Biden’s marching orders…
News organizations have latched onto Biden’s latest marching orders to the U.S. intelligence community to hustle up and, in the next 3 months, come to a conclusion on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic:
“I have now asked the Intelligence Community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion, and to report back to me in 90 days. As part of that report, I have asked for areas of further inquiry that may be required, including specific questions for China. I have also asked that this effort include work by our National Labs and other agencies of our government to augment the Intelligence Community’s efforts. And I have asked the Intelligence Community to keep Congress fully apprised of its work.”
Biden said that in March he had asked his national security advisor Jake Sullivan to report on what is known about the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus at the heart of the pandemic.
The intelligence community has narrowed the field to two theories on the virus’s origin: a natural transfer from an animal host to humans or a laboratory accident. The majority of the community believes we lack “sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other.”
Of the 17 agencies within the intelligence community, two sided with the natural origins theory, and one with the lab release theory, but none with high confidence:
“…while two elements in the IC leans toward the former scenario and one leans more toward the latter — each with low or moderate confidence…”
So, what can we expect after Biden’s 90-day deadline?
WHO done it…
Back in January of this year, the World Health Organization sent an international team of virologists, epidemiologists, and other health scientists to Wuhan and surrounding areas to determine the origins of the virus. Half of the team were Chinese.
The team concluded that the most likely origin included an intermediate host, followed by direct transmission from the original host (called a spillover). Much less likely was a viral origin from food products, and that an origin from a laboratory accident was “extremely unlikely.”
Although the WHO report was very detailed, it was criticized in a couple of ways.
First, despite the comprehensive details in the WHO report, the study did not find or publish anything new. It contained all the known information about the virus and the COVID-19 disease put into one shiny package.
Second, despite pointing to an intermediate animal between the original bat host and the eventual human host, the WHO team did not find that hypothesized intermediate despite researchers testing “tens of thousands of wildlife and livestock samples.”
Third, the WHO team did not include anyone with a biosafety background to thoroughly investigate a possible laboratory origin. This led to the high-profile dissention of the WHO’s Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who insisted on more work to investigate the lab leak hypothesis. Furthermore, 17 scientists signed a letter published in the journal Science calling for further investigation into the SARS-CoV-2 origins, including both lab leak and natural hypotheses.
The NYT reported that the scientists who signed the letter did not see a case for a lab leak:
Yet Dr. Iwasaki stressed that she did not see a clear case for a lab leak. “I’m completely open-minded about the possibilities,” she said. “There’s so little evidence for either of these things, that it’s almost like a tossup.”
For this to change significantly, we will need significant cooperation from the Chinese about what happened in key labs in Wuhan and ongoing investigations and sampling in various regions throughout China.
This ambiguous tossup between competing hypotheses will not likely change in 3 months.
Will China release any information…
Biden’s 90-day prod to his intelligence agencies comes about partly from China’s refusal to take part in the second phase of the WHO’s investigation into the origins of COVID-19.
At the height of U.S. power and dominance in the global world order during and after World War II, no country in the world dictated terms to the U.S. This was especially true after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Even now, as the U.S. undergoes an inevitable and slow decline in power, no country in the world has ever sent inspectors into the U.S to inspect government facilities, companies, people, or animals, and in any way dictated terms to U.S. interests.
China is currently the #2 world power just behind the U.S. by many metrics such as GDP (and even exceeds the U.S. depending on the measures). The U.S. and China as economic peers are far ahead of the #3 economic power (either Japan or India depending on the measure).
Yet China is still considered by many as a developing country and is often treated as such. And by some measures such as per capita income or wealth, China is indeed ranked far below the U.S.
China is clearly insulted by demands that foreign investigators have unfettered access to Chinese labs, people, and countryside to interview, sample, and test at will to determine the cause the pandemic. Many around the world blame China.
To get a sense of China’s feeling of outrage and inequity, read this comment by Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian:
“If the US side really wants a completely transparent investigation, they should invite the WHO experts to launch an investigation in the US.”
China’s intransigence is also not likely to change in 3 months.
Will we find out what happened in the Wuhan Institute of Virology…
The Chinese will not suddenly see cooperating with the U.S. and the rest of the world as beneficial.
The Chinese government has a long-standing policy of secrecy and is almost genetically programmed to obstruct open and cooperative global projects, especially on its soil.
Also, the US demonstrated the petulant, xenophobic, and racist instincts of a virulent American minority by their treatment of China from 2016 to 2020, and especially during the pandemic. That is now bearing fruit in China’s complete refusal to cooperate.
China is digging in its heels and being equally petulant, denying the lab leak hypothesis while also failing to gain confidence with the global community. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said:
“Some people in the United States completely ignore facts and science.”
Zhao’s comment was true for the Trump administration, but clearly not for Biden’s. But just as important, China is not providing the facts and science that would help exonerate them or help understand their role in the pandemic.
Nonetheless, Biden has kept pressure on the Chinese from the beginning to be open and transparent about the origins of the SARS virus and any information they have.
That will not happen, and our blindness to the happenings within the Wuhan Institute of Virology won’t change in 3 months.
Will the virus tell us anything about its origins…
All the biological information, specifically the genomic information contained in the RNA within the virus, is most consistent with a natural origin.
First, the genetic code itself, the proteins, and all the features of the proteins are consistent with a naturally evolved virus. In other words, evolution easily and parsimoniously explains every feature of the virus. No need to invoke little green men or wicked scientists in the making of the virus.
Second, there are no proteins, segments of proteins, or features of the genetic code that even hint at an artificial origin. For example, some COVID conspiracy theories point to the polybasic or furin cleavage site and the sequence coding as possible human tampering signs. That is incorrect. There are no hidden messages in the viral genome other than biological secrets.
Third, the basic genetics of the virus and its nearest viral cousins make it very unlikely to have been the product of an engineered human virus. Let’s dig into this last point because it is a little subtle.
The closest known virus to SARS-CoV-2 is the bat virus known as RaTG13. These two viruses are 96.2% identical across their whole genomes. However, the bat RaTG13’s spike or S protein binds poorly to human ACE2, while SARS-CoV-2 binds very well, explaining the latter’s effectiveness as a human pathogen.
Someone interested in engineering a highly effective human virus would have started with a known human pathogen such as the original SARS, now known as SARS-CoV or SARS-CoV-1. The RaTG13 virus, SARS-CoV-2’s closest cousin, would not have shown up on anyone’s radar as a promising virus to make into a human pathogen.
A pangolin coronavirus (Pangolin-CoV) contains a spike or S protein which is more closely related to SARS-CoV-2 than to RaTG13. Within the S protein, 5 amino acids are critical to effective binding to human ACE2 protein. Pangolin-CoV’s S protein keeps those 5 critical amino acids in common with SARS-CoV-2 and has only one non-critical amino acid that is different. RaTG13, on the other hand, has an S protein which is very different from SARS-CoV-2, with 17 amino acid differences, including 4 out of the 5 amino acids critical for ACE2 binding.
The chart below illustrates the similarities and differences in the spike protein amino acid sequences among almost two dozen viruses. Each letter represents an amino acid, with the full sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus along the top line. Each additional virus listed along the left side has a sequence compared to SARS-CoV-2 (called Beta-CoV/Wuhan-Hu-1). If the additional virus’s amino acid is identical to SARS-CoV-2, that is indicated with a dot. If the amino acid is different, the different amino acid’s abbreviation letter is shown.
This is one of the reasons that the pangolin was at one point thought to be the intermediate host between bat and human.
However, as Kristian Andersen points out in his important paper about the origins of COVID-19, the interaction of SARS-CoV-2 with ACE2 is not ideal. Therefore Pangolin-CoV’s S protein, though it happens to bind well to ACE2, is not predicted to be a good binding protein for the human receptor.
No scientist would have picked RatG13 as a base virus and substituted Pangolin-CoV’s S protein and thought that would be a good place to start developing a highly infectious human virus.
Sure, someone could conceivably have taken the RaTG13 bat virus with no ability to infect humans, and substituted a pangolin-CoV’s S protein, and made SARS-CoV-2. But no scientist would have picked those two viruses to merge in just that way as a promising track to create something worth their efforts.
Biology is crazy complicated. The genetic code is not as simple as four letters would have you believe. Many look at the letters of the genetic code and come up with imaginary patterns convinced of alien abduction, or virus-laden comets infecting an early Earth, or that a polybasic cleavage site with human codons was inserted into a benign virus to make a human super-virus.
There is an endless line of people submitting papers claiming to debunk Einstein, or claiming to have built a perpetual motion machine or cold fusion reactor, or having proven that China built and released the SARS virus. They are not stupid people standing in that imaginary line. They are generally educated, just enough to be dangerous. And they are very wrong.
None of these things will change considerably in the next 3 months.
The NYT speculated that the Biden push will activate the intelligence community to use “an extraordinary amount of computer power to the question of whether the virus accidentally leaked from a Chinese laboratory.” According to the Times article, the computing power may be used on a database of unanalyzed “Chinese communications, the movement of lab workers and the pattern of the disease outbreak around the city of Wuhan.”
However, the NYT cautioned that even this amped up silicon-assisted inquiry by the intelligence community is unlikely to turn up anything:
“Current and former intelligence officials say they strongly doubt anyone will find an email or a text message or a document that shows evidence of a lab accident.”
An excellent example of the limits of this intelligence work, even with international cooperation, is infection intelligence that the WSJ made a big splash about earlier in the week. The NYT said:
“One allied nation passed on information that three workers in the Wuhan virological laboratory were hospitalized with serious flulike symptoms in the autumn of 2019. The information about the sickened workers is considered important, but officials cautioned that it did not constitute evidence that they caught the virus at the laboratory — they may have brought it there.”
Again, it is unlikely that a few additional months of high-tech spookery will rustle up conclusive evidence that eluded previous work.
Right back where we are…
In conclusion, the probability is that 90 days from Biden’s statement, we will be back where we are now. That means the biological data is completely consistent with natural origins. The data needed to more confidently rule out a laboratory origin and require Chinese cooperation will be missing. That is because the Chinese will not cooperate and will effectively nullify any international efforts to penetrate their sources of information.
Thank you for reading and please doshare! Also, if you liked this, you might like the following: