The Deeper Questions Behind The “Lab Origins” Debate

ByMadhava Setty, MD (via Collective Evolution)

IN BRIEF

  • The Facts:It is being slowly accepted that SARS-COV2 originated in a laboratory. The delay in this admission has not been due to media “spin” alone but from scientists themselves.
  • Reflect On:How can we “trust the science” if the scientists are being disingenuous?

As the majority of Americans gather around the prevailing voice of our trusted medical institutions, those opposing it seem to be digging in their heels as well. Why is this happening? After all, we are not arguing over religion or political ideology (or at least we shouldn’t be). This pandemic and its management falls squarely in the realm of science, something that should be objective and indisputable. How is the layperson supposed to make sense of the growing polarity concerning this issue? Unless one has related training in virology, epidemiology, statistics and a decent understanding of the history and the sequence of investigations that have led scientific opinion to consensus positions before this pandemic, there is no way to be “scientific”. How are we to know whether the edicts coming from our leaders are reasonable and founded? This puts us in a difficult position, one that we are unable or unwilling to acknowledge: we have to trust someone else. The question is, whom?

Mainstream Media is beginning to acknowledge that SARS-COV2 originated in a lab

There has recently been a shift in the mainstream narrative. Some of these mainstream sources have been willing to take a hard look at where this virus came from: the “lab origins” thesis. In this recent interview with evolutionary biologists Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein, popular satirist and political commentator Bill Maher admits that “it would almost be a conspiracy theory to think it didn’t start in a lab.” The reasons for this are clear to anyone who has looked beyond the veil of simplistic statements and abjectly poor investigative journalism coming from mainstream sources. Gain of Function studies on SARS viruses were being conducted in publicly funded laboratories in this country for years prior to 2014. One could argue this was part of bioterrorism research just as easily as it was part of a pandemic preparedness effort. It is not so hard to see that in order to be prepared to combat a highly contagious and virulent pathogen we must be able to study the pathogen itself. Pandemic preparedness and bioterrorism research are basically the same thing.

As the story unfolds in the mainstream narrative, it is becoming apparent that the wet market hypothesis will soon be jettisoned for its sheer implausibility. Is it likely that this virus could survive in a bat or pangolin for generations while mutating in such a way that it could not only immediately survive in a human body but be so virulent as well? What are the factors that would be involved in allowing this new strain to behave unlike previous SARS viruses in terms of its copious presence in our nasopharyngeal cavities, apparent transmissibility in the asymptomatic and enduring pathogenicity when floating around in the air or lurking on surfaces? The answer is far more than one, making this wet market to global pandemic story all the more unacceptable.

As establishment science comes to its senses, we are left with the reality that the pandemic has most probably been the consequence of a laboratory research that got out of control. It may not be excusable or forgivable but at least we can take comfort that our attention has been refocused on what is plausible. However simply acknowledging the high probability of lab origins and moving forward with all the same initiatives to combat this virus is not enough. There are more questions that need to be posed first.

How did some Scientists “spin” the science?

This argument over SARS-COV2 origin is not new at all. It was being hotly debated a year ago for some of the same reasons I mentioned above. The lab origin thesis was effectively (and prematurely) purged from “acceptable” discussions when a paper entitled “The Proximal Origin of SARS-COV2” (KG Anderson et al) appeared in Nature Medicine (March 17, 2020). This piece served as the foundation of a wall of scientific opinion that was rapidly erected to contain the dangerous “conspiracy theory” that the virus was a product of human intention and ingenuity. If you were to read the piece it would be hard to not end up shrugging your shoulders and going along with the authors’ thesis. The authors are well-respected and published scientists that include W. Ian Lipkin, pathologist, neurobiologist and epidemiologist at Columbia University,  internationally recognized for his work around W. Nile Virus and SARS. They are assured in their conclusions and offer the reader, among other things, a comparative study of the peptide structure and genetic sequence of this virus and closely related variants. 

I am a physician and was led to this piece months ago in my research into this topic. I admit that I was left scratching my head. It wasn’t until I tuned in to a blog surrounding this and other issues hosted by Dr. Meryl Nass, a respected and dutiful researcher of pandemics and bioterrorism, that l was able to grasp where the misdirection was introduced. Dr. Nass correctly points out that it may not be possible to irrefutably prove that the virus was of lab origin or not, however it is the erroneous assumptions and unsound logic the authors of the Nature Medicine article use that point to the obscuration of the facts in a manner we could reasonably deem as deliberate.

After presenting us with a thorough description of the structure of SARS-COV-2 and analysis of its means of entering human cell lines via the Angiotensin Converting Enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor, the authors introduce their challenge to the lab origins position. The authors state:

“While the analyses above suggest that SARS-CoV-2 may bind human ACE2 with high affinity, computational analyses predict that the interaction is not ideal and that the RBD sequence is different from those shown in SARS-CoV to be optimal for receptor binding. Thus, the high-affinity binding of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to human ACE2 is most likely the result of natural selection on a human or human-like ACE2 that permits another optimal binding solution to arise. This is strong evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is not the product of purposeful manipulation.”

Anderson et al are presenting their first line of attack on the Lab Origins hypothesis. Because their computational analysis predicts that a different and more “optimal” receptor-binding domain (RBD) portion of the spike protein on SARS-COV-2 could have been built, they say, it must have arisen naturally. The authors are assuming that if the virus was the product of bioterrorists they would have designed it differently. Is this sound logic? It is not. First, the authors are presupposing that their computational method is the only one available for use. Second, there is no reason to assume that a bioterrorist would choose the genetic solution that was “optimal”. Moreover, picking a “solution” identical to a computationally derived genetic sequence would leave an obvious clue that human hands were involved. This is in fact what the authors are correctly pointing out. 

This line of reasoning sheds light upon their foundational assumptions about the sophistication and intentions of would-be bioterrorists. Are they experimenters in laboratories building a novel coronavirus to a computer model’s specs to study it? Or are they true bioterrorists seeking to design a bioweapon that has no trace of human manipulation? Obviously one cannot know. Making either assumption cannot be part of any rigorous forensic analysis.

The authors go on:

“It is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus. As noted above, the RBD of SARS-CoV-2 is optimized for binding to human ACE2 with an efficient solution different from those previously predicted. Furthermore, if genetic manipulation had been performed, one of the several reverse-genetic systems available for betacoronaviruses would probably have been used. However, the genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone.”

Here the authors are introducing yet another unfounded assumption: If the virus was designed as a biological weapon, why would a known coronavirus backbone necessarily be used as a basis for genetic manipulation? Certainly that option would be entertained by a team of bioterrorism researchers, but it is illogical to begin with that assumption. There are undoubtedly coronavirus backbones that have been genetically manipulated and remain behind closed doors and outside of public databases, i.e. unknown. It is equally logical to conclude that because noknown backbone was used the virus was purposefully manipulated.  

In any case, genetic manipulation is not the only way to create a backbone of a virus. The oldest way is to use passage, a laboratory technique where a virus is cultured through a series of cell lines from different species resulting in a viable product that will survive in the target species. Other techniques are also readily available: exposing a known virus to mutagenic factors, collecting those that survive and repeating the process or simply mixing related viruses together to see what recombinant products result. None of these methods will result in a “solution” that would be in any way predictable at the outset. Indeed, that is the advantage of using such techniques. This is a fact that is well known to virologists, making the authors’ analysis all the more suspicious.

It is undeniable that the authors were using poor logic and unfounded assumptions to make unsound conclusions. This should have been obvious to the scientific community at that time, and this paper should not have made it through the editorial process of such a respected publication as Nature Medicine. The disquieting thing is that quite the opposite occurred. The article instead served as the seminal piece to squelch all arguments for the lab origin hypothesis once a flurry of subsequent publications cited it. Who should be held accountable for this? The authors? The editorial committee of Nature Medicine? The cadre of scientists that chose to use this publication to “manufacture consensus”? The mainstream media for failing in their responsibility to offer a balanced view of the debate around this article? None can be held solely responsible and all were required to perpetuate the distortion. The implications here are very serious and impossible to ignore.

Who can we rely upon to faithfully report “the science”?

Are there no stops to the dissemination of baseless “scientific” opinion? This is a question that rarely gets asked because we tend to assume that in the end, scientific consensus will be reached without the need for oversight. We are talking about science and scientists here, not policy makers or private industrialists with conflicts of interest and personal gains that hang in the balance. Yet the lines between science, industry and policy-making are blurrier the closer we look. In any case, who can we rely upon to ensure that the scientists are doing their job in formulating sound approaches to the problems at hand? There isn’t anyone, other than the scientists themselves. So what went wrong here? How did the Anderson paper end up deftly hamstringing a viable theory about the origins of SARS-COV2 a year ago using specious logic and unnecessary assumptions? Why didn’t anyone say anything? Despite what is generally known, many did.

Here’s where things get hopeful, depending on how you look at them. It would be wrong to dismiss all virologists, epidemiologists and researchers as slaves to corporate funded research institutions and group-think. Behind the veil of headlines that tout the rigor of the data and fuel the “trust the science” mantra there are collections of perspicacious and tireless researchers and journalists that have been pushing back against the established opinion and raising valid concerns about the hijacking of the narrative by members of their own ilk. Notably RFK Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense and Dr. Joseph Mercola have published an excellent paper that comprehensively summarized the ongoing work of Dr. Alina Chan of MIT’s Broad Institute who has documented the timeline and significance of how the spin has been manufactured by the scientific community themselves. Of course, many are familiar with Mr. Kennedy and Dr. Mercola not because of what they are bringing to complex discussions but because of their stigmatization as purveyors of “anti-vax” and “pseudoscience” opinions. Once so marked they are felled by the mainstream media machine with all the efficiency and discrimination of a logger’s chainsaw in an old-growth forest.

There are others that are broadcasting the same signal of reason. DRASTIC (Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating Covid-19) is a group of independent scientists, journalists and researchers that have been bringing attention to the suspicious ways that the debate surrounding the origin of SARS-COV2 has been marginalized within the scientific community itself (more about their work here). For example, “A Statement in support of the scientists, public health professionals and medical professionals of China combatting Covid-19” appeared in the correspondence section of the esteemed medical journal Lancet in March of 2020. In this letter the authors explicitly characterize any dissent to the natural origins hypothesis as “rumour, disinformation and conspiracy theories”. 

What are we to make of such accusations leveled against scientists by scientists? This sort of rhetoric has no place in any scientific discussion of any kind and should be a matter of real concern for everyone. Has science been corrupted by the same forces that are undeniably turning investigative journalism into a means of promulgating propaganda in some instances? If that were the case, how then are we to “trust the science”?

The Predicament that we are in

We are in an uncomfortable situation. Unless we can independently dismantle the arguments like those in the Anderson paper, or can understand the significance of the appearance of a mysterious 12 nucleotide sequence in the SARS-COV2 genome that confers the virus with a polybasic furin cleavage site (resulting in a substantial increase in virulence described here), or can appreciate the implications of a situation where scientific journals publish papers without requiring authors to supply the raw data required for independent genomic confirmation, we are stuck. If the science is being spun or misrepresented or poorly reported, there would be no way to know it.

Determining the origin of SARS-COV2 is an important question that still needs to be answered definitively. Attempting to answer this question has brought light to more disturbing questions. We cannot expect the layperson to comprehend the scientific studies that underpin our approach to this pandemic, let alone critique the logic and assumptions made by the authors of these papers. Expecting that a news correspondent, mainstream or otherwise, is anymore capable of dissecting such information is not realistic either. Until we come to grips with this we will not be able to grasp the enormity of the crisis we are facing.

The Takeaway

An honest examination into the origin of SARS-COV2 suggests a danger more pernicious than the virus itself. How much of scientific opinion is dictated by non-scientific interests? How many other “consensus” positions are rooted in inexcusably poor reasoning and assumptions? If we can only rely on independent researchers to bring clarity to these topics, who is going to give them a voice? If there is a fact that can be extracted from this debate it would be that “trusting the science” and trusting what a media source says about “the science” can be two very different things.

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