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Friday, May 07, 2021

World Health Organization (WHO) report on the lab leak conspiracy theory

There's been a lot of talk about the possibility that SAR-CoV-2 originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology and accidentally escaped, causing the COVID-19 pandemic. There's no evidence that directly supports this possibility and plenty of evidence that casts serious doubt on the lab leak hypothesis. In order to discount the evidence against the hypothesis its supporters claim that scientists are lying and covering up the accidental release with the active cooperation of the Chinese government. Thus, an original scientific hypothesis has morphed into a full-blown conspiracy theory.

As with any conspiracy theory, there are all kinds of "facts" that have only been uncovered on twitter or Reddit but there are also speculations published by the Trump administration. It's very difficult verify or refute many of these "facts."

However, there's one fact that is widely misinterpreted and that's the report of the WHO scientists who visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology in order to investigate the lab leak hypothesis. They concluded that it was "extremely unlikely" so, as you might expect, the WHO scientists are now part of the conspiracy. Here's a copy of the section on the lab leak hypothesis from the WHO full report issued on March 30 2021 [WHO-convened global study of origins of SARS-CoV-2: China Part].

Introduction through a laboratory incident

Explanation of hypothesis

SARS-CoV-2 is introduced through a laboratory incident, reflecting an accidental infection of staff from laboratory activities involving the relevant viruses. We did not consider the hypothesis of deliberate release or deliberate bioengineering of SARS-CoV-2 for release, the latter has been ruled out by other scientists following analyses of the genome (3).

Arguments in favour

Although rare, laboratory accidents do happen, and different laboratories around the world are working with bat CoVs. When working in particular with virus cultures, but also with animal inoculations or clinical samples, humans could become infected in laboratories with limited biosafety, poor laboratory management practice, or following negligence. The closest known CoV RaTG13 strain (96.2%) to SARS-CoV-2 detected in bat anal swabs have been sequenced at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The Wuhan CDC laboratory moved on 2nd December 2019 to a new location near the Huanan market. Such moves can be disruptive for the operations of any laboratory.

Arguments against

The closest relatives of SARS-CoV-2 from bats and pangolin are evolutionarily distant from SARS-CoV-2. There has been speculation regarding the presence of human ACE2 receptor binding and a furin-cleavage site in SARS-CoV-2, but both have been found in animal viruses as well, and elements of the furin-cleavage site are present in RmYN02 and the new Thailand bat SARSr-CoV. There is no record of viruses closely related to SARS-CoV-2 in any laboratory before December 2019, or genomes that in combination could provide a SARS-CoV-2 genome. Regarding accidental culture, prior to December 2019, there is no evidence of circulation of SARS-CoV-2 among people globally and the surveillance programme in place was limited regarding the number of samples processed and thereforethe risk of accidental culturing SARS-CoV-2 in the laboratory is extremely low. The three laboratories in Wuhan working with either CoVs diagnostics and/or CoVs isolation and vaccine development all had high quality biosafety level (BSL3 or 4) facilities that were well-managed, with a staff health monitoring programme with no reporting of COVID-19 compatible respiratory illness during the weeks/months prior to December 2019, and no serological evidence of infection in workers through SARS-CoV-2-specific serology-screening. The Wuhan CDC lab which moved on 2nd December 2019 reported no disruptions or incidents caused by the move. They also reported no storage nor laboratory activities on CoVs or other bat viruses preceding the outbreak.

Assessment of likelihood

In view of the above, a laboratory origin of the pandemic was considered to be extremely unlikely.

Please refer to the original report whenever you see the conspiracy theorists making claims about what WHO did or did not report. Those claims are not always accurate; for example, it is widely reported that WHO confirmed that there were COVID-19 case among lab workers in the autumn of 2019 but, as you can see, WHO refuted that part of the conspiracy theory.


20 comments :

  1. Disclaimer (it is needed): I am not commenting on the arguments here and I am not arguing in favor of "conspiracy theories", this is completely independent.

    I does seem to me that you consider the WHO a trustworthy authority.

    But that's a grave mistake and completely contradicted by the facts.

    The WHO has literally the blood of millions on its hands (it is far from the only party responsible, or even the main one, but it did play its role).

    The WHO was insisting that there was no person-to-person transmission long after hospitals in Wuhan were overflowing.

    Then it was insisting there is no need to close borders long after the virus had spread around the world.

    It only declared a pandemic after it had spread in 2/3 of the countries around the world.

    And still to this day it refuses to acknowledge airborne spread, which is in fact the main route of transmission.

    For each of these things, that the WHO was not telling the truth was obvious to everyone outside the WHO. The people at the WHO are not idiots, so this means that they were deliberately lying.

    It is not hard to guess why they were lying, but that is speculation so we will not go there, we will stick to the fact that they were lying, which is incontrovertible.

    If someone has such a long history of blatantly and deliberately lying about issues of such critical importance, then they cannot be trusted on anything.

    Again, this is not an argument for or against the arguments for and against the various origin theories.

    This is just about the authority and trustworthiness of the WHO, which have been completely destroyed by their actions during the pandemic

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    1. Some of your accusations are debatable but, like you say, it has no direct bearing on the WHO report that I quoted. You can't just assume that because some of the statements coming out of the World Health Organization are wrong it means that the scientists who wrote this report are lying. You can't even say (rationally) that they are likely to be lying.

      Every scientist on that investigation team has a international reputation in their field. They are recognized experts in science, medicine, and public health. Why in the world would they lie about something like this?

      The only reason to make such a ridiculous accusation is because you have drunk the Kool-Aid.

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    3. "And still to this day it refuses to acknowledge airborne spread, which is in fact the main route of transmission."

      FYI: It seems like they updated their information a few days ago:

      “Current evidence suggests that the virus spreads mainly between people who are in close contact with each other, typically within 1 metre (short-range). A person can be infected when aerosols or droplets containing the virus are inhaled or come directly into contact with the eyes, nose, or mouth. The virus can also spread in poorly ventilated and/or crowded indoor settings, where people tend to spend longer periods of time. This is because aerosols remain suspended in the air or travel farther than 1 metre (long-range).”

      https://www.forbes.com/sites/jvchamary/2021/05/04/who-coronavirus-airborne/?sh=64c1bee84472

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    4. The CDC only updated its guidance on Oct. 5, 2020. This proves that everybody at the CDC (US) is a bunch of liars and none of them can be trusted.

      https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2020/s1005-how-spread-covd.html

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    5. The only reason to make such a ridiculous accusation is because you have drunk the Kool-Aid.

      I didn't make any ridiculous accusations, I clearly explained to you that I get a strong "argument from authority" vibe from your original post, the authority being the WHO.

      And I also clearly explained to you why the WHO not only has zero credibility left, but if one day we get to the point of handing out proper justice for what has happened during the last 16 months, quite a few people from the WHO would be on trial too, not just politicians and corporate big shots.

      And I have not drunk any Kool-Aid, we have been going back and forth on this for a couple days now, and you still have clearly not understood that I do not come at this from a position of political bias in the usual directions as most people do, even though I made a serious effort to emphasize that.

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    6. "The CDC only updated its guidance on Oct. 5, 2020. This proves that everybody at the CDC (US) is a bunch of liars and none of them can be trusted".

      Seriously?

      Yes, the people at the CDC responsible for these things are criminals too, we are talking about 750,000 preventable deaths in the US. The evidence for airborne spread was irrefutable in early February 2020, not that it was even needed at that point -- it's not like this is the first virus known to man, or the laws of physics suddenly changed.

      And the link you sent does not in fact acknowledge airborne spread:

      "CDC’s recommendations remain the same based on existing science and after a thorough technical review of the guidance.

      People can protect themselves from the virus that causes COVID-19 by staying at least 6 feet away from others, wearing a mask that covers their nose and mouth, washing their hands frequently, cleaning touched surfaces often and staying home when sick."


      Because if they did properly acknowledge it, i.e. by actually changing regulations, that would mean schools and a lot of workplaces shutting down. And that would hurt the "economy". So millions of deaths it is instead, and the scientific truth be damned. We all know that. But apparently few have the intellectual courage to openly say it.

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    7. It seems to me that the most reasonable explanation for the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is a natural origin in bats and passage through a intermediate host for a number of years. The evidence I’ve seen in dozens of papers supports that explanation and the opinion of experts that I respect agree with it. Did you watch the lecture by Edward Holmes?

      Lab leak is a possibility but there’s no evidence to support that possibility and plenty of evidence against it. For some reason, you’ve decided that the lab leak explanation is still a distinct possibility and you’ve decided to downplay the evidence of a natural origin. Furthermore, you’ve decided that none of the evidence against lab leak is acceptable. In order to maintain your position you have postulated a large conspiracy to cover up the truth. You think it’s reasonable to imagine that dozens of highly respected scientists are lying.

      I’m struggling to understand your motive. What is it that causes you to doubt a natural origin and adopt a conspiracy theory to keep alive the possibility that the WIV scientists developed SARS-CoV-2 in the lab then allowed it to escape? That seems like a very unlikely position for you to take given your record on other controversies.

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    8. It seems to me that the most reasonable explanation for the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is a natural origin in bats and passage through a intermediate host for a number of years.

      For the virus to sustain itself in an intermediate host, it would have to be an intermediate host with behavioral characteristic that allow for all that passaging. None of the ones proposed fit that requirement, some are in fact the absolute opposite of that (strictly solitary animals).

      It is possible that the intermediate host did not live in the wild but the passaging happened in cages (which are dense) in the context of the wildlife trade. But that explains less than the questions it raises -- how was it that it was passaged for years in those conditions, yet it did not spark an outbreak. The original SARS was quite capable of doing that.

      I’m struggling to understand your motive. What is it that causes you to doubt a natural origin and adopt a conspiracy theory to keep alive the possibility that the WIV scientists developed SARS-CoV-2 in the lab then allowed it to escape? That seems like a very unlikely position for you to take given your record on other controversies.

      You are using "conspiracy theory" as a conversation stopper in this case, and that is not how a scientist is supposed to think. It is an explanation that is on the table to be weighed against other alternative hypotheses, and, as I said several times already, it is not actually a single explanation -- there are dozens of different lab leak scenarios.

      This is not something like creationism that requires suspension of the laws of nature to be true, we are talking about something entirely within the real of possibilities, for which there is plenty of real-life precedent too.

      My motivations are that I want to know what happened and I also want to know what will happen in the future -- some lab leak scenarios have somewhat different implications for the future than other lab leak scenarios and the direct zoonotic jump hypothesis.

      Back in February 2020 I was 95% to 5% in favor of the direct zoonotic jump and I am on record dismissing the lab leak idea just as readily as you are right now.

      Right now I am more like 60-40 in the opposite direction, because what I have seen so far seems to be better explained by a leak from the lab. I outline a number of those considerations previously.

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    10. So we are down to the question of what's the most parsimonious explanation.

      On one hand we have: virus jumps from bats to some carnivore, where it either remains for sufficiently many generations, even though none of the proposed species has the population density to sustain that sort of thing, and in fact many are solitary, or undergoes extremely rapid evolution so that it gains a bunch of unusual properties and it shifts its host tropism, though that tropism also becomes extremely wide.

      On the other hand we have: a bat virus is grown in the lab, passaged through mouse cells/human cells/ferrets/etc, so that it adapts (which is done all the time), maybe it is, maybe it isn't directly engineered to change certain properties (which is also done all the time), then it leaks through some unfortunate accident (the kinds of which have happened many times).

      Which one requires the least amount of miracles?

      Your main arguments are of the "respected scientists would never lie" variety. But that is just naive -- first, I gave you a long list of counterexamples, second, this left the realm of science and became an entirely political issue a very long time ago, so now you would have to be making the argument that governments never lie, which is just laughable.

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    11. So I posted a comment with a bunch of links to papers and other stuff, which was supposed to be in between the previous two comments (I did delete it once because of some spelling mistakes, but then reposted it, and it did show up, and then I got an e-mail notification that it was posted too). But now I don't see it. Which is quite strange.

      Unfortunately I don't have it anymore (I delete the e-mail notification too), so do you know where it went?

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    12. Well, I posted the same things again, and now it is gone too.

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    13. So I reposted it again, and then it disappeared. Looks like there is some automatic filter that thinks the PubMed is a spam site...

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    14. That's strange. I saw your message in my inbox because I subscribed to the comments here. You'd think that it would get filtered before we got a notification about it. It also makes no sense to filter out pubmed links.

      I guess that blogspot is in on the coverup as well (I'm kidding).

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    15. So I assumed these things go in some kind of spam folder and can be restored, but anyway, 4th time is the charm:

      =================

      OK, so I was explaining how such viruses get serially passaged on mouse and human cells (and in ferrets too) all the time, precisely in order to adapt them to those organisms, to see how they will evolve, and also to create model systems with which to study them:

      PMID: 24599590
      PMID: 17222058
      PMID: 32732280

      This is in fact such a standard experiment that it is quite unlikely one would not be doing it on new viruses collected from the wild in order to study them -- it is not as if bats are a convenient to work with model system.

      I also noted a number of papers where people were directly engineering SARS and MERS for various purposes:

      PMID: 16891412
      PMID: 19036930
      PMID: 25100850
      PMID: 24043791
      PMID: 24478444

      Then I also pointed out that trying to make live attenuated SARS/MERS vaccines had been an ongoing activity for many years prior to the pandemic:

      PMID: 23142821
      PMID: 30393776
      PMID: 29976657

      Including looking at inactivating the accessory proteins as part of the development of such:

      PMID: 28830941

      Then I noted that in the past there had been multiple lab leaks involving SARS-1:

      https://genomebiology.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/gb-spotlight-20040427-03
      PMID: 14603886

      And that SARS-1 wasn't even a BSL4 agent, but was worked with in BSL3, and that the bat viruses may well have been BSL2.

      And also that prominent coronavirus researchers are, quite unfortunately, on record in the literature complaining about how regulations are too onerous and hamper the progress of research:

      PMID: 30546388

      I also noted (although you know that very well) that research is often started and done many years before it gets published, so to assume that we know what work was being done in that lab is just absurd. And indeed, after the pandemic began there was a flurry of papers putting out all sorts of coronavirus genomes that had been collected many years prior.

      So there is nothing unprecedented or even unlikely about a lab leak.

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  2. I suspect that this post is related to my arguments that the WHO report is unreliable and should not be used as an authoritative source in the previous discussion. If this is meant to dismiss my concerns, why don't you address my arguments specifically? By doubling down on strawmen arguments and avoiding my points you are showing a lack of conviction of your own arguments.

    "In order to discount the evidence against the hypothesis its supporters claim that scientists are lying and covering up the accidental release with the active cooperation of the Chinese government. Thus, an original scientific hypothesis has morphed into a full-blown conspiracy theory."

    Many reputable people have called into question the reliability of the report. This does not imply that they believe that the scientists are lying and covering up an accidental release with the Chinese government. We need to consider that IF there was an accidental release, there is a very good reason to believe that the scientists COULD be pressured to cover it up out of self preservation. This is not a conspiracy theory because the Chinese government literally did so at the start of the pandemic. I provided credible resources that back up my claims that the CCP detained early whistleblowers, engaged in censorship regarding the pandemic, and placed a gag order on scientists (including those involved in the WHO investigation). You don't need to invoke conspiracy theories when that's literally what the CCP did. In my opinion, it takes a conspiracy theorist to place trust in the CCP despite of their own actions. Even some of the WHO investigators acknowledged that the investigation was flawed:

    "some of the WHO investigators have qualified their conclusions, saying they didn’t have the mandate, expertise or data for a full audit of any laboratory. The team also lacked important data on the first confirmed cases, or on patients hospitalized with similar symptoms beforehand.

    A laboratory accident is “definitely not off the table,” Dr. Ben Embarek told a seminar last week. Dr. Tedros said in February after the team’s trip that “all hypotheses remain open and require further analysis.”"

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/who-investigators-to-scrap-interim-report-on-probe-of-covid-19-origins-11614865067

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    1. [Continued]

      "As with any conspiracy theory, there are all kinds of "facts" that have only been uncovered on twitter or Reddit but there are also speculations published by the Trump administration. It's very difficult verify or refute many of these "facts.""

      I didn't take a single thing from Twitter or Reddit. Everything that I cited was from reputable newspapers, mostly left-leaning. For God's sake, does Trump have to be brought into everything? The Biden administration were also major critics.

      https://www.cnn.com/2021/03/30/politics/us-allies-who-report-response/index.html


      "However, there's one fact that is widely misinterpreted and that's the report of the WHO scientists who visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology in order to investigate the lab leak hypothesis. They concluded that it was "extremely unlikely" so, as you might expect, the WHO scientists are now part of the conspiracy."

      Nothing that I argued required the WHO scientists to be a part of a conspiracy because they were not given full access to the data. The were given data from the lab that had to be approved by the CCP and are on record that they accepted the conclusions that the Wuhan Institute gave them. Your not acknowledging what the WHO scientists said themselves:

      "Since returning from China, however, some of the WHO investigators have qualified their conclusions, saying they didn’t have the mandate, expertise or data for a full audit of any laboratory. The team also lacked important data on the first confirmed cases, or on patients hospitalized with similar symptoms beforehand."

      https://www.wsj.com/articles/who-investigators-to-scrap-interim-report-on-probe-of-covid-19-origins-11614865067

      Now, does any of this mean that the virus came from the lab? No, but it sheds light on the unreliability of the report. This issue should be argued on scientific grounds not on the basis of a flawed report.

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    2. Thank you Larry for your well documented essays. It is now time for the Chinese put stiff controls on their meat markets, especially the commercialization of "bush meat", that seem to be the source of so many new viral dangers. A civet cat was deemed the likely source of the first SARS outbreak and this one has numerous candidates. My bet was the Chinese ferret badger, but is is said to be almost inedible, but when people are hungry, they'll eat most anything. SARS-CoV-2 seem to be highly contagious in mustelids -- see what happened to the Danish ermine industry -- so Chinese species make good candidates.
      I object to our friends calling the COVID outbreak a Chinese cover-up. It was mainly the state and city governments trying to save their New Years festival, in other words, politicians being politicians, and not the central government of China, at least after Jan. 10. I figured things out when I read Yuhan was on lockdown about Jan. 25. It took our (I speak of the US and not Canada) idiot politicians another month or two to wake up to the danger, and some never have.

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