The Origin of the Species
A slew of unreviewed, preprint papers have caught the eyes of the media and we're back where we started – at the seafood market in Wuhan, based on the same data provided by China in January 2020
According to the New York Times, two preprints have led scientists to conclude “that the coronavirus was very likely present in live mammals sold at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in late 2019 and suggested that the virus spilled over into people working or shopping there on two separate occasions.”
Science Magazine alleges there are three preprints and it does a better job of outlining their principal arguments. But let’s take the Times first because they’re arguing we now have a clear picture of a novel pathogen emerging from a wet market in Wuhan and going global:
‘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 studies.
Hang on, it’s four preprints – and all leading us to the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan. Note, the thread that continues in the tweet below is extremely skeptical that this latest raft of papers has changed anything, whatever the New York Times and Science Magazine may think.
We would all like to see this case done and dusted. But the seafood market origin myth was trashed before the end of January 2020 because too many early Covid-19 cases had no connection with the market and no samples – not one – of what we now call SARS-CoV-2 could be found there either. If Worobey and company find that the clustering of early Covid-19 cases around the market is too compelling not to declare it the origin of the great Coronavirus Pandemic, we have to remember that these new preprints are working with two-year-old Chinese data.
All the same, Thea Fischer, an epidemiologist at the University of Copenhagen, told the Times this weekend:
The question of whether the virus spilled over from animals ‘has now been settled with a very high degree of evidence, and thus confidence.’
What animal? Well, almost certainly a bat from Yunnan Province, more than 1,000km from Wuhan. No, those bats don’t tend to visit and they’re not a prized item on Wuhan dinner tables. No, an intermediary host has not been found. And, yes, we’re missing a lot of data that should have been made available to us by the viral research laboratory that’s just down the road from the seafood market in Wuhan.
So, let’s take the time machine back to 2003 and remind ourselves what happened in the first SARS outbreak, As Alina Chan and Matt Ridley put it in their recently released book, Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19:
Guangdong [Province] was a hotspot for SARS viruses to transmit into humans. True, it then took months to find bats carrying similar viruses and then years to find the original bat reservoir of very closely related viruses. But the market evidence was strong and came early. Although the technology at that time was limited compared with today’s, the intermediate hosts of the SARS virus were identified within weeks of first sequencing the genome of the virus.
And when SARS spilled over once again at the end of 2003, Chinese doctors and scientists were even swifter at finding infected civets at the restaurant workplace of an index patient – on the very day of the patient’s SARS diagnosis, the civets were sampled. No time was wasted.
This time [SARS-CoV-2], despite testing markets, farms, and eighty thousand animal samples spanning dozens of species across China, no similar evidence has emerged for SARS-CoV-2. Hundreds of samples taken from the animal carcasses at the Huanan seafood market all tested negative for any trace of the virus.
This aggregation of half-knowns and false-leads has led mainstream media coverage into a quagmire of headline hesitancy, obviously preferring to lean toward a “natural” origin, while the lab-leak theory/conspiracy (which would probably not be much less natural than a raccoon-dog stir-fry from the market) has insidiously wormed its way out of its conspiracy straitjacket into a holding area for ideas that are “plausible but unlikely/unwelcome.”
As Chan and Ridley put it in Viral:
The New York Times altered its description of the laboratory-leak theory in a tab heading of a previous online article from ‘debunked’ to ‘unproven’. The fact-checking site PolitiFact removed a claim of ‘debunked conspiracy theory’ about a television interview on a laboratory leak, explaining ‘that assertion is now more widely disputed’. Vox quietly changed a line on its website from ‘The emergence of the virus in the same city as China’s only level 4 biosafety lab, it turns out, is pure coincidence’ to ‘The emergence of the virus in the same city as China’s only level 4 biosafety lab, it turns out, appears to be pure coincidence.’ The Washington Post carried an editorial arguing that ‘if the laboratory leak theory is wrong, China could easily clarify the situation by being more open and transparent. Instead, it acts as if there is something to hide.’
This is serious stuff. Apart from understanding the origin of SARS-CoV-2 might help us prevent a pandemic reenactment, trust in science and in journalism is at stake. What happened in Wuhan? We don’t know. It’s as plausible that the virus hitched a 10-minute ride with a lab worker from the Wuhan Institute of Virology to the Huanan Seafood Market as it is that a market worker chopped up a raccoon dog infected with a bat coronavirus from Yunnan that happened to be particularly well adapted to human beings – so well adapted it went globally pandemic in the space of months.
Anyway, returning to these data-based preprints – if they suggest the Huanan Seafood Market as ground zero, it takes only a tiny step backwards to also be on the grounds, the corridors and the biosecure labs of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
This should be a debate anchored in science – there’s no preferred answer. It’s just very hard to get an answer because China refuses to cooperate and has “disappeared” reams of data a pandemic-stricken world deserved to have at its fingertips.
The WIV [Wuhan Institute of Virology] had a database of at least fifteen thousand bat samples taken mainly from southern China. With more than twenty-two thousand entries in total, that database included the dates and locations of samples and the descriptions of viruses found in them. It became inaccessible to users outside of the WIV in September 2019 and was taken down altogether sometime in early 2020. To dispel rumors that SARS-CoV-2 was derived from this collection of virus sequences or samples, the WIV could have easily shared this database with other scientists. The excuse that there had been ‘hacking attempts’ does not make much sense, because that would not prevent the sharing of the data with other scientists. Yet, well over a year later, no one has reported having a copy or access to this database. What’s the point of collecting viruses if you hide the data when a pandemic actually occurs?
Viral coauthor Alina Chan on the risks of taking preprints as narrative-shifting moments that bring certainty to an uncertain world.
Did They, Didn’t They, Are They, Aren’t They? Was It a Good Idea?
Sometimes I wonder why we attempt to make any sense of China at all. We’re still debating whether China knew an invasion of Ukraine was in the offing and to what extent the Russian-PRC joint statement was meant to hurt – or whether it was just anti-hegemonic posturing.
Trivium (highly recommended; sign up), in a note entitled “Parsing China’s Timeline on Ukraine,” says:
The burning question: Did China know that an invasion of Ukraine was imminent?
Our take: We think the Russian assault on Ukraine took Xi Jinping and co. by surprise.
In all fairness to Trivium, which employs some very smart people, their contextual analysis is faultless, or appears to be so:
It would have been uncharacteristically shortsighted of Xi to knowingly hitch his wagon so thoroughly to a country that would, in short order, become a total international pariah (complete with the potential for collateral sanctions damage).
It’s quite possible, then, that even as Xi and Putin both expressed their distaste for the US alliance system, Putin didn’t let Xi in on his plan to invade Ukraine.
One important thing to keep in mind here: Chinese foreign policy is notoriously risk averse.
So it’s hard to imagine that Beijing would have so loudly and publicly aligned itself with Moscow if it knew what was coming.
Meanwhile, SupChina – also highly recommended; sign up – has this to say:
What did Xi know and when did he know it? That was the subject line of our email last week Friday, and in it I wrote that I found it difficult to believe that Xí Jìnpíng did not know the invasion was coming, even if he wasn’t privy to the exact date.
What Xi definitely could not have known is how badly the Russian attack would go. The poor performance of the Russian Army and the widespread global disapproval of its actions seem to have surprised everyone, including the Russians. Historian Timothy Snyder suggests hat Moscow expected a “quick and decisive” strike against Ukraine, and that it revealed its aims and plans in a media report that should not have gone out.
If you were China, you would undoubtedly prefer the Trivium interpretation of events, because the, How could I know it would all go tits up? argument never plays out well, which is what the “We thought they’d take out Ukraine overnight” argument amounts to.
Anyway, whatever China knew, however this plays out, they’re in deeper I think than they expected, and for China to become “until death do we part” aligned partner with a global pariah when their own PR has been at best scattershot, laughably crude and cute in all the wrong ways in recent years will ultimately be seen as a mistake – unless there’s a world war and Russia and China are the last two left standing. In which case it’s all theirs.
The Wall Street Journal says it plain:
For weeks, China’s foreign-policy establishment dismissed a steady stream of warnings from the U.S. and its European allies about a pending Russian invasion, and instead blamed Washington for hyping the Russian threats.
Now, China is trying to regain its balance after making a calculation that could seriously undermine a position it has tried to build for itself as a global leader and advocate for developing nations.
US President Joe Biden has sent a delegation of former senior defense and security officials to Taiwan, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Tuesday.
The visit during the Ukraine crisis shows that Taiwan-US relations are "rock solid," Taiwan Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou told a press briefing, adding that the "prominent bipartisan delegation" led by Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would be in Taiwan for two days. Separately, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives in Taiwan today and will meet with Tsai and address a forum.
China is most definitely watching the creeping political engagement between the US and Taiwan. Zhu Fenglian, a spokesperson for the State Council Taiwan Affairs Office, “slammed Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) authority for banking on external forces to embolden itself in seeking ‘Taiwan independence,’ saying such acts would only hasten its destruction,” reported Xinhua.
I can’t keep repeating this in every newsletter (or, maybe, then again, I can), but Hong Kong, buffeted by gale-force gusts of viral gloom and tip-toeing on eggshells for Beijing, is in for a grim couple of months:
Bloomberg, as always, has it well covered, reporting that officials are aiming to test the entire city three times over nine days with a stay-at-home order in place as well, just for the hell of it. This all has to be seen via the prism of Hong Kong’s problem with unvaccinated elderly, who don’t trust Chinese vaccines and don’t trust their Beijing-installed government either. Bloomberg reports:
Hong Kong’s Covid-19 fatality rate is now the highest in the developed world amid a wave of deaths among its under-vaccinated elderly population, ramping up pressure on officials to get the city’s worst outbreak since the pandemic began under control.
The days when Asia’s “World City” was a festooned bridge of cocktails and East-West harmony have probably passed for good.
The Wall Street Journal reports:
Some financial professionals have asked employers whether they can relocate, while a few expatriates have decided in recent months to resign and move home. Others are considering options that could split up their families for months or more as they try to move their children into more stable schooling and away from the risk of mandatory quarantine.
Great little-mouse-that-roared story from the Singaporeans:
The Straits Times reported that Burhan Gafoor, Singapore’s UN ambassador spoke out at the General Assembly:
‘This is a matter of principle for all small states and a matter of fundamental importance for all members of the General Assembly. For a tiny city state like Singapore, this is an existential issue. A world order where “might is right”, or “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”, would be profoundly inimical to the security and survival of small states,’ he said.
What’s on Weibo fills us in on Chinese “netizens” outrage at the latest Taiwan Strait news. Yes, it involves an American ship.
Tending on Weibo now with over 320 million page views at the time of writing is the US Navy destroyer Ralph Johnson passing through the Taiwan Strait on Saturday afternoon, February 26.
Many responses underneath the post, which reported the US Navy destroyer transit through the Taiwan Strait, were anti-American:
– ‘What on earth is the US doing?! Do they want to start a war?!’
– ‘This world would be a better place without America.’
– ‘The whole world should unite against the US.’
It would be great to simply dismiss this as the kind of stuff that improves your online credit score, so you get a discount on your ticket to Shanghai, but the reality is that surging Chinese nationalism genuinely doesn’t augur well for global peace.
Bloomberg is reporting another caged woman in China story:
Police in central Shaanxi province announced Tuesday they would probe a video circulating on social media of a woman kept in an iron cage.
Book Review: Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19
Viral is such the right book for the right moment that the temptation is for the reviewer to say, “Don’t bother with my review: just read the book”.
Authors Alina Chan and Matt Ridley are probably not as agnostic on the ultimate SARS-CoV-2 origin story as they would have us believe. But neither am I, in the interests of full disclosure.
Lab leaks have happened in the past – this is Bloomberg on the mess – and they will happen again. If we can agree that leaks happen, it’s difficult to see why it’s so awkward to discuss the possibility that a leak could make a lot of people sick.
But, for the scientists involved there were lucrative grants and terrifically interesting research work at stake. The authors write:
This gain-of-function work was too tantalizing, too novel, and had been published in high-profile scientific journals … a laboratory at the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute in China successfully mixed a duck isolate of H5N1 with the 2009 H1N1 flu virus, creating 127 recombinant viruses to show that the avian virus could become transmissible among mammals in hypothetical agricultural scenarios.
In other words, it was exciting and terrifying at the same time. As Chan and Ridley put it on the question of the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute duck isolate of H5N1 with the 2009 H1N1 flu virus:
An article in Nature quoted virologists questioning whether the results of the experiment could justify the risks. Dr Simon Wain-Hobson, of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said: ‘If the virus escaped, nobody could predict the trajectory.’ Dr Richard Ebright of Rutgers University said: ‘The only impact of this work is the creation, in a lab, of a new, non-natural risk.’
Viral clearly takes the position that a lot of the research being done in biosafe laboratory conditions is not safe enough, but it resists the argument that SARS-CoV-2 is therefore “non-natural'.”
At the heart of this story lies a very simple fact. Somehow, an ancestral version of the SARS-CoV-2 virus came from a bat and ultimately infected people. That basic truth remains undeniable. Even if you think it was subject to genetic manipulation or some kind of human help along the way, this creature would still be fundamentally a product of evolution, a natural being, a wild organism. The majority of its genome is intact, original and natural, even if you put a question mark over a few small parts of it. It is one of many SARS-like viruses, and SARS-like viruses were invented by Mother Nature, not by people. So the theory that the pandemic began as a natural spillover was from the start, and remains to this day, highly plausible.
It’s also possible that we went deep into caves and took bat fecal swabs, brought bats to Wuhan and in our zealous academic overreach accidentally caused a spillover event that would otherwise have been very unlikely to occur.
What happened, we still don’t know. But the possibility that a lab worker made a procedural mistake (it happened recently in Taiwan, per Bloomberg), was accidentally infected with a bat coronavirus – manipulated or non-manipulated – and then went shopping at the nearby seafood market after work is as plausible as someone went shopping at the seafood market and made the world sick.
Courtesy of Bitter Winter, another great China newsletter:
Professor Li Shen and his book “The Principles of Scientific Atheism” continue to be heavily promoted in China through a major campaign to divulge Marxist atheistic principles.
Li argues that God did not create living creatures, but living creatures created God. He mentions ‘living creatures’ rather than humans because he believes animals may also believe in God. For instance, he argues that domestic dogs identify God with their owners. How Li can know canine psychology and even canine theology is not explained, but he uses an argument of authority. Friedrich Engels, Marx’s closest associate and co-founder of Marxist theory, said so, and who are we to argue that Engels was wrong?
Actually, Li explains, Engels went even more deeply into the theology dogs supposedly believe in. He said that, at least if they feed them, dogs do not care whether their owners are good citizens or not. The greatest criminals may still be regarded as gods by their well-fed dogs.