Aug 31 2021

The Origins of COVID

We are approaching two years into this pandemic and we still haven’t proved the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. However, this is not unusual at all, and in itself is not suspicious. It took 13 years to identify the origin of SARS, and we have never identified the origins of some Ebola outbreaks. But what do we know about the origins of SARS-CoV-2? The question has become highly political, which is unfortunate. Let’s review what the actual evidence has to say.

If we go back to the beginning of the pandemic, the early scientific investigation of the virus found that it was 96% identical to a bat coronavirus in the region. Zoonotic spillover is common, and the virus originated in a part of the world with wet markets and close contact with wild animal populations. Direct examination of the virus also did not show any telltale signs of deliberate manipulation. There has been some scientific debate on this topic, but in the end there is general agreement among scientists that there is no smoking gun of genetic manipulation. For these reasons it was concluded early that the most probable origin of COVID was from animals, either directly from bat to human or through an intermediary.

This conclusion was based on examination of the virus itself and the the reservoirs of similar viruses in the region. This was, and by many still is, considered the most likely origin. Researchers have searched for the precise animal origin, and so far have not found it, but that is not in itself unusual or suspicious.

There is a second way to approach the question, however – through direct investigation of the circumstances of the original outbreak. While there is a wet market in Wuhan where COVID originated, there is also the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The mere existence of a nearby virology lab has lead to the hypothesis that the virus may have originated in that lab. Again, this was initially rejected because the virus does not look like the product of human manipulation. But in early 2021 the lab-origin hypothesis resurfaced in a new forms – the “lab leak” hypothesis. In this version the virus was being studied and accidentally leaked from the virology lab, but in an unaltered form. The lab leak hypothesis cannot be ruled out by examining the virus itself, we need to rely on investigations of the circumstances.

The World Health Organization has been trying to do just that. After their initial investigation they were unable to reach any firm conclusion, and said that all hypotheses are still on the table. Perhaps more importantly, they raised concerns about the extent of cooperation from the Chinese government. China has consistently criticized the lab leak hypothesis as pseudoscience, and has tried to turn attention elsewhere, claiming the COVID may have originated outside of China. They even floated the conspiracy theory that the virus emerged from an American military lab. This lack of full cooperation, and bizarre pointing of fingers, certainly looks suspicious. It doesn’t mean they have something to hide, but they are acting as if they have something to hide. They could just be overly defensive about being ground zero for a once-in-a-century deadly pandemic, but they are not helping themselves.

The US Intelligence community was also ordered to take a look, and they have recently made their results available. Their conclusion? Inconclusive. They found no smoking gun of a lab leak, but neither could they rule out that notion, and have also called upon China to offer greater transparency.

We appear to be stuck in this state. A natural origin for the virus is still considered the most plausible answer by most scientists, but we have not yet nailed down the precise animal population of origin. However, we cannot rule out a leak from the WIV of an unaltered virus, but there is no direct evidence for that either. Meanwhile, there’s lots of speculation and wild conspiracy theories floating around the internet, none of which have any credibility. For now we may need to be content with the answer that we don’t know. Further investigation may give us an answer, but would require more cooperation from China, who seems to be stuck in defensive mode.

Meanwhile, don’t fall for any simplistic arguments or conspiracy theories. It is not a big coincidence that a virology lab is nearby. Such labs tend to be located where the viruses they study occur in the wild. The virus did not originate from a mine in China. The virus was not engineered to be deadly or more infectious, and Fauci is not responsible for the virus.  It is perfectly plausible as a result of natural evolution, and has features common among coronaviruses.

It is not skeptical to automatically reject the current answer from scientists and authorities. That’s just cheap cynicism. Nor is it naive to withhold final judgement until we have more information.

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