A special session on the origin of COVID-19 held on 18 April at France's Académie Nationale de Médecine is reported to have favoured the pandemic having a laboratory origin. Several experts also called at the meeting for a halt to gain-of-function experiments aimed at making viruses and bacteria more pathogenic or transmissible, noting that they are not always conducted in the safest laboratories. The Académie’s discussion was led by two of France’s most famous virologists, Professor Christine Rouzioux and Professor Patrick Berche.
On March 16, The Atlantic published an article titled “The strongest evidence yet that an animal started the pandemic”, which stated, “A new analysis of genetic samples from China appears to link the pandemic’s origin to raccoon dogs”. Similar stories in other influential publications, including the New York Times, soon followed. They reported that a group of researchers (in reality, made up almost entirely of well-known opponents of the lab-leak hypothesis) had shown raccoon dogs started the COVID-19 pandemic because their genetic material was co-mingled with SARS-CoV-2 in samples taken from the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan. But other experts have since signed a statement saying, “We believe these news reports are deeply misleading and should be corrected. We also believe the reports reflect yet another example of a small group of researchers exaggerating their findings and misleading the public with false certainty about the origins of COVID-19.”
A new in-depth genetic analysis undertaken by the respected computational virologist Jesse Bloom, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle in the US, shows there is barely any COVID-19 intermixed with raccoon dog DNA in the environmental samples taken from the Huanan Seafood Market. Of the 14 raccoon dog samples studied, 13 had no COVID-19 at all, while one had just one fragment of virus per 200 million fragments of animal DNA. In contrast, the virus was found in greater quantities mixed with human DNA, as well as species such as largemouth bass, catfish, cow, carp, and snakehead fish, none of which could pass the virus to humans. Dr Bloom concluded that there was actually a “negative correlation” between COVID-19 and raccoon dog DNA. Dr Bloom also pointed out that in any case, environmental samples taken in the market “over a month after humans started spreading the virus do not reliably indicate outbreak origin”. More discussion of Bloom’s findings here.
Jesse Bloom’s findings (see above) raise the question: How on earth did we end up with media articles blaming raccoon dogs for COVID-19? According to Sarah Knapton, science editor at The Telegraph, “The raccoon dogs saga is the latest example of scientists who should know better pushing an agenda and journalists not probing the obvious holes. Blow on it – like Jesse Bloom has done – and it all falls down.” Knapton, who is a former Society of Editors “Science Journalist of the Year”, has also said that one of the main reasons so few journalists have investigated the origin of the pandemic properly is that they have been seriously misdirected on the possibility of a lab leak: “I think even now I feel quite disappointed in some of the scientists who I really trusted – from big institutions, Imperial, UCL, Cambridge, Oxford – who just told me that there was no way this could have happened.” Knapton contends that there is a big problem with science journalism becoming “science communications”. She says, “I just don’t think there is enough challenge of science.” Scientists are almost seeing science journalists as their marketing department whereas journalists should be challenging scientists, “who are often held up as bastions of truth”, yet that isn’t always the case. “They have agendas too. They get things wrong too.”
Former New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade has appeared before the US House Oversight Committee to testify on the origin of the COVID virus. “Some say it doesn’t matter where the virus came from because the pandemic is what it is,” Wade told the Committee. “To the contrary, it matters a great deal because the two conjectured origins [natural spillover or lab leak] require widely different responses.” He said if the SARS-2 virus leaked from a laboratory in gain of function research, then such research should “be halted immediately until a functioning regulatory system has been devised”. Wade said the US National Institutes of Health was funding the Chinese scientists at the Wuhan Institute to genetically manipulate coronaviruses. He added, “We know that they were actually planning to insert the very characteristic feature of SARS-2 – it’s a genetic element called a furin cleavage site. That makes the SARS-2 different from all of the other viruses in its family. And the Wuhan Institute applied to the Defense Department for a grant, in which they say – we will insert the furin cleavage site into coronaviruses. Lo and behold, a year later, SARS-2 appears on the scene. It’s got the furin cleavage site. And it’s at the exact position on its genome where the Wuhan scientists say in their grant they plan to put it. That’s pretty strong evidence pointing to lab leak, it seems to me.”
The term “conspiracy theories” is often used to try to discredit unconventional ideas. But there is a running debate among philosophers, psychologists, and social/political scientists about its proper and improper uses, writes the science journalist Michael Balter. We know there are real conspiracies, and sometimes the theories to explain them are well supported. And some “conspiracy theories” have turned out to be true. For example, Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, conspired with other scientists to hide the fact that he personally wrote and organised a letter in The Lancet declaring that the lab origin hypothesis for COVID-19 was a “conspiracy theory.”
As we reported back in 2020, from early on in the pandemic Peter Daszak was all over the world’s media, as well as social media, decrying suggestions that SARS-CoV-2 might have come out of a lab as “preposterous”, “baseless”, “crackpot”, “conspiracy theories”, and “pure baloney”. He even falsely claimed that “lab accidents are extremely rare”. But it has now emerged that just two years before the pandemic broke out, Daszak was involved in drafting slides for a presentation about the real dangers of engineered viruses being accidentally or even deliberately released. In these slides that he co-authored, Daszak not only emphasises that the risks of lab leaks and gain-of-function research need to be taken seriously, but he also puts the risk of a lab leak at the same level as natural spillover from the wild. Daszak also focuses specifically on the threat from coronaviruses. Gilles Demaneuf, a data scientist who found the full set of Daszak’s slides, has commented on how all this changed after the pandemic erupted and people started asking questions about the coronavirus research that Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance had funded in Wuhan: “When Daszak needed to protect his back, anybody who dares say exactly what he wrote in these slides was called a conspiracy theorist — or worse.”
When Shi Zhengli, who heads the research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) into SARS-like coronaviruses, published the full genomic description of the COVID-19 virus in the journal Nature in early 2020, she identified a 96.2% match to the virus in a WIV sample named RaTG13 that had been collected in Yunnan province in Southern China in 2013. What her paper did not disclose was that RaTG13 had been discovered in an abandoned mine that was being investigated because six miners, while cleaning the Mojiang mine in 2012, had contracted a severe pneumonia-like illness, which killed three of them. But this soon emerged, thanks to the sleuthing of the DRASTIC investigators, who also unearthed a medical thesis published in 2013 that concluded that it was “a Sars-like coronavirus from a bat” that had infected the Mojiang miners. However, Shi Zhengli denied this, claiming that it was a fungus that had sickened them. And China appeared not to want the Mojiang mine to be a focus of attention, going to considerable lengths to block journalists from visiting the area. But now a University of Hong Kong researcher, Alice C. Hughes, who worked in China for nine years, including in Yunnan on bat coronaviruses, has made clear that, because of what happened to the miners, China had a major focus on the area after the start of the pandemic. According to Dr Hughes, “We were the fifth research group that year, since April 2020, that were going looking for bat viruses in Yunnan. Because, of course, it was an important area. We know from the Mojiang miners that it was an important area.” Dr Hughes also commented, “RaTG13 was collected from that site, and thus the miners with similar symptoms likely had a CoV [coronavirus] given the sample collected from the site.” What makes these comments of particular interest is that Dr Hughes is a strong supporter of a zoonotic origin of the pandemic and has no obvious motive for contradicting Shi Zhengli’s nothing-to-see-here claim that the Mojiang miners were laid low by a fungal infection. For more on the Mojiang miners, see this and this.
“Attacks on me, quite frankly, are attacks on science,” Anthony Fauci said, blasting his critics during a 2021 interview about his advice on the pandemic. “All of the things I have spoken about, consistently, from the very beginning, have been fundamentally based on science. Sometimes those things were inconvenient truths for people.” Now a New York Times columnist has confronted Fauci with facts fundamentally based on science: Anthony Fauci’s own words. The resulting article, published at the end of March, shows that Fauci has repeatedly made false statements, says the investigative journalist Paul Thacker.
In a recent interview for the New York Times, Anthony Fauci, who has been accused of funding risky research in Wuhan, maintains that COVID-19 would still be of natural origin even if an infected lab worker brought the disease to Wuhan during the course of research. The US was supporting scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) who were collecting and manipulating bat viruses to discover how they could evolve to infect humans. Wuhan virologists have been accused of operating under lax biosecurity conditions which could have allowed rare viruses from remote caves to leak out into a highly populated area. But speaking to The New York Times, Dr Fauci said that would not constitute a lab leak. “All the intelligence groups agree that this was not an engineered virus,” he said. This statement is not true. The intelligence agencies said SARS-CoV-2 wasn’t a bioweapon, not that it wasn't engineered. But Fauci continues, “If it wasn’t an engineered virus, somebody went out into the field, got infected, came back to the lab and then spread it out to other people. That ain’t a lab leak, strictly speaking. That’s a natural occurrence.” Fauci’s interviewer, David Wallace-Wells, responded, “Even in that case, the research itself is still playing a role. But when you say everyone agrees it was not an engineered virus — I don’t think they do. I think they generally agree it was not purposefully engineered to be a bioweapon. I don’t believe they’ve ruled out other forms of engineering — direct genetic interventions or serial passage of viruses.” See also the comments on the interview by Alina Chan and Justin B Kinny.
An email made public by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) casts doubt on the credibility of a ProPublica/Vanity Fair investigation based on an interim report released by Republican staff of a US Senate Committee, writes journalist Paul D. Thacker. That interim report concluded that the COVID-19 pandemic was “more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident”, pointing blame at China’s lack of transparency for preventing more definitive conclusions. Democrats have labelled as “partisan” all evidence tying virus research in Wuhan, China to grants from Anthony Fauci and the NIH. Senate staff stripped this evidence from their interim report, which concluded, “The lack of transparency and collaboration from government and public health officials in the People’s Republic of China with respect to the origins of SARS-CoV-2 prevents reaching a more definitive conclusion.” The interim report was a whitewash, Thacker was told, and purposely did not look at NIH funding for gain-of-function research and the involvement of Anthony Fauci. Some congressional staff now speculate that scientific evidence of US involvement in dangerous virus research is being ignored by Members of Congress to protect jobs and contracts in the US biodefense industry, a lucrative career for former politicians and their staff.
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