What’s behind the coronavirus lab-leak theory and how can we prove it once and for all?

As new information emerges from USA Today and other sources, we can consider the evidence on both sides and how actual scientific debate can lead us to the truth.  Contrary to even current progressive opinion, there was never any real evidence that coronavirus came from a bat.  Instead, conjecture and opinion masqueraded as facts, perhaps until now…

Last week, USA Today did a little real investigative reporting for a change, uncovering details of a “secret meeting” in February 2020 between Dr. Anthony Fauci, Kristian Andersen, and other experts to discuss the origin of coronavirus.  At the time, they were very concerned about the “lab leak” theory, meaning coronavirus either accidentally or intentionally was unleashed from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and didn’t appear naturally by making the “jump” from bats to humans.  As journalist Alison Young described it, “In the early days of the growing coronavirus outbreak that would soon become a pandemic, an elite group of international scientists gathered on a conference call to discuss a shocking possibility: The virus looked like it might have been engineered in a laboratory.”

The teleconference occurred on February 1, 2020 and, according to Ms. Young, “appears to have played a pivotal role in shaping the early views of several key scientists whose published papers and public statements contributed to the shutting down of legitimate discussion about whether a laboratory in Wuhan, China, might have ignited the COVID-19 pandemic.”  The mere existence of the call was kept secret at first, and we only know about it now because of a Freedom of Information Act request.  “The group of scientists invited to the call had agreed in advance that the information they discussed would be kept in total confidence and not shared until they had agreed on next steps, emails at the time show.”

The call followed discussions on email between Dr. Fauci and Dr. Andersen.  In advance of the call, Dr. Andersen noted, now infamously after the facts are starting to come to light, “The unusual features of the virus make up a really small part of the genome (<0.1%) so one has to look really closely at all the sequences to see that some of the features (potentially) look engineered.”  This was on January 31.  Dr. Andersen also added that his opinion on the engineered aspects of the genome was widely shared with his colleagues including University of Sydney virologist and evolutionary biologist, Edward Holmes, and others.  He noted that “all find the genome inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory.”  To be fair, he did add that more work was needed, “so those opinions could still change.”

Three days later, Dr. Andersen’s opinion did change, dramatically.  Suddenly, despite no new evidence emerging and for completely unstated reasons, he started saying to other groups of scientists that the virus must have arisen naturally.  In an email on February 4, he declared “the data conclusively show” the virus wasn’t engineered, even calling mere suggestions in that regard “crackpot” “conspiracy” theories on the “fringe.”  Dr. Andersen was writing to a group of scientists who were preparing a letter for the National Academies of Scientists, Engineering, and Medicine.  “Reading through the letter I think it’s great,” Andersen wrote to the group, “but I do wonder if we need to be more firm on the question of engineering. The main crackpot theories going around at the moment relate to this virus being somehow engineered with intent and that is demonstrably not the case. Engineering can mean many things and could be done for either basic research or nefarious reasons, but the data conclusively show that neither was done…”  He continued, “If one of the main purposes of this document is to counter those fringe theories, I think it’s very important that we do so strongly and in plain language (‘consistent with’ [natural evolution] is a favorite of mine when talking to scientists, but not when talking to the public – especially conspiracy theorists).”

Though the final letter ignored these suggestions and focused on the need for more data, Dr. Andersen went on to author a much more heralded letter in the journal Nature Medicine, “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2.”  This letter concluded emphatically that “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”  The letter was ultimately cited by no-less than Dr. Fauci himself as proof that the virus didn’t escape from the lab, but if you look at the details of Dr. Andersen’s research, it really says no such thing.  Instead, the letter is riddled with caveats and assumptions.

For example, “Thus, the high-affinity binding of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to human ACE2 is most likely the result of natural selection on a human or human-like ACE2 that permits another optimal binding solution to arise. This is strong evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is not the product of purposeful manipulation.”  There are several things wrong with the statement, starting with the assumption that any engineering of the virus had the sole purpose to create the optimal binding to humans, not some other goal that just happened to improve the binding.  Second, the wet-market origin story assumes the virus made the jump from animal to human sometime last fall, but Mr. Andersen is asserting that it also must have evolved in humans for some time, going undetected somehow, more on that in a moment.  Third, “most likely” and “strong evidence” of “purposeful” manipulation, does not a certainty make.

Dr. Andersen repeats a similar version of this later in the letter, saying the same thing, in a different way as if that makes it more true.  “It is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus. As noted above, the RBD of SARS-CoV-2 is optimized for binding to human ACE2 with an efficient solution different from those previously predicted. Furthermore, if genetic manipulation had been performed, one of the several reverse-genetic systems available for betacoronaviruses would probably have been used.”  Essentially, Dr. Andersen is saying that, were he the engineer, he’d have done the binding differently, but what difference does that make and why presuppose what it was engineered for?  He also adds that some other system would “probably have been used,” but again how does he know?

Ultimately, whether you trust Dr. Andersen or not, the best he can come up with is “improbable,” and, alas, there is reason to doubt him.  Dr. Andersen seems to have completely disappeared since his work has been questioned as a result of these emails.  At first, he attempted to defend himself, claiming that “What the email shows, is a clear example of the scientific process” on Twitter.  Shortly thereafter, he deleted his Twitter account entirely, although he was considered a reasonably prolific poster and he would freely share his view that the virus arose from nature.  When USA Today tried to reach him for comment, however, “Andersen did not respond to repeated interview requests since last week. Late Thursday, a spokesperson said Andersen was traveling and unavailable.”  He has said only that the initial assessment was done in a few days.

To be clear, Mr. Andersen is entitled to his view.  Though he jumps to an unwarranted conclusion based on probables and improbables plus unnecessary assumptions about how another scientist might manipulate the genome and for what purpose, he does couch the entire letter in the language of “likely” instead of certainty.  The real problem is how this letter has been used by other scientists and the mainstream media since it’s publication.  In the subsequent discourse, any limitation on the validity of the conclusion that coronavirus jumped from animals to humans naturally was completely disregarded.  Dr. Andersen’s conclusion was presented as fact, and to question it was to be a kooky, conspiracy theorist, or, worse, a racist.

This view persists to this day; the belief that somehow Dr. Andersen presented the “evidence” when no one else has.  For example, Amanda Marcotte, writing for Salon.com, launched into a broadside against Republicans this week for faking the media and Democrat politicians out on the lab-leak theory.  Ms. Marcotte continues to embrace the natural origin story, “Here at Salon, we addressed the sudden surge of interest in this theory by highlighting the basic reality: Scientists do not think it’s likely, plus there is no new evidence that would suggest that it’s become any more likely than it was before the pearl-clutching about ‘bias’ began.”

Ms. Marcotte quotes science educator, Rebecca Watson.  “There is currently no evidence that COVID-19 originated in a lab. None,” and Justin Ling of Foreign Policy, “Despite proclamations to the contrary, there has been scant new, hard evidence pointing to the lab leak theory”.  Ludicrously, Ms. Marcotte believes that the sudden increase in interest in the lab-leak theory is because the media is somehow biased towards Republicans.  “The media isn’t biased against the right but biased in favor of the right.  If it weren’t for conservative pressure, there would probably be no substantive media interest [in] the ‘lab leak’ hypothesis.”  She believes this because, to quote Mr. Ling again, the lab-leak theory is “just speculation.”

All of this prompts the question:  What evidence has been presented that coronavirus emerged naturally?  The answer is absolutely none.  Dr. Andersen doesn’t even try to claim with any specificity what animal the virus was supposed to have been derived from.  His entire letter is pure speculation, “As many early cases of COVID-19 were linked to the Huanan market in Wuhan, it is possible that an animal source was present at this location. Given the similarity of SARS-CoV-2 to bat SARS-CoV-like coronaviruses, it is likely that bats serve as reservoir hosts for its progenitor.” Unfortunately, they were unable to find the actual host.  The  Rhinolophus affinis bat, for example, carries a form of coronavirus that is “ ~96% identical overall to SARS-CoV-2,” but “its spike diverges in the RBD, which suggests that it may not bind efficiently to human ACE2.”  Ultimately, Dr. Andersen wrote, “Neither the bat betacoronaviruses nor the pangolin betacoronaviruses sampled thus far have polybasic cleavage sites [like SARS-CoV-2]. Although no animal coronavirus has been identified that is sufficiently similar to have served as the direct progenitor of SARS-CoV-2, the diversity of coronaviruses in bats and other species is massively undersampled.”

Instead, he asserts without any evidence that the differences between the coronaviruses we know from bats and this new version can “arise by a natural evolutionary process.”  He even goes so far as to suggest this evolution might well have occurred in humans and simply gone unreported, due to “undetected human-to-human transmission.”  To be fair, this could well be true, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s entirely speculation without evidence, the kind of thinking we would pursue in our search for the truth.

There are other scientists who’ve taken a different tact, those who have been more vocal lately.  They believe the secret to the origin of the virus is in Dr. Andersen’s original comment, that all of his colleagues “find the genome inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory” and they are pursuing a line of inquiry to determine whether or not that statement is true.  For example, British professor Angus Dalgleish and Norwegian scientist Dr. Birger Sørensen claim to have evidence that coronavirus was engineered, presenting it late last year.  Their study concludes “the likelihood of it being the result of natural processes is very small.”  They believe this because the virus has “unique fingerprints,” including a sequence of four positively charged amino acids in a row.  “The laws of physics mean that you cannot have four positively charged amino acids in a row,” Mr. Dalgleish told the Daily Mail. “The only way you can get this is if you artificially manufacture it.”

They are not alone in this belief, a similar paper was published as early as April last year by Rossana Segreto at the University of Innsbruck.   The abstract is worth a full read, “Based on our experience in genetic manipulation we cannot exclude a synthetic origin of SARS-CoV-2 and we believe that this topic should not be censored. In our manuscript we suggest a possible experiment that could have originated SARS-CoV-2, known to be chimeric and characterized by a furin cleavage site, missing in other beta-coronaviruses of the same lineage. Moreover, we do a critical analysis of the paper of Andersen and colleagues published in Nature on the Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2. This paper is considered to prove that SARS-CoV-2 has a natural origin, but in our opinion it lacks scientific evidence. We do not want to accuse a specific research group, but raise attention of the scientific community on this topic.”

Of course, I cannot say with certainty whether or not these scientists are correct.  If you were to ask me my opinion, I tend to agree with the lab-leak theory as I find the analysis they’ve presented more plausible, it contains the original thinking of no-less than Dr. Andersen himself, and there is of course the simple fact that, in a country as large and diverse as China, the virus happened to originate in the shadow of a virology lab.  Why do I find their analysis of the genome more plausible?  Because natural evolution must by necessity work in a step-by-step fashion.  Genes rarely, if ever, mutate in sequence all at once.  Rather, a change in one gene is followed by change in another, making the four positive amino acids in a row highly unlikely, or that somehow the virus managed to change 4% of its genome in barely a month of undetected transmission.

I don’t know for sure, but that’s the point:  Contrary to Mr. Andersen and Ms. Marcotte’s belief, this is actually the way science is supposed to work.  Scientists present their theories for evaluation and debate.  The problem here is that the debate was a year overdue and a broad swath of the intelligentsia still doesn’t seem to understand that they’re the ones who have been making an argument without evidence the entire time, but what else is new?  This is essentially the same tactic they always use to crush substantive debate.  Thankfully, they don’t seem to be getting away with it this time.


2 thoughts on “What’s behind the coronavirus lab-leak theory and how can we prove it once and for all?”

  1. What makes no sense to me…is what vested interest do these folks have in the ‘not from a lab’ narrative? This was all under Trump’s watch…Fauci was Trump’s #1 man…since when does the left not turn on anyone that has outlived their usefulness? They could hang this ALL around Fauci’s neck and by proxy Trump…its not like they haven’t turned on a dime, did complete180s, and respond to everything with SCIENCE and racism before (isn’t Fauci the whitest mofo in history)?


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