Politics and Science
It's time to admit, we don't know the origin of SARS-CoV-2; both of the two leading and contending theories are plausible
Let’s be clear: neither the extensive ProPublica/Vanity Fair piece on the origins of Covid-19 nor the 35-page US Republican Senate health committee report released late last week and reported in the Wall Street Journal, “Covid-19 ‘Most Likely’ Leaked From Lab in China, Senate GOP Report Says,” is proof that SARS-CoV-2 was cooked up in a lab, or leaked from one or even leaked en-route to one.
All that has happened – and there has been some fierce fighting over the weekend about what exactly has happened – is that we are seeing a push for a reconsideration of the fact that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was plausibly involved in the spillover of a novel pathogen that went global.
This sudden shift against the market theory – flawed, provocative or otherwise, however one perceives it – comes at interesting moment.
As Francois Balloux, Chair Professor, Computational Biology, UCL, notes in The Conversation:
A recent preprint (a study yet to be peer-reviewed) claims to have identified possibly unusual sequence patterns in the SARS-CoV-2 genome. These patterns may indicate the virus was genetically modified in a lab.
It should be emphasised that any realistic lab origin scenario would point to an accidental escape, and not to any nefarious intent. Viruses have no application as bioweapons in the modern world. They’re difficult to produce in large quantities and to deploy. They take days to be effective, and if capable of human-to-human transmission, they’re likely to spread to unintended populations, including friendly forces.
It’s useful – because this has become such an emotive issue – to step back at this point.
The initial outbreak of “mystery pneumonia” in Wuhan in November/December 2019 immediately drew suspicion that the nearby WIV was implicated. But largely – and in a relatively short time frame – scientific consensus shifted “in favor of a natural spillover from bats to humans, through an intermediate animal host, at the Huanan seafood market located a few kilometers away,” writes Balloux.
The scientist notes that “to date, though, no immediate ancestor of SARS-CoV-2 has been found in bats nor in any other animal that was on sale at the market.”
Meanwhile, Chinese researchers themselves had discounted the market as the origin of the virus by May 2020 at the latest, as reported in the Global Times, WebMD and many other publications at the time.
At issue was the problem of no animal SARS-CoV-2 samples at the market and the epidemiological spread of early cases in Wuhan, which were scattered and refused to stick definitively to the market place.
As Yuri Deigin, an independent zoonosis skeptic, puts it in a tweet, the “spatial distribution of early cases would be the same if the market was not the source but the main amplifying center for the spread of a virus that has previously escaped from a nearby lab.”
All the same, by February 2022, The New York Times was reporting on two papers that suggested that the virus had spilled over to people working or shopping at the market.
‘When you look at all of the evidence together, it’s an extraordinarily clear picture that the pandemic started at the Huanan market,’ said Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona and a co-author of both new studies.
Worobey’s studies have come up against as much fire as those by lab-leak proponents, except that such battles tend to happen out of the public eye.
The tweet above is cited as an example only of the skepticism with which some virologists treated the return of the “out of the market” theory – it suggests, of course, human-to-human transmission taking place in the market, not animal-to-human.
Worobey is unhappy about such attacks on his credibility – and has been vocal on social media about the ProPublica/Vanity Fair reports, in which he claims he has been misrepresented.
“The only plausible scenario” seems an overly strident claim for a scientist – a scientist armed only with two-year-old Chinese data on an origin source the Chinese themselves had discounted nearly a year earlier.
As things stand – putting aside the issue of whether some of ProPublica’s translations of reports out of the WIV were sloppy (based on what ChinaDiction has seen so far, yes, they are) – we’re still apparently having problems accommodating more than one plausibility when it comes to the origin of Covid-19.
That needs to change.
Balloux in his Conversation piece writes;
Some experts feel it’s unwise to discuss any evidence supporting a lab leak, as this may fuel conspiracy theories. Though, a public perception that existing evidence may be subjected to censorship is even more likely to have this effect. Notably, China has been largely uncooperative in investigations into the origin of the virus.
This leaves us where?
We need to cut the politics and focus on the science. If gain-of-function experiments such as those being conducted at the WIV – likely with US funding – are prone to leaks (and we know they are; Taiwan has admitted to several, most recently involving two mouse bites in a lab) we need to reconsider such experimentation, no matter how stringent the safety protocols are claimed to be.
Alina Chan, coauthor of Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19 tweets:
Yes, a bipartisan, independent investigation is called for – and everybody back off from entrenched positions when the evidence provides no credence for any positions at this point.
And before we all forget:
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The bird is free … But the CCP?
Picture: SocialMediaDelinquent via Twitter.
Chinese politicians, diplomats and media mouthpieces are calling on Elon Musk to free them of their “state-affiliated media” labels, even though Twitter is banned in China.
Clearly irony hasn’t been banned.
“I am the most popular current affairs commentator on Chinese social media,” Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief (and wolf-warrior Rottweiler) for the “state-affiliated media” Global Times, tweeted Friday. “I hope Twitter, with Musk as its chief, will remove the label that does not match my status after my retirement, sincerely accept my speech, and respect the voice of Chinese society that I have brought.”
This is the man, as The China Project has previously noted, must have authorized a death threat to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen that was published in the Global Times during his tenure as editor-in-chief.
Last Wednesday, Musk tweeted that “a beautiful thing about Twitter is how it empowers citizen journalism — people are able to disseminate news without an establishment bias.”
Like Chen Weihua, EU bureau chief for the “state-affiliated media” China Daily:
Yeah, we need more of these people on Twitter, and with no flags warning us about their agendas.
China, ‘pretty much one cock up after another’ – historian
If you missed it, The China Project has a fabulous short interview with legendary Dutch historian of modern China Frank Dikötter.
Over to the The China Project:
Frank Dikötter is the author of many books about China, including The People’s Trilogy, which documents the often awful lives and sometimes brutal deaths of ordinary Chinese people living under Communist Party rule from the 1949 revolution until the end of the Cultural Revolution.
His new book, China After Mao, takes us from 1976 to 2012. These were much happier times, to be sure, but he argues that the essential nature of China’s government did not change during this period despite the economic opening up, and that the repressive nature of the country under Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 should not have surprised anyone.
The “one cock up after another” comment is Dikötter on the subject of what happened to Hu Jintao at the recent party congress:
I have the same principle that comes through my book, do not ascribe to malice what can be attributed to sheer stupidity. In other words, I think the book shows you that there is no great master plan. There’s not a determined bunch of leaders who have a very clear vision of what it is they want to do. It’s pretty much one cock up after another.
There’s lots more. For Dikötter, there’s the “separation of powers, checks and balances, independent judicial system, freedom of speech” and there’s the “monopoly over power … and having a very strong hand of the state to achieve the proclaimed goals of equity and justice and distribution.
“How do you get Chinese leaders to abandon a monopoly of power?” asks Dikötter. “It means the enemy — capitalism. It means lack of control. It means being taken over by subversive powers inside and outside of the country.”
For Dikötter this is clearly a systemic default position for any operative politician in China, making meaningful change next to impossible as an “evolutionary” force.
On a side note, it is a credit to Hong Kong that Dikötter is still Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong given his open-minded views.
The Greater Sinosphere
Legal proceedings ban words ‘Tiananmen massacre’
A Hong Kong activist was barred from using the words “Tiananmen massacre” during a national security trial, according to Hong Kong Free Press.
A magistrate urged Chow Hang-tung to use “proper terminology” when referring to the Beijing government’s restoration of order on June 4, 1989.
Chow, who was the vice-chairperson of the group behind Hong Kong’s annual Tiananmen vigils, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, appeared before Principal Magistrate Peter Law at West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts on Wednesday as her trial resumed after an almost two-month adjournment.
Chow and two other former standing committee members of the Alliance, Tang Ngok-kwan and Tsui Hon-kwong, stand accused of not complying with a national security police request for information.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, a Hong Kong pastor and a housewife were both jailed for for clapping in court and criticizing a verdict against a democracy activist, local media reported.
Meanwhile, in a separate HKFP report:
Pastor Garry Pang, 59, and Chiu Mei-ying, 68, were convicted of ‘uttering seditious words”’and applauding from the public gallery during a hearing involving pro-democracy activist Chow Hang-tung in January. Pang was also found guilty of committing “acts with seditious intention” for operating a YouTube channel that commented on protest-related cases.
Pang, who has been in custody since April, was sentenced to 10 months for the seditious acts and three months for the seditious speech, with one month to be served concurrently. Chiu was given a three-month sentence.
Rapid tests for all, a casino shuts
MGM Cotai Resort is complying with government measures. Photo: Hugo F.H.C; Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0.
Bloomberg reports that Macau has stumbled again in its fight against Covid, with residents looking at three days of rapid Covid tests and a casino resort locked down just when the former colony was looking at a gradual return of tourists.
All residents will begin taking rapid tests Sunday after the detection of three new cases, according to a government statement dated the same day. A 43-year old woman who had visited the neighboring mainland city of Zhuhai tested positive for the virus, along with her two sons, it said.
The MGM Cotai resort, where the woman worked is shuttered and staff and guests placed in quarantine.
An Oktoberfest festival event Sunday at MGM has been canceled in order to comply with the government’s pandemic control measures, according to a statement on the hospitality and gaming firm’s Facebook page.
Ruling by constitutional court recognizes up to 1 million additional indigenous Taiwanese
Pingpu, plains indigenous Taiwanese people, in the early Japanese era, 1896. Photo: 鳥居龍蔵; public domain.
In a major ruling by the Taiwan constitutional court the Siriya and other Pingpu “plains people” now have the right to be recognized legally as “indigenous,” reports Chinese-language media and the Taipei Times.
The government has a three-year deadline to implement a law to facilitate their recognition.
Reading the ruling, Chief Justice Hsu Tzong-li (許宗力) said that recognition as indigenous should include formerly excluded groups native to Taiwan who speak Austronesian languages and whose culture is related to recognized groups.
Hsu said the ruling was unanimous among the 15 Grand Justices, as judicial officials called such a ruling “quite rare.”
Siriya representatives have hailed the ruling as a victory, and some Chinese-language news outlets in Taiwan – the Liberty Times, just as one example – have noted that up to 980,000 Taiwanese could be eligible to change their ethnic status, making them equally eligible for state assistance.
It’s worth noting that “pro-Taiwan” media outlets such as the Liberty Times like the Siriya/pingpu initiative in that it distinguishes distinguish Taiwan from China, as do many non-Han Taiwanese citizens.
But already-recognized indigenous peoples are worried about state financial assistance being diluted as well as losing political power because seats are reserved for indigenous Taiwanese in the Legislative Yuan.
There are also fears that Taiwan’s affirmative action programs for indigenous people could be overwhelmed by the Pingpu.
For the meantime, the bar for acceptance as an authentic Pingpu is relatively high.
The Taipei Times reports:
Hsu said that the Constitution guarantees recognition for Austronesian peoples native to the nation who constitute an “ethnic group.”
To prove that, a group would have to present household registration files, including from the Japanese colonial period, when officials comprehensively surveyed households in Taiwan, including the language people spoke at home, Hsu said.
‘They must have the collective identity as an ethnic group,’ as well as the required documents to file for recognition, Hsu added.
Chris Taylor in Bangkok with Michael Fahey in Taipei
Photo: National Palace Museum.
The accidental shattering of three bowls of Qing and Ming dynasty provenance – it might be remarked it’s amazing they made it this far given China’s turbulent history – is the pretext for a political scuffle in Taiwan.
Kuomintang (KMT) Legislator Chen I-hsin (Chén Yǐxìn, 陳以信) claimed, during a legislative hearing, to have received a complaint that the bowls had been broken and alleged that the National Palace Museum under Director Wu Mi-cha (Wú Mìchá, 吳密察) attempted to hide evidence, Focus Taiwan reports.
If true, Wu had deceived his superiors and the public, and was negligent and [was] therefore unfit for his job, Chen said.
In Wu’s defense, Taiwan’s “blue camp” – broadly KMT and with at least some, broadly speaking, China affiliations – have had it in for Wu ever since early 2019, when he appointed museum director.
Wu is considered “deep green,” a distinguished historian of Taiwan, educated in Japan – among other “sins”.
Wu denied a cover up and defended the museum incidents in a news conference in which he stated that the “treasures” were transported to Taiwan from China “in boxes cushioned with hay, which over time had been substituted with cotton.”
They were prone to damages when they were moved or accidentally dropped, as was the case with the incident in May, he said
Going forward, the NPM [National Palace Museum] would end the ‘outdated practice of storing multiple items in one box and replace the cartons with larger chests,’ he said.
Chris Taylor in Bangkok with Michael Fahey in Taipei
Escape from Foxconn
It’s difficult not to imagine that when 1.4 billion people have finally had enough of lockdowns there will be a lot of angry people on the march. But China’s a big place and we get our news in fragments.
The mass escape has not gone unnoticed on China’s Twitter-like Weibo, where there were discussions of what is going wrong at Foxconn’s “factory-city” that would make quarantined workers attempt to walk home than stay a day longer.
For the moment, we know that Foxconn workers – there are some 300,000 of them in Henan Province, presumably the world’s largest concentration of iPhone makers – are escaping, some, anecdotally, barefoot, although it’s difficult to imagine that indirectly-employed Apple employees can’t afford shoes …
This week in history
Frictions lead to first opium war
Chinese opium smokers – its sale by Britain and widespread use arguably led to a war on drugs that has never ended. Photo: Juan Mencarini Pierotti; public domain.
The opening shots of the first Opium War were not to be fired until November 3 in 1839, but tensions had been simmering for most of the year since the Qing emperor appointed scholar-official Lin Zexu to ban the trade.
In a letter he penned to Britain’s Queen Victoria – allegedly lost in transit – Lin appealed to her majesty’s morals on the sale of the evil drug.
Lin banned its sale, closed down the Pearl River Channel, British ships were boarded, opium for sale was confiscated and allegedly burned on at least one beach, and by the first week of November a conflict that still scars the Chinese historical psyche – and arguably calls for justice in the minds of Chinese nationalists – was set to go off.
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