Coronavirus

Is This a COVID-19 'Smoking Gun,' or Is it a Damp Squib?

Suspicions about a lab leak will continue so long as Chinese officials keep acting like they have something to hide.

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Science journalist Nicholas Wade recently argued that circumstantial evidence suggests the COVID-19 pandemic began with a lab leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. As I noted here yesterday, one of his biggest pieces of evidence is the virus's supposedly anomalous furin cleavage site—a specific protein that it uses to enter human cells.

Wade claims that "no known SARS-related beta-coronavirus, the class to which [the novel coronavirus] belongs, possesses a furin cleavage site." To back this up, Wade quotes the Nobel-winning biologist David Baltimore: "When I first saw the furin cleavage site in the viral sequence, with its arginine codons, I said to my wife it was the smoking gun for the origin of the virus. These features make a powerful challenge to the idea of a natural origin for" the COVID-19 virus, SARS-CoV-2.

As I earlier reported, some research supports this contention, while other research does not. Now the Scripps Research Institute immunologist Kristian Andersen has weighed in on the "does not" side. "The site is not a 'smoking gun', nor does it 'make a powerful challenge to the idea of a natural origin,'" he writes. Last year, I should note, Andersen and some colleagues published an article in Nature Medicine that concluded the coronavirus "is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus."

Without going too deeply into technical details, Andersen cites the same Stem Cell Research article to which I had linked as evidence that furin cleavage sites "are abundant, including being highly prevalent in coronaviruses. While SARS-CoV-2 is the first example of a SARSr virus with an FCS [furin cleavage site], other betacoronaviruses (the genus for SARS-CoV-2) have FCSs," including the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus and the Hong Kong University 1 (HKU1) virus. He adds, "There is nothing mysterious about having a 'first example' of a virus with an FCS."

While acknowledging that researchers don't know for sure how the virus acquired its furin cleavage site, Andersen then reviews four natural ways the COVID-19 virus could have done so. He concludes that "Baltimore's first point—that the FCS found in SARS-CoV-2 is somehow unusual—is simply incorrect. FCSs are found in a multitude of different coronaviruses."

Anderson moves on to Baltimore's claim that the codons associated with the FCS are anomalous. Codons are specific sequences of three consecutive nucleotides in the genetic code; they specify particular amino acids for constructing proteins. While somewhat rare, Andersen points out that all sorts of coronaviruses naturally contain the codons that Baltimore suggests is evidence of lab manipulation.

"So Baltimore's second point is also false," concludes Andersen. "Baltimore does not provide any evidence to support his hypothesis and the data support a natural origin."

That being said, Andersen adds this:

Does this disprove a lab leak? No. However, it disproves there being a "smoking gun" in the FCS and lends further evidence to natural emergence—but it also does not *prove* that scenario. To this day, we have yet to see any scientific evidence supporting a lab leak.

The lively scientific debate over the origins of the COVID-19 virus will surely continue. And suspicions about whether the virus escaped the Wuhan lab will surely remain as long as the Chinese government refuses to allow a thorough investigation and keeps acting like it has something to hide.

NEXT: Are Gavin Newsom's $600 Checks a Redistributive Vote-Buying Scheme or Welcome Return of Stolen Goods?

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  1. Occam’s Razor – the place where Chinese scientists worked with bat viruses is the place a bat to human virus first appeared.

    1. Right; to conclude there is no connection IS the stretch.

      Mighty handy to have a “wet market” full of bats and pangolins just across the street.

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    2. Or maybe that’s where a lot of bats are naturally found. What ever happened to needing evidence to support a claim?

      1. Or maybe you could read up on the articles from actual scientists who note how strange it was that this virus jumped so quickly and didn’t follow normal animal to human vectors.

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      2. And that the bats arent actually naturally found anywhere near there.

  2. Cleavage and condons. Hmmm.

    1. I’m in.

      1. Did she believe that claim?

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    2. Furin Cleavage to boot.

  3. Ron’s check from Beijing must have cleared.

  4. Have no fear, Bat Guano’s on the case.

  5. suspicions will remain as long as the Chinese government is

  6. Now the Scripps Research Institute immunologist Kristian Andersen has weighed in on the “does not” side.

    Yeah – Anderson was one of the first people to rush to the nearest microphone to scream that the lab escape hypothesis was totally unthinkable right out of the gate. That he’s jumped up to reiterate this in the face of increasing evidence otherwise is not surprising.

    Odd that Ron doesn’t mention Wade’s pointing out that Anderson and Daszak (the guy who was in charge of the study that’s been linked to the Wuhan lab) are colleagues who shared in the same NIH grant for a similar study.

    “‘The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic serves as a potent reminder of the devastation that can be wrought when a new virus infects humans for the first time,’ said NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci. ‘The CREID network will enable early warnings of emerging diseases wherever they occur, which will be critical to rapid responses. The knowledge gained through this research will increase our preparedness for future outbreaks.'”

    “The Coordinating Center, 10 CREIDs, principal investigators, Center name, research regions and grant numbers are:

    Donald Brambilla, Ph.D., RTI International, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina
    Tony Moody, M.D., Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, North Carolina
    CREID Coordinating Center; 1 U01AI151378-01

    Kristian Andersen, Ph.D., Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, California
    West African Emerging Infectious Disease Research Center (WAEIDRC)
    West Africa; 1 U01 AI151812-01

    Peter Daszak, Ph.D., EcoHealth Alliance, Inc., New York City
    Emerging Infectious Diseases-South East Asia Research Collaboration Hub (EID-SEARCH(link is external))
    Southeast Asia; 1 U01 AI151797-01

    Eva Harris, Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley
    American and Asian Centers for Arboviral Research and Enhanced Surveillance (A2CARES)
    Central and South America, South Asia; 1 U01 AI151788-01

    Christine K. Johnson, VMD, Ph.D., University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine
    EpiCenter for Emerging Infectious Disease Intelligence (EEIDI(link is external))
    Central Africa and South America; 1 U01 AI151814-01

    M. Kariuki Njenga, DVM. Ph.D., Washington State University, Pullman
    Center for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases-East and Central Africa (CREID-ECA)
    East and Central Africa; 1 U01 AI151799-01

    Anavaj Sakuntabhai, M.D., Ph.D., Institut Pasteur, Paris
    Pasteur International Center for Research on Emerging Infectious Diseases (PICREID)
    West and Central Africa and Southeast Asia; 1 U01 AI151758-01

    Nikos Vasilakis, Ph.D., University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston
    Coordinating Research on Emerging Arboviral Threats Encompassing the Neotropics (CREATE-NEO(link is external))
    Central and South America; 1 U01 AI151807-01

    Wesley C. Van Voorhis, M.D., Ph.D., University of Washington, Seattle
    United World Antiviral Research Network (UWARN)
    South America, West and South Africa, Middle East, and Asia; 1 U01 AI151698-01

    David Wang, Ph.D., Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis
    Center for Research in Emerging Infectious Disease-Epidemiology, Surveillance, Pathogenesis (CREID-ESP)
    Asia, East Africa; 1 U01 AI151810-01

    Scott C. Weaver, Ph.D., University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston
    West African Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases (WAC-EID)
    West Africa; 1 U01 AI151801-01″

    Next you’ll tell me the UC has ruled out lab escape, as well.

  7. I lively debate meaning twitter and FB will start banning it like they do with other covid discussions. These are multi national companies not beholden to the whims of US citizens, at all.

  8. So the “scientist” claims that their disbelief in a laboratory origin “‘smoking gun” in the FCS lends further evidence to natural emergence”? How does that work? Claiming to disprove one theory doesn’t on its own do anything to support a different theory.

    I disproved that Jimmy Carter developed COVID at his house, thereby strengthening the evidence for the natural origin theory.

    1. Claiming to disprove one theory doesn’t on its own do anything to support a different theory.

      Especially when there isn’t actually any evidence for the natural origin theory.

  9. I’d just like to repeat my position that the pertinent question isn’t whether Fauci’s National Institute of Allergy and Infection Disease is to blame for Covid-19 or whether Covid-19 escaped from this lab.

    The pertinent question is about whether Fauci and the NIAID should be funding this research in China, in a lab with a terrible safety record, mind you, and the correct answer is no.

    Regardless of whether Covid-19 escaped from this lab, and regardless of whether Covid-19 was a result of NIAID funded research, Fauci and the NIAID should not be funding this research in a Chinese lab with a terrible safety record.

    Playing Russian roulette is a stupid thing to do. And it doesn’t matter whether Fauci and the NIAID won or lost the game of Russian roulette. It was a stupid thing to do if he won, and it was a stupid thing to do if he lost.

    Don’t miss the forest for the trees, guys.

    1. Problem is, Fauci laundered the money thru EcoHealth, who then subcontracted the work to Wuhan, so Fauci has cover. He didn’t directly fund the research in China. He funded a nonprofit, and THEY funded the research in China.

      1. I believe you were the person who first mentioned to me that they probably funded this research in China because no U.S. lab in their right mind would authorize this kind of research–either because it’s illegal, unethical, or isn’t covered by insurance.

        If that’s what Fauci and the NIAID, and that’s why they did it, that needs to be addressed, too–but the answer to that question is the same regardless of whether Covid 19 came from this lab or was the result of the research that the NIAID funded.

        We shouldn’t get distracted by questions of whether this was the cause of Covid-19 or whether it escaped from a lab–when the correct conclusions are the same regardless of the correct answers to those questions.

        They have no business behaving in this reckless way–even if their recklessness wasn’t the cause of the pandemic.

        1. It’s wildly reckless, and also underhanded. The US put a moratorium on GOF research in 2014 due to concerns over biosecurity. The Obama admin, to their credit, had issues with creating deadly viruses capable of infecting humans. And, even though the moratorium was lifted in 2017, GOF remains controversial in the US.

          The paper trail is clear- the US funded this prohibited research in another country. The implication is pretty clear, too, that Fauci did that to skirt the moratorium. Either that or he was incompetent in administering his grant program. Either way, he’s responsible for the risk AND the outcome.

          But I have little confidence that he will even be seriously questioned about it.

  10. You think this is something? Wait until China gets sued for releasing this upon the world. Can you spell global economic upheaval?

    Those COVID bats came from Yunnan, 1000 miles from Wuhan. Bats only fly 30 miles from their roost.

    None of the first COVID cases were at Yunnan or on the way between there and Wuhan.

    The bat lady virologist did collect bats from Yunnan and bring them to the p4 lab at Wuhan to develop exactly COVID.

    1. The lady who did this research is known as the “Bat Lady”. She’s a researcher who collected thousands of viruses from bat caves in southern China and brought them back to the Wuhan Virology Institute. She then added gain of function ability to them, and then applied for a U.S. funded grant (NIH) to make them transmissible to humans–so that she could study the way they attack human cells.

      All of this information is taken from her own published research and the publicly available, independently verifiable funding applications that Dr. Fauci’s NIAID approved for her research in China.

      It’s a mind-blowing story, I know. But it’s all been independently verified from publicly available sources. Read about it here.

      https://thebulletin.org/2021/05/the-origin-of-covid-did-people-or-nature-open-pandoras-box-at-wuhan/

      1. Better late than never.

        https://reason.com/2020/04/17/covid-19-lethality-not-much-different-than-flu-says-new-study/

        Rob Misek
        April.19.2020 at 2:28 pm
        Flag Comment Mute User
        Dipshits that say the virus was discovered not developed probably still believe in Santa Claus.

        Since the early 2000’s the leading Chinese virologist t Doctor Shi Zhengli has been engineering Coronaviruses working in North Carolina with millions in US grants.

        In 2014 the Obama administration initiated a temporary moratorium on “gain of function” engineering which enhances virus communicability and lethality.

        Shi moves back to Wuhan China to continue the engineering with the US grants.

        In 2015 their careless behaviour released a SARS variant killing several people.

        In 2017 the Trump administration rescinded the moratorium, which enabled new grants for gain of function engineering.

        In 2018 US embassy inspectors were allowed to review the work in China’s only p4 virus lab which was located in Wuhan. They reported back that it was not secure and a SARS like global pandemic was likely to originate there.

        The US government funded the development of COVID19, sent it to China and ignored their own warnings.

        Covid19 behaves like nothing we’ve seen before.

        Apparently they were trying to make a Coronavirus infect people with an HIV vaccine.

        Rob Misek
        April.20.2020 at 4:48 am
        Flag Comment Mute User
        This will be a very costly venture when the US and China are held legally liable for the global losses to life and economies.

        1. I had heard something about the HIV connection a while ago. Do you have any sources for that?

          1. He doesn’t understand what he read, but this is the guy who thinks the Nazis were simply trying to delouse the Jews. The “connection” is that they used a process that was similar to a process that was used to study HIV.

            1. Jews, haha.

              1. So when COVID is demonstrated to be man made, you’ll recognize that the holocaust narrative is complete bullshit?

                No problem dipshit.

                1. “So when COVID is demonstrated to be man made, you’ll recognize that the holocaust narrative is complete bullshit?”

                  We’ll recognize that you’re a Nazi liar.

  11. I’ll put it another way.

    The question isn’t whether Saddam Hussein has a WMD program.

    The question is whether bombing, invading, and occupying Iraq is in the best interests of U.S. security.

    I opposed the Iraq War for humanitarian reasons, but I also opposed it for strategic reasons. Winning the Iraq War cost us far more than we gained, and one of the things we gained was a rogue Iranian state, a state supporter of terrorism with a terrorist army and a real WMD program. This is not to mention the quagmire aspect, and the cost in treasure and human lives and misery. You might even say that the Iraq War was a mistake–even if Saddam Hussein really did have a WMD program!

    It’s the same thing here.

    The general principles, gleaned over the course of decades, are far more important than the details of any one story. The Iraq War was a bad idea if Saddam Hussein had WMD, but it was a bad idea if he did have WMD, too. And in that case, the real question wasn’t whether Saddam Hussein had WMD. The question was whether it was in the best interests of the United States to take on the responsibility of remaking Iraqi culture into a beacon of democracy and freedom or bust.

    There isn’t anything we should do differently because Dr. Fauci is to blame and there isn’t anything we should do differently because Covid-19 escaped from a lab. We shouldn’t let bureaucrats make qualitative choices for us about destroying our economy in the name of safety–regardless of whether Dr. Fauci is to blame and regardless of whether Covid-19 escaped from a lab.

    What we should do differently is stop funding dangerous research in dangerous labs in dangerous countries–and the important piece of information isn’t who’s to blame. It’s that we were funding this kind if research in this kind of country in this kind of lab. That’s a bad idea! It was a bad idea before Covid-19, and it’s a bad idea now.

    1. “The Iraq War was a bad idea if Saddam Hussein [didn’t have] WMD, but it was a bad idea if he did have WMD, too!”

      —-Ken Shultz

      Fixed

  12. So, IOW, the best explanation— by far— for the origin of this virus is mutation of the virus in an animal host where it eventually became infectious to humans.

    Hey Ken… you might want to explain this to your fellow travelers here on the comment page. They’re jumping from unsupported supposition A to calling for war with China. Not you though. You’re just JAQing off.

    1. Some of them may be overselling the implications of the facts, but I think you might be missing some of the facts.

      Fact: A researcher collected hundreds of viruses from bats, brought them to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and built souped-up coronaviruses using gain-of-function procedures.

      Fact: The NIAID, under Dr. Fauci, gave this researcher a grant to test these viruses on humanized mice–to make them transmissible to humans should she could study the way they attack human cells.

      They may be wrong to assume this is a smoking gun–if by smoking gun, they mean that this was the origin of Covid-19. However, if they mean that the publicly available and independently verifiable documents that show Fauci and the NIH funding this research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology is a smoking gun–showing that Facui and the NIH were reckless to fund this research in China at a lab with a terrible safety record?

      They’re right about that.

    2. So, IOW, the best explanation— by far— for the origin of this virus is mutation of the virus in an animal host where it eventually became infectious to humans.

      Except that COVID-19 doesn’t infect animals very well, including bats, and hasn’t been found in any animals who didn’t get it from humans. Nothing even closely related has been found in any animals.

      In other words, there’s not a shred of evidence to support your “best explanation— by far.”

      1. That, and the bat populations where the progenitor virus is thought to exist are separated from Wuhan by almost 1,000 miles, and those bats don’t migrate there, so it would need to have infected an intermediary animal that also managed to moved to Wuhan.

        Such infections are not one offs. For this mutation to have occurred naturally, it would require a continual interaction between those species, followed by a continual interaction between the intermediary species and humans.

        And again, if the bats were in contact with the intermediary species, that means the intermediary species was in that area where the bats are located.

        So the idea that the intermediary species would then infect humans in Wuhan without infecting them anywhere inbetween???

        That beggars belief.

        1. I guess there isn’t an obvious way for zoonotic viruses to travel from the the wild into cities. Oh well… since there isn’t… TO WAR!!!

          https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7123567/

          1. You know where this point is addressed? In the article. You should go actually read it.

          2. I guess there isn’t an obvious way for zoonotic viruses to travel from the the wild into cities.

            Actually, there isn’t an obvious way for a zoonotic virus to travel over 1,000 miles without an intermediary host, which is what had to have happened in order for the zoonotic theory to be credible, given the current state of the evidence.

            If you had read the article, you would know that.

  13. No.

    The Wade article and Dr. Baltimore BOTH state pretty clearly that, although what Anderson is claiming is certainly possible, the evidence that that is what DID happen doesn’t exist yet. The intermediary between bats and humans is missing, and without that evidence, it’s possible but improbable that the virus evolved naturally to infect humans.

    Given the publicly available and independently verifiable information, it is most probable that the virus was due to a lab leak from WIV, where they were known to be conducting GOF research on bat coronaviruses in humanized mice and human tissues, at a lower biosafety level than was appropriate for the risk level, in a facility that had a history of shoddy safety practices, in a country where gross fuck ups are not likely to be reported promptly.

    In this case, while no one is arguing that what Anderson is saying isn’t possible, it would require a whole bunch of processes that aren’t supported by available evidence. If China ever unseals the Wuhan research, we’ll have better evidence. But since they refuse to do that, there’s no reason to believe the implausible scenario over the more likely scenario.

  14. Ron,
    Regarding your reference to Dr. Andersen’s rebuttal of Mr. Wade’s article.

    I’m wondering why you didn’t point out that Mr. Wade explicitly addressed what he described as the massive shortcomings in Dr. Andersen’s original letter as a part of his article.

    In other words, you failed to note that the rebuttal you provided was coming from someone who’s original denunciation of the theory had been explicitly described as intellectually dishonest and false.

    In and of itself, that would provide motive for Dr. Andersen to defend himself.

    In addition, you might try this source for more information on the failures in Dr. Andersen’s original letter and the conflict of interest in the publication which hosted his original letter.

    https://harvardtothebighouse.com/2020/03/19/china-owns-nature-magazines-ass-debunking-the-proximal-origin-of-sars-cov-2-claiming-covid-19-wasnt-from-a-lab/

    1. In other words, you failed to note that the rebuttal you provided was coming from someone who’s original denunciation of the theory had been explicitly described as intellectually dishonest and false.

      ^ This. The discussion of Andersen’s original letter is no small part of Wade’s article. Ron ignoring it and presenting Andersen’s perspective as fresh new eyes is disappointing.

  15. Folks need to actually go read the ENTIRE article by Wade at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

    Yes, it’s long, but half the comments here opposing it are making statements that are clearly contradicted by the facts in the article, evidence that the posters are just skimming it, not actually taking the time to read and UNDERSTAND the science.

    I’m getting really tired of people yelling “Science” who are in fact really just perpetuating BELIEF in the messaging from one particular set of scientists…

    …a set of scientists, by the way, who also happen to have MASSIVE conflicts of interest with both the Chinese Communist Government (remember them, the 1 government on the planet with the unique distinction of having killed more of it’s people than any other currently existing government?) as well as with the US Pharmaceutical industry who is MASSIVELY benefitting from this entire pandemic

    1. Folks need to actually go read the ENTIRE article by Wade at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

      This can’t be emphasized enough.

  16. Anne Coulter is going to lap up the column Ron is walking back. Serves him right for trying to spin so straight a science journalist as Wade on so crooked a subject as the roots of a virus with 24 known vectors and counting.

    https://www.takimag.com/article/i-will-not-be-scienced/

  17. What kind of idiot looks at this situation and sees the lab working on coronaviruses and that ‘wet market’ and says ‘why yes, it’s obvious that this couldn’t have come from the lab literally working with these precise types of viruses, it had to have come from these bats and a tortured circuitous explanation of a thousand variables about how such a thing might have happened.’?

    Ron Bailey.

  18. I guess the fact that patient zero worked at the Wuhan lab isn’t indicative of a man made source.

    1. It’s still entirely possible that the researchers contracted the virus directly from the bats when they were on their research mission collecting viruses, which would be consistent with patient zero working at the lab. This seems to me like a weaker explanation than a lab accident, though, but stronger than “it was related to this research in no way at all,” which is what the government and the mainstream media seem to be going with.

      1. Except nobody 1000 miles away at Yunnan where the bats lived, were among the first cases of COVID. Nor was anyone between Yunnan and Wuhan.

        You have to believe in miracles to think the first case of a Yunnan bat virus would show up in Wuhan.

        But you’re a fuckwit, fill your boots.

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