Quillette’s Razib Khan speaks with veteran science writer Nicholas Wade about why so many scientists and journalists are now exploring theories about the origins of COVID-19 that, not so long, ago, were being dismissed as conspiracy theories.
Articles discussed in this podcast
- Origin of COVID—Following the Clues: Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan?, by Nicholas Wade.
- How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the Lab-Leak Theory, by Donald G. McNeil Jr.
- The World Needs a Real Investigation Into the Origins of COVID-19, by Alina Chan and Matt Ridley, Wall Street Journal.
- Investigate the origins of COVID-19, Science.
- Intelligence on Sick Staff at Wuhan Lab Fuels Debate on COVID-19 Origin, Wall Street Journal.
- A Bayesian analysis concludes beyond a reasonable doubt that SARS-CoV-2 is not a natural zoonosis but instead is laboratory derived, by Steven Quay.
Jonathan Kay: Welcome to the Quillette podcast. I’m Jonathan Kay, here to introduce my Quillette colleague Razib Khan and his interview with veteran science writer Nicholas Wade, whose byline has appeared in such well-known publications as Nature, Science, and the New York Times.
And the subject of their discussion is well summed up by the title of Mr. Wade’s widely circulated May 2nd, Medium article “Origin of COVID—Following the Clues: Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan?” Not so long ago, even speculating about the idea that the virus that causes COVID-19 was leaked from a Chinese virology lab, well that was enough to get you denounced as a conspiracy theorist. Perhaps even an anti-Chinese hatemonger, or even (perish the thought) a Donald Trump supporter. We all knew, or were supposed to know at least, that COVID 19 came into existence thanks to a zoonotic virus, having made the jump from an animal, probably a bat to humans in a Wuhan market or some similar milieu.
But a lot has changed in recent weeks. What with the Wall Street Journal and other major media reporting on evidence that suggests a link to a virology research institute and Wihan where, according to intelligence sources, several researchers got sick in late 2019 with a disease that sounds an awful lot like COVID-19. US president Joe Biden has ordered an investigation into the lab leak hypothesis. And a lot of journalists are revisiting some of the experts who were talking about lab leak even in early 2020, such as molecular biologist Alina Chan. Her name is one of 18 that appear on a recent letter in Science titled “Investigate the origins of COVID-19.”
Not so long ago the publication of such a letter would have been highly unlikely, but the ground is now moving quickly on this story, which is why I will mention that this interview was recorded on May 25th, and so does not account for development since that time. I will also say that while the interview should be understandable to listeners who aren’t scientists, there are a few terms that probably require explanation.
For instance, Razib and Nicholas discussed the possibility of Chinese researchers conducting so-called “gain of function” research that may be related to the emergence of the virus that causes COVID-19. That refers to processes that alter a virus in such a way as to affect its transmissibility, virulence, or other characteristics. There’s also passing references to technical details of the coronavirus genome, such as its furin cleavage site, but you don’t have to know what that is to understand the podcast. With that said, I give you Razib Khan and his interview with eminent science writer, Nicholas Wade.
Razib Khan: Unlike a lot of people, I have not paid attention to this story from the beginning. I heard theories about the origin—this was early March, 2020—and I was on a Zoom call where a scientist, an evolutionary geneticist, mentioned off-hand their own hunch that it was a lab escape. And on the Zoom call, they were shushed immediately by another scientist. And I think it was mostly because the other scientist was worried about the reputation of my friend, and I didn’t really think much of it.
But then the end of March comes along and another friend of mine, a molecular geneticist, he starts expressing misgivings about the origin, and he spent about a month looking into it and he became convinced it was quite plausible. And I started finding out that there were a lot of researchers of some prominence, names that I knew, names of people would be quoted in the New York Times, who were suspecting that it wasn’t totally clear that it was a natural origin.
On the other hand, I wasn’t seeing these people saying this in public. And then, I think it was May 2020, I started seeing Alina Chan at the Brode Institute talking about it, and I interviewed her for my podcast, and it was interesting because I didn’t really say much about it, but the accusations of Sinophobia came immediately that I was a conspiracy theorist. It immediately brought home to me why nobody spoke, because it’s just a pain! Now, there was a lot of water under the bridge. There’s a piece in Science with a bunch of big names that came out, multiple pieces of the Wall Street Journal and other places, a New York Magazine piece. Yeah, the landscape has changed. And I think one of the biggest changes was your piece, Nick, which I think I got forwarded to me on the order of two dozen times.
Nicholas Wade: Well, I was amazed it got so much attention. I just wrote the story to get all the facts out of my head and put it on Medium.com, which as you know, is basically a self-publishing site. I’m very delighted that it has attracted some attention.
Razib Khan: So the timestamp for your piece is May 2nd, and then on May 17th, Donald McNeil Jr., who also wrote for the Times, and he wrote a lot of great stuff about coronavirus, he had a piece “How I learned to stop worrying and love the lab leak theory” and it kind of starts as a reaction to your piece. And it talks about his own evolution recently, but I’m curious, Nick, when did you start getting onto this and exploring this topic?
Nicholas Wade: The trigger was the piece by Yuri Deigin that appeared nearly year ago in April, 2020. And that was the starting gun I think for anyone who wanted to explore this more journalistic point of view, because Yuri laid out there exactly how you can construct these viruses. He didn’t endorse lab escape, but he definitely described the possibility very clearly. And from that point onward, I just kept reading and trying to understand the arguments on both sides.
Razib Khan: What was your reaction when you started seeing Alina Chan speaking up about it? Did you reach out to her or were you mostly an observer?
Nicholas Wade: She was one of the first scientists at a sort of mainstream institution to get involved. So naturally she had credibility from the start and I think she made a very important contribution.
Razib Khan: Can you describe what Alina observed and why it was striking?
Nicholas Wade: Well she compared the SARS-2 sequence with that of SARS-1. So SARS-1 at the point where it had been in the human population, I think for about a year, it had developed several very distinctive adaptations. And if you look at SARS-2, Alina founded the SARS-2 was equally well adapted, which was very curious, because it’s very odd for a supposed bat virus to be so very good at attacking human cells.
Razib Khan: In most cases you’re saying there is kind of a trail, we do actually have that now with SARS coronavirus two in a way, because in Britain the original dominant variant has been replaced by the, quote unquote, “British variant.” I think they call it the Kent variant, like B.1.1.7.
Nicholas Wade: There are a lot of recent variants. I don’t think we’ve yet decided that these are adaptive. They could be neutral changes. They may turn out to be adaptive, but they’re at least for most of its existence in the human population, SARS has not changed in an adaptive way that you can so far pick out.
Razib Khan: One of the things that you noticed, and which a lot of people noticed, is the existence of the Wuhan Institute of Virology it’s in Wuhan, Wuhan is in Hubei in central China in the middle of Jiangxi. These bats that have the SARS coronavirus they are in Yunnan, which is in the far southwest of China. So there’s a huge geographical distance between the two.
Nicholas Wade: You’ve got two very plausible scenarios, natural emergence and lab escape. You’ve got no direct evidence for either hypothesis. Common sense tells you that there might be some connection between a leading coronavirus virology in Wuhan and the pandemic breaking out right on its doorstep. If you ask the natural emergence proponents how this could have happened, they can give answers but they’re all rather strained.
You can surmise that it was direct infection by bats to humans and that somehow a bat got to Wuhan, but no one seems to think that’s very likely. Someone acquiring the virus elsewhere and jumping on a train to Wuhan is possible, but in that case, he must neither infect any member of his or her family, and second, no one on the train going to Wuah gets infected. This very transmissible virus must not in fact transmit itself until the hypothetical infectee here arrives in Wuhan. So sure it’s possible, but it’s just very strange.
Razib Khan: Is movement of viruses from animals to humans very common?
Nicholas Wade: When it happens it’s sort of big news because it causes outbreaks of novel disease with often masses of casualties. So it’s not something that happens every day, but it happens often enough for people to be very concerned about it.
Razib Khan: For the Medium piece, I got the sense that you thought it seemed a little strange that at this point, in the spring of 2021, we have not nailed down the animal intermediary. That in other cases that we have searched, at this point, people have found it.
Nicholas Wade: That’s correct, yeah, it was within three months I think we’d found the intermediate host animal for SARS-1and it took seven months for MERS. So we’ve now gone 15 months for SARS-2. To the Chinese government has every possible incentive to identify this host animal, if it exists. And yet when the WHO commission visited Beijing in February of this year, the Chinese had not a shred of evidence to offer it on the natural emergence front.
Razib Khan: Is the behavior of the Chinese government itself impacting your assessment of what you think happened?
Nicholas Wade: Now as far as the behavior of the Chinese government is concerned, it certainly tried to conceal or repress information. One shouldn’t at first glance read too much into that because this is the knee-jerk reaction of authoritarian governments everywhere. And in fact, in the case of SAR-1, which we knew it was natural emergent, the Chinese government also tried to hush up information.
So with SARS-2 it’s a little difficult, but I think on reflection that we do see the fingerprints of a very concerted campaign to control information. So all the information we would like to see is locked up. All the databases with the coronavirus information is sealed. All the records of Dr. Xi’s lab, what viruses Xi is working on, what experiments Xi was doing, all that is sealed. It’s not illogical to suppose that the few bits of information that the Chinese government has let out are very carefully designed to mislead or misdirect. So my assumption is that we can’t trust what they say on this issue and that they are trying quite hard to conceal something.
Razib Khan: The lab leak scenario has several forks. One option is they’re creating a bio-weapon. Then you have the other scenario where they weren’t trying to work on a bio-weapon, they were just doing experiments, just doing virology, maybe a little risky, but doing virology, and they were being sloppy and it leaked, and now they’re covering it up. Do you think that it is more probable that it was leaked out of the lab in the aggregate of those lab leaks scenarios?
Nicholas Wade: I don’t think we have nearly enough data to calculate probabilities. Although my friend Steven Quay would disagree with me. There’s a long paper of his you can find on the internet which calculates, in Bayesian terms, the probability of lab leak. And he concludes, I think, it’s all 99% certain it was a lab leak. I think all you can say in quantitative terms is that if you ask which better explains the available evidence on present evidence, the lab leak explain it a lot better.
The state department said that it had evidence of a severe respiratory disease among three lab workers that Wuhan Institute in the autumn of 2019. So the symptoms could perhaps have been influenza, but they seem much more compatible with a SARS-CoV-2.
Razib Khan: Dr. Fouci has been waffling about what the origin of this is. Are you surprised?
Nicholas Wade: I guess I am a little surprise that he changed his mind because he must have had access to the better facts than most of the rest of us from day one. Although I think he never ruled out lab escape or derided it as a conspiracy theory, he certainly gave it no support. And I think, to some extent, one can sort of question why the NIH was, it seems, as much asleep at the switch as the mainstream media was.
Razib Khan: I know there was a debate on gain of function research in virology over the last decade. Do you think that debate is over it because of SARS-CoV-2? Because it seems like people are just so frightened now.
Nicholas Wade: There may well be an overreaction. You could rule out an awful lot of useful research. You take a bacterium and you train it to grow onto some new medium, you’re giving it a gain of function in a sense. So you want to try and frame your issue so you’re preventing all the bad experiments and underlining the good ones, which of course is very difficult because by the very nature of experimentation it’s very hard to know in advance whether the chimeric virus you may be making is going to be more or less capable than its components. Mostly this has been the virologists making their own rules. So I would like to see some other group of biologists looking over the biologists’ shoulders and then second guessing them.
And another issue this points out, of course, it’s the enormous potential danger of biological research. I mean, it’s long been called the poor man’s weapon, and that’s why so many people headed by a Matt Meselson and others have tried so hard to contain this genie in the bottle before it got out. And we do have the biological weapons convention in place. But now that these tools are available quite broadly, there’s every fear that we will have more unpleasant episodes of this nature.
Razib Khan: You got a pretty intense quote from Nobel prize winner David Baltimore, an eminent virologists and former president of Caltech. I’m going to quote it: “When I first saw the ferin cleavage site in the viral sequence with its argenine codons, I said to my wife that it was a smoking gun for the origin of the virus. These features make a powerful challenge to the idea of natural origin for SARS-2.” I have some molecular geneticist friends who said “Yes, I can see exactly what Baltimore said. He’s not an eminent scientist for nothing.” I had other friends who said “He doesn’t know the literature, just because he has all these credentials who cares?” There a lot of scientific reaction online for people such as Dr. Christian Anderson, who you quote, is the main scientific proponent of the natural origin. And he’s written some papers and you talk about him extensively in the Medium piece, people will run into him. What has been your feedback that you have gotten personally from researchers from the community about this quote?
Nicholas Wade: Well David Baltimore is one of the most distinguished virologists in the world. And Anderson has an important role in this story, because from the very moment this epidemic broke out there were two lessons from groups of virologists that derided lab escape theory as a conspiracy theory. These two letters, they set the tone for the debate that followed. They convinced the mainstream press the lab escape was not worth considering seriously. And they were taken as gospel by science journalists who should have been pressing much harder than they did at the various defects in these letters. So the defects in the Anderson letter was that he started out by saying it’s clear that this virus could not have been manipulated. Good scientists distinguish between things they know and things they don’t know. And they don’t assure the public of things that they don’t know. And there’s no way that Anderson and his co-signatories could have known for sure that this virus hadn’t been manipulated.
One of several ways in which you can manipulate viruses without leaving any marks is by cell culture. So you don’t alter the virus yourself, you just keep passaging it from one group of cells to another, until by natural selection you select the strains that can do whatever your target is—infect human cells. So that doesn’t leave any telltale marks. The virus has indeed been manipulated by natural selection in your lab, but there’s no way that anyone can tell that. So that was the hole in the Anderson letter. And that’s why I criticize him and his signatories.
Razib Khan: How do you think the media has comported itself over the last year? I’ll give you a concrete example. In the fall in November, I talked to a Spanish journalist. He basically said when he talked to scientists off-camera they will say very different things than when he talked to them on camera. So it made him very cynical. On the other hand, as a journalist, he can’t repeat what they say off the record, on the record. And so he kind of felt in a bind and it just left a very cynical. Sometimes when we say that all journalists are carrying water for the scientists, they can only really repeat explicitly what they say on the record, correct?
Nicholas Wade: I don’t really agree with that. A journalist duty is to try and ascertain the truth as best he or she can. If you think that what you’re being told off the record is more true than what you’re being told on the record, you must do everything you can to bring it to reader’s attention.
Obviously you can’t quote, but you can always find other ways to get the information into your story. But if I could address the wider point, I think what we’re looking at here is sort of massive institutional failure. If we look at the case of the media, this story has been around from the starting gun, which was a year and a month ago.
So the media hasn’t followed it up for a variety of reasons. One is because, as I mentioned, the virologists who are quick off the mark in deriding lab leak, and the other of course was the issues politicized by Trump’s saying definitely without a doubt, this virus came from the Wuhan lab. But instead of keeping their eyes fixed on the truth, generally it just became politicized.
Well, what kind of institution is it that lets itself be driven off course by a fatuous remark from a president who we know is not interested in facts? It’s no excuse, in other words, to say that just because Trump said it there I needn’t bother to look into it. You’ve got widespread failure by the media. I think you can raise questions about the NIH, which should have mounted its own investigation. Surely this was a rather important public health issue. I think in a wider sense, you have the sort of politicization of our whole society, where everything becomes a matter of politics, not of the underlying ground truth.
Razib Khan: The Trump administration was promoting lab leak internally pretty aggressively early on. Do you think that they jumped the gun?
Nicholas Wade: I don’t have any sources in the intelligence community, but my guess is that they said to Trump exactly the same as they have said to Biden, which is that we cannot root out lab escape. Trump just forgot all the qualifiers and presented as an established fact, which of course it wasn’t. I think the intelligence community genuinely does not know what happened. If you’re going to accuse the Chinese of having covered up the escape of a dangerous virus from one of these labs, you need to be pretty sure that that is the case.
If you don’t have those facts, you should be very modest and say, simply we can’t rule this out. And I think that’s just what is happening.
Razib Khan: I was talking to a friend of mine who is a virologist, his explanation for why people acted way more certain about natural origin is they felt like if they just gave an inch, then the media would run with the story.
Nicholas Wade: I think it certainly is true that one should think very carefully before one puts out a public statement. But in this case surely I don’t see what would have been wrong by intelligence agencies or the state department, or whoever is saying from the start, “There are two plausible explanations here. And as of now, we have no idea which is correct.” And that wouldn’t have misled anyone, and it has enormous advantage of being there.
Razib Khan: My sense of it from talking to people in the biological community, geneticists, is that you have these different groups. You have virologists who have kind of a consensus opinion internally. And then outside of virology you have a lot of evolutionary geneticists who exhibit a little bit more diversity and variation and their attitudes, and the recent piece in Science from some pretty prominent institutional biologists that said that people should look into this lab leak theory.
Do you see patterns in different disciplines of science in terms of what people are saying? There are internal consensuses that sometimes emerge just because certain group of scientists are just talking to only that group of scientists.
Nicholas Wade: Yes, I think as in any journalistic case one needs to look at where people are coming from. In this case, the virologists are, in a sense, an interest group, and they have no particular desire, I think, to see this emerge as a lab escape because it will bring the wrath of the public down on their heads. So they allow these two letters, the Daszak letter in The Lancet and the Anderson letter in Nature Medicine to speak for them.
They should have said, “If this is lab escape, we want to be the first to tell you about it. Let us be your guide as to what really happened.” And they did the opposite, almost complete silence from the virology community, which I think is unfortunate. So if you’re trying to make sense of this issue, most of the running has been made by people outside the virology community by biotech entrepreneurs are Yuri Deigin who published the first paper looking into this or by Steve Quay, who’s done a lot of very good detective work. And these people have simply been applying the tools of molecular biology to this particular virological question.
Razib Khan: Do you think that as the pandemic fades we will have more of an analytic discussion? Because when your piece came out first—I shouldn’t be on social media probably—but like a third of the responses were actually addressing the piece, and two thirds were saying “this a Sinophobic,” and I just wonder if, once the coronavirus pandemic is more a matter of history, if we can actually examine it with cooler heads.
Nicholas Wade: I’m not on social media, and I didn’t read any of the commentary, so all the comments you mentioned have passed me by. I think it is promising the mainstream media is now pivoting toward addressing the lab leak hypothesis seriously. You may have noticed the long fact sheet in the Washington Post today, which showed the salient events of papers and information pointing toward a lab leak. This is a big change, the fact that the Wall Street Journal has had two heavy-hitting articles means that they too are taking the lab leak hypothesis seriously. So I think the serious discussion you mentioned has already begun.
Razib Khan: I really appreciate you taking time out to talk to me, Nick.
Nicholas Wade: You’re very welcome, Razib.