On COVID Origins

Ignore all institutional information on the origin of COVID, it's far more complex than they can communicate

Apparently I have a podcast again. Dammit.

I spoke with an expert on the origins of COVID and that pushed me to realize that maybe my videos don’t necessarily need to be video based and could just be podcasts.

Ugh.

We live in the world in which we are thrust and not the world we find ideal. So I’m going to push all my conversations (there will be many) into my Soundcloud podcast format and I’ll figure it out from there.

  • A Long One On COVID Origins

  • All News is Broken

  • Looney Tunes: Rhapsody Rabbit

A Long One On COVID Origins

You may have recently seen the story that the WHO completed it’s investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Or maybe you saw the story that the interim report from the investigative team has been scrapped. Or maybe you saw the story that COVID-19 was created in a lab. Or maybe you saw that a lab escape hypothesis was very unlikely.

To clear this up, I talked to someone I trust who has been following this story incredibly closely and in such detail that I find myself returning again and again to see what new things she has learned. Allow me to introduce you to Alina Chan.

I first found Alina quite by accident. A month ago, I was racing through a book on the COVID-19 catastrophe (appropriately titled “The COVID-19 Catastrophe”) by Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet and a fierce advocate for the role of the World Health Organization (WHO) in international health policy. I had a book review deadline and so I was taking a lot of notes and asking a lot of questions.

I was somewhat critical of the delicacy with which Dr. Horton handles China, but I understood also that he was likely to have some input on the extremely delicate question of investigating the origins of the COVID virus:

Knowing he will need the goodwill of the Chinese government in order to perform a postmortem investigation on this crisis, he chooses not to irritate them or otherwise give them reason to bar anyone in the WHO from that investigation. This is a laudable goal, as the investigation to come will require diplomacy, grace, and cooperation from the famously vindictive and censorious Chinese government. 

It was in this capacity that I first discovered Alina Chan’s remarkable work. Ms. Chan has been covering the origin of COVID and particularly the role of the Chinse Communist Party (CCP) in attacking and silencing many of the whistleblowers in this remarkable and terrifying history.

I’ve been trying to write this piece for weeks and it just completely gets away from me every time. I suppose the easiest way to do this is to walk through my own evolution in considering the nature of COVID origins.

My own “go-to” source on COVID evolution has gone on record early in this crisis that the most likely origin of COVID is zoonotic (passed from animals to humans), but that the possibility that it escaped from a lab is not outrageous.

If you read through that thread, it’s an excellent overview from February 2020 of why we thought that the most likely scenario was that COVID transmitted from an animal to humans and that is how the pandemic started.

I took that information and tucked it away into the “question resolved” part of my brain. This view was reinforced by several virologists and epidemiologists I talked to so I more or less tuned out almost all other COVID origin information over the next 9 months. It didn’t help that people all over the place were claiming that COVID was created in a lab (impossible) or intentionally genetically modified in a lab (improbable) and that these stories were usually conflated with the “lab escape” hypothesis.

But during this time, I missed a lot of important information.

It’s common with viruses of zoonotic origin that we’ll find a *lot* of animal examples. For SARS 1, we found that masked palm civets, raccoon dogs, ferret badgers, and cats were possible carriers of the virus. For COVID, we’ve found that mink can contract the virus.

I missed that China claims they tested tens of thousands of animals covering 300 species and found exactly zero evidence of COVID in any of them. Nothing. No active virus and no antibodies.

I didn’t realize that there is a history of viral escape from labs. This happened with SARS 1 more than one time and the amount of tracking for previous outbreaks is both incredibly fast and well documented. None of that has happened with COVID.

I watched as Alina live-tweeted the media briefing from the investigative committee and I felt like we knew less at the end than we thought we knew when they started. The lab escape hypothesis, though plausible, was dismissed quickly and with prejudice. If you have a legal background, you may take issue with my phrasing here. But it is intentional.

Instead, the Chinese government has demanded that the investigators entertain a new theory, that COVID came to Wuhan from frozen food sent to them from an unknown origin.

This theory is not a plausible one. It presupposes that COVID originated somewhere other than China and that it was shipped to China whereupon it caused an outbreak.

Let’s be frank: the purpose of this theory is to deflect blame for the virus away from China and to encourage the WHO and other international health organization efforts across the world to take the investigative pressure off of Wuhan, off of China.

If the virus came to China from frozen food, then it could have come from anywhere. We would need a comprehensive list of countries that shipped frozen food to Wuhan, which is larger than New York City. The WHO would need to then deploy teams to each of those countries and investigate their wildlife and population, looking for active infections and antibodies. They clearly do not have the budget or personnel for such an endeavor.

We would have to assume that COVID originated somewhere else but didn’t infect enough people to trigger a pandemic before they inadvertently shipped it to Wuhan. Every investigation in each country would be a political event and require negotiation and diplomacy. The amount of time that has transpired since the beginning of this crisis means that the antibody prevalence may have diminished which means that we may never know the full results.

That is… if we take the frozen food hypothesis seriously.

I don’t want to end this in a place where I say “obviously this was a lab escape”. But it’s an extremely plausible theory and I’m starting to get frustrated when people tell me that considering lab escape as a plausible idea is crazy talk. That makes me feel crazy… because it is meant to make me feel crazy.

I deeply resent it when people try to make me feel crazy.

From what I know, which is (if I’m being generous) 10% of the available information:

  • zoonotic origin (animal to human) is not off the table. This is a plausible theory. Also, we have no hard evidence supporting it. In fact, there is a frustrating lack of evidence supporting it.

  • lab escape is not off the table. This is a plausible theory with precedent. We have no hard evidence supporting it. But also, the CCP has closed the door on investigating this possibility so we are unlikely to learn any new information on this absent a defection from a Chinese scientist or researcher.

  • lab manipulation is unlikely, though “manipulation” is a really generous term. It could mean anything from “the virus mutated in the lab to become more dangerous” to “they used some intentional genetic manipulation technology to make it more dangerous”. Again… I find this unlikely and we absolutely zero evidence that this was done.

All News Is Broken

I’m trying to not be upset, but I’m pretty upset about this story. Alina is a gem and I’m deeply thankful that I’ve stumbled into her insight. But I’m really frustrated that this is how I learn things these days. None of this is present in the media. When I try to track down information, all the “lab escape” info comes from Fox News or Breitbart, but then it’s followed up with really crazy stuff about manufactured viruses and bioweapons.

When I look for “lab escape is implausible” all the news comes from CNN or the New York Times or CNet, with stories written by people who clearly are unconcerned with the complexity of the truth. They have their headline and their desired outcome and that is what they are writing toward.

I’m incredibly glad to run into people like Alina, who is serious and thoughtful and trying hard to figure out the truth in real time. If you want to see scientists fighting, I can’t recommend this thread highly enough. I think Alina comes out on top, though I would be happy to talk to Nsikan Akpan with the same conditions to hear his side of why he thinks lab escape is implausible and a dangerous conspiracy theory.

It’s all quite exhausting. When you get down to it, the experts really disagree on only the smallest parts of the story. But those disagreements get built into mountains. We separate from each other, splitting into teams that are pro-thing-we-believed-already vs anti-thing-we-believed-already.

I have exactly zero opinions on how this gets solved in the long run. I kind of hope that we settle into an accepted reality of where COVID came from, but that is not something I really expect to happen. My only hope is that we evolve a system of trust that prefers individuals over institutions, people we can trust over PR administrators.

Looney Tunes: Rhapsody Rabbit

In this, Bugs is a concert pianist who shoots audience members who interrupt his performance with so much as a cough.

There are so many good gags here. I adore the part where Bugs is trying to hide his piano playing from a mouse that lives in his piano and is disrupting his performance. The variations on classical themes set next to jazzy piano pieces followed up with chopsticks is just a delightful. The fact that they can set so much of emotionality of this short to well known classical music is so much fun. There are jokes about Bugs using his ears to play, about using the piano like a type-writer, about the mouse feeling the approaching attack of the piano hammers.

It’s a wordless wonder of a cartoon that never slows down.