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Tuesday, July 02, 2024

Jerry Coyne changes his mind about the lab leak conspiracy theory and now rejects it

Jerry Coyne was initially convinced by Alina Chan's arguments in favor of the lab leak conspiracy theory concerning the origin of SARS-CoV-2. His mind was changed by reading Paul Offit's rebuttal [Lab Leak Mania].

Here's how Jerry describes his conversion in an article posted on his website [The lab leak theory for the origin of the Covid virus is once again deep-sixed].

Yes, I fell for a recent NYT article (June 3) by Alina Chan, a piece dismantled in the article below by infectious disease specialist Paul Offit. Chan’s piece was called “Why the pandemic probably started in a lab, in 5 key points,” and it was a long and animated op-ed. Being ignorant of the data, I took her bait and said that Chan’s article buttressed my own view that a lab-leak theory was becoming increasingly credible. (She’s a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute.)

But since I consider Offit the most credible source of information about Covid, I’ve now let go of the bait, and agree with his arguments, in the Substack article below, that a wet-market origin of the Covid virus is the best hypothesis by far.

I'm glad that Jerry has changed his mind but it's disappointing to learn that he hasn't been following the debate very closely since it's all about evolution. It's disturbing to read the comments under his article. Many of them defend and promote the conspiracy theory. It looks like Jerry's readers are not a very sophisticated bunch.

There's also a lengthy comment from Matt Ridley informing Jerry that he has been "badly misled."


jacksprat said...

most of jerry's readers with any sense quit following his blog years ago

Anonymous said...

Considering the enormity of the epidemic and its profound implications for science, medical intervention, and health policy, is this issue truly relevant, or is it merely a good talking point? I doubt that the number of posts dedicated to this issue is indicative of its significance within the wider context but I would like to be proven wrong

Huinca said...

Well at least Jerry can claim to be a true skeptic – if the evidence changes, he changes his mind.
I think the best argument in favour of a lab leak so far is common sense. The WIV had submitted a proposal to DARPA back in 2018 to conduct *the exact changes in the virus* that appeared in SARS-Cov-2. The proposal was turned down, and, disingenously, some claim this as a evidence that the experiments were not done. Please. Since when has funding been a problem for research in China. As someone put it ‘if I propose to pain Central Park purple and get turned down and two years later Central Park appears painted purple, of course I will be a prime suspect’. This is Ockham Razor’s at its sharpest, pure and simple common sense. So the exact same type of genetic change that was proposed by a lab with a history of poor security appears ‘naturally’ by random mutation in a wet market 20 blocks away only two years later? Please try to say this out loud and see how stupid it makes you sound.
To just wave this off as a conspiracy theory is either cynical or moves an agenda forward. You can have ‘good intentions’ like David Gorski who claims that pointing the finger at China will only foster xenophobia and racial tension in the USA. There’s so much (wrong) to unpack in that argument that I won’t bother for now, suffice to say that to anyone with scientific training it is clearly 100% unscientific. And xenophobes don’t need ‘evidence’ for their behaviour. And the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But I digress. Another camp is, obviously, virologists the wide world round. Imagine the PR catastrophe if a lab leak gets proven and what happens to your grant money and funding, plus public perception. So they are not impartial observers weighing on the evidence and coming to the most logical conclusion, they have big stakes in the matter. To think otherwise is not knowing the first thing about human nature. Take for instance, Kristian Andersen, and his farcical ‘Proximal origins’ paper, the fastest publication in the history of Nature journal. Surely a couple of phylogenetic reconstructions can ‘prove’ the origin to be natural, yeah right. And if after reading his whatsapp messages and emails you don’t question this guy’s motives and actions, let alone his integrity, you’re a naif person. Ditto about Tony Fauci and Peter Daszak, whose contradictions and ‘untruths’ are so numerous it is hard to believe anything they say anymore. And no, it’s no good cherry-picking their statements when they agree with your own views, one needs to take a step back and look for credibility in general – none. So of course the jury is still out and one can only hope that new evidence will emerge in our lifetime. In the meantime, if the existing evidence tilts the scales 51% to 49% either way, it makes you sound like a rabid delusional fanatic to claim that the other side are conspiracy theorists. It's simply not what skeptics do.

Anonymous said...

@ Huinca. Are we discussing GoF and the origin or the funding sources shaping the research agenda, or just a potential China lab leak? In my view, the underlying question is whether we can really predict evolution and future epidemics, including developing the tools to prevent them, and if we can do it virtuously and independently of spurious interests.

Larry Moran said...

@Huinca Thank-you for demonstrating what a conspiracy theory looks like.

Anonymous said...

What's interesting is the lab origin scenario gets described as a conspiracy but both Huanan Seafood Market origin and lab theories rest on the assumption that evidence is being concealed. Note the NIH terminated WIV's subaward in 2022 for refusal to share records of their SARS-related bat coronavirus research. Offit's rebuttal omits several recent peer-reviewed papers that undermine the arguments for Huanan Seafood Market origin. Particularly, Weissman's analysis (2024) supports George Gao's acknowledgement to the BBC last year that they focused too much on the market and likely missed cases elsewhere. The market cases were all lineage B. New genomes published by Lv et al (2024) indicate that lineage A came first and there was a single point of emergence not multiple spillovers. So the market cases aren't the primary cases.

Jesse Bloom (2024) showed the market samples showed a negative correlation with susceptible animals and SARS-COV-2 genetic material. So the evidence for market origin is tenuous.

Patrick Berche (2023) noted the nearest relatives to SARS-CoV-2 are found in Yunnan and Laos ~1500km from Wuhan. You would expect secondary outbreaks if it arose via the animal trade. Those are locations WIV sampled SrCoVs for their spillover studies.

Ultimately, WHO are still calling for data on both the animal trade and Wuhan labs. So it may pay to keep an open mind.

rich lawler said...

Perhaps already posted, but this is still a great read:

Rich Lawler said...

Sorry, the link didn't work. The link was to "protagonist science" substack, and a post about a debate regarding the lab-leak versus natural origin. 100K payout to the winner; must use evidence, data, etc.; judges are applied data-scientists.

Anonymous said...

This lab leak debate is akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic to divert passengers' attention. These discussions, primarily driven by non-experts, are a distraction from the real, proven issue: the USA's and Europe's utter incompetence in effectively managing the epidemic, despite their technological and social resources. The human cost has been enormous, with casualties in the USA vastly exceeding those of many past wars. This is disingenuous political correctness taken to an excess.

Unknown said...


Only you could turn a compliment into a criticism, like this:

I'm glad that Jerry has changed his mind but it's disappointing to learn that he hasn't been following the debate very closely since it's all about evolution. It's disturbing to read the comments under his article. Many of them defend and promote the conspiracy theory. It looks like Jerry's readers are not a very sophisticated bunch.

Gee, I am sorry that I have not followed the theories as closely as you have; there is a LOT about evolution to follow and I write about other things that you don't write about: Israel, politics, and so on. So forgive me if I'm not as informed as you are. And I apologize if my readers aren't as sophisiticated as yours! Seriously, why do you feel the need to raise meaningless criticisms like this, which start off as backhanded compliments?

John Harshman said...

That reminds me. Larry, what do you think of Drake?