#311 - Did SARS-CoV-2 Escape from a Lab? - Transcripts
Welcome to the Making Sense Podcast. This is Sam Harris. Well, there's a lot happening with AI these days. The chatbot over at Bing, powered by OpenAI's program called Sydney, apparently, seems to have gone a little crazy. Also, a human just beat a high-level computer at Go, which was previously considered impossible. So, it would appear that our robot overlords are looking a little sketchy. I think I'll do another AI-focused podcast pretty soon. It seems like there's a lot to talk about. But today, we are talking about the origins of the COVID pandemic. And for that conversation, I have Matt Ridley and Alina Chan. Matt is a writer. His books have been translated into 31 languages and won many awards.
They include The Red Queen, Genome, The Rational Optimist, and The Evolution of Everything. And his new book with Alina Chan is Viral, The Search for the Origin of COVID-19. Matt also sat in the House of Lords between 2013 and 2021 and served on the Science and Technology Select Committee there and the Artificial Intelligence Select Committee. He was also the founding chairman of the International Center for Life in Newcastle. And he created the Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal in 2010 and was a columnist there from 2013 to 2018. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Academy of Medical Sciences and a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Alina Chan is a scientific advisor and viral vector engineer at the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard. She is a recent Broad Ignite Fellow and Human Frontier Science Program Fellow with a background in medical genetics, synthetic biology, and genetic engineering. During the pandemic, Dr. Chan investigated the problems relevant to finding the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. And in 2022, she joined the Pathogens Project Task Force, which was organized by the Bulletin of Atomic Science. And the purpose of this project is to generate new thinking on high-risk pathogen research and to help prevent future lab-based outbreaks. As I said, the topic today is the origins of COVID, more precisely the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
So we discuss the evidence of a lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. We talk about media and academic censorship of this topic, the history of collaboration between Western scientists and Chinese labs, the problems with so-called gain-of-function research, the evidence for the zoonotic origins of SARS-CoV-2, such as it is, the initial complacency and denialism of the Chinese, the biosafety levels at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the molecular evidence of a lab leak, the practical constraints on synthesizing viruses, the lack of international cooperation, conspiracy theories promulgated by the CCP, the EcoHealth Alliance, different kinds of gain-of-function research, virus hunting, risk and reward in the search for knowledge, Anthony Fauci and other topics. Anyway, I found it a fascinating and also fairly confounding conversation. This is one of those topics where you just can't believe we're in the situation that we're in, given bad incentives and basic human stupidity. Anyway, Matt and Alina were great guys to the topic, so I hope you find this useful. And now I bring you Matt Ridley and Alina Chan. I am here with Matt Ridley and Alina Chan. Matt, Alina, thanks
for joining me.
Great to be with you. Same. So we're going to talk about your book that... When did it first come out? It's now out in paperback. When did you first publish this? I should give the title. It's Viral, The Search
for the Origin of COVID-19. When was the book first published? It came out in the fall of 2021 and paperback, which was updated in the spring of 2022. Is
that right, Alina, or have I got the name, the year's record?
Yeah. The paperback came out in June last year. Okay. So obviously we will incorporate any up-to-the-minute findings or thoughts or misgivings or retractions or epiphanies that you might have. And this is a topic that has always been interesting and consequential. I think... Let me just put my prior cards on the table. I always felt that speculation about the origins of COVID was more or less irrelevant and perhaps counterproductive at the very beginning. Once we knew we had a pandemic on our hands and we knew we had sequenced the genome of the virus, it seemed to me that the first order of business for a considerable period of time was to simply design vaccines against that virus, which we did very quickly, and to try to secure as much cooperation as we could in all of our collective efforts to not have the pandemic be as bad as it might be. But obviously the pushback against speculation about this topic that emerged fairly quickly always seemed crazy and disingenuous. It was never racist to worry that this had leaked out of a lab. And it's obviously quite consequential to get to something like a ground truth consensus about the origins of this pandemic, ultimately, because we need to figure out how not to do this sort of thing again, if we are in any way culpable for the emergence of this virus.
So that's where I've always been. It's not that I have not been interested. It's just it's only something like this moment where I feel like, all right, this is a very important project to drill down on this. Obviously, you both were much more interested earlier because you've written a book on this topic, but I'm wondering if my initial disinclination to drill down on the origin story seems questionable to you. It seemed politically inflammatory initially, and it also seemed like when the first job is to design vaccines, it didn't
seem quite relevant to know the origin. Is there something that I was missing there? Yes, I actually started on the same foot as you so I was more interested in how the virus was causing disease in people before I read that it was not mutating much. And that's when the alarm went off that this might have come from a lab to me. So I was actually more interested in finding a way to treat the disease rather than to find out where it came from. But to the question of which is the most important, I think that both have to be investigated in parallel because if you wait too long, it will become impossible to find the origin
the outbreak. Right. Yeah. Honestly, I had not thought about that part of it, that you sort of lose your connection to the facts if you're not really looking as much as you can look, as early as you can look. Before we jump in, and this really is a fascinating topic which sheds a lot of light on a fair amount of societal dysfunction. We're going to talk about the origins of COVID, but in the background and perhaps explicitly, we're also talking about the political corruption of science and a fundamental lack of transparency on the part of public health officials and attendant failures of cooperation. Before we jump in, perhaps both of you can summarize your relevant backgrounds here. Let's start with you, Matt. You and I obviously are quite familiar with one another, though we have not yet met scandalously. I've read several of your books and I will have introduced you both properly at the beginning here in the intro, but
give me your potted bio, Matt. Will do. Yeah. I'm a long-time fan of Sam Harris. That's one thing you can say about me, but my bio is that I'm an evolutionary biologist by training. I did a deep fill at Oxford in the behavior of birds a very long time ago. I then became a journalist. I then became a book writer, an author, nonfiction author, and various other things I did. I ended up in the UK parliament for nine years in the House of Lords, not in the House of Commons. The common theme of my career is a fascination with science and with evolutionary biology in particular. Actually, coming to this topic, I was especially interested in the story of the bats right from the start, or at least whatever other species it was going to turn out to be. But it very quickly became clear that all these SARS-like viruses are basically found in one genus of bats, the horseshoe bats.
It was writing about that that got me into this topic. I very quickly learned that I could rule out a lab leak as plausible on the basis of arguments that were being put in what seemed to be authoritative scientific papers. I then later came to question that and thought that those papers were premature. That's how I got more and more intrigued. It was
Alina's work, really, that tipped me over the edge. Alina?
So I've been working in labs for about 14 years. I have a background in biochemistry, medical genetics, genetic engineering, and now gene therapy. So I am a scientist at the Broad Institute of MIT in Harvard. And I'd say that the common theme in my research in my scientific life is thinking about how to re-engineer human cells for therapeutic purposes, and now thinking about how viruses interact with their host with human cells.
Wonderful. Well, so you were just the people I want to talk to on this topic. And as chance would have it, you've written a book on it. So how did you come to collaborate on the book together and perhaps just give us its basic thesis? What are you alleging happened or may have happened? And maybe before we, I mean, we're going to track through this, the various arguments for and against the thesis. But you might just say how you're thinking may have evolved in the meantime. I mean, have you become more convinced or less convinced of any particular
claim? Yeah. Shall I kick off on that? Because I was commissioned by the Wall Street Journal to write an article called The Bats Behind the Pandemic in, I think it was April or May of 2020. And I had by then become intrigued by this story that this virus seems to have come from bats and that they had already found a very similar relative, but I didn't know where or when. And the more I dug into the topic, the more I began to question the received wisdom at the time, which I had been conveying to other people that you could rule out a lab origin. And then I came across a paper by Alina and two of her colleagues, which said that this virus had experienced no burst of rapid evolutionary change on first entering the human species in 2019, which is surprising because the original SARS had shown that and most viruses do that. They have to evolve pretty fast to suit the new host. And she also tipped me off that the Chinese had now ruled out that it began in the market. George Gao, the head of the Centers for Disease Control in Beijing, had announced that he thought the market was a super spreader event, not a origin event. And that's when I started getting intrigued. And Alina was the first scientist I talked to who said, look, it's an open question.
We don't know if it came out of a lab. We don't know if it came out of a market. I got more and more interested in it. I followed her work and other work more and more closely, dug as deeply as I could. And eventually I said to her, could we collaborate on a book? Because although I know quite a lot about genomics, I've written several books on the topic. I'm basically a writer, not a scientist. And I would need to collaborate with somebody who understood the science. We both, I think, thought, and Alina can confirm this at the start, that it could go either way. That we would probably find out while we were writing the book what the answer was. We were wrong about that, by the way. We still don't know three years later, but we would probably find out that it was either something to do with that seafood market or something to do with that laboratory in Wuhan.
And so we devoted roughly equal quantities of text in the book to each argument. But I think by the end, we were both leaning towards the lab. And then a couple of other things happened just as we were about to publish a document dropped, which we can describe later, which I think tipped us both into the view that the lab was now more
likely than the market. What has been your experience touching this topic and trying to publish on it and publishing, in fact, at a certain point? And has there been a fraught adventure in publishing? And I know you've testified, both testified before the UK parliament, just what manner of courting controversy has this been and how has that political environment
around this evolved over the last few years? Yeah. Well, we've met all sorts of barriers. This was described as a conspiracy theory that it could have come out of the lab very early on. And it was as a result banned from discussion altogether on places like Facebook. Luckily, on Twitter, it wasn't. You could still speculate and share information on Twitter. So in the social media space, it wasn't easy. That changed a bit in 2021. The world got a bit more open-minded. In terms of the media, we found certain newspapers and broadcast outlets were very interested in talking about this topic and thought it was an interesting one. Others wouldn't go near it.
CNN and the BBC just wouldn't talk about our book at all, for example. And is that still the case? Yes, basically, as far as I know, it is, I think. I think you have been on CNN, Alina, once, but only a long time ago. Well, there was one very, very obscure BBC program
had us on before they realized how unfashionable we were. I don't think I've been on CNN. I think they canceled last minute also. And I think we've seen that a lot of these more popular news media would reach out saying they want to interview us on the book. And then a few days right before, they would say, oh, we can't touch this topic. Our scientific editor is against it and that kind of thing. So there has been, I think, some self-censorship on the part of news reporters
on this topic. Yeah. And also, it's worth mentioning that we've had a lot of encouragement from scientists privately. I know a lot of people are saying to us, keep going, you're on the right track. But in public, very few of them are prepared to put their heads above the parapet. And when I pressed, for example, the Royal Society in London and also the Academy of Medical Sciences to hold a debate on the origin of a pandemic that's killing north of 10 million people, I was told the topic is too controversial. And we've found something similar in the US that the question of opening it up to a proper conversation is just not acceptable within conventional science. And this is odd because the public generally thinks it came from a lab, if you look at opinion polling and based on anecdotal conversations I have with people, an awful lot of people think, yeah, of course it came out of that lab. Whereas the scientific establishment likes to say that the vast majority of scientists think it didn't come out of a lab. If that's true, if they think that and they know the public are, as it were, wrong on this topic, then they ought to be all the more willing to come out and debate it and knock down the theory that it came out of a lab. And for me, it's very odd that we haven't been able to have a very open wide ranging conversation in much of the media about this over the last two or three years.
Well, one of the things we've seen as well over the last two years is that a lot of emails have been obtained through the Freedom of Information Act showing that virologists who publicly said, of course it came from an animal at that market, privately in their emails, they were worrying whether this virus had been engineered in the Wuhan lab.
Okay, well, I want us to explore the nature of the controversy because it is surprising to me that it is this controversial to speculate about the origins of the virus and to worry that it could have leaked out of a lab. I think just to frame that surprise more fully, first of all, there's been a rich history of security breaches at labs and leaks of dangerous pathogens, even from labs with higher security than the Wuhan Institute of Virology has. So we know we're bad at this, containing dangerous viruses. And this is just a continuous source of concern. And so we should want to talk about evidence of yet another leak. Also, the Chinese have not been especially cooperative and their political regime is not so widely respected at the moment. Maybe let's just touch the general question now. Why would people in the Western press and the scientific community in particular be so coddling of Chinese political sensitivities on this topic? I get why the Chinese don't want to admit or don't want to understand that they, through negligence, have birthed a global pandemic, if in fact they have. And we could argue it's negligence either way, whether it's a wet market or a lab leak. But why would the Western press and the Western scientific community be so eager
to protect their self-concept on this point? Alina, do you want to go first on that? Sure. Chip in.
Sure. Chip in. So I'll say first that when I first started wondering about where this pandemic had come from, I had no idea about this whole history of collaboration between not just the US, but many other countries across Asia and Europe with labs in China to do quite risky virus work that might have led to this pandemic. So here, it's not just whether Western scientists are afraid of provoking China. It's really a question of are they also complicit in the origin of COVID-19. And over the last few years, we've seen again and again, a lot of support within the US for exactly that type of dangerous virus research that's commonly known now as gain of function research. So if the pandemic did start from a lab in Wuhan, it is not just a Chinese government issue. It is actually an issue that affects multiple countries, many countries who have all supported and endorsed and engaged in this work. And the US is a big funder of it. So they would have almost equal
responsibility, I think, in my eyes. Okay. So it's not just China and its political sensitivities. If in fact, this is the result of laboratory negligence, there's a lot of blame to spread
around and we'll get there. So to start... Sorry, just to chip in there, Sam, if I may, just to amplify one of the points, it is a case that Western virology feels worried that its entire research program, indeed, the whole of biotechnology might lose its funding, might lose its social license if a major accident is revealed to have happened as a result of work in a laboratory. And I share that concern in a sense. I'm pro biotech, I'm pro vaccine, I'm pro genetic engineering of crops and in medicine as well. And it would be a terrible pity if as a result of this, the world said, right, we don't want to have anything to do with biotechnology ever again. It's a disaster. But I think truth is more important than consequence. And actually, science would be better off saying, no, let's find out. And if this did go wrong, let's learn lessons and make sure we don't do it again.
Yeah. Well, I think one could well wonder whether we want to have anything to do with gain of function research, which we'll talk about. I mean, this is something that I've touched on this podcast once before. My friend, Rob Reed did a special episode on this research. So that part is especially worth worrying about in my view, but we'll get there. So let's take it from the top here. What is the best argument for the natural origins of this virus? If memory serves at the beginning, and perhaps this is still the case, there was evidence that it started spreading from the wet market, whatever initial origins might have been. You just referred to it as possibly a super spreader event. So there was a pattern of spread with the wet market as its epicenter. And I forget what it was. It was something like 27 first cases that were detected there.
Try to give the case for the zoonotic origins
of this pandemic. Well, maybe I can chip in on that one, and Alina can join in. In the case of SARS in 2003, there was a very clear link to markets, food handlers, and that kind of thing. So when this one cropped up, and it's a very, very similar virus, it's very closely related to SARS, and it was first noticed in and around a food market, it seemed to be very much the same story. And that remains a possibility. There were mammals on sale in that market, not nearly as many as you would find in Southern China. This is an area of China where you don't have the same habit of buying live animals in markets to the same degree. But there were mammals on sale in that market, and people did seem to get infected in that market. And the geographical proximity of the outbreak to a major food market does look a bit like SARS in 2003. The problem was they never found an infected animal, whereas they easily found them in the case of SARS. And although they found evidence of the virus in the market, it was on things like doorknobs, countertops, and in the sewage, it was the human version of the virus being spread around by people. So yeah, it remains a possibility that this was very much like SARS.
It started in that market, and that somebody was selling bamboo rats, which had been kept in a cave, where bats had been defecating on them or something like that. And yes, we would expect something like that to happen every now and then, because we know that these viruses are circulating in wild bats, and people are coming into contact with them in the wild.
And is it true that there was no possible progenitor virus found in any animal in the market?
Yes, that's true. So I think that there are many lessons to be learned from how this pandemic was traced in terms of how the local investigators in Wuhan tried to find the source of the virus. So what had happened was there were hospitals in Wuhan, in the middle of Wuhan, and they were seeing cases of unexplained pneumonia. So they didn't know what was infecting these people. And then doctors started realizing that they were seeing some cases from this market, from the seafood market that sold some number of live animals. So they called in investigators, and then those investigators thought, maybe it's not one happening again. And at that time, they were not so sure about human to human transmission yet. So what they did was, they looked at the animals in the market or supply chain. They went straight to the market, and they wrote all this down in their notes and their publications in early 2020. They said, we are just going to look at the market. We're going to look at the hospitals near the market, and we're going to look in the neighborhood of the market. So they completely focused their search on people with either links to the market or if they had no links to the market, they had to live near the market.
So what this did was it led to this looking under the bright light, but not looking around in the dark kind of analogy, where they ended up confining their search prematurely to one hypothesis, such that if there had been earlier cases not linked to the market or living far away from the market, they would have been missed completely. So, in this sense, this led to this great unknown that persists to today. Are there earlier cases than the market? Are there cases in November, for example, that we don't know about? And if the Chinese government knows, they have not told us. They have not shared that information with us.
Just to restate that so people don't miss it. So, what you're describing is a kind of selection bias. If you look for cases associated with the market, if you find anything, you're only going to find cases associated with the market. And then, if you populate a map with those red dots, well, then you're going to have created a map that looks like the market was the epicenter of everything you found. But that could, in fact, be an artifact of just how you went looking for data. And obviously, it doesn't differentiate the market as origin thesis from the market as
amplifier thesis. Is there more there, Elena? Yeah, you're exactly right. And just to reiterate, at the time, people were not allowed to acknowledge that the virus was spreading from human to human. There are anecdotes, reports from Wuhan, where doctors, for example, were not allowed to wear a mask because they were told that this virus is not spreading human to human. So, to wear a mask would acknowledge that they could catch it from their patients. So, in that sense, investigators were not allowed to look for people who just caught it from other people, they were looking for people who had exposure to animals, had eaten at a restaurant
where there was a live animal, for example. Well, that's an amazing change, because when you describe it that way, it seems like a political maneuver to want to put the bravest face possible on the top of this pandemic. But obviously, the Chinese have changed their behavior rather markedly since. They've gone so far as to, I believe, welt people into their apartments, and there's zero COVID policy to the eyes of the rest of the world, and has looked, for now several years, fairly berserk. So what are you actually saying about the political, social, cultural attitude of the Chinese in the first months of the pandemic?
I think we're saying that it flipped. It went from extraordinary complacency and false reassurance, the period up till roughly the middle of January 2020, when they were insisting there was no human-to-human transmission, telling the World Health Organization to spread that message, and also saying they had it under control and that they hadn't had any deaths for 10 days or something. So there really was a period in January 2020 when probably local officials were desperate not to get into trouble with more powerful central bureaucrats, and were giving out false reassurance about what was happening. Don't worry, we've closed the market, and there's no human transmission. The cases that are in hospitals will either recover or die, and then it'll peter out. And then by the end of January, they suddenly realize, because of the flood of people coming into the hospitals, that that's wrong, that people are giving it to each other on a massive scale, that it's spreading like mad, and that it's killing people. And so they then reacted with very, very draconian lockdowns, as you say, that sort of worked to start with, with the relatively less infectious version of COVID that was then spreading. Wouldn't have worked with Omicron, for example, two years later, but it worked. Wuhan did manage to stamp it out, but with extraordinarily draconian measures, as you say, welding doors shut and things like that. And then that persisted for a couple of years until towards the end of last year that even that became untenable. They could not stop these milder, but more infectious versions of the virus spreading very rapidly, and they simply took the lid off. So there's been two changes in China, both of which have probably gone too far
in the wrong direction. Yeah, this is the first time I've thought about this, but it just suggests to me that given the alacrity with which they started locking down in earnest, it suggests to me that those first months of denialism had to have been based on a sincere belief that there was no human-to-human transmission, or at least it wasn't going to get out of hand, because the moment that seemed to be the case, then they went fairly crazy in the other direction.
Well, I had to jump in here, because actually in the first week of January 2020, the sequence of the virus was being auctioned off to people who make diagnostics and to people who make vaccines. And we know that by, I think, January 4th, the vaccine production for this virus had jumped into high gear by one of these companies in China. So I think the people there were kind of operating on two truths at the same time. On the one hand, they had to accept what they were being told, that the virus was not spreading human-to-human. But on the other hand, they also had to manufacture wartime-level amounts of vaccine for the virus. So I don't think there was a unified consensus, of course, across this entire huge country, that there were separate groups of people acting on different, almost acting as if they had to accept both truths, the truth that wasn't spreading human-to-human, but also they had to prepare for a pandemic.
Yeah, well, the timeline of Chinese vaccine development, I know, is peculiar given what they claim to have known or not known. And I think it relates to the origin thesis. Maybe we should jump there now. What are the various anomalies that suggest a non-natural, that is non-zoonotic, non-wet market origin for the virus? And I know these anomalies exist at various levels. There are molecular anomalies with respect to the virus itself. And then there are things like the timeline of Chinese response and vaccine development. And then this is probably the best place to talk about the various grant proposals that implicate Western involvement, EcoHealth Alliance, et cetera. But I don't know who wants to take this first, but walk me through
the evidence for non-natural origin. Well, I think I could talk about this for hours. There's quite a bit of evidence pointing to it's a lab origin, although there's no key direct or definitive evidence for either natural or lab origin. So I'll try and be brief. So I think that the main key points for a lab origin is one, the location. So Wuhan is a place where even the top SARS virus researchers didn't believe that a outbreak would occur. So when the Wuhan Institute of Biology scientists who spent the last decade collecting these viruses first heard of this outbreak in her city, she said, could it have come from my lab? Because we never believed that a SARS-like virus would break out in Wuhan city. They in fact used their own city as a negative control. So a place where they would expect zero people to be exposed to this type of bad coronavirus. And yet this was the location of arguably the largest collection and manipulation sensor of SARS-like viruses from that region resembling this pandemic virus. So we've got
the location. Let me just make sure I understand what you're saying there. So you're saying that Wuhan is not a place where you would expect a natural ambient level of SARS viruses because
the horseshoe bats don't live locally. Is that what you're saying? No. So the horseshoe bats do live there, but to find that type of SARS-like virus, these scientists had to make trips every year far down south. So they had to travel thousands of kilometers down south to South China, to Yunnan. They even went across borders to Southeast Asia, down south. So they were collecting across eight different countries, South China and seven Southeast Asian countries in that belt, where they predicted there was the highest prevalence of these type of viruses. So that type of bad, the horseshoe bats do live broadly across China, but to find those viruses, you have to go very far down south. And so even if you look at the EcoHealth Alliance, so this is a New York based US nonprofit that channels money from the US government to that Wuhan lab and other places, they recently published a map of the risk of being exposed to these viruses and Wuhan is nowhere near the hot zone.
All right. Okay. So I derailed you. Please continue.
Oh, no worries. So on the other hand, this lab, they had a extremely unique research program. So it's very hard to find this type of research program in any other lab. So you have labs that go out then collect tens of thousands of samples from bats, from animals in the wildlife trade, and even from sick people. So this lab was doing that, but they also took it one step further. Once they had all these very interesting novel viruses, they would then dissect them in the lab, they would break them down, recombine them seamlessly. So leaving no scar or trace of having engineered them and try to see how these viruses could one day infect people. So they were trying to predict pandemics and try to come up with therapeutics and vaccines for potential pandemics in the future. But to do that, they had to bring some of these viruses closer to that type of pandemic potential. And we've seen from some of the released progress reports sent to the NIH, that in some cases, they accidentally really enhanced some of these viruses in the lab in animal models of human disease. So they had this very unique program where quite risky research was being done. And it was only found out later, after the pandemic started, that much of this research, including involving live viruses, had been done at quite low biosafety, at a biosafety that could not have protected them from being infected by viruses like
the pandemic virus. Let's linger on that point. So what is the biosafety level of the lab and
how does that relate to biosafety levels elsewhere? So Matt, do you want me to take this? Yes, keep going. You're doing a very good job, Alina. So when the outbreak was first detected, lots of people were just thinking about the top biosafety lab in Wuhan, so their BSL-4, the maximum biosafety level. But the truth was, all of their research on these bad coronaviruses, including the SARS-like viruses, had been done at lower levels at BSL-2 and BSL-3. So they worked with live viruses even at BSL-2. And at this level, you cannot be protected from an infectious airborne SARS-like virus. And there's no requirement, even if people are sick, even if they fall sick, they don't have to report it, they don't have to quarantine. So there would have been no record of someone being infected
in the lab by such a virus. Wow. Well, that's pretty damning in its own right. John Stewart famously made the joke that you've got a novel bad coronavirus outbreak and what do you have in town? You've got the Wuhan Institute of Virology working on precisely these sorts of viruses. And now we find at a level of security that couldn't possibly protect against a leak. On some level, what more do you need to know? I know there is more to know. We'll talk about the molecular evidence. But that alone, isn't that damning?
Can I just add to that point? This wasn't just one of the Chinese virology labs. This was pretty well the leading virology lab in China, with the possible exception of one or two others. And certainly the leading one for SARS-like coronavirus. This was the lab that had tracked down where the SARS virus came from that caused the 2003 epidemic. And they were very proud of that fact. They'd found a cave in Yunnan with horseshoe bats in it, in which very close relatives of the SARS virus were circulating. So this is not just any lab. This is the main SARS-like coronavirus research lab in the world, effectively. And the particular striking feature is that when this pandemic broke out, they announced that they already had in their possession, in that lab, a very close relative of this new virus. They called it RATG13. We later found that they changed the name just before this.
So it took us a long time to connect that name to an outbreak of pneumonia that killed three people and sickened three others in a mineshaft in Yunnan in 2012. And they had made seven expeditions to that mineshaft. And they'd come back not just with that one close relative of SARS-CoV-2, but we later found out, not till the middle of 2020, but we eventually found out that they'd brought back eight other very closely related viruses. And so up till the middle of 2020, the nine closest relatives of this pandemic virus had been collected more than a thousand miles from Wuhan by Wuhan scientists and brought to Wuhan. And that was a pretty striking fact. What then transpired was that the pandemic virus had a unique feature in it. And I think Alina is probably a better place to explain what this feature is. It's called a furin cleavage site. It's a short text of DNA or RNA rather, which enables the virus to use a human enzyme called furin, and it greatly enhances its infectivity. It's the reason we're having a pandemic. And when they published the virus, they didn't draw attention to this fact, even though it was the first and to this day, the only SARS-like coronavirus that had this feature in it. And I think Alina should be the one to tell, to give a rather good metaphor for why
this was surprising that they didn't draw attention to this. Well, let's jump there next, but Alina, perhaps you can start by explaining, if an explanation is possible, why they would have been working with these viruses at a level two condition, as opposed to the level four condition
that was available to them in the same lab. Yeah. So I think this lab had been searching and hunting and collecting these viruses for so many years that they really let their guards down. So up until the pandemic started, there was no evidence that a bad virus, a bad SARS-like virus, could jump into a person and immediately cause an outbreak. Normally, it takes a while for the virus to become capable of causing massive outbreaks in people. It needs to adapt, find the right combination of mutations to make it capable of first infecting a person, creating enough copies of itself to spread from person to person and potentially through the air. So in this case, these scientists had been going to all these bad caves, sometimes without mask, without any protective gear, and they've been doing it for so many years and nothing bad happened. So why would they need to upgrade to a higher biosafety level? Because once you go from BSL two to BSL three, it's a lot. It's a lot more of cost, time, training. You have all these special requirements. It becomes very challenging to do the experiment and very costly.
So if you are the scientist and you don't really fear these viruses anymore, is there really a need to expand all that extra
money and costs and personnel for this extra safety? But aren't we now talking about manipulations to the virus that, by definition, make it more likely to infect humans? I mean, we're going to talk about a furin cleavage site and any other molecular evidence now, but isn't the allegation that they were performing gain-of-function research of some sort, which should, by definition, have made them more concerned about getting infected themselves when working with these viruses?
So even in the case of the first SARS outbreak, the early variants of that virus weren't very good at causing outbreaks in people. It was only at the later stage, once it had collected the correct set of mutations that made it well-adapted for people, that it was capable of causing outbreaks. So for these scientists, they had collected some close relatives of the SARS-1 virus, and they were working with these also at low biosafety levels, but I suspect that they didn't feel threatened. They didn't feel like, you know, even if I spill this, it's going to cause an outbreak. So they probably had this perception that it would require quite a few stamps, quite a period of time, repeated spillovers, repeated infections before it would reach a pandemic level. They were also working with diverse SARS-like viruses. They were going out and intentionally looking for SARS-like viruses that were different from the SARS-1 virus. And it was with these viruses that they were doing experiments to see how they might eventually also cause outbreaks in people. So these different SARS-like viruses were seen as low-risk viruses, so they weren't seen as close relatives of the first SARS virus, likely to spill over into people at any time, but they were seen as things that you could manipulate in the lab and not be so worried
that you would cause a pandemic make. Okay, so let's talk about the virus itself and you described manipulations that were seamless and undetectable. What is detectable? When you look at a virus of this kind, what are the signs that it may have been manipulated and what signs
exist in the SARS-CoV-2 virus as we have come to know it? It's incredibly difficult to distinguish a lab-engineered virus from a natural virus because any lab-engineered virus has to be derived from a virus that was found in nature. Scientists don't have a magical ability to just conjure like novel viruses, the entire blueprint by themselves. They have to base it on something they found in nature and the problem, the challenge is that nowadays the technology to build these viruses to entirely synthesize their genome is so advanced that you can do it leaving no trace and for example when this virus, when the pandemic virus its sequence was posted, it took very little time for several groups of scientists around the world to just synthetically create it from scratch with no trace of them having engineered it. In fact, they had to deliberately put in traces of them, engineering it. They deliberately put in a few mutations so that they could tell when someone in the lab had been infected by the virus in the lab or had caught the
natural pandemic virus in the train on the coffee shop.
Just to be clear, Alina, so you just started saying that scientists cannot manufacture viruses out of whole cloth. They have to piece things together from naturally occurring viruses. But then you just said that scientists, once we had the genome sequenced, they built their versions of SARS-CoV-2 from scratch using nothing but base pairs.
Can you square those two claims? Yes. So once you know what the code is, the code is usually from nature. You can synthetically create the virus. But what I mean by you can't conjure a virus of thin air is you can't just make something that has never been seen before. It's based on nothing. So you have to use sequences that you found in nature to make this artificial virus in the lab.
Yeah. And just to give you an example, Sam, that might be helpful, what we're mainly talking about here is manipulations to one of the genes, the spike gene. So there's about, is it 15 genes roughly in these SARS-like coronaviruses? They're strung out like beads on a string, although they do overlap. So it's a bit confusing in some ways. There's one gene that codes for the spike, the thing that sticks out of the surface of the virus and that binds onto human cells. And nearly all the genetic manipulation experiments have involved the spike gene. And so what they've done is they've said, we've just collected this virus in the wild. We've read its sequence. It's got a different spike gene from the one that we're used to. We're going to synthesize a piece of RNA, or you'll start with DNA, but then you'll change it into RNA, that is that spike gene from this wild virus. We're going to synthesize that from scratch, but based on the exact sequence that we've seen in nature, we're going to then swap that into a virus that we've already got growing in the lab, taking out that virus's spike gene and putting in this new one.
You've now got a manipulated virus that has a brand new, well, it has a different spike gene than it would normally have, but it's got the same other genes as it would normally have. So it's very much a sort of jigsaw puzzle of genes here that is mainly going on. But there's another level which is to insert or delete sequences within the spike gene, and that's where the furin cleavage site comes in.
So it's the only sign of synthetic manipulation that you can't find analogous sequences in the wild. I'm just speculating here, I don't know if this is true, but let's just say that there is no example, and Alina tell me if this is in fact the case, there is no example of a furin cleavage site in a horseshoe bat found in the wild, therefore there's no appropriate story of how this could have been zoonotic once you see this piece of molecular evidence. Either it's there and you haven't found it or it's just not there, and by definition it had to have been the result
of human manipulation. Well, I think there's a fundamental challenge here, which is that we don't know what viruses and what sequences the Wuhan lab had found. So if you don't know what the references are, how do you know what might have been engineered in that lab? And maybe an analogy I can make is with AI. So nowadays AI is so sophisticated that it can write its own stories from like completely create new stories by itself. So in that sense, it's hard to tell whether a particular story was written by an AI or by a person. But in science, in terms of writing virus genomes, we are not at that level yet. We're still at a level where you have to copy and paste pieces that you've found from pre-existing stories, let's say pre-existing virus sequences. So without having access to that database of sequences, how do you know if something was
derived from that or whether it just come from nature? And we don't have access simply because
of a lack of cooperation at this point with the Chinese, correct? Yes. And the database in question, which Alina refers to, is as far as we know, a pretty well complete database of all the viruses they had collected over 15 years or so, and their sequences, their locations, their other features of them. And that database was online until the 12th of September 2019. It then went offline. It came back briefly online in early 2020, but only internally, not available to the outside world, which it had been before, although not all of it. There was a password protected section. There was a paper published by the EcoHealth Alliance in collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which came out in 2020, but was written before the pandemic began, which listed a very large number of viruses they had worked on up until the end of 2015, the beginning of 2016. And so we think we have a fairly complete idea of which viruses they had collected up until that point. But if you look at the published sequences of viruses that they found in 2016, 17, 18, and 19, there's very, very little information available at all. And we know it's in that database. That database is not being made available.
We've asked for it repeatedly in every way that we can think of and said, wouldn't it be the perfect way to exonerate the lab, is to show us exactly what you had in the lab and show that you did not have any virus that could have been used as a backbone or a template for making SARS-CoV-2? And the answer comes back, well, if we shared it, people might hack it, which is frankly a meaningless thing to say, because if you share something, it doesn't matter who hacks it. Hacking is for secret stuff. So we just don't understand why they don't share that database.
And when you say we, you're talking about Western governments have requested this of the Chinese or
journalists or the scientific establishment. So it's actually been quite astonishing. So the World Health Organization sent a team of scientists in early 2021 to Wuhan to investigate the origin of COVID-19. And that team included the president of the EcoHealth Alliance, which collaborates with the Wuhan Institute of Biology. And when they went there, they were given this nice tour of the top biosafety level lab at Wuhan. They went shown the lower biosafety labs. And the EcoHealth president said he didn't ask for the database because he knows that there's nothing useful in there. So he asserted without sharing the data that we don't need to see this database.
Can I just interrupt there just to answer your question about we? Because yes, I do mean literally Alina and I trying to put questions to Xi Jinping herself or Jane Q, who's a journalist who has access to her and not getting anywhere in terms of responses. But I also mean a sort of community of people who are interested in this subject, some of whom are extremely knowledgeable, some of whom are as it were amateurs who've come to this from outside. They're just good at handling data or looking into databases and things like that. And they've also been trying to pose these questions on social media directly, and as you say, through governments and through journalists and so on. And it's really been an uphill struggle. If mainstream journalists or mainstream politicians were to sort of take this up and do a little bit of research and get to the point where they could ask these tough questions, it's not impossible that we could make a little progress here. But when it's just a bunch of sleuths with no particular institutional background putting the pressure on, it's very easy to ignore the question.
It's easy to see how conversation has proved impossible. Wasn't it the case at one point that the CCP was alleging that the virus had been spread to Wuhan by the Americans or by... I mean, it's like it was an act of bioterrorism that came from outside of China. I mean,
didn't things break down that much? Things break down that much? There was an athletics tournament in Wuhan in October 2019, the World Military Games, in which lots of countries sent military athletes. And the suggestion was made fairly obliquely by the Chinese authorities that this might have been how the virus got there, and that it might indeed have been a bioweapon from Fort Detrick. They even mentioned the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, which is another coronavirus research center that collaborates with Wuhan. And this is only one of many really rather flimsy theories that have been put out there by the Chinese regime. The most notorious one, of course, is the one that they got the World Health Organization to briefly endorse at a rather farce called press conference two years ago this week, which was that it had reached China on frozen food from overseas, frozen seafood in particular, for which there is no evidence. I mean, you think about it, it makes absolutely no sense because, A, it's not a very good vehicle for transporting viruses, and B, it would infect whoever else is getting frozen food from those sources elsewhere in the world. It wouldn't turn up in just one city. So there've been some fairly desperate alibis put out there by the Chinese authorities to try and deflect questions about the lab in Wuhan, and also about the market in Wuhan. I mean, we shouldn't forget that the Chinese regime doesn't want it to be blamed on the habit of
selling live animals in markets in China. As I said at the top, there's a story of negligence either way, whether it's a wet market or a lab, and in some ways they're equally damning, although of different cultural practices. Alina, is there more to say about the molecular evidence or lack thereof before we move on to the political story and the story of bad
incentives and questionable research? Alina, yeah. So first thing I want to say about the WHO investigation was that it was extremely useful for the Chinese government to use that and say, look, the World Health Organization says this virus might come in on frozen food. So it didn't start from China, it's not China's fault. It's also a story that they're not just telling the outside world, but they're telling people inside of China. And we know from a lot of emails and actually from early publications in 2020 that people inside of China were the first to say, maybe this is from that lab in Wuhan that's collecting these bad viruses and doing risky research with them. And so this whole issue of the virus database being taken offline, being made inaccessible, it just makes no sense because these virus hunters have spent more than a decade collecting all these viruses, putting together the database, which they launched in 2019, right before the pandemic. They said this database is for other scientists around China and elsewhere to use to understand novel emerging pathogens to trace their origin and understand their journey. Their journey from the origin of where those closest relatives are all the way into where the outbreak begins. But here we go with a actual pandemic starting in their city. The database is taken offline or not, at least not shared with collaborators. So there's no one outside the WIV was able to access this database after September 2019.
So why did they create this resource and then refuse to share with people? So it just raises so many questions. And this had begun even before the muddying of the waters with the WHO investigation. They don't call it an investigation. So the WHO actually calls it something like a collaborative journey of
exploration. Oh my God.
So can I just add one thing on the molecular evidence, which you mentioned, Sam, before we move on to other things. There's a very important feature of the furin cleavage site that it's worth bearing in mind. And that is that this isn't just some random feature that's been discovered in this virus and not in other cells like viruses. It's also a feature that has been put deliberately into viruses by virologists in the last 10 years on about 12 occasions as a way to change the properties of the spike gene in these viruses. That's been done with various coronaviruses. And one of the places that's done that experiment in collaboration with other groups is the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Relatively recently, they manipulated a MERS-like virus called HKU4, I think I've got that right, Alina, but correct me if I'm wrong, by inserting a furin cleavage site deliberately into it. So it's not as if we're picking this out of the sky and saying, look, here's an odd feature that they didn't mention. Here's an odd feature that they didn't mention, which they have in the past deliberately put into this kind of virus as an experiment. So it's not unreasonable to think that they might have done this on this occasion, particularly as a document dropped at the end in September 2020, 2021, sorry. 2021. Yeah, 2021, sorry.
It was 2021. Yeah, 2021.
We're losing control of the pandemic years. Exactly. A document dropped called the defuse proposal, which was a collaboration between the EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which said specifically, if we find novel SARS-like coronaviruses, we may try to put furin cleavage sites into them. So, Alina, I want you to just tell your unicorn analogy because it's a good way of putting it.
Yeah. So when I saw this defuse proposal, I think I was extremely shocked because scientists, virologists especially, had been privately worrying through their emails that were released later that this pandemic feature had been engineered into the virus. So behind the scenes, they were all saying, oh my God, I hope the rumors aren't true. I hope this wasn't engineered into the virus because that is what would have caused it to become a pandemic virus. And in late 2021, there's a leak of this research proposal that comes from early 2018. So just about two years before the pandemic started that showed that these Wuhan scientists together with US collaborators had this plan to put these pandemic features into SARS-like viruses in the lab. So I will put a caveat here that a lot of this type of research had been done in pseudoviruses. So not using the actual pathogen virus, but in an artificial setting. But here in this proposal, they said we are going to find low risk SARS-like viruses. So presumably viruses, not like the first SARS virus, but possibly something like this pandemic virus. And we're going to put this feature that we know could cause an enhancement of infectiousness, of deadliness into these viruses to study them in the lab. And so my analogy for this is it's as if this scientist had written two years before the pandemic, we're going to find horses and we're going to put horns on them.
And two years later, a unicorn shows up in their city. So this unicorn is rampaging around. It's sighted at the local seafood market. The scientists discovered this unicorn. And when they write their first paper about it, they don't talk about the horn at all. They go into all sorts of other minor details. They talk about the hoofs, the hair color, the shape of the head, but they don't talk about the horn. And so this raises a lot of alarm bells for me and for other scientists, because here we have this completely plausible pipeline of research that might have created the pandemic virus. And we have these scientists not being forthcoming about their plans to create these unicorns and not telling us about the horn when they first
virus, discover the virus.
And it's just worth adding, Sam, that until I saw the diffuse proposal, I was leaning towards the view that this might well have been a lab leak of a natural virus, that they had simply mishandled in the lab, that they'd got this virus from a bat, they'd been working on it, it infected somebody, and there you go. Once I saw the diffuse proposal, I thought, no, it's more likely now that they took a natural virus, deliberately manipulated it with a furin cleavage site, which made it more infectious, and that's when the pandemic started. So we're not just talking about a natural virus that leaked, we're talking also about
the possibility of a manipulated virus that leaked. It just seems like a incredible coincidence that this virus, this extremely unique pandemic virus with a furin cleavage site, shows up in the one study in the entire world where there is a lab with that exact plan to define novel cells like viruses and put these novel furin cleavage sites into them.
So why now and why there? Yeah, it's fairly astounding, and it's doubly astounding that people feel that there should be some taboo around investigating this topic. But when you say that we have the emails expressing the private fears of Chinese scientists, how early does this go back in the timeline? What sort of information do we have from the Chinese side that has leaked out and it can give us some sense of how they were thinking about this from before the moment where it
was an acknowledged pandemic. So actually, because most of these emails were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, they were from Western virologists. Some of them had strong connections with scientists in China. And so one Australian virologist, for example, in February 2020, he said he does so much work with Chinese scientists, and what they're telling him is that people that believe it came from the lab and that they're being lied to. So a lot of this information is secondhand. So in a separate incident, for example, there's a virologist based in the US who had contacts at a prestigious Beijing Pathogens Institute. And they intimated that they were aware that someone had gotten infected with the pandemic virus in this prestigious virology lab in Beijing, but there was no word said about it.
It wasn't in the news or anything, it was only found out when their emails were fired. The email chains that are of interest are basically between and among US-based scientists with some admixture from the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. But they particularly show Western virologists, some of whom had worked very closely with the scientists in Wuhan, raising the alarm at the start of February 2020 when they'd just seen the genome of the virus for the first time published by the Chinese team, raising the alarm that this looks like an engineered virus. And that led to a vital meeting on the 1st of February 2020 involving Anthony Fauci, Francis Collins, Jeremy Farrer from the UK, and about a dozen virologists in total who discussed and then emailed each about their discussions about what they thought might have happened. And that's a very interesting period, and it's a very interesting set of information because it's, as Alina says, it's revealed private views that were very different from
the ones they were expressing in public, both at the time and later. Okay, so let's talk about potential Western culpability here and the obvious bad incentive to cover up a shocking instance of negligence that got millions of people killed if in fact that's what has happened here. What is the EcoHealth Alliance and to what degree are any big names like Anthony Fauci involved in it or any other organizations that have a connection to the Wuhan Institute of Virology? What do we know about US funding of research there?
What's the pattern here? Right. I'll take that first. The EcoHealth Alliance began life as a relatively small and modest wildlife charity called the Wildlife Trust, which had grown out funnily enough of the books of Gerald Durrell, The Naturalist. About 12 years ago, it appointed a man named Peter Daszak, who was an expert on infectious diseases in wildlife, and he saw an opportunity that in the wake of SARS and MERS in particular – well, this was before MERS – but in the wake of SARS, there was suddenly a great interest in searching for viruses in wildlife, and there was a lot of funding heading that way through USAID, through the National Institutes of Health, and some through the Pentagon. He became a really very successful grantrepreneur, I think is the right expression, somebody who knows how to write grant proposals and get money. His modus operandi – this is Peter Daszak, by the way – his modus operandi was to draw down sums from the American taxpayer in various ways, channel them perfectly openly to groups in other countries to collaborate on virus hunting expeditions and laboratory experiments on those viruses. His biggest partner, or one of his biggest partners, was the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Something like $17 million a year is going through the Health Alliance. Quite a lot of that ends up at the Wuhan Institute of Virology over the years. Some of this overlaps with a period when gain-of-function research is halted, or at least funding of it is halted, in the US. Similar sorts of experiments continue in places like Wuhan, but partly funded by US taxpayer money through the National Institutes of Health and through USAID.
There is a question here over whether, not necessarily deliberately, but by accident, America ends up funding work in China that it would not fund in the US.
Are you suggesting that would have been by accident, or that would have been a way of working around US law? Would it have been legal to fund something in China that was illegal to perform in the
US? Well, it all depends on what you mean by gain-of-function research. If you are working on viruses that are thought only to be capable of infecting bats, then it probably doesn't qualify for gain-of-function under the NIH's rather strict definition of what that is. There's an argument there that they may well have known they were funding gain-of-function research, but not thinking it was formally defined as such, and therefore it was legitimate. I don't myself think it's a case of deliberately trying to get around a US ban, but I do think it's a case of China seeing an opportunity to do some of the research that is now not being done in America and to catch up with some of the technologies.
Alina may disagree with some of what I've just said. Let's, Alina, before you jump in, let's describe what we mean by gain-of-function research, because there's something fairly inscrutable about the existence of this research, I think. When you stand far enough outside the field, this seems like an especially Faustian form of science. Really, if you're going to court disaster, this has got to be at the top of the list of methods by which you would court it. What do we mean by gain-of-function research? Perhaps, Matt, you can describe why this is a semantically fraught exercise. I remember, and perhaps many listeners will recall, a bizarre exchange between Rand Paul and Anthony Fauci that happened in front of Congress over this topic where, depending on your political biases and the echo chamber in which you get your news, you either thought that Rand Paul had embarrassed himself as a total ignoramus, or you thought Anthony Fauci was dissembling in the most shocking way and refusing to answer very basic questions. Why is this difficult to define, and there's a remaining question, why is this research
so tempting to do? Maybe I can expand on this. Regarding the Rand Paul and Anthony Fauci exchange, they were both right and wrong at the same time because they were using different definitions of gain-of-function research. According to the NIH, it has a very strict definition of gain-of-function research of concern. This means that it is only considered gain-of-function research of concern if you're working with a pathogen that is both highly transmissible and highly deadly in people. How could you possibly know that until you had created such a pathogen? In the case of, let's say, Wuhan Virology research, they were taking these novel pathogens from bats, from animals, from some sick people, but they had no idea of knowing whether these were pandemic pathogens. Their work could be argued to not fall under that class of research, and not be considered gain-of-function research. So, when Rand Paul asked Anthony Fauci did you fund gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Virology Lab, he could defensively say no, I didn't. Because he doesn't consider that type of research to meet the definition that's being used in this count-on funding, by the way. It wasn't a ban of the research, it was a count-on U.S. government funding of that type
of research, U.S. government. SL. It's worth just adding what's meant by gain of function, because I think not everybody realizes this, but the function we're talking about is ability to infect a human being say, and gain would be an increase in the ability to infect a human. So that's sort of where this debate's kicked off in 2013-1912 was experiments that were designed to see how easy it was to change an influenza virus that infected birds into one that could be transmitted between mammals. Now that's obviously taking a virus that is potentially dangerous, making it more dangerous to human beings because you're now saying it's good at infecting mammals. So that is the function that's being gained, is the ability to infect eventually human beings.
JS. But that seems like a very straightforward definition of the sort that Rand Paul was arguing for. And on Alina's account just now, it seems like the more rabbinical fine prints, and one could argue evasive definition used by Fauci in the NIH, requires some prior knowledge of lethality or dangerousness. Do I have that right?
JS. Yes, I think you do. Yes, I think you do. JS. Yeah, it had to be both deadly and infectious. So if you were working with a novel bad virus, how could you possibly know that it was both deadly and infectious in people? So it's kind of a chicken versus egg kind of conundrum where you can't prevent work with novel pathogens that
could lead to a pandemic based on this definition. JS. But just to play Rand Paul for a second here, we know from EcoHealth Alliance documents that some of the experiments done in Wuhan, in which they swapped the spike gene between two viruses, caused the viruses to become more infectious by about 10,000 times in human cells in the lab. They also caused them to be more lethal to humanized mice by about two times, I think. Is that right, Alina? So they definitely caused a gain of infectivity and lethality in a virus. I don't think you need to debate that. Whether that met the definition of gain of function experiment is, as you say, Sam, somewhat rabbinical. JS. Okay. Well, why do this...
Alina, but say whatever you want to say, but perhaps you can then explain, why is there this apparent ever present temptation to do this research, which is so obviously dangerous? Let me just flesh out the ignorance at the base of my question. If we now live in a world where we can very quickly sequence any pathogen, and we now live in a world where we can very quickly design vaccines against that sequence, why is it that we would need to be manipulating pathogens in the lab to see the mechanisms by which their infectiousness or lethality can grow or be diminished in human cells? What is the temptation to do this work in advance of having nature throw up a novel virus, which we can quickly sequence and quickly
design vaccines against? JS. So in the decade leading up to the pandemic, there had been this growing body of scientists who believed that you could predict future pandemics or at least prepare for them by finding novel viruses in the world and understanding how they might eventually take steps to becoming a human pathogen. So it was this sequence of steps that they were extremely interested in studying. And this is why they were going out there collecting as different viruses as possible. So not just viruses that looked like previous human outbreak viruses, but completely never seen before viruses from the wild, they would take this into the lab and try and see how would this virus one day cause an outbreak in people. So here it is almost inevitable that some gain of function research would be done. And I suspect in their perspective, they never believed that they would create an actual human pandemic pathogen. So because how could you operate under that kind of stress? If you were the scientist doing this experiment, how could you operate under this pressure of knowing that if you have a single error, you could cause a million deaths, right? So I think a lot of them had this mindset that the work they were doing was not that risky. So despite having gains of function on these novel viruses, they didn't believe that they were creating a novel pandemic pathogen.
AL. And Sam, just to defend them for a second, the one thing you said that we should be doing instead, which is just when a pandemic starts, quickly develop a vaccine. Actually, that's something that was not quick until very recently. Vaccine development had not speeded up hardly at all in the last few decades. Still took several years to get a good vaccine developed. The messenger RNA technology has changed that. We now can do vaccines quicker, but they still aren't particularly effective against respiratory viruses, as we've seen. They can reduce your chances of dying a lot, but they can't so much reduce your chances of passing on the virus. So it's not unreasonable to say we are a sitting duck for the next pandemic virus. If we knew which ones might cause it, and we developed vaccines for them and kept them in the bank, ready for when they happened, we might be better off. It's not completely bonkers as an idea, but it isn't terribly a good idea to be doing experiments that actually make that outcome
more likely. KA. But I do want to point out that the speed at which these vaccines were developed, the vaccine technology that enabled that, it did not benefit from any of this virus hunting, plus gain of function research. So all of that body of work to predict pandemics,
wherever, it did not help us in responding to this pandemic, as gain of function research.
That's true. Yes.
Yeah. So someone once compared this, I believe, in Rob Reed's podcast here on this podcast. Someone once compared this to creating wanted posters for dangerous criminals. We are going into the wild. We're finding viruses that stand a chance of killing us and we're naming them in advance and advertising their existence to ourselves and perhaps designing bespoke vaccines against them. But once you add the gain of function piece and the manipulation of both infectivity and lethality, what we're really doing is actually creating the dangerous criminals ourselves. I mean, they don't quite yet exist. We're creating the human transmissible lethal versions or moving further down the path with respect to both variables and then putting people by definition in close proximity to these viruses on a daily basis in labs where we know even the most secure of which have a highly imperfect record of keeping their dangerous pathogens to themselves. I mean, we just have a long history of lab leaks on several scary viruses. Is there any defense? And then you add this final piece that now we know we can design vaccines very quickly. And so that even if all of this dangerous work provided some kind of time advantage, it's arguably on the order of, I mean, it gives us what, a 72 hour head start at this point?
Is there any defense of gain of function research of this sort now in today's
world in your view? Certainly not in the wake of the pandemic. And I go back to Azilomar in 1975, I think it was when the first genetic engineering techniques were becoming available and scientists gathered in California and said, let's put some rules around this. And one of the rules they said, let's not work on highly pathogenic organisms. Now somewhere in between then and now that rule
must have been dropped, but I- I would put a rule of 0.1 before that, which is let's not create
the highly pathogenic organisms in order to work on them, in order to work on them. Right, exactly. And I consider myself somebody who knows quite a lot about genomics. I've, as I said, written books about it, I follow it, I know it, but I hadn't particularly followed virology in the last 10 years. I was gobsmacked to find out that these experiments were going on. I genuinely, it took me aback to realize that they'd gone this far. Hey, the technical versatility of what they're doing was pretty spectacular. And particularly the ability to insert sections of genetic code seamlessly into viruses, swaps spike genes in and out and things like that is spectacular achievements in terms of techniques. But to be playing with potentially dangerous viruses, making them more dangerous in a world where, as you say, lab leaks happen all the time. I mean, the SARS virus, we know leaked about seven times in 2003, four after the epidemic was over in labs, once in Taiwan, once in Singapore, and several times in Beijing. And in most of those cases, we don't know how it happened. There wasn't a broken test tube or a punctured glove.
So the fact that this research was going on, on the scale that it was going on, completely changes the Bayesian prior of people who say, look, previous pandemics didn't happen because of lab leaks, so why should this one? Well, previous pandemics didn't happen in the era when these kinds of experiments were going on.
Alina, do you feel the same way about gain of function research at this point?
Yes. I think that the risks are too high and they far outweigh the benefits, especially for this very niche type of virology research. So there's no argument that the vast majority of virology is essential and life-saving, but there's this tiny sliver of research where you're enhancing novel pathogens or known pathogens to a point where they could cause a novel outbreak that I think has unacceptable risk because it's not just the researcher then. If you are in the lab and you're working this virus and you spill it on yourself and you die, that is you. But then you walk on the street and cause a million people to die. I mean, why are those people shortering the risk when they had known they wouldn't even call in to make the decision in the first place to do the experiment? And so I think a lot of this comes from hubris. It comes from the belief that it's not going to be me, the scientists working the virus that's causing an outbreak. It's going to be some scientists in China that's causing an outbreak. And so I think that there's a belief that the biosafety infrastructure and policies in the West, let's say, are sufficient and safe enough to allow people to do these risky research. But no, it's not okay for our neighbors in China to do it. And I think it's important for people, scientists around the world to acknowledge that this human error, no matter where you are, no matter how high of a biosafety you're working at, even if the coronavirus research had not been done at BSL-2, if it had been done at the top biosafety, you can't protect against just random human error.
Or let's say a researcher is mentally unwell and decides to take it out of the lab and cause an outbreak. There are just so many things that we should do to stop that from ever being
a possibility. So can you put yourself in the position? You said earlier, Matt, that there's a pervasive fear that if we pull back the veil on what happened here, the whole field will come under some Luddite intolerance for this whole class of research, and much to the detriment of humanity. Can you don the hat of somebody who would defend past practices along these lines of gain-of-function research on dangerous pathogens going forward? I mean, who would disagree with what we've been saying the last 10 minutes or so? How would they disagree with it?
Well, they would mostly use an argument about the importance of knowledge, that the more we find out about the world, the better off we're going to be. And on the whole, I agree with that. And there's no such thing as dangerous research. There's only dangerous applications of research and so on, that we're better off finding out that you can split the atom than not. And the right side got that technology before the wrong side or something like that. So this is a very, very difficult area generally. But I'm a bit of a libertarian. I tend to the view that rules and regulations are often too onerous and obtrusive and are getting in the way of useful innovation and are sometimes making safety less good, not better because of the perverse incentives they create, et cetera. But I'm nothing like as libertarian as some of these virologists. They're making the argument, it's none of your business to tell me what experiments I can and can't do. This should be for us scientists to decide. And that feels to me dangerously hubristic and going way too far.
As I say, I'm a bit of a libertarian, but I'm all for some regulations about gain of function research in viruses. Elina's made the point before that if we're going to do some of this work, do it in Greenland, do it a long way from population centers, do it in the middle of a city of an 11 million people like Wuhan.
Well, maybe not Greenland, but an isolated island that's not owned or populated by anybody.
Sorry. Yes, I didn't want to give Greenland as a fright.
Yeah. So perhaps we can close on this question. Is there any more to say about the incentives that are working against our honestly exploring the origins of the pandemic at this point? And I hear I'm thinking about what is and isn't being said by scientists and scientific publications and government bodies and people like Anthony Fauci and Francis Collins and the WHO and anyone who could be implicated in a system of bad incentives here to not look under the rug, to not share private communications that predate our knowledge that we were going to tip into a pandemic. I mean, just why is this not a free investigation at this point that's
marshalling the talents and cooperative capacities of everyone qualified?
We're currently in a deadlock between proponents and opponents of this type of risky pathogen research. So on the one hand, you've got these virus hunters and people who do borderline gain of function research of concern, and they've invested so much. And this is such an international movement that it's not just China, of course, but the US is a huge supporter of this type of research funding and also in terms of doing the science. And so for them to suddenly be cast as the people who might have started this pandemic, they can't stomach that. So in all this time, they've been saying that they're the heroes, they're the ones saving lives, but now they might have been the ones to accidentally make the most costly scientific mistake in history. And so there is a strong incentive on their part to say, no way, this is just natural, this is from this market where people are doing uncivilized things. These are language words that have been used by biologists to describe the market vendors. So for them, the stakes cannot be higher. They cannot be seen as even being possible, like corporates of this pandemic.
And I would add that on the other side of the equation, there's nobody with a vested interest in it being a lab leak. And by that, I mean, literally a sort of financial vested interest. There's no, I can say this from personal experience, neither Alina nor I are being offered large checks to come out in favor of a lab leak. Yes, we signed a contract to write a book, but A, we gave half the proceeds to charity, and B, those proceeds weren't spectacular. I mean, they were just enough to pay us to do the book. And we'd have made very clear to the publishers, we weren't writing a book that said this is a lab leak. We were writing a book that says this might be a lab leak or it might be a market. We don't know which, but we think it's important to find out. But apart from that, there's no one going around saying I could make a lot of money out of this being a lab leak. It just doesn't work that way. So I can't think of any institution, company or charity or body or something that is going to benefit if it turns out to be a lab leak. So the vested interests are arranged against
on the other side of the equation. Well, I want to point out also that the EcoHealth Alliance, for example, has received more NIH funding to do more virus hunting in Southeast Asia. So now they've kind of cut China out of the picture, but they're still doing the
same type of research. Yeah. Once again, I want to just revisit my fundamental confusion on this point. I understand that prior to the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 and our implementation of the mRNA technology to produce vaccines, we couldn't quickly produce vaccines in a way that we now can, but presumably we're fast now and only getting faster. So my question is, how is any of that virus hunting and gain a function of manipulation defensible given the time course here, given that we know we can sequence things very, very quickly, and we know we can design a vaccine against that sequence very, very quickly? What purpose is served by dredging up either existent or as yet non-existent viruses and characterizing the mayhem they cause in human cells in advance?
Well, presumably the EcoHealth Alliance thinks that next week in Thailand, in a bat cave, it's going to find a virus in a bat that is, in the words of one of their papers, poised for human emergence. And they're going to be able to say to the world, look, we found the next pandemic, and we found it before it starts, and we're going to get a head start on it.
But a head start is how much time now? It really seems like you can almost hold your breath for the full duration of the head start afforded to you.
I think that they have a very rosy picture of what's going to happen when a future outbreak happens is that they think that they will have a stockpile of vaccines that can act against any coronavirus, for example, and that people would just willingly take these vaccines. So I think that they're thinking of maybe a few weeks head start because they would have such a large stockpile of vaccines, but you could not possibly vaccinate all of the people who are exposed to that future pandemic. So I think some of this actually has some military undertones in terms of biodefense that they have enough vaccines for soldiers.
Yeah. And it's worth mentioning that the diffuse proposal itself, which wasn't funded by the Pentagon, by the way, but included some really wacky ideas, like they were going to develop aerosol sprays that they could spray into bat caves in war zones so that soldiers were not exposed to viruses because the bats had been vaccinated by these aerosol sprays. Now, I mean, that's a technology that might work in 100 years' time, but it's not going to work in the short term. And it's a pretty strange premise that you've got a war going on in a zone where there's a new disease breaking out. So these people have to come up with ingenious ideas to justify getting money from some of their funders. That's, I'm afraid,
a big part of what goes on. One thing I think we should say explicitly, I think it's been fairly clear throughout that in discussing the possibility of a lab leak origin to COVID, we're not alleging, I think very few people are even thinking about the possibility that this virus was deliberately leaked into the human population or that it was so-called weaponized, that this is an agent of bioterrorism that was in the conscious mind of any person working on
this virus. Correct. Yeah. I think Lena and I both know that the People's Liberation Army did have interest in what was going on in these labs, but I suspect mainly from a defensive viewpoint, just as most bioterrorism research in the US is defensive. It's about how to respond when a terrorist unleashes a bioweapon, not about how to unleash a bioweapon yourself. Now, that may be me being too gullible, but I've seen no evidence that this is likely to have come out
of an offensive bioweapon research program. Yeah. There's no way to control a bioweapon once you've released it, if it's highly transmissible and causes a pandemic. So even if you could lock down your entire country for like 10 years, let's say, eventually you'd have to open your borders. I mean, eventually people will come into the country. So you can't control how a virus mutates and you can't protect your borders forever. So in my opinion, releasing a
bioweapon is kind of self-harming. Yeah. Also, if you're going to come up with a bioweapon for the purpose of killing soldiers, you would create something far more lethal than SARS-CoV-2. Yes, that's true. Well, is there anything more to say at this point? I guess many people would want to know how confident you are that this is far more likely to be a lab leak at this point than a naturally derived virus. From everything we've said here, it feels like more than a coin toss to me. I mean, there's just too much that is peculiar about this. But if there was a casino, we could go to and place a bet on this, it would be tempting to do that because it does seem like
the odds are better than not that this came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Yes, that's true. Yeah, I think that's a good way of describing it. I think it's more than likely that it did, but I would hesitate. I don't think it's helpful to put a number on it. I'm not 80% or 90% sure or whatever, but I'm certainly strongly leaning that way.
And I don't know what Alina will say, but she may be saying something similar. One of my pet peeves is that you've got all these journalists constantly going out to scientists and politicians asking them to guess, asking them to say, what's your betting number? And I wish they would just change that question and say, how do you plan to find evidence? How do you plan to investigate? Because right now we have no direct evidence, so we should be focusing on finding evidence instead of placing our bets. And I believe that the process of investigating will not only inform us to future risk, but help to deter future instances of negligence, let's say, and also help to find some sort of closure for the people impacted by this pandemic. So I have no understanding of the experts who are saying it's not important to find the origin of COVID-19, or it's not going to help us understand the risk. I think it's completely integrated into
preventing future pandemics. Exactly. And do you have a sense at this moment of what the attitudes are in the scientific establishment? I mean, if we were going to talk to the editors at Nature or Science or The Lancet or any other esteemed scientific journal, how would they view
the conversation we've just had? I think from what we're seeing, they would say, hey, this is just conspiracy theorizing. You are going on a wild goose chase here. The evidence doesn't support you. There's no direct evidence, et cetera, et cetera. And I find that they usually base that on some really rather superficial understanding of what went on. It's much easier to think that the lab leak is implausible if you don't know very much about the work that was being done in that lab. And these are busy people with lots of other things to think about, and they haven't really had the chance to read up in detail as to what was going on in that lab. But on the whole, there is a fairly implacable view in the scientific establishment that it's unlikely and
it's probably a conspiracy theory to think that it might've come out of the lab.
Well, I think it's important to find out how much of the scientific community is aware of the diffuse proposal and the low biosafety levels in the Wuhan lab. Because I think there's a competition in terms of the types of information relating to origins that are being shared broadly in the media. So a lot of people are hearing things about the two science papers recently, well, last year that came out that claimed that they found proof of an infected animal at the market. But there's much less coverage of things like the diffuse proposal and the low biosafety. So I think that needs to be checked first. And the second thing is that I think that a lot of the scientific community is conflicted in terms of the origins. Because this type of research, the gain of function type of research, the risky pathogen research was endorsed by leaders in not just funding agencies, not just the research institutes, but even the publishers, even the journal editors, they endorsed this type of work. They published lots of glowing things about this type of work. So for them to suddenly have to grapple with the fact that this type of work might have caused the deaths of a million Americans and some estimated 20 million excess deaths, it's a lot for them to make that U-turn. And do you think people are worried about criminal liability here or just reputational damage? I think more than criminal liability, it's a fear of violence. I mean, there have been death threats and violent threats against virologists.
And I think that's extremely
regrettable. Is there anything to say about any of the more famous people who have been besmirched in many quarters on this topic and people like Anthony Fauci or Francis Collins? Are there any other famous people? I mean, I know they've also come under various threats for reasons that are, as you said, quite regrettable. But what do we know about, for instance, Fauci's connection to any of this research?
Can I jump in there? Because I'd like to say that at worst, Anthony Fauci is guilty of premature certainty and perhaps a bit of neglect in terms of watching where the funding was going from within his agency. Those are not gigantic crimes. And it does feel to me important to keep the focus on the fact that this work that we're worried about was done in China, that the outbreak happened in China, that the people withholding information from us, vital information in China. And there's a bit of a tendency here to go after proxies in the US because that's where you can get answers. That's where you can put people on the spot. And to some extent, that lets off the hook the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Now, I don't have quite the same lenient view of the EcoHealth Alliance, which didn't even tell us that it had put in the diffuse proposal till it leaked. And so I think I have a rather more critical view of that. But I think some of the witch hunting of Fauci is in danger of taking our focus off the main event, which is something happened in Wuhan. We know something happened. We don't know what it was.
And it's easily possible that it could have been something in a lab as a result of overambitious, overcomplacent,
poorly designed experiments. Well, Matt, Helena, thank you so much for educating me on this topic. I can't say that it improves my mood for the rest of the day, but it was wonderful to speak to both of you. And I highly recommend people follow any further effort to make on this front and
read your book, which again is viral and available in paperback. Thank you very much for having us on the show, Sam.
I'm really grateful that you're covering this topic on your show. And I wish that there was
a platform for scientists to talk directly to each other on the origins of COVID-19. Yeah. Well, that's a request that I'm sure someone could figure out how to implement. I don't think it's going to be on Twitter where you have the king of the kingdom tweeting things like my pronouns are prosecute Fauci, but there should be somewhere where scientists can do this online if nowhere else. Well, to be continued, thank you both.