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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Frank Visser, graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion, founded IntegralWorld in 1997. He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. Books: Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion (SUNY, 2003), and The Corona Conspiracy: Combatting Disinformation about the Coronavirus (Kindle, 2020).
TABLE OF CONTENTS | REVIEWS
SARS-CoV-2: Lab Leak or Natural Origin?
The Corona Conspiracy, Part 36
Curiously, there has not been any concerted effort from mainstream sources to solve this mystery. Hence the need for "amateurs".
Lab leak or natural origin? This question as to the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has gained more and more traction in recent months. At the start of the pandemic in early 2020 the mere suggestion that the virus might have been the result of an (intentional or unintentional) laboratory accident was dismissed as "conspiracy". A famous and now notorious comment in The Lancet published February 2020 stated: "The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins. We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin... Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus. "
Due to renewed media coverage, and online research done by independent investigators, the lab leak hypothesis has staged a spectacular comeback. A recent book, Viral written by Alina Chan and Matt Ridley, has extensively covered this explosive field of investigation. The stakes are high. If the pandemic was really caused by a lab leak in Wuhan (that subsequently got covered up by the Chinese authorities and/or virologists), the political consequences are immeasurable. But is the label "conspiracy" appropriate here?
Since we have investigated the unhappy relation of corona and conspiracy in this series, we will have something to contribute here.
WHAT COUNTS AS CONSPIRACY?
In Part 17 of this series we covered the work of whistle blower Li-Meng Yan, who bluntly claimed in three papers that the virus was an "unrestricted bio-weapon" created and released intentionally by the Chinese authorities. That point of view is rather extreme, and has not received much support from either science or the mediathough it was a more than welcome message in anti-China, right-wing political corners such as FoxNews. This definitely counts as a conspiracy theory to me.
But conspiracy theories come in grades of likeliness if you want. Here are a few:
Now compare these three varieties of genuine conspiracy thinking to this:
Clearly, the fourth option is of a distinct category, that sets it apart from the full fledged conspiracy theories. It still has some conspiracy related elements (after all, the lab leak has been covered up), but this counts as mild considering the lunacy we usually encounter.
WEIGHING ALL THE OPTIONS
In the early 2021 Joint Report by the WHO (World Health Organization) team that investigated the origin of SARS-CoV-2, four hypothesis are mentioned, ranked in order of likelihood:
As it turned out, this list was the result of heavy negotiations with the Chinese representatives. The lab incident option could only be included in the final WHO report if it was categorized as "extremely unlikely" and if the frozen food option was included as well, and rated as "possible". No wonder this created a huge controvery in the media, for both options exonerated China from having caused the pandemic.
The WHO quickly responded by stating that "all hypotheses remain open."
"As far as WHO is concerned, all hypotheses remain on the table. This report is a very important beginning, but it is not the end. We have not yet found the source of the virus, and we must continue to follow the science and leave no stone unturned as we do," said Dr Tedros. "Finding the origin of a virus takes time and we owe it to the world to find the source so we can collectively take steps to reduce the risk of this happening again. No single research trip can provide all the answers."[2a]
In August 2021, an investigation ordered by US President Joe Biden by the US Intelligence Community, a group of separate United States government intelligence agencies, came to the followingrather inconclusiveconclusions:
CNN mentioned that "opern-source theories" were evaluated and found wanting for lack of evidence:
The 17-page report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence offered no new conclusions -- the intelligence community remains split about whether the virus originated naturally or escaped from a lab -- but it did address specific open-source theories that proponents have argued proved one of the two theories. In every case, the intelligence community concluded either that the data was insufficient to reach a conclusion or that the theory was patently wrong.[3a]
Comparing these two major official reports completed this year we get the following picture:
Remarkably, the bio-weapon theory was not taken seriously by the Intelligence Community ("We judge the virus was not developed as a biological weapon"), nor even genetic manipulation of the virus ("probably not, with low confidence"). So any lab incident could only involve a natural virus that has either infected a lab employee or accidentally escaped during lab work. The frozen food theory suggested by China in favor of the lab leak theory is not taken into account at all.
In Part 17 I had listed the available options in the below diagram, including both the mainsteam and the more extreme (bio-weapon) and outlandish (outer space) theories:
A virus that is part of the SARS family (hence SARSr or SARS-related) has reached us in the following ways (the last two are an exception):
So where do we stand now, after almost two years of investigation and reflection on the origin of SARS-CoV-2?
TAKING DRASTIC MEASURES
The recently released book Viral by Alina Chan and Matt Ridley systematically dives into this topic. The authors compare the relative strengths of the cases for lab leak and natural origin, and at the end lean towards the lab leak hypothesis, given that the pandemic started practically at the WIV's (Wuhan Institute of Virology) doorstep. Gives a whole new meaning to the familiar phrase: proximal origin (taken from the seminal paper "The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2" by Kristian Anderson et al., which strongly defended the natural origin position).
This book was much more balanced than I had expected it to be. I have learned a great deal from it, even though I had followed the vast literature for months. Covering this explosive field is a great accomplishment for which the authors need to be recommended. Highly informative.
In a nutshell, this is their argument: as early as 2012, six men were hospitalized after they had worked in a deserted copper mine (inhabited by bats), many miles removed from Wuhan. Three of them died. They had Covid-like symptoms. Viruses found in that cave show a high similarity with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. These viruses were taken to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for analysis and sequencing (and culturing?). The fact that the pandemic started near the WIV, and some of the natural origin options (the pangolin as intermediate, the wet market as epicenter, frozen food) have been debunked, the strong suspicion remains that the WIV is implicated in its origin.
The media reception has been mixed to negative. Many reviewers question the credentials of the authors, or argue that they don't have a viable lab leak theory of their own. Instead, they are supposedly "just poking holes in the natural origin theory". In my opinion, even if the authors may display a bias in favor of the lab leak hypothesis, that only serves as a corrective to the heavily biased science reporting that promoted the natural origin hypothesis and dismissed the lab leak hypothesis from the very start.
The authors compare the relative strengths of the cases for lab leak and natural origin, and at the end lean towards the lab leak hypothesis, given that the pandemic started practically at the WIV's doorstep.
On Twitter skeptic commentator David Gorski even compared the lab leak theory to Intelligent Design, for it uses the same arguments from incredulity: the virus must have been designed for we see no way it could have evolved through natural means (especially when the so-called "furin cleavage site" is concerned, see Part 17).
And, yet, like creationists, #LabLeak proponents basically use an appeal to ignorance and incredulity, coupled with conspiracy theories, to argue for their position. It's the same bogus argument as the "God of the gaps" argument beloved of creationists.
That may formally be the case, as I replied on Twitter, but different from a Designer-God that has never been observed in the act of designing, human beings do design and manipulate viruses, as Viral documents in great and disturbing detail. And during this controversial and dangerous lab work, accidents surely can and do happen.
Unfortunately, there is as of yet no solid evidence that proves that the lab leak hypothesis is correct. It may be that this evidence is there, but is hidden from us by the non-cooperative Chinese authorities or the WIV itself (here comes conspiracy again). In that case we will probably never know the answer, for it is unlikely that the Chinese will be forced to transparency. Only another whistle blower might help us out here.
The authors have relied a lot on the work of a group of (often anonymous) internet sleuths, called "DRASTIC", an acronym for: "Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19". Recently the group split into a Drastic Research and a Drastic Science division (renamed to "Dedicated Research and Scientific Team Investigating Covid-19"), for reasons we will not go into here. This lack of perceived credibility has also been held against them, but this is a clear case of "citizen science". Their forte is the uncovering of data from the Internet, even from the Cloud, a skill they have used to its fullest extent.
Just have a look at what the DRASTIC group has uncovered between March 2020 and May 2021 (as listed on drasticscience.com):
These are all pieces of the larger jigsaw puzzle that goes to show that all is not well with the Wuhan Institute of Virology and its official statements and publications. Does it prove beyond any reasonably doubt that the SARS-CoV-2 virus escaped from the Wuhan lab? No. But it does give us important missing pieces that were not provided by scientists or politicians. Curiously, there has not been any concerted effort from mainstream sources to solve this mystery of the origin of SARS-CoV-2. Hence the need for "amateurs".
Near the end of Viral the authors playfully and convincingly argue both the lab leak ("Accident") and the natural origin ("Spillover") case in a kind of legal setting, as if trying to convince a jury. Even if conclusive evidence ("a smoking gun") is still missing, there is circumstantial evidence on both sides. That we now have all the arguments available in a well written and engaging format is a great step in the right direction.
In the Epilogue they ominously conclude:
These revelations show that all is still to play for. Yet this is not a game. Our preference throughout was for a balanced debate that led to the truth, not for a victory for one side or the other. The world now faces the strong possibility that scientific research, intended to avert a pandemic, instead started one; that all that collecting of viruses and sampling of bats in remote cavesand then hiding the specimens in secret databaseshad put humanity in harm's way. That two decades of research on the genomes of sarbecoviruses had not produced a vaccine but a plague. And that from the start there had been an active campaign by Chinese scientists and government officials, aided and abetted by far too many scientists, scientific journal editors and journalists in the west, to prevent the world finding out what happened. (p. 314)
In conclusion, a lab leak qualifies in my opinion as a mild conspiracy theory, but there is every reason to investigate this option thoroughly. In an ideal world this would have already been done. Unfortunately, when politics interferes with science a definitive answer is yet on the far horizon.
There are several ongoing efforts by scientists, governments, international organisations, and others to determine the origin of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. Most scientists say that as with other pandemics in human history, the virus is likely of zoonotic origin in a natural setting, and ultimately originated from a bat-borne virus. Several other explanations, including many conspiracy theories, have been proposed about the origins of the virus. (Wikipedia)
 Charles Callisher et al., "Statement in support of the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China combatting COVID-19", The Lancet, February 19, 2021.
 The full WHO report can be found here: "WHO-convened Global Study of the Origins of SARS-CoV-2", WHO, 30 March 2021.
[2a] New release, "WHO calls for further studies, data on origin of SARS-CoV-2 virus, reiterates that all hypotheses remain open", www.who.int, 30 March 2021.
 Office of the Director of National Intelligence, "Unclassified Summary of Assessment on COVID-19 Origins", www.dni.gov, August 27, 2021.
[3a] Katie Bo Lillis, "US Intelligence community releases full declassified report that does not determine origin of Covid-19", cnn.com, October 29, 2021.
 Alina Chan and Matt Ridley, Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, 4th Estate / Harper Collins, 2021.
 Kristian Anderson et al., "The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2", Nature, 17 March 2020. The authors thought neither genetic manipulation nor "any type of laboratory-based scenario" was plausible:
The genomic features described here may explain in part the infectiousness and transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 in humans. Although the evidence shows that SARS-CoV-2 is not a purposefully manipulated virus, it is currently impossible to prove or disprove the other theories of its origin described here. However, since we observed all notable SARS-CoV-2 features, including the optimized RBD and polybasic cleavage site, in related coronaviruses in nature, we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.
 David Gorsky, Twitter, Dec. 12, 2021.
 See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DRASTIC
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