“Where’s the beef?” Clara Peller in a 1984 Wendy’s commercial
So, the world has been abuzz since the Department of Energy recently reported that it decided, albeit with low confidence, that the SARS-CoV-2 virus might have leaked by accident from the virology lab in Wuhan. Across cable television and the internet, including sources such as Fox, Breitbart, Joe Rogan, gossip lines, et al., are full of “I knew it all along,” and “I told you so’s.” Never have so many virology experts suddenly been spawned on Facebook. And most of them could not tell you whether a coronavirus is an RNA or DNA virus, let alone the difference between RNA and DNA.
But let’s slow down a bit. Have you even wondered why the Department of Energy is releasing an assessment about a virus? And did you wonder what data they based their assessment on? I did and I explain it here. What I learned tells a much more complete, and less compelling story than what most of the priests of the press, Junior virologists, and other rumor mongers have reported. What has been reported has been woefully inadequate and vastly misleading.
The DOE report was based on intelligence data that remains classified, and is not a science report. Apparently intel spooks weigh science information much differently than scientists do, and often put less credibility in published science because the information usually does not come from “trusted” sources that an spook has history with (their version of "peer review" I guess). The US intelligence community is distributed between 18 agencies, including Energy, State, Treasury, and others including, of course, the CIA, FBI, and DOD. Eight of these entities have been involved in reviewing the COVID-origins issue.
In 2121, the Energy Department, which oversees 17 national laboratories, several of which study SARS-CoV-2 and its origins, reported it was undecided on how the virus emerged. What caused DOE to recently change their assessment is not known. They are not releasing the classified data. Therefore, their information appears not to be scientific data, which is usually published. Four other unnamed agencies, along with a national intelligence panel, still judge that the virus was likely the result of a natural transmission from an animal to humans, and two other agencies are undecided. Only the FBI agrees with DOE in thinking that the virus leaked from the lab. Notably, the CIA also remains undecided. In other words, the DOE’s opinion is a minority opinion of low confidence in the intel community. It is hardly worth all the breathless excitement it elicited from Tucker Carlson and other bloviators who now dishonestly insinuate that it has now been proven the virus came from the lab. That is far from decided.
The intel community’s definition of low confidence intelligence is “that the information’s credibility and/or plausibility is uncertain, that the information is too fragmented or poorly corroborated to make solid analytical inferences, or that reliability of the sources is questionable.” Someone should send that to Tucker.
The origin of the virus has been actively investigated over the last couple of years and your sometimes humble correspondent has reported previously on those investigations in these pages (it is worth reading for background). These blog posts have favored the natural origin of the virus, because that is what the preponderance of data have suggested. There have been no published data supporting a lab leak hypothesis. None. Also, recent science reports in top-flight science journals continue to conclude that the virus had a natural origin. A paper just published in 2023 in Cell reported that SARS-CoV-2 is the ninth known coronavirus to have jumped from an animal into humans. Two earlier reports in Science, and also summarized in these pages last March, agreed that the virus originated in the Wuhan wet market not just once, but twice. These studies included genetic evidence and epidemiological tracing showing that the early cases of COVID all centered around the Wuhan wet market and not around the lab eight miles away.
Furthermore, back in 2020, I also wrote a summary of how the earliest events of the pandemic unfolded. Here is a synopsis of the first few days: On December 31, 2019, Chinese officials informed the WHO about a cluster of 41 patients with a mysterious pneumonia in the city of Wuhan associated with a new coronavirus. Then, in the middle of that night a Chinese CDC team from Beijing arrived and collected 585 “environment” samples from a garbage truck, drains and sewers in the wet market. Thirty-three of the samples tested positive for the new coronavirus. Fourteen of the positive samples were from the area of the market where wildlife was traded. At the same time, Wuhan officials quietly began disinfecting the market, and it was closed.
It is interesting that the immediate focus was on the market and not the lab.
Keep in mind that we have very many examples of viruses, including several other coronaviruses similar to SARS-CoV-2, spontaneously passing from animals to cause disease in humans. This includes the first example of SARS-CoV-1 that came from a food market in China in 2002, and then MERS, which passed from a camel to humans. It was natural for medical scientists to first think that SARS-CoV-2 arose similarly. So far, the evidence is not convincing that it did not. The fact that we have not yet convincingly identified an animal source for the virus is not surprising. It took 30 years to establish the source of the HIV virus, and we still do not know the source of the Ebola virus.
So far, despite the very weak statement from the DOE, the preponderance of data still favors a natural origin of the virus, not a lab origin. But, that still is far from definitive. That “preponderance” of evidence, can change in a hurry with new data. Therefore, it remains worth further investigation. But until the Chinese government allows outside scientists to review lab data books and interview scientists from the Wuhan labs, the investigation will proceed with one hand tied behind its back. It remains remotely possible that an animal carrying the ancestral coronavirus will be caught confirming that it did come from an animal. Yet, even if we did find an animal source for the virus, it may not tell us about the path it took to get into humans. We might never know that to the delight of the conspiracy nuts and fabulists out there who have never weaned off the teat of fantasy.
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