20 Mar 2020

Schools in Florida are shut down, along with restaurants, night clubs, Disney World, theaters, any public venue that isn’t essential. Field hospitals are being deployed around the state.

How did we get here?

In February I saw the news about an epidemic in Wuhan, China and wondered what it meant. The mainstream media said nothing useful but amateur forums had little gems like this:

A laboratory in Wuhan is on the cusp of being cleared to work with the world’s most dangerous pathogens.1

David Cyranoski, Nature, 22 Feb 2017.

If the virus escaped, nobody could predict the trajectory.2

Simon Wain-Hobson, virologist, Pasteur Institute, Nature, 12 Nov 2015.

Now, there’s a lot of nonsense on the web, but you can filter out the noise using fifth grade research techniques and concentrating on primary sources such as medical or science journals. The data backed by primary sources indicate this virus didn’t originate in a market:

  1. Wuhan, the center of the outbreak, has a Level 4 pathogen research lab certified to work with aerosol-transmitted pathogens fatal to humans, for which there is no vaccine or treatment.1
  2. China has a history of pathogens escaping its labs. “The SARS virus has escaped from high-level containment facilities in Beijing multiple times, notes Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University.” 1
  3. Although it’s very difficult for a virus to jump from an animal to a human without evolving first in an intermediate host, scientists at a US lab did it with a bat coronavirus.3 The Wuhan outbreak also involved a bat coronavirus.
  4. Two of the scientists who co-wrote the paper in item 3), Xing-Yi Ge & Zhengli-Li Shi, work at the Key Laboratory of Special Pathogens and Biosafety, Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Wuhan, China per the Authors and Affiliations section of the paper.

China has a history of pathogens escaping its labs. The center of the outbreak has a laboratory certified for working on pathogens fatal to humans. Two of the scientists at that lab helped to get a bat coronavirus to jump from bats to humans without an intermediate host.

Update May 2021: Nicholas Wade wrote an article documenting the work at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which was funded by the U.S. government.

Dr. Shi set out to create novel coronaviruses with the highest possible infectivity for human cells. Her plan was to take genes that coded for spike proteins possessing a variety of measured affinities for human cells, ranging from high to low. She would insert these spike genes one by one into the backbone of a number of viral genomes (“reverse genetics” and “infectious clone technology”), creating a series of chimeric viruses. These chimeric viruses would then be tested for their ability to attack human cell cultures (“in vitro”) and humanized mice (“in vivo”). And this information would help predict the likelihood of “spillover,” the jump of a coronavirus from bats to people.4

Nicholas Wade, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 5 May 2021.

Update June 2021: a 2017 science paper shows the Wuhan Institute of Virology was working on bat coronaviruses, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer:

All sampling procedures were performed by veterinarians with approval from Animal Ethics Committee of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIVH05210201).

The ORF8 gene of SARS-CoV GZ02 and bat SARSr-CoV Rf1, and the ORF8a gene of SARS-CoV Tor2 were synthesized by Tsingke Biological Technology Co., Ltd (Wuhan, China).

We thank the Center for Instrumental Analysis and Metrology of Wuhan Institute of Virology, CAS, for the assistance in taking confocal microscope pictures (Dr. Ding Gao) and flow cytometry (Ms. Juan Min).

This work was jointly funded by…the National Institutes of Health (NIAID R01AI110964), the USAID Emerging Pandemic Threats (EPT) PREDICT program to PD and ZLS.5

Hu, Ben, et al, PLOS Pathogens, 30 November 2017.

Update April 2022: Neanderthal DNA plays a big role in how badly COVID affects you. Neanderthals were a human species who went extinct 40,000 years ago. Europeans and Asians are descended from Neanderthals and 2% of their DNA comes from their Neanderthal ancestors. One Neanderthal gene found in 16% of Europeans and 50% of South Asians increases COVID hospitalizations by 60%.6 A different Neanderthal gene found in half of Europeans and Asians reduces COVD hospitalizations by 20%.7

Update October 2022: The Senate Committee on Health Education, Labor and Pensions released a report concluding:

Based on the analysis of the publicly available information, it appears reasonable to conclude that the COVID-19 pandemic was, more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident. New information, made publicly available and independently verifiable, could change this assessment. However, the hypothesis of a natural zoonotic origin no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt, or the presumption of accuracy.8

Senate Committee on Health Education, Labor and Pensions, An Analysis of the Origins of the COVID-19 Pandemic, October 2022.

  1. Cyranoski, David. Inside the Chinese lab poised to study world’s most dangerous pathogens. Nature, 23 Feb 2017. 

  2. Butler, Declan. Engineered bat virus stirs debate over risky research. Nature, 12 Nov 2015. 

  3. Menachery, V., et al. A SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses shows potential for human emergence. Nature Medicine, 2015. 

  4. Wade, Nicholas. The origin of COVID: Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan? Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 5 May 2021. 

  5. Hu, Ben, et al. Discovery of a rich gene pool of bat SARS-related coronaviruses provides new insights into the origin of SARS coronavirus. PLOS Pathogens 13(11): e1006698, November 2017. 

  6. Severe Covid-19 GWAS Group et al. Genomewide Association Study of Severe Covid-19 with Respiratory Failure. The New England Journal of Medicine, 15 October 2020. 

  7. Zeberg, Hugo, and Svante Pääbo. A genomic region associated with protection against severe COVID-19 is inherited from Neandertals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 02 March 2021. 

  8. Senate Committee on Health Education, Labor and Pensions. An Analysis of the Origins of the COVID-19 Pandemic. October 2022.