Monday, June 7, 2021

Origin of SARS-CoV-2

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Health, Medicine, Society, Nature, Nature of Science, History of Science

Ed Hessler

I'm not ready to take a position on the source of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Was it the result of a laboratory accident or a natural outbreak or some combination? However, a surprising number of people seem  more than ready. I know that from our past experience and history., viruses come from nature.

Right now uncertainty is my position and my answer is "I don't know." The evidence is not only sparse but more importantly, insufficient to come close to pinpointing the source. Former President Trump had a habit of promoting the lab leak position and as was his habit without any evidence. President Biden has ordered an "intelligence review" to look for further evidence and this is a promising start. 

I've read enough to know that the search for viral origins is difficult even under the best of circumstances and scientists will want, demand sufficient evidence to make an informed judgment. 

I'm going to report on three stories that caught my eye, not in the interest of "balance" but in thinking about it origins..

Anne Reid, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education recently wrote an essay on the origin problem. I thought her closing comments were wise and emphasized the nature of scientific evidence as well as the kind of certainty science can provide (never full).

"Assuming that international authorities can come to an agreement on what would constitute a thorough investigation, and the scientists in the Wuhan laboratory are able to cooperate with that investigation (neither of which are inevitable, to be sure), the result will be a report with either of two possible conclusions. The most likely conclusion is that there is no evidence that any virus resembling SARS-CoV-2 was present in the laboratory and therefore SARS-CoV-2 is extremely unlikely to have escaped from there. The much less likely conclusion is that a virus very similar to SARS-CoV-2 (and I mean Very Similar — that is, much more closely related to SARS-CoV-2 than any wild bat viruses the lab might have been studying) was present and safety protocols were breached. The report probably won’t say the latter scenario is absolutely impossible. Science rarely deals in that level of certainty. So any future report is more likely to conclude that a laboratory escape is vanishingly unlikely and therefore that the virus probably emerged naturally from a wild source, even if we never find that source.

"Some people will not be satisfied. Indeed, they will continue to believe the deliberate bioweapon scenario... We’d all like a definitive answer; we’re unlikely to get one. But it’s worth having some patience while an unlikely but not impossible scenario is investigated." (my emphasis)

Here you will fine a very brief biography for Dr. Reid.

On a recent Sunday Face the Nation, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration said "the theory that the source of the coronavirus was a wet market in Wuhan has been 'fully disproven' and "that the side of the ledger that suggests that this could have come out of a lab has continued to expand." Gottlieb also noted that "lab leaks aren't rare and 'mishaps' have occurred even in the U. S." In closing he said, 

"We may never really determine with precision whether or not this came out of a lab," he said. "I think what we're likely to end up with is an assessment, a probability, unless we get very lucky and we either find the intermediate host, we find a colony of civet cats or pangolins where this is epidemic and it could have first spilled over into humans, or we have a whistleblower in China or regime change, which we're not going to have. I don't know that we're going to find out with certainty that this came out of a lab."

What is needed is "blood samples from employees of the lab in Wuhan, "the original source strains and early samples of the virus" all necessary for sequencing. That lab by the way does not have the highest security of labs conducing such research (two on a scale of four with four the highest). 

Bret Stephens who writes for the New York Times is not a science reporter, wrote a recent essay taking media reporting to task. Consider some of the words and phrases used in describing the idea of a lab-leak: "fringe theory,"  "abetting an 'infodemic', "debunked claim," "a dangerous conspiracy theory." Stephens has a strong view of what good journalism means. "Like good science, (it) should follow evidence, not narratives. It should pay as much heed to intelligent gadflies as it does to eminent authorities. And it should never treat honest disagreement as moral heresy."

The lab-leak idea must be on the table in the spirit and practice of of multiple working hypotheses in science, including, to use  of Stephens;'s words, "even if (Senator) Tom Cotton believed it. Even if the scientific 'consensus' disputed it. Even if bigots -- who rarely need a pretext --drew bigoted conclusions from it."

And I add even if the reporter is a conservative columnist for the New York Times. The essay was reprinted in the Star Tribune but is not available unless you are a subscriber. Here it is in the Salt Lake Tribune (6.4.2021). It is on-line but behind a paywall. The essay is well worth your time.


No comments:

Post a Comment