I picked up the book “Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19“, after reading a review by the theoretical computer scientist Scott Aaronson. To many, such a book with such a expose-style title reeks of the work of a conspiracy theorist and should be demoted to the fringe and should never, ever be allowed to pollute the pristine stage of Scientific Discussion. Certainly, a molecular biologist like Alina Chan, with her very bright future, shouldn’t even mix around with Matt Ridley, a conservative Climate Change Skeptic, let alone write a book together, lest her CV gets tainted by pseudo-scientific crackpots.
What’s the book all about? Before we get to that, let’s talk about the current story of the Origin of Covid-19 we know thus far. There is no dispute where the outbreak started: Huanan Seafood market in Wuhan. And from there the virus took over the city and subsequently, the whole world.
The point that really interest people is that the seafood market is very near to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which actively studied SARS-like virus, for which Covid-19 is a variant of. This got a lot of people thinking: could it be that the virus escaped from the lab into the market place and then caused an outbreak? The “apparent” scientific consensus until very recently–as represented by WHO‘s stance– insisted that this was not possible; the virus must have been originated in the wild ( zoonotic hypothesis) and not leaked from the lab. That the Wuhan Institute of Virology is geographically very near to the Seafood market is just a very unfortunate coincidence. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government was and is especially indignant whenever this point was brought up. For them, all the talks about lab leak hypothesis are conspiracy theories; they are political weapons used to smear the good name of the country and the party!
But gradually, the apparent scientific consensus came crashing down and it was revealed that the so-called consensus was just a manufactured one. Discords bubbled up as a group of scientists, journalists and just-random-internet-sleuths started to point out the gaps in the zoonotic hypothesis, the calls to properly investigate lab leak hypothesis grow louder with each passing day. Even WHO– whose excessive pandering to CCP in the early days of pandemics invited criticism–now said that Covid-19 origin theory must “open to any and all scientific evidence” and that “lab leak theory deserves further investigation“.
Alina and Matt’s book represents a more legitimate effort on this front. Unlike many conspiracy theories which say that the Wuhan lab engineered the enhancement of the transmissibility of the virus, and that the virus must come from the lab, the book just maintain an agnostic stand: we just don’t know where the virus came from, but the lab leak hypothesis hasn’t received enough attention and so, we need to investigate it more. China must open up and the International community hasn’t doing nearly enough in pressuring China to open up… and so on.
Despite such an apparently agnostic stand, the book still earned quite a number of negative reviews from mainstream scientific circles. There are actually quite a number of impressive facts and evidence for zoonotic hypothesis, such as the Covid-19 can conceivably evolved in the nature, the touted “human design” furin cleavage site on the virus was in fact designed poorly, the fact that there are two lineage of Covid-19 in circulation at the Seafood market which makes it more consistent with zoonotic rather than lab leak, and so on and so on. And these are the points that the negative reviewers never fail to bring up when hammering the book and the authors.
To be fair, I also think that the evidence for zoonotic hypothesis is quite strong at this point of time. What about the competitor, the lab leak hypothesis?
To compare the scientific merits between these two theories, it’s important to bring in a few concepts from the philosophy of science, one of them is Occam Razor. The Occam Razor states that
“out of the two theories that can equally explain the data well, the simpler theory should be preferred”.
This same razor can thus be used against the lab leak hypothesis; if the designer at Wuhan lab is doing such a lousy job and mimics the nature, why don’t we just assume that there is no human designer involved at all? What is the need of positing human designers? If you say that the lab doesn’t imprint itself on the virus, then why we do have to assume that it played a role at all? Won’t it be more parsimonious to cut out the lab part and assume that the virus is of entirely zoonotic origin?
The only “evidence”– if it really can be called as such–is the “evidence” that we still don’t know about a lot of things, such as where’s the intermediate host, which we should if zoonotic theory is true. But the evidence of absence is never the same with the absence of evidence. The absence of evidence can be filled with the passing of day ( or maybe not), it hardly counts at all as far as scientific investigation is concerned, but the evidence of absence is a strong indication for something.
Lab leak hypothesis, currently as it stands, is unfalsifiable in Popperian sense, thus make it unscientific. Take for example, even if we can show how the furin cleavage site is suboptimally designed, the lab leak proponents can say that it doesn’t disprove anything because their theory doesn’t say that the virus has to be bio-engineered in the lab. A plausible scenario is that the virus could have completed the evolution in the wild, being brought to the lab for study and then escaped to the seafood market. So the moment you come out with another seemly damning evidence against lab leak, the proponents can always retreat to another ground. By contrast, zoonotic hypothesis has to meet the usual scientific criteria. Back to the furin cleavage site example, if the virus is too perfectly designed, such a fact would count as a negative evidence against it. Not only that, zoonotic hypothesis can generate fruitful scientific programs: one can trace the virus transmission path, construct the phylogenetic tree, find the intermediate host… and so on. The hallmark of a good scientific theory is defined more by its productiveness rather than falsifiability. If you were a scientist and you needed to work on something, of course you would pursue a theory that gave you some directions and let you made testable statements rather than the one that engaged in post-hoc/ad-hoc reasoning.
I can definitely understand where the zoonotic hypothesis proponents are coming from. Yes, judging from the scientific merit alone for the two hypothesis, zoonotic hypothesis WINS hands down, no question about that. Lab leak hypothesis doesn’t stand a chance to compete, it cannot even be made scientific.
BUT, in real life things aren’t so simple, because science is not the only thing. Insisting on discussing everything in terms of science alone may not get us to the truth, especially when political interference is there. And in this case, the political interference is immense.
If Wuhan Institute of Virology really had nothing to hide, why it destroyed all the relevant data? Why would an angry Chinese government blocked WHO’s request to access the complete and original data at Lab? You said lab leak is all hogwash, well fine, let us investigate! No? Why not? And why such vitriol against the dissenters? The dissenters are well meaning, they just want to find out the truth to prevent the next pandemic! You might say “this is how CCP always behaves, regardless of whether they are guilty”. But then, you can’t blame people from inferring that the fury response is the admission of a secretive government who has a big secret to hide. By responding to legitimate scientific demand with hysterical response, the CCP invites aspersions and skepticism. Are they being malicious, or just stupid?
Things can only get more complicated from here. Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance, who is an American, and who was also actively involved with Wuhan Institute of Virology prior to Covid-19 outbreak, was behaving like– to put it unkindly– a complicit in a crime scene. This begs the question of why a Western scientist also behaved rather unprofessionally? Won’t that cause doubts on his integrity as a scientist? Did he not love his own feather?
He chose not to answer questions that could have shed lights on the lab activity, an (in)action that can only intensify speculation. And more damningly, he orchestrated the Lancet letter at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak. The letter implied that the scientific community has reached the consensus that the origin of Covid-19 is a foregone conclusion, that the lab leak is just conspiracy theory without merits, even though that no such consensus has been reached. To top it off, he failed to disclose his position as a interested party in the debate, despite the fact that his organization, EcoHealth Alliance had funded the SARS research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The unfortunate outcome of this letter is that the Covid-19 origin debate got stifled in the early days, precisely at the very time when we had the least information and when we were most capable of getting all the relevant data. Maybe this is his purpose after all, to throw people off the scent?
I think anyone with some experience in life will find all these circumstances very fishy. Is this guy hiding something? Probably yes. Does it have to do with the Covid-19 origin? I can’t say, because I have no proof.
But the suspicion lingers and it will always linger, because we see how human hands made the lab leak unamendable to scientific investigation. Through their clumsy handling of the whole situation, the Chinese government, and the complicit western scientists miss the chance to banish lab leak theory forever.
For this, we need to thank this book Viral for reminding us how much political interference has been exerted on the matter, and for calling an open and transparent investigation into the lab leak hypothesis. Science is a useful tool to find out the truth, but when human is involved, you need some real life experience, and sometimes, political pressure too.