On the Origin of SARS-CoV-2

So begins the first of a 30-part twitter thread that shatters the ‘SARS-2 came from a marketplace’ charade. Alina Chan lends her knowledge to the growing consensus of free-thinking scientists that the 2019 novel coronavirus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). The only reason that this theory has not gained more traction in the popular press is because evidence that China (specifically The Chinese Communist Party) is at fault is perceived as helping Donald Trump.

As explained by Jonathan Latham, PhD in his piece The Case Is Building That COVID-19 Had a Lab Origin, “Unfortunately, in the US at least, the question of the pandemic’s origin has become a political football; either an opportunity for Sinophobia or a partisan ‘blame game’. But the potential of a catastrophic lab release is not a game and systemic problems of competence and opacity are certainly not limited to China.”

Dr Latham goes on to remind us that escape of deadly pathogens is too common, “An accidental lab release is not merely a theoretical possibility. In 1977 a laboratory in Russia (or possibly China), most likely while developing a flu vaccine, accidentally released the extinct H1N1 influenza virus (Nakajima et al., 1978). H1N1 went on to become a global pandemic virus….This episode is not widely known because only recently has this conclusion been formally acknowledged in the scientific literature and the virology community has been reluctant to discuss such incidents (Zimmer and Burke, 2009Wertheim, 2010). Still, laboratory pathogen escapes leading to human and animal deaths (e.g. smallpox in Britain; equine encephalitis in South America) are common enough that they ought to be much better known (summarised in Furmanski, 2014).” Even in the limited case of SARS-like coronaviruses, since the quelling of the original SARS outbreak in 2003, there have been six documented SARS disease outbreaks originating from research laboratories

Dr Latham summarizes the essence of the lab escape SARS-CoV-2 hypothesis: 

“Led by researcher Zheng-Li Shi, WIV scientists have also published experiments in which live bat coronaviruses were introduced into human cells (Hu et al., 2017). Moreover, according to an April 14 article in the Washington Post, US Embassy staff visited the WIV in 2018 and “had grave safety concerns” about biosecurity there. The WIV is just eight miles from the Huanan live animal market that was initially thought to be the site of origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.”  We know that when viruses are passaged through human cells, the virus evolves by the process of natural selection and becomes more likely to transmit from human to human. 

Independently, Alina Chan, a researcher at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, reached the same conclusion. Her rationale is explained in Boston Magazine.

“Chan stood at her counter and pounded out her paper, barely pausing to eat or sleep. It was clear that the first SARS evolved rapidly during its first three months of existence, constantly fine-tuning its ability to infect humans, and settling down only during the later stages of the epidemic. In contrast, the new virus looked a lot more like late-stage SARS. ‘It’s almost as if we’re missing the early phase,’ Chan marveled to Zhan. Or, as she put it in their paper, as if ‘it was already well adapted for human transmission.’”

That realization was only the start of her odyssey. Her multi-part tweets are difficult for me to understand, but many smart people agree. The preponderance of the evidence points to a lab origin.

On the other hand, well-placed scientists ridicule her and say that the lab origin idea is a debunked conspiracy theory. For example, NBC reported that “Peter Daszak, a virus expert who has visited one of the Wuhan labs as part of a U.S.-funded program, said …the WIV rarely worked with live viruses and generally practiced sound safety procedures. ‘I’ve been in hundreds of labs, and I know a good lab when I see one,’ he said. ‘These guys are good.’” Daszak made similar claims on CBS’s Sixty Minutes: “There is zero evidence that this virus came out of a lab in China.” Instead, Daszak encouraged viewers to blame “hunting and eating wildlife”.

Even if Daszak were an unbiased expert, his statements do nothing to dispute the lab origin hypothesis. Turns out, however, that Peter Daszak is not a neutral observer. Daszak is the named principal investigator on multiple US grants that went to the coronavirus lab at WIV. Moreover, he is the president of Ecohealth Alliance which received a $7.5 million grant to partner with the Wuhan Lab on Coronavirus research. No wonder he tries to quash the lab origin hypothesis. In addition to financial loss, it would be hard for him to sleep at night if everyone agreed that he is responsible for a million deaths and for harming hundreds of millions more.

I will put my money on Alina Chan. She has no ax to grind. She is just a curious person who embodies the ideals of a real scientist. “Scientists shouldn’t be censoring themselves,” she says. “We’re obliged to put all the data out there. We shouldn’t be deciding that it’s better if the public doesn’t know about this or that. If we start doing that, we lose credibility, and eventually, we lose the public’s trust. And that’s not good for science.”

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