9:13 PM on June 8 [13 favorites]


Covid was nasty critter flu. The next one probably will be too. The one after that will be a big dummy dicking around with crispr.
posted by ovvl at 9:38 PM on June 8 [3 favorites]


I am used to newspaper opinion pieces being about things that are definitely opinions—like we should have a different taxation setup or this person is the right candidate for that elected office.

This is, instead, an opinion about a fact. And seems a way to get a provocative view of the situation out without the usual level of care the NYT applies to establishing facts.
posted by grouse at 9:48 PM on June 8 [16 favorites]


it's noteworthy that the current administration also finds it plausible, at least enough to suspend funding to the WIV.

It's not like they suspended funding to all virus study. The present administration spent committee time trying to expose alien visitation because they find it plausible.
posted by Mitheral at 9:50 PM on June 8 [2 favorites]


Friendly reminder that Dr. Danielle Anderson, the sole foreign researcher at the Wuhan lab, states that she saw no evidence of a leak or of any of her colleagues falling ill.
posted by The Ardship of Cambry at 10:32 PM on June 8 [13 favorites]


I guess what's confusing to me is there seems to be a reflexive anti-lab perspective from lay people on left.

This comment from jack lecou on the PZ Myers piece linked above fully aligns with my own opinion on this latest leak from the NYT's weaponized-opinion research lab, saving me the time it would have taken to construct a considered response of my own.

Central point:
Meanwhile, the fact that there are dozens and dozens of these labs (in basically every city with a hospital big enough to host one) utterly obliterates the “gee whiz, what are the odds” factor. If the presence of a facility like this is sufficient evidence in and of itself to start screaming “lab leak”, then an outbreak in almost any moderately sized Chinese city would be considered “suspicious”. Probably nearly any city in the world.

The fact that conspiracy idiots are willing to treat these mutually exclusive hypotheses more or less interchangeably, depending on whichever is convenient at the moment, is exactly the phenomenon referred to in the excellent New Republic piece PZ linked:
TNR: By relying on an ever-growing arsenal of seemingly suspicious facts, each pointing in a slightly different direction, lab leaker discourse renders itself completely unfalsifiable.
It’s basically a fractally recursive, self-contradictory motte-and-bailey argument. And just as fractally fallacious as a result. Any individual hypothesis founders on wild implausibility and a complete lack of evidence. So instead, the case is built by trying to vaguely entertain dozens of individually weak scenarios simultaneously, in a “where there’s smoke there’s fire” fashion. The problem is they are all mutually contradictory: they don’t reinforce, they cancel out. The whole thing vanishes on any critical examination, like the ouroboros conjured from pure conspiracy-addled imagination that it is.
posted by flabdablet at 10:47 PM on June 8 [11 favorites]


Mod note: One removed. As always, comments that are just "I'm not going to read it" (and similar) aren't helpful.
posted by taz (staff) at 11:28 PM on June 8 [8 favorites]


it's noteworthy that the current administration also finds it plausible, at least enough to suspend funding to the WIV.

Or the current administration finds it politically expedient to suspend funding, to avoid political attacks based in the kind of faulty and motivated logic we see in the article linked in the FPP.
posted by Dysk at 11:49 PM on June 8 [19 favorites]


I'm not convinced that such attacks can be avoided, because at root they have nothing whatsoever to do with anything the administration actually does. MTG gonna MTG regardless of anything even vaguely resembling facts.
posted by flabdablet at 12:27 AM on June 9 [4 favorites]


TWiV 1121: SARS-CoV2 still didn’t come from a lab. A one hour rebuttal by a panel of experienced virologists. Tl;dw - all of Chan's claims are either just false or mischaracterizations.
posted by benzenedream at 12:40 AM on June 9 [13 favorites]


I have a theory that the lab leak hypothesis continues to be viral because of gain-of-function research being done at the times.
posted by condour75 at 12:54 AM on June 9 [4 favorites]


I am an RN with a strong belief in evidence and the scientific process

I know a few RNs who preface a lot conjecture with this badge of authority. It is absolutely wonderful that they are working with science, that they believe in the products of the scientific method, and I love them for doing important work that directly benefits our most vulnerable, despite being chronically short staffed and underpaid. They are not given the respect they deserve; they’re our first and last line of defense, it’s their bodies on the line when shit hits the fan. Perhaps more than any other profession, RNs are the ones directly applying the fruits of science to save lives.

But they are not research scientists. They work with the output of science, but they do not practice the scientific method to perform research. They use science, they do not make it. And frankly, if a research scientist were to brandish their credentials to tell RNs how RNs should be doing their jobs, or how their background as a research scientist leant credence to views which directly contradict the overwhelming consensus of RNs, I don’t think the RNs I know would be happy.

I see something similar happen when people throw about the phrase “digital native” to lump together people who are adept as using an app like Instagram along with people who are adept at building an app like Instagram. Yes, they are both using phones, but they are using them in dramatically different ways, with extremely different specializations, skill sets, and knowledge bases. Each group does a disservice to themselves and to the other when they stray from their lanes – doubly so when they claim their experience in one lane gives them authority in another. You just do not see many of the people who do the work of building mega scale apps going viral, in the same way you don’t see a Kardashian doing the happy dance because they pushed some sus code but CI/CD dashboard is still green.
posted by 1024 at 1:08 AM on June 9 [16 favorites]


I thought it might be nice to share this paper from Science, made freely available on PubMed, that I really appreciated reading when it came out back in 2022. It traces potential zoonotic transfer events right back to individual stands in the market.

The article has been corrected since I originally read it - they had to rerun the analyses about the geographical locations of the early COVID cases, which seems to still be the subject of some back and forth, but the bit about the internal results in the market seems to not be affected by this.

I don't want to upset anyone, please don't shout at me, just thought it was interesting to post some research that helped me understand how the conditions for zoonotic transfer in the market were common and how you'd go about tracing it back to source.
posted by norabelle at 1:55 AM on June 9 [7 favorites]


I think the lab leak theory refuses to die despite all the public evidence being against it because at its heart it is a comforting idea.

Bad practices at a lab leads to the escape of a dangerous virus, very serious people fix the problems at similar labs, problem solved.

Random event at a wet market leads to a dangerous virus jumping species and infecting humans, nobody has done much to clean up the thousands of similar wet markets in the years since Covid, it is going to happen again.
posted by zymil at 1:57 AM on June 9 [7 favorites]


Zeynep Tufekci in the NYT: An Object Lesson From Covid on How to Destroy Public Trust
Big chunks of the history of the Covid pandemic were rewritten over the last month or so in a way that will have terrible consequences for many years to come.

Under questioning by a congressional subcommittee, top officials from the National Institutes of Health, along with Dr. Anthony Fauci, acknowledged that some key parts of the public health guidance their agencies promoted during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic were not backed up by solid science. What’s more, inconvenient information was kept from the public — suppressed, denied or disparaged as crackpot nonsense.
posted by dmh at 2:47 AM on June 9 [8 favorites]


the nyt isn't alone in this. i think in general media outlets have stretched "opinion" beyond its breaking point. there is an oft-cited article from 2012 on this very topic, and i'm pretty sure many mefites are already familiar with it, but for those not, the crux is this:
If “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion” just means no-one has the right to stop people thinking and saying whatever they want, then the statement is true, but fairly trivial. No one can stop you saying that vaccines cause autism, no matter how many times that claim has been disproven.

But if ‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false. And this too is a distinction that tends to get blurred.
I think that any media outlet that publishes opinion pieces needs to stop using the fig leaf of "oh that's just what this person believes" for literally any topic. the more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinary the evidence required; calling it an "opinion" does not change that. like you don't need to cite sources for an opinion piece entitled "why red onions don't belong in breakfast sandwiches". but from the headline of this piece itself, we have a remarkable claim being made on the scientific front. calling it "an opinion" does not absolve the author of requiring remarkable evidence to support that claim.

i realise we are in some post-truth era where people can now just say shit and we're all supposed to nod along like we're on meet the press and any pushback or criticism or calls for evidence are rebuked as either censorship or "that's just my opinion" but i am getting pretty tired of this coy trojan horse for conspiracy theories maneuver in papers of record; that you can slap the word "opinion" on it and it is now absolved of any responsibility to the truth
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 2:47 AM on June 9 [22 favorites]


Another good analysis and rebuttal of the article at Respectful Insolence.
posted by chaiminda at 3:05 AM on June 9 [7 favorites]


The bullet points use a display technique where alternating ones are shown at alternating tilt just before aligning, which is pretty neat

Those of us who react to that kind of thing by experiencing vague nausea rather than ascribing greater plausibility to the content will be happy to know that Firefox reader mode makes it go away.

I'd be interested to see these arguments side-by-side with counter theories.

This Week in Virology has you covered. Relevant material starts five minutes in and runs for nearly an hour. It's quite thorough.

I guess what's confusing to me is there seems to be a reflexive anti-lab perspective from lay people on left.

Reality has a well-known left-wing bias.
posted by flabdablet at 4:16 AM on June 9 [9 favorites]


There is just no need to invoke an exotic scenario to explain a lethal and highly contagious coronavorus. SARS and MERS made it clear that this sort of evolution was possible. It was a matter of time. And Wuhan is exactly the kind of place you would expect it to happen.

You can't prove that it wasn't an escaped bioweapon. You also can't prove it wasn't beamed to Earth by space aliens. Doesn't mean either theory is worth taking seriously.
posted by The Manwich Horror at 4:40 AM on June 9 [6 favorites]


Enough right-wing people asserted this theory without any sort of evidence that I just have to assume it was originally made up by someone to be memetic to thoughtless hateful jerks - like vaccine injuries, the flat earth, and sovereign citizenship. Even if it were true, it changes nothing about the situation, and without evidence... how does the old adage go? Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one, and they all stink.
posted by signsofrain at 5:25 AM on June 9


People seem to support the lab leak theory for two reasons - first, the idea that something so terrible couldn't have just been chance coupled with human expansion into new animal habitats and second the idea that China is a sinister place where things operate Very Differently.

Also maybe a left-wing side of "the government always lies so they are lying about this", which, I've known left-wing people who believe that the US government let 9/11 happen to forward their evil designs, for instance. Just because the US government is evil and lies a lot doesn't mean that if you can think of a lie, the US government must be telling it.

Like, if this had been a lab leak, it would not in fact be a terrible indictment of China and its evil commie scientists. It would have been a tragic accident in a lab run by a Chinese research scientists who is a lot like many of the American researchers that at least some of on metafilter know and/or work with. I'm actually very glad it wasn't a lab leak, because I'm glad that no research group has to suffer the knowledge that they caused this. The scientists who are conducting virus research are not sinister. We can debate all day long whether gain of function research and other work with dangerous viruses makes sense and is safe, but scientists are doing it to fight disease not cause it.

It's so funny - there are several genuinely sinister things that we don't even blink at in the US. Most obviously, the fact that human intrusion into animal habitats puts us more and more at risk of more zoonotic spillover - that's fucking terrifying. As climate change happens our risk of more diseases and pandemics is going up and this is much worse than any lab issue. That's terrifying - it's a problem in China, it's a problem in the US, it's a problem of development that both countries cause. But we just handwave it away because after all can't put limits on capitalism/state capitalism.

And second, so many people (not really mefites) are so very suspicious of bench scientists, especially Chinese scientists, and yet we just roll merrily along with, eg, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. Try to do virology to help people and you're probably trying to create evil commie biowewapons, develop hellfire missiles to murder children in Gaza and that's just a perfectly sane white collar occupation. I'm not even especially talking about the morality here, just that many people think it's sinister to do science but that developing more and better weapons couldn't possibly cause more problems than it solves.
posted by Frowner at 5:55 AM on June 9 [25 favorites]


One of the problems is that early in a crisis, there is not only a lack of information, but competing interests. The choice to say "you don't need masks" at the beginning of COVID is a classic case. The spread mechanism wasn't yet known and they didn't want a panic and mask hoarding to happen.

But instead of saying, we don't know yet, they made a definitive statement that was wrong, which had significant consequences. Thinking you need to sound authoritative in a crisis is a bad assumption. Yes, there'll be a certain amount of chaos, but that's better than having people come back saying "you lied to us."

Dismissing the lab leak too early caused similar fallout. It would have been far better to say "we won't have evidence for a couple years," because now it's easy to believe it was just another error.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 5:57 AM on June 9 [6 favorites]


I work in a genomics lab and don’t know or particularly care if Covid was a lab escape. What I’m very concerned about is that it could have been. Lab accidents and leaks are far too common given their extraordinary risks and many times labs don’t report problems. They’ve been caught trying to cover them up as well.

We are in desperate need of better frameworks, oversight, and funding for managing these labs and their risks. This isn’t a China issue, it’s a global issue.

As a working scientist, i also want to push back against a point made earlier in this conversation - that the timeline on the grants and virus modification doesn’t make sense because researchers don’t do projects until grants are funded. That’s true sometimes - but we often do smaller versions of a project even before a grant is submitted and we’re often starting a new project with the end of a previous grant’s money before the other grant comes through. I don’t know how it is in all fields, but in ecology and evolution labs I’ve worked in in two countries, it’s real normal.
posted by congen at 7:15 AM on June 9 [5 favorites]


Of course, if you don't make authoritative statements or if you acknowledge uncertainty in public - uncertainty being the default nature of fucking REALITY in science....., you're "weak" or "a flip flopper" or "not showing leadership".

Human beings - and I don't just mean "western" or "chinese" or "modern capitalism-embedded" human beings are TERRIBLE with statistics and risk and scientific uncertainty. Especially so in a crisis which is time-bound.
posted by lalochezia at 7:15 AM on June 9 [2 favorites]


I liked this op/ed because it lays out the argument so clearly, with references. I don't know that I believe the argument but I think it's plausible and important enough to bear real examination. OTOH Dr. Rasmussen's response lalochezia posted is a good skeptical response. I also learned something from Tufekci's response (twitter link, sorry.)

Like congen says, the real concern is about gain-of-function research. We have labs all over the world, including in the US, that take dangerous viruses and then engineer them to be more dangerous to humans. There's a good scientific argument this is valuable research. OTOH it's clearly dangerous AF.

We're freaking out over H5N1 a little right now but so far it doesn't seem very good at infecting humans. Tufekci mentions a 2019 incident where a lab in U. Wisconsin-Madison was tinkering with H5N1 to make it more able to infect humans. And then they screwed up and one of the workers was exposed and went to their home in town to not-really-quarantine. The university did not disclose the leak appropriately. This incident didn't end in a pandemic but that was mostly luck. See also the 1977 H1N1 flu epidemic probably caused by a leak from a Russian lab.

I weakly support gain-of-function research because I trust the expert scientists who say it's important work. But it must be done safely. And if the folks in Wuhan fucked up studying SARS-CoV-2 somehow, with some US collaboration, that needs to be clearly understood. Unfortunately that's likely impossible given Chinese secrecy and the poisonous US politics. We only know as much as we do because early on some Chinese scientists were brave enough to publish what they knew publicly before their government clamped down.
posted by Nelson at 7:29 AM on June 9 [3 favorites]


just read this very long debunk on respectfulinsolence.com
posted by taquito sunrise at 7:42 AM on June 9 [2 favorites]


I liked this op/ed because it lays out the argument so clearly, with references.

Yes, it's much like ChatGPT in that respect.
posted by flabdablet at 7:45 AM on June 9 [21 favorites]


Like, if this had been a lab leak, it would not in fact be a terrible indictment of China and its evil commie scientists. It would have been a tragic accident in a lab run by a Chinese research scientists who is a lot like many of the American researchers that at least some of on metafilter know and/or work with.

The spirit of the inquiry is VERY important, because the above statement is true, but there are hordes who are willing and eager to claim the opposite, that the entire saga ranged from depraved indifference to sinister conspiracies bent on decimating and reshaping the world's population. "Mad scientists cooking something up and loosing it on the public, that's people's mental image" is accurate because, for example, we had a howling loon on the floor of Congress declaring Fauci a war criminal and a mad scientist this past week and doubling and tripling down on that when challenged. We've had Rand Paul on a public Jail Dr. Fauci crusade for years now.

Which is not what Dr. Chan is doing here, at least openly. Scientific research and procedures are not sacrosanct rituals conducted in clandestine labs by robed figures chanting in Latin, never to be witnessed or questioned by anyone; they should be the subject of both procedural and ethical review at regular intervals. But people on the left do have an inherent it-wasn't-a-lab-leak bias specifically because they're tired of hearing crazies insist that it was a DELIBERATE lab leak or that their tax dollars are funding Dr. Mengele 2.0.
posted by delfin at 7:47 AM on June 9 [5 favorites]


That’s true sometimes - but we often do smaller versions of a project even before a grant is submitted and we’re often starting a new project with the end of a previous grant’s money before the other grant comes through.

If we're talking about federal dollars, I would expect either that the continued research was similar enough to the new research that it was basically the same experiments or that you'd need approval from the program to do a major pivot. I don't know if you're working on publicly funded projects or privately funded ones, and I know that the rules are extremely different with private money, but my impression, having worked with grant accountants across several institutions, is that federal funders are pretty careful about rebudgets of that kind. What I've seen has been much more "if we do some additional very slightly different version of the work we're been doing on the grant using already-acquired supplies, we can get data for our next submission" not "we've got some pipettes, now for something completely different!" I'd expect that there would be traces in both the financial and the administrative records if anyone had been doing serious proto-covid research which could leak an infectious virus.

But what bothered me about the argument here was that people were pointing to a specific grant application as proof that the lab probably did that exact research (never mind that they didn't understand the research) or that the mere fact of submitting the application was itself proof that the project was underway. It seemed to me that people didn't understand how grants work. And honestly, when I looked at the application, it didn't seem to me like the proposed research timeline would have fit for a covid leak. (That's based on having dealt with grant applications - I would not have any meaningful opinion on the science, but I can read a list of grant aims).

Also, I did work in/around a virology lab working with [a serious disease] and while I know that lab leaks happen, I still have trouble believing that people were reckless enough for there to be multiple introductions to start a pandemic.
posted by Frowner at 7:49 AM on June 9 [4 favorites]


people on the left do have an inherent it-wasn't-a-lab-leak bias specifically because they're tired of hearing crazies insist that it was a DELIBERATE lab leak or that their tax dollars are funding Dr. Mengele 2.0

and also because we actually looked into it instead of instantly parroting Crazy Uncle Facebook, and found out that there's masses of evidence to show that it came from the wet market and fuck-all that says it came from the lab.
posted by flabdablet at 7:53 AM on June 9 [11 favorites]


Yes, i do think we need to be cautious with gain of function research, but also just general handling of dangerous pathogens.
posted by congen at 8:01 AM on June 9 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: The NYT should be ashamed of themselves for publishing such nonsense.
posted by Catblack at 8:03 AM on June 9 [3 favorites]


It's been my experience that if "gain of function" is among the technical-sounding phrases that pop up very early when somebody is opining about this, they've almost certainly been very careless with their personal containment protocols for viral online horseshit.
posted by flabdablet at 8:06 AM on June 9 [8 favorites]


There are a lot of thoughtful comments in this thread that explain why zoonotic transmission is more likely than any variation of lab leak. I really appreciate those, since I (like the majority here) have limited knowledge of virology, disease transmission, etc! I also really appreciated the critiques of this op-ed such as why does it have fancy NY Times explainer graphics - and issues around the author's credentials. These factual critiques seem to me to be in line with what we want from a popular discussion of scientific questions: engaging with the actual content and trying to understand the available evidence.

But (and it's a fools errand that I should even comment on this, I know) I am just depressed by the other flavor of comments both here and in many of the linked 'takedowns' that resort to personal attack or projection. I brought up being an RN not to say that nurses are magical pro-science people, but because I am sharing my example as someone who decidedly is NOT coming at this from denial about our incursions into animal habitats or a bias against Chinese researchers. If you have to resort to calling those who have questions about this Trumpists or whatnot, you're not really engaging with the questions. I personally 100% agree that we absolutely are fucking up the environment and causing zoonotic transmission of many pathogens by our actions! But I also acknowledge that there are unknowns about the origins of COVID. And I think even if we disagree with the op-ed and call out it's factual errors, that doesn't create certainty about that doesn't exist about the exact origins of this disease.

A link posted above I thought was pretty convincing was this expert survey. Seeing that significant majority find zoonotic transmission most likely is convincing to me. But I also note that about 1/5th of the respondents thought a lab origin was more likely. And "About half of the experts stated that major gaps still remain in the understanding COVID-19’s origin". A rigorous scientific examination of this, or even a discussion among thoughtful lay people like us here on Metafilter, should not foreclose any possibility based on frankly stereotypes about who believes what.

I'm sure everyone's motivations are pure here - folks are exhausted by racism, growing anti-science sentiment, the bullshit New York Times. None of that makes our personal hunches correct. We are all influenced by our desire to be part of in-groups - just as folks on the right want to fit in with the Fuck Fauci crowd, liberals have the same human desire to align themselves within certain group identities, and when we respond to a scientific question with personal attacks, that seems like evidence to me that we're moving away from a scientifically rigorous examination of evidence.
posted by latkes at 8:11 AM on June 9 [15 favorites]


former U.S. government officials

Just a reminder that this broad umbrella includes all of Team Trump's wackadoodles.
posted by srboisvert at 9:05 AM on June 9 [6 favorites]


I am sorry to report that medical professionals are not great about maintaining a rational worldview. I have had multiple nurses I have worked with advise patients against getting vaccinated against covid, and a pharmacist as well. (Not on the basis of any medical condition, but because it was a scary new mrna vaccine. All of these patients were at vastly increased risk of death if they contracted covid.) I've had a nurse practitioner advise me to try reiki for chronic pain. So sadly, finding out someone works in medicine doesn't give me much extra faith in their opinions. (This is not intended as a jab at latkes at all. Just an explanation for why some folks have a jaundiced reaction to medical credentials being invoked like this.)

Pieces like this one exist to sell the author's book. If there were actually any positive evidence for covid being human modified, so many people would be acting on that. But instead the author is writing a book which will not change the mind of anyone informed on the topic. But which will sell because it plays on the paranoia and sinophobia of Americans.

It's like I used to tell people who ran out about every study that seemed to show ivermectin helping with covid, or homeopathy working, even if this new evidence were valid, it wouldn't vindicate believing it before the evidence existed. Even if covid somehow turned out to be human modified, it wouldn't make believing it now, on the grounds this author offers reasonable. And I'd put the odds of that new evidence showing up above homeopathy, but slightly below ivermectin helping with covid.
posted by The Manwich Horror at 9:13 AM on June 9 [10 favorites]


I understand the argument that the lab leak theory is less likely than natural spillover, which is the consensus scientific view. I don't understand the "what difference would it make" argument.

The difference, when we were deep in the crisis, was that pointing at China ("Wuhan Flu!") or at a lab leak, would divert attention towards blaming and retribution, at a time when 100% of our attention needed to be on stopping further transmission, saving the ill, and coming up with vaccines.

So, removing the focus on China or the lab was, in my opinion, a rare piece of adulting on a global scale.

With that crisis mostly in the rear-view mirror, it's still not very useful at present for a big public reckoning of the cause, because as we're seeing, it's still food for MAGA and other nuts.

I have reasonable confidence that Smarter People Than Me already have a better idea of where/how COVID-19 came to be, and that lessons have been learned, so having a public scream at Fauci or China is still a waste of time.

Anecdote: my wife, whose career had her coming into contact with people who travel frequently, became ill in the late fall of 2019. Severe headache, chest congestion, very high fever, confusion and tiredness. Like a flu turned up to 11. After a few days I was all set to take her to the ER, but then the fever finally broke. I'm convinced that what she had was COVID, or a precursor. I didn't catch it, nor was there a notable outbreak noted at the time.

So... without a better evidence trail, can we have high confidence that we really know the actual root cause of COVID? Might it have been a series of developments and mutations before it achieved such high transmissibility? It's certainly shown the ability to keep changing.
posted by Artful Codger at 9:24 AM on June 9 [1 favorite]


I breathlessly await the lab leak hypothesis for H5N1 crossover in Texas. I am praying for all of the Chinese national or Chinese american grad students at Texas universities with public health departments.

if had one quarter of the concern for agricultural pathogen safety and practices as labs, we'd be in a much better place, public health wise

just a reminder that agriculture is exempt from environmental regulation in the United States. but you know, let's blame the researchers working with tiny amounts of material, and not the massive trade in contaminated animal flesh
posted by eustatic at 9:52 AM on June 9 [9 favorites]


... when we respond to a scientific question with personal attacks, that seems like evidence to me that we're moving away from a scientifically rigorous examination of evidence.
I agree with the spirit of this comment, but I think MetaFilter can only provide so much utility as a truth discernment machine.

I have not paid a ton of attention to the origins discourse because there are plenty of other things to pay attention to, and I don't participate in the discourse myself: Not to convince anyone I know to think one way or the other, not to reason through the matter with others, and not to contribute to some wider political discussion about how one tendency or another is predisposed to use the discourse to some end or another.

However, I did read the NYT piece: My wife mentioned it over breakfast and sent me the link, so I read it. The most striking thing to me—former media person—was the way an op-ed piece was presented, with the special graphical treatment. The second most was the confidence of the delivery. That was enough to get me to click through when this post showed up.

So I started reading this thread in a spirit of mild curiosity: I read five claims a day or two ago, I understand broadly how American politics align in this discourse, I know what I know about the NYT as an institution, I know what I know about MetaFilter, and I haven't "picked a theory" so I don't feel like I need to think anything about any of this.

Like I said upthread, Eviemath and Schismatic were helpful, as have been others who have posted since. Some others less so for purposes of evaluating claims. But nobody here owes me convincing, nobody here owes the world their participation here in some particular mode or with some particular goal. I'm deeply grateful for the people patient enough to walk latecomers and casuals through their reasoning, and it's on me to read around the dunks, ad hominem, etc. Those things are serving a purpose besides discerning the truth.
posted by mph at 10:24 AM on June 9 [4 favorites]


I breathlessly await the lab leak hypothesis for H5N1 crossover in Texas. I am praying for all of the Chinese national or Chinese american grad students at Texas universities with public health departments.

The name to watch for, if you have your popcorn ready for the crazy-watch, is Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier. His researchers identified mutations to watch that could lead to potentially increased avian-to-mammal transmissibility over a decade ago. So that name will link you to educated commentary about H5N1, claims that he and others are spreading a hoax about H5N1 in order to bring back COVID-style lockdowns and draconian social control, and other claims that he's a mad scientist bent on conquering the world and murdering us all in our beds because (insert the peasant's rant from Young Frankenstein here).

It's a starting point, anyway.
posted by delfin at 10:46 AM on June 9 [2 favorites]


My unsolicited dumb hot take two cents, but first, some background info:

I'm definitely not a virologist, but I've been dealing with long covid for just about 3 years now, give or take, with the most severe issues happening in the last 2-ish years.

That means I wake up exhausted every day, usually with a migraine or raging headache. That means basic efforts like doing chores, or grocery shopping, or just riding my bike for a little while means that sometimes my whole body is screaming in pain like I'm on fire for days afterwards, or I crash into deep exhaustion for days and weeks.

That means I am significantly dumber and cognitively impaired on a daily basis like I'm dealing with a concussion or TBI pretty much every single day. This means anhedonia, and a nearly total destruction of any useful executive function that I had, which admittedly wasn't great to begin with when dealing with untreated ADHD, cPTSD and chronic depression.

Further I have strong suspicions and hunches I may actually be vaccine injured from the mRNA vaccine and people in my cadre and cohort hate hearing or even entertaining this idea.

I am pro-vaccine and I always have been, but I also know that vaccine injuries do exist even if they're usually exceedingly rare.

I had the start of some weird neurological and LC related symptoms before I got vaccinated because I had already had the original variants of C19 at least three times before that, but my long covid symptoms definitely really kicked off and became disabling and acute right after getting vaccinated.

I had a really wild, out of scale reaction after I got vaccinated where instead of experiencing getting mild flu/cold like symptoms (or nothing more than a sore arm) like almost everyone else when they got vaccinated, I got all kinds of jacked up like I was on a 3 day stimulant bender like I took a Scarface-style swan dive into a giant pile of uncut blow.

Which was SUPER WEIRD and was not really ok. Like I legitimately could not sleep for 3 days afterwards.

Which, yeah, there's been evidence of the mRNA vaccine making people that were dealing with LC symptoms feel better, at least for a while, so maybe I was having some kind of rebound effect like that.

But my journey and acute symptoms definitely really kicked off after getting vaccinated. Whether this is correlation or causation? Obviously I have no idea. I'm just self-reporting my timeline, here.

All I really know is that long covid absolutely fucking sucks and it's totally disabling and debilitating to the point that I have frequently wished I had cancer or something instead, because at least for that there's some known treatments, there's medical billing codes for it, and at least there might be a known end to it, even if it meant death or hospice.


And so it doesn't really functionally matter to me if it was a live mutated virus from a wet market and zoonotic source or a "gain of function" lab leak or bioweapon research.


Which brings me to my actual dumb hot take and two cents:

If I wanted to design or research a virus-based bioweapon that, say, made people dumber, perhaps easier to control, perhaps more easily confused, or less likely to have the functionality and energy to fight against, say, government totalitarianism or corporatism or fight or resist anything at all, really, or i wanted to politically destabilize entire countries or nations without completely wrecking the working class or world economy?

Well, it would probably look a whole lot like covid 19 and related long covid syndrome issues.

And I definitely have more questions than I have answers and I don't expect that to change any time soon.

To temper this hot take a little: And if I wanted to point fingers for political purposes, well, the lab theory would be a good way to do that, too, and it is also suspicious as fuck. And, yeah, our agriculture practices and regulations also suck and are likely a much graver threat than anyone wants to acknowledge.


Yeah, post viral syndromes aren't new. People have been dealing with ME/CFS stuff related to mononucleosis infections and HIV/AIDS and even viral-induced cancers from HPV. These things aren't new.

But for those of us that have been dealing with long covid symptoms?

It sure seems like it's a new scale and type of these things that exceeds what we've previously seen with ME/CFS symptoms. I have direct family medical history with ME/CFS and having talked to others with mono-related ME/CFS this LC stuff seems way, way worse than other post-viral syndromes. My mom has been dealing with ME/CFS since the early 90s and it was never as bad as what I and others have been dealing with.

For us the pandemic isn't over and it may never be over for the rest of our lives, and we're being left in the dustbin of history while everyone else goes back to whatever normal is for them and going to parties or music festivals and not wearing masks or able to work, and so on.

And meanwhile I can't even listen to music at all because it's too exhausting, or I can barely even handle verbal conversation with one person at a time without my brain short circuiting, much less being in a room with too many people talking at once.
posted by loquacious at 11:07 AM on June 9 [2 favorites]


I was worried that the NYT was JAQing the lab leak hypothesis because they would like to embolden anti-Chinese sentiment, but now I’m afraid it’s because they would like to embolden anti-science sentiment. Probably— and this is my kremlinology — because climate change science has the best political justification for taxing huge fortunes.
posted by clew at 11:16 AM on June 9 [4 favorites]


Sure it's a bunch of conjecture and circumstance, but it's conjecture and circumstance reported by the Wall Street Journal from former U.S. government officials. That's, uh, kind of like evidence I guess.

Gotta find something to fill the cultural gap recently vacated by UFOs.
posted by heatherlogan at 1:25 PM on June 9 [2 favorites]


A rigorous scientific examination of this, or even a discussion among thoughtful lay people like us here on Metafilter, should not foreclose any possibility based on frankly stereotypes about who believes what.


when we respond to a scientific question with personal attacks, that seems like evidence to me that we're moving away from a scientifically rigorous examination of evidence


Sigh. It is not about who believes what. This is not about stereotypes. It is about who is qualified to do “a rigorous scientific examination of this.”

To be clear, I myself am not qualified to do “a scientifically rigorous examination of evidence.” I am not a research scientist. I am not a virologist. I am barely an engineer. There are many days that I do spend immersed in research papers and getting my buck’s worth from sci-hub; I’ve got years of stats under my belt and can pull apart most methods sections. I’ve worked on the bleeding edge of my field, I’ve built and run multiple laboratories and conducted quite a bit of research, and have a portfolio of patents to show for it. But “Engineer’s Disease” is term of art for a reason – it is super easy for someone like me who prides themselves on their reasoning abilities to make the mistake of thinking that any of my qualifications are transferable outside of my field. It is such a common failure mode in people with my profile it’s joke.

I know precisely one virologist, a college buddy who transferred out of pure math. His degree took years to get, as did his PhD, as did his post doc. I have got to believe he picked up some useful knowledge in that time. In the years he’s spent doing research professionally, I’ve got strong hunch he’s picked up a thing or two about virology that I might not appreciate.

I love me some research. But I know enough to know that I don’t know what I don’t know. That is practically the definition of ignorance, and my ignorance is not just as good as his knowledge. I am literally incapable of examining the evidence with scientific rigor – I don’t have the training or the experience. I have my Wikipedia understanding of virology, and I’m going to assume there are some holes in it compared to the more complete understanding of actual experts who devote their lives to this. It would be absurdly easy for me to come to wildly wrong conclusions and not even realize it, or be preyed upon by a charlatan hawking books, and like ChatGPT, be confidently wrong.

We haven’t moved “away from a scientifically rigorous examination of evidence” because that was literally never happening among us non-scientists. That’s straight up not possible, almost by definition. Anyone who is not actively employed in a profession that starts with “V” and ends with “irologist” is actually incapable of performing such an examination with any degree of rigor or while claiming the mantle of science. They do not know the science. At most, they can seek the opinion of actual experts.

There have been plenty of links here to the thoughts and opinions of professionals who actually do know the science because they studied it for years and practiced it for decades. They are the ones who are qualified to evaluate this, because they have the qualifications. They have reached a pretty overwhelming consensus. And they’re working with information from the pinnacle of the hierarchy of evidence, not just-asking-questions.

This is not even a “scientific question” – the real scientists are simply not asking this question. What’s happening in this thread is not a scientific examination. It is sciencey. And I think we may have wildly different definitions of “rigorous.” But without actual qualifications, none of us here are actually capable of discerning what is science fiction and what is science fact.

Seriously the only person here with a half a leg to stand on is Frowner.
posted by 1024 at 3:19 PM on June 9 [14 favorites]


I caught the "covid was a lab leak" conspiracy bug early on in the pandemic to troll my father-in-law while we were all podding together - I think forgiveable under the circumstances.

I have to believe someone is planting these stories as a warning to China - I don't think it's a coincidence they are popping up at the same time as the EV trade wars, providing arms to Russia, TikTok, incoming election interference, etc. etc.

Anyways, I heard you like conspiracy theories, so I put a conspiracy theory on top of this conspiracy theory so you can theorize while you're conspiring.
posted by web5.0 at 5:47 PM on June 9


Frowner is legit one of the best MeFites there is.
posted by Kitteh at 6:35 PM on June 9 [4 favorites]


ianav

both plausible, not equally likely.

Zoöneses happen a lot: the coming plague, garrett; spillover, quammen.

SARS was zoönosis, china syndrome, karl greenfield

MERS, too.

The layperson's covid-19, breathless, quammen.

gain of function in context, look at pseudo-viruses. I do not think that word (gain of function) means what you think it means.

why haven't researchers identified an animal reservoir with certainty? consider ebola zaire. first seen in humans in 1976.

it is likely, but uncertain, that the reservoir is a bat. dunno for sure! 48 years!

SARS-COV2 emerged in...late '19? early '20?

four years. quit pretending a gift wrapped answer is available right now because ya want one right now.
posted by j_curiouser at 7:51 PM on June 9 [2 favorites]


I'm not a scientist, although I can spell it without even looking it up. I don't have an opinion on where COVID started, although I'm as curious as the next person. I'm attracted to the lab leak theory because it just seems so obvious that, if something like that were to happen in China, we'd almost certainly never know about it. I'm very much aware my reasoning there is horribly flawed and lazy.

Two things in the linked advertisement op-ed that stuck me though, were:
1. The US government was funding this research from 2002 (to the tune of $80 million)
2. Despite funding the research, findings have not been shared with the US government or (more importantly) relevant US scientific partners to the research.

Is this normal? Do governments throw millions into research in other countries with no expectation that the results will be made available? I mean, sure, it wouldn't surprise me all that much for governments to do this, but not openly.
posted by dg at 8:30 PM on June 9


For what it's worth, I'm a public health professor and have published a fair number of influential journal articles on covid-19 -- I personally think the lab leak hypothesis is very plausible, although of course I also think the way the pandemic was handled is a far more important policy question.

I typed up a really long list of why I think so, but deleted it so it wouldn't get taken out of context. Instead, I'll say that I really trust what folks like Marc Lipsitch and colleagues have to say about regulating gain of function research.

Links:
https://journals.asm.org/doi/10.1128/jvi.00061-24
https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abj0016
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30151594/ (from 2018!)

Some of the loudest twitter-famous voices speaking authoritatively about covid origins are scientists whose work I do not hold in high regard. The cold truth is that we don't know the origin with certainty, and some folks are financially/politically incentivized to confidently say otherwise.
posted by bongerino at 8:42 PM on June 9 [6 favorites]


we don't know the origin with certainty

I don't believe that anybody knows anything with certainty; I think some non-zero degree of doubt is always and everywhere justifiable and appropriate.

That said: given that nobody has ever been able to produce a scintilla of evidence that the WIV ever worked on any virus related anywhere near closely related enough to SARS-COV-2 to be a plausible progenitor for it, I'm as confident as I need to be that there is nothing more to the lab leak story than "wow, I've seen movies with this plot, I'm gonna suspend all disbelief right now and just go with it".

The best argument in favour of lab leak goes roughly as follows:

1: Governments routinely try to cover up things that would make them look bad.
2: A lab leak leading to a global pandemic is the kind of thing that would make the Chinese government look bad.
3: Therefore, if the pandemic was caused by a lab leak, the Chinese government would try to cover it up.
4: The Chinese government is known to react with hostility to suggestions that the pandemic was caused by a lab leak.
5: Therefore, the lab did leak and the Chinese government is trying to cover it up.

That argument is fallacious, being of the form

3: All men are mortal.
4: Socrates is mortal.
5: Therefore, all men are Socrates.

I don't need virology qualifications to be able to see that.
posted by flabdablet at 1:14 AM on June 10 [4 favorites]


I don't believe that anybody knows anything with certainty

Yet you continue to make these extremely confident ex cathedra style pronunciations to reject and ridicule voices you disagree with. What's your wished-for end state here? Should Alina Chan be prohibited from speaking on this topic in the NYT? Should Alina Chan be prohibited from speaking on this topic altogether? Should the public be prohibited from reading the Alina Chan and/or the NYT, at least not without first seeking guidance from flabdablet?

Most experts think Covid originated on a wet market, but there are other views. The US intelligence community is not united on the question of Covid origins. The expert survey linked above indicates about one fifth of experts think a lab leak more likely. What's the value of adding a syllogistic straw man?
posted by dmh at 2:03 AM on June 10 [2 favorites]


Should Alina Chan be prohibited from speaking on this topic in the NYT?

Prohibited? No. Not be given a paycheque and the full graphics department treatment to help flog her garbage book? Absolutely. She can write to the Letters Editor like the rest of us.

Should Alina Chan be prohibited from speaking on this topic altogether?

Prohibited from speaking? No. Ridiculed for her bullshit? Mercilessly.

Should the public be prohibited from reading the Alina Chan and/or the NYT

Prohibited? No. Nothing wrong with reading fiction for pleasure. Just try not to mistake that paper's relentless dedication to Teaching The Controversy for fairness, accuracy, honesty or reliability.

at least not without first seeking guidance from flabdablet?

Oh, burn. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.

There's a pandemic of stupidity turning the world rapidly and rabidly fascist, and I don't like it. Why would I not object vociferously to it?
posted by flabdablet at 3:54 AM on June 10 [10 favorites]


2. Despite funding the research, findings have not been shared with the US government or (more importantly) relevant US scientific partners to the research.

Are you sure about this? There have been many threads (and even a movie/news show that came out before COVID) about the lab in Wuhan, the standards it was built to, and the US scientists who were working along side the Chinese scientists, because this location in China was determined to be a hotbed of virus creation and high potential for human/animal crossover.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:43 AM on June 10 [2 favorites]


My brother is a PhD molecular biologist who works in genetics and biosecurity. He literally conducts risk assessments of scientific R&D practices, usually to support government policy development and decision-making, for his job. He has testified in front of a Congressional panel as an expert on the topic of pharmaceutical research and development in China (in 2019, so pre-COVID). He is about as far from being a right-winger conspiracy theorist as one can imagine, and last time we discussed the origins of COVID he absolutely thought that a lab leak was a possibility.

Now, it's been a couple years since then, and perhaps more evidence has come out on either side of the debate. I'm not saying this particular NYT opinion piece rises to whatever standard we would need to be conclusive. And I'm not saying NYT's motives are without reproach. But to see the reflexive name-calling and "it fits the right-wingers agenda so it can't possibly be true" in this thread is disappointing. It makes me question how much credence I've given commenters here in the past just because they sound smart and it fit my personal opinion or leanings on the subject -- something that I should be more careful about, clearly.
posted by misskaz at 8:03 AM on June 10 [8 favorites]


I really can't and won't speculate on the origin of Covid-19 but I do know with considerable certainty that a pretty significant amount of the post-origin mutations occurred within the United States and Western countries and was spread around the world by the jetset class and I think it is really telling that there are no congressional hearings about that.
posted by srboisvert at 9:09 AM on June 10 [7 favorites]


“Probably” <> “Possibly”
posted by torokunai at 9:15 AM on June 10 [2 favorites]


The US intelligence community is not united on the question of Covid origins.

Once again I feel compelled to remind people that parts of the US intelligence community are full-blown trumpists. Some of them worked closely with Rudy Giuliani and may still be working with him. Unless you are going to name names these "officials" and "communities" are all deeply suss appeals to the vaguest of authorities. There's a Surgeon General in Florida who is batshit insane (I should probably apologize to batshit). The White House physician was a meth dealer. There are former army generals who are QANON followers.

Big chunks apparent division is because now some people in positions of seeming authority are lunatics.
posted by srboisvert at 9:17 AM on June 10 [8 favorites]


j curiouser I am sure you are a lovely person and I am glad you participate here but for the love of the swaddled baby jeebus I can never, and I mean never, parse what you're trying to say.
posted by cooker girl at 9:29 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]


I am late.

No, the pandemic did not start in a lab. We’ve been over this. It makes no sense.

We don’t gotta hand it to the folks that peddle this stuff, their motives are generally not pure.
posted by teece303 at 10:06 AM on June 10 [2 favorites]


There's a pandemic of stupidity turning the world rapidly and rabidly fascist, and I don't like it yt . Why would I not object vociferously to it?

This is just a non-sequitur, unless you think Alina Chan is a stupid fascist, notwithstanding her credentials as a molecular biologist at M.I.T. and Harvard. I get it if you're angry, but your anger doesn't sway me.
posted by dmh at 10:26 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]




He is about as far from being a right-winger conspiracy theorist as one can imagine, and last time we discussed the origins of COVID he absolutely thought that a lab leak was a possibility.

If you both have the time, perhaps you could seek his reaction to the TWiV episode multiply linked upthread; specifically, the point about the closest relative of SARS-CoV-2 known to be held by WIV before the first outbreak of COVID-19 differing from SARS-CoV-2 by ~1200 base pairs scattered all over its genome.

Those more interested in coming to an informed opinion on this issue than in tone-policing annoyed responses to yet another NYT-boosted Gish Gallop might want to put the eight earlier lab leak debunkings linked from that episode's show notes on their podcast list.
posted by flabdablet at 12:35 PM on June 10 [3 favorites]


My understanding of the science as a layperson is that the origins of coronavirus are still unknown. There are a number of plausible scenarios and the most likely is zoonotic transmission; but it is impossible to rule out the possibility of a lab leak. The FBI and spy agencies (who have scientists working there as well) that the destruction of evidence and early non-cooperation by local Chinese officials that might have established the origins with more certainty either way, is evidence of some guilt. Even though they have scientists, they are also cops and lawyers and they see cover up, they see crime. Meanwhile others more directly involved in public health say zoonotic transmission is more likely because every previous virus in human history came from zoonotic transmission and they’ve been expecting this virus to eventually become a pandemic. We got lucky with SARS-1 and MERS in the 20 years before Covid.
This is much different from climate change where there are orders of magnitude more certainty that humans are driving climate change by burring fossil fuels. Or our scientific understanding of infant vaccination programs and their positive benefits.
posted by interogative mood at 1:19 PM on June 10


The FBI and spy agencies (who have scientists working there as well) that the destruction of evidence and early non-cooperation by local Chinese officials that might have established the origins with more certainty either way, is evidence of some guilt.

By this standard the current transition of Bird Flu into Bird/Cow Flu in the US is a lab leak because the FDA is not currently sharing data at a sufficient rate showing that the US government is guilty.
posted by srboisvert at 1:44 PM on June 10 [6 favorites]


flabdablet: specifically, the point about the closest relative of SARS-CoV-2 known to be held by WIV before the first outbreak of COVID-19 differing from SARS-CoV-2 by ~1200 base pairs scattered all over its genome

Yes. And the TWiV point about how there were "2 genetically distinct lineages of this virus at the very very earliest days of this outbreak in Wuhan, and there is simply no way to get to that from a leak from a lab done on a virus somebody was working on" (that's from Alan Dove at the beginning of the episode).

Detailed discussion here: Vincent Racaniello: "There were 2 lineages of SARS-CoV-2, A and B, circulating in Dec at the market. There would've had to have been 2 human superspreader events to produce this pattern. In other words, someone got infected elsewhere, they went to the market and infected a lot of people. That would have to have happened twice with 2 independent lineages, which is highly unlikely."
Brianne Barker: "They would've had to both get infected somewhere else, and then both go to the market, then both be really transmitting at the market, AND neither be really transmitting somewhere else."
AD: "And they both had to have acquired different strains, different lineages of the virus, that are genetically distinct, which if you were working on it in the lab, is preposterous."
BB: "AND they went to the same part of the market."

There's more, but I'm out of disposable time to type things here. I don't understand why lab-leak inclined people would bother commenting before listening to this episode. There's more serious detail in the TWiV episode on the Worobey paper, about why the TWiV virologists are convinced that the market is the origin.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 2:20 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


The lack of cooperation and destruction of evidence went much further than a failure to upload a dataset. I think it is just as plausible that these efforts reflect an attempt by people in an authoritarian trying to avoid getting into trouble / murdered by the state and a desire by officials to maintain order at the start of what became an unprecedented in recent times deadly pandemic.

I would prefer we wait for definitive evidence before our leaders start attempting to find China guilty of a crime that probably never happened. But that’s not how things work.
posted by interogative mood at 2:30 PM on June 10


I have to say that reading through this thread really shows that the tobacco industry's misinformation tactics still really work well even on new fresh topics with much less complicated causal chains.
posted by srboisvert at 2:35 PM on June 10 [3 favorites]


it is impossible to rule out the possibility of a lab leak.

It's also impossible to rule out the possibility that it was those pesky aliens all along.

A lab leak as the genesis of the COVID-19 pandemic has been repeatedly ruled out beyond reasonable doubt by multiple researchers on multiple grounds. Their work is readily available to anybody who cares to take the time to look at it, and has been for years.

People who trumpet the virtue of keeping an open mind while resolutely closing their own to the bleedin' obvious will be the death of us all.

the tobacco industry's misinformation tactics still really work well even on new fresh topics with much less complicated causal chains

Damn straight.

That's it from me for this thread. There's only so many times you can lead a horse to water before getting despondent about the state of the riverbank.
posted by flabdablet at 3:02 PM on June 10 [3 favorites]


The actual originating source of SARS-COV2 is irrelevant at this point to world health, isn't it?

If it was a lab leak, the right people presumably have investigated, they would have identified how and when it leaked, and the leaker has been chastised/imprisoned/drawn and quartered... and if it was zoonotic... is there still an unregulated live/wet meat-market in Wuhan? or anywhere? Do people still catch/sell/eat bushmeat?

COVID-19 was such a wake-up call that policies, procedures and vigilance have of course been increased globally, and we may all sleep soundly, knowing that agricultural overuse of antibiotics and species-hopping pathogenic threats have been eliminated.

/s
posted by Artful Codger at 4:18 PM on June 10 [3 favorites]


...the TWiV point about how there were "2 genetically distinct lineages of this virus at the very very earliest days of this outbreak...

That's one thing I noticed about the NYT piece: it not only didn't point this out, it said the opposite. Specifically in this part (reproduced with its links):
Furthermore, the existing genetic and early case data show that all known Covid-19 cases probably stem from a single introduction of SARS‑CoV‑2 into people...
That third paper is from March of this year. Buried way down in the discussion it conjectures that there was only a single spillover event. I have no clue how to judge the paper (I don't even know if it was peer-reviewed), but that was the only thing that seemed new to me in the article.
posted by netowl at 5:56 PM on June 10


2. Despite funding the research, findings have not been shared with the US government or (more importantly) relevant US scientific partners to the research.
Are you sure about this?

I was quoting the article and asking if the statements were true. So no, I'm not sure at all, which is why I was asking.
posted by dg at 6:25 PM on June 10


I recall newspapers regularly - but maybe not frequently - publishing articles in which scientists sounded the alarm about pandemics. Just like we get regular reminders that the Big Earthquake on the west coast is coming any day now. Apparently pandemics race around the world every once in a while. When SARS made it to Toronto, scientists were trotted out who wondered aloud whether this was the anticipated pandemic. It didn't turn out to be. To my mind, even if the lab origin theory is true, it would only be one of many contributing factors to a pandemic that experts in the field knew was coming for us one day.

And, the more I see, the more I think that people who want to fix blame and establish guilt are really saying 'this mess is not of my making, so don't ask me to do anything I wouldn't otherwise do, like slip on a paper mask when in public to save other people's lives'.
posted by SnowRottie at 6:26 PM on June 10 [7 favorites]


I'm perfectly open to the idea that it was a lab leak. It's also equally (?) plausible that it came from the local fauna in that area of China. But where's the proof?

Proof of this will only come to us if Chinese officials come out and admit that covid came from a lab. And the odds of that happening are about on par with the odds of me spontaneously sprouting horns.

So what's the point? What. Is. The. Point? Right now it's Schrodinger's Covid (I know that's a stupid analogy but whatever): both natural and man-made are equally plausible theories, and nothing will change that excepting the above. And that won't happen, so what's the point? We'll never know the truth about this. This drives some people batty (sorry), but I'm ok with it.
posted by zardoz at 8:17 PM on June 10 [3 favorites]



hi cookergirl. summing up: at this juncture the still most likely emergence event was a zoönotic infection from the market or earlier.

Zoönoses happen frequently; I provided some titles if anyone wants to dig in.

Top grade science writer david quammen just published breathless, his covid-19 round up. That's available for this specific discussion. There's an early section in the book.

Some certainty among differing advocates is really misplaced. Letting science unfold, at some point the animal reservoir will be found - and that can illuminate transmission details. I provided an historical example of it taking a long time to find the reservoir.

Thanks!

posted by j_curiouser at 7:45 AM on June 11 [3 favorites]


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