randombio.com | science commentary
Tuesday, May 12, 2020. Updated Saturday, May 16 2020

Don't politicize the Wuhan coronavirus (updated)

The destructive rhetoric about the origins of the virus needs to stop

I 've always regarded David Hume as the greatest philosopher, especially in his insistence that we cannot derive 'ought' from 'is' and vice versa. That's something we ought to keep in mind while we try to figure out what the 'is' is about the source of the virus SARS-CoV-2.

The coronavirus calamity has shown us many things we ought to do, including maintaining the integrity of our supply chains and protecting our economy from countries that may intend to do us harm. It also showed us how woefully unprepared our public health officials have been. In the middle of a pandemic it's far too late to begin searching for novel antivirals and inhibitors of TMPRSS2. There are now hundreds of clinical trials underway; by the time they're finished, the virus will either have mutated into something else or we will all have antibodies against it. Despite the doomsday shrieking in the press, those are really the only two possibilities.

But after the pandemic, an investigation is in order, and one is coming whether we want it or not. It does little good to get political about this, as many are doing. The destructive rhetoric about the origins of the virus needs to stop before I get angry. As a famous scientist once said, you wouldn't like me when I'm angry. Heck, some people wouldn't like me even when I'm not angry.

A conspiracy by neocons????????

One famous commentator says the idea that SARS-CoV-2 was accidentally leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) is a conspiracy by 'neocons.' Another calls the idea 'horseshoe batshit crazy.' Others are making comparisons to Bush's WMDs.

None of this is helpful. If the virus started in a wet market, we need to know that, so something can be done about wet markets. If a sample of SARS-CoV-2 was held at WIV and escaped, we need to know that. If scientists at WIV were doing genetic engineering on RaTG13, we need to know that as well. This doesn't mean we should fight a war over it; mistakes happen and they'll happen again if they're not corrected. It won't be corrected if we dismiss any of the possibilities for fear of the consequences.

If the question is covered up, or if the PRC government stonewalls, China will be the biggest loser. It might not be the end of globalism, but it will chill relations. Public opinion will be polarized between factions who wish to return to normal and those who remain suspicious. And it will strengthen the rationale for reduction of scientific cooperation and boycotts, divestment, and sanctions, as well as for a tariff.

If the lab hypotheses turn out to be valid (and I have no idea if they are), President Trump could then offer assistance from our CDC, which has long experience in containing BSL-4 viruses. It's no shame for the Chinese government to ask for advice. If the WIV made a mistake, it's a tragedy, not an act of war, and the USA should be happy to provide any assistance they may require to improve their skill.

A bigger challenge, however, will be to find a way to detect potentially infected air travelers. After 9/11, high-tech instrumentation was installed in some airports to detect traces of explosives. Although virus particles are fewer in number and chemically much different from small molecules, they are much larger, so there would be a correspondingly lower background. This type of passenger screening is needed in all airports, not just those receiving flights from China, since much of the virus came indirectly via Europe. It's obviously too late for SARS-CoV-2, but something needs to be in place for the next virus.

The lab theory of SARS-CoV-2

I've been carefully reading that 73-page article by Yuri Deigin posted on medium.com titled “Lab-Made? SARS-CoV-2 Genealogy Through the Lens of Gain-of-Function Research.”

Deigin quotes from their papers where they discuss what would happen if they introduced the S1/S2 furin recognition site into SARS-CoV S protein. His conclusion is that they might have tried it and the experiment might have gone horribly wrong, but it also could have evolved naturally. It's impossible to determine this, he says, from any analysis of the virus's DNA sequence, and I concur.

Let's be clear about this: manipulating viruses and toxins to study their effects is essential for understanding their effects and showing how to create cures. Ralph Baric, Shi Zhengli, and the other eminent virologists know that an antiviral agent against one virus might be ineffective against another.

Deigin's conclusion is this:

Even if CoV2 was indeed an unfortunate lab leak, the scientists themselves are not to blame, as they were working within the established international laws and guidelines on such research. Now, those who might be trying to cover up that leak, that's a different story.

No doubt some will accuse Deigin of being a conspiracy theorist—or worse, a neocon. The mythical conspiracy theorist seems to be the latest bogieman for the conformist press, but neocon is still good. Both are designed to take the focus off the message and put it on the messenger.

Messenger skeet shooting

Nature magazine has found a new sport: skeet-shooting anti-vaxxers, saying they endanger vaccinations against the coronavirus, assuming somebody succeeds in making one. They even have an article purporting to show “networks” among Facebook users expressing unapproved opinions, which they suggest might be useful in plotting a strategy to censor them. Pull!

The abstract starts with this gem:

Distrust in scientific expertise [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14] is dangerous.

Sorry to lecture, but once again: censorship is unethical and it doesn't work. Back in March 2020 when the PRC government was suppressing information, censorship was bad. Now that Facebook users are saying things Nature disagrees with, it's suddenly good. And who says distrust in scientific expertise is dangerous? Scientists. So what do they do? Build a computer model. Yeah, that'll work.

Judy Mikovits

Speaking of shooting messengers, Judy Mikovits's book Plague of Corruption, which she has released for free on the internet (reviewed here), has a zillion arrows in its back and (not coincidentally) shot up to the top of the best-seller lists.

Science magazine did a hit piece on her and the book, accusing her of falsehoods and making wacky statements, such as that face masks ‘activate’ the virus (which appears to be just a solecism on her part—from the context, she obviously means ‘accumulate’). Now they're posting a collection of their past articles on her, going back to 2011, under “Latest News.” It's embarrassing.

Mikovits may or may not be a nut as Science claims, and the people speculating about a leak from WIV could be wrong. They might even be neocons, whatever that may still mean. But there are worse things out there than SARS-CoV-2, and dismissing a hypothesis because your political enemies favor it—or accepting it for political reasons—is not going to make those things go away.

The UK Guardian also weighed in on Mikovits, repeating the claim about facemasks “activating” the virus and calling her a conspiracy theorist. I expect the Guardian to be unfair—after all, it's only a news site, and therefore mostly fiction—but Science is supposed to be about the dispassionate search for truth. When did that change? Did I miss another memo?

may 12 2020, 7:23 am. last edited may 16 220, 6:10 am

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