“Which laboratory is responsible matters little”

Back in 2014, there was a vigorous debate over gain-of-function (GoF) research. Prestigious journals published articles showing that this research is extremely dangerous, and probably should not be allowed:

First, from the calculations in two in-depth pandemic risk analyses (79), there is a substantial probability that a pandemic with over a 100-million fatalities could be seeded from an undetected lab-acquired infection (LAI), if a single infected lab worker spreads infection as he moves about in the community. From the Klotz (2014) analysis, there is about a 1–30% probability, depending on assumptions, that, once infected, the lab worker will seed a pandemic. This large probability spread arises from varying the average number of people infected by an infected person between 1.4 and 3.0 (R0, in standard epidemiology notation), varying the details of commutes to and from work on public transportation, and whether infected acquaintances are quarantined before spreading infection. The Merler (2013) study, based on a computer-generated population grid of size and varying density of the Netherlands, supports our concern over a lab escape not being detected until it is too late: “there is a non-negligible probability (5–15%), strongly dependent on reproduction number and probability of developing clinical symptoms, that the escape event is not detected at all.”

These concerns were not completely ignored. The US stopped funding gain-of-function research in 2014. However, the moratorium was lifted in 2017.

Former NYT reporter Donald McNeil says there have already been serious lab leaks:

Despite constantly rising biosafety levels, viruses we already know to be lethal, from smallpox to SARS, have repeatedly broken loose by accident.

Most leaks infect or kill just a few people before they are stopped by isolation and/or vaccination. But not all: scientists now believe that the H1N1 seasonal flu that killed thousands every year from 1977 to 2009 was influenza research gone feral. The strain first appeared in eastern Russia in 1977 and its genes were initially identical to a 1950 strain; that could have happened only if it had been in a freezer for 27 years. It also initially behaved as if it had been deliberately attenuated, or weakened. So scientists suspect it was a Russian effort to make a vaccine against a possible return of the 1918 flu. And then, they theorize, the vaccine virus, insufficiently weakened, began spreading.

Even worse, these sorts of lab accidents are fairly common. This is from a 2015 comment on a research paper:

The 1977 H1N1 virus caused a global epidemic, and as Rozo and Gronvall themselves concluded, it originated in a microbiology laboratory and its release was unintentional. Which laboratory is responsible matters little in the GoF debate.

Rozo and Gronvall also stated that, “in 1977, influenza research was performed without modern biosafety regulations and protective equipment, making the lab accident hypothesis much less relevant to the modern GoF debate.” However, the current record of containment of high-consequence pathogens is hardly reassuring.

My review of 11 relevant events (2) found that escapes of high-consequence pathogens causing community infections typically occur from state-of-the-art laboratories, including six outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome and one of foot-and-mouth disease since 2003. [Emphasis added]

Tyler Cowen argues that proof of the Chinese lab leak theory would be a big blow to the prestige of the Chinese government. (Not for me, I already had an extremely low opinion of the CCP.) I think Tyler is right, but Thomas Frank argues that the biggest effect would be to discredit the global scientific establishment:

The last global disaster, the financial crisis of 2008, smashed people’s trust in the institutions of capitalism, in the myths of free trade and the New Economy, and eventually in the elites who ran both American political parties. . . .

Now here we are in the waning days of Disastrous Global Crisis #2. Covid is of course worse by many orders of magnitude than the mortgage meltdown — it has killed millions and ruined lives and disrupted the world economy far more extensively. Should it turn out that scientists and experts and NGOs, etc. are villains rather than heroes of this story, we may very well see the expert-worshiping values of modern liberalism go up in a fireball of public anger.

It isn’t just that we were doing the same sort of dangerous research as the Chinese, we were actually funding the Wuhan lab. But it gets worse. Another former NYT science reporter (these guys get cancelled pretty often) suggests that the global community of virologists have been less than completely honest with the public. Here’s Nicholas Wade:

By this criterion, the signatories of the Lancet letter were behaving as poor scientists: They were assuring the public of facts they could not know for sure were true.

It later turned out that the Lancet letter had been organized and drafted by Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York. Daszak’s organization funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. If the SARS2 virus had indeed escaped from research he funded, Daszak would be potentially culpable. This acute conflict of interest was not declared to the Lancet’s readers. To the contrary, the letter concluded, “We declare no competing interests.”

Virologists like Daszak had much at stake in the assigning of blame for the pandemic. For 20 years, mostly beneath the public’s attention, they had been playing a dangerous game. In their laboratories they routinely created viruses more dangerous than those that exist in nature. They argued that they could do so safely, and that by getting ahead of nature they could predict and prevent natural “spillovers,” the cross-over of viruses from an animal host to people. If SARS2 had indeed escaped from such a laboratory experiment, a savage blowback could be expected, and the storm of public indignation would affect virologists everywhere, not just in China. “It would shatter the scientific edifice top to bottom,” an MIT Technology Review editor, Antonio Regalado, said in March 2020.

In 2008, I became disillusioned with the field of macroeconomics. In my view, macroeconomists caused the Great Recession by not emphasizing that at each an every point in time the Fed needed to set monetary policy at a position expected to lead to on target growth in aggregate demand. When economists inside and outside central banks failed to correctly diagnose the problem in 2008, policy became highly contractionary and the global economy collapsed.

The scientific establishment needs to avoid doing research that could lead to the death of 100 million people. It’s that simple. And this is true regardless of whether of not Covid came from a Wuhan lab.

The scandal is not the fact that Covid came from a lab (which we don’t know yet, but seems doubtful), the real scandal (if there is one) is that Covid could have come from a lab. That in itself would be totally unacceptable. Some people would probably be reassured by this:

Shi breathed a sigh of relief when the results came back: none of the sequences matched those of the viruses her team had sampled from bat caves. “That really took a load off my mind,” she says. “I had not slept a wink for days.”

Her lack of sleep makes me even more nervous. Is this research really that dangerous?

On the other hand, most evidence still points toward a natural origin for the Covid-19 virus. If Covid-19 is eventually found in nature, it will be a huge black eye for the US and a huge PR coup for China.

PS. Our regulators are probably far too risk averse when it comes to nuclear power, and nowhere near risk averse enough when it comes to virus research.


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40 Responses to ““Which laboratory is responsible matters little””

  1. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    2. June 2021 at 17:49

    Scott,

    the Nicolas Wade article in the Bulletin was the first piece of evidence that made me take the lab leak theory seriously. Not because of the science in it, even as a trained biologist I know too little about standards of proof either way in this field. But because of the “cui bono” (to deny a leak) implications. Who lobbied for which interpretation of the evidence. Once you see self serving motivated reasoning by the implicated science field, it makes it much harder to believe that they had nothing to do with it. Similarly, the Jane Qiu article seems one of the stronger points against the leak theory, she seemed to have genuinely worried and looked at the data in a non self serving way.

    And you’re right, science credibility takes a hit once more. I have enough nagging doubts about the quality of science in the whole climate change field, for similar reasons, motivated reasoning. In climate change it is more because of political belief.

  2. Gravatar of DeservingPorcupine DeservingPorcupine
    2. June 2021 at 17:58

    “which we don’t know yet, but seems doubtful”

    Come on, man. Seriously? Still? I just don’t understand your brain here. You seem to have no respect for the fact that viral jumps to human are extremely rare, and this one appeared right next to one of a tiny number of labs that studied and collected these kinds of viruses.

    If you see a puddle in the desert, and it’s next to a spigot, would you think the puddle came from a sporadic rain shower?

  3. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    2. June 2021 at 18:49

    DeservingPorcupine,

    “You seem to have no respect for the fact that viral jumps to human are extremely rare”
    You mean, except for the swine and bird variants of the flu and SARS/MERS/Covid, not to mention HIV, and that’s just the well known ones that led to global outbreaks. All in all, these jumps seem to happen on a nearly yearly basis.

  4. Gravatar of Nick S Nick S
    2. June 2021 at 19:00

    MBKA – you’re right…unlikely it came from a lab… just a complete coincidence that, of all places in the world where the virus could have broken out, it just so happened to be within a mile of a laboratory purposed to experiment with coronaviruses…

    I don’t know why this is even controversial.. probably because trump said it?

  5. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    2. June 2021 at 20:49

    IMHO, the scandals were….

    1. This type of research was being carried out.

    2. The media has become totally dysfunctional and partisan.

    3. Liberals, including those few that appear to possess cognitive skills, still believe the narratives being fed to them by the media…. (but this could just be a sampling error since I actually don’t know many conservatives.)

  6. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    2. June 2021 at 21:07

    Nick S,

    you’re replying to exactly nothing that I actually wrote above.

    Although, of course, if you did read my comments above, by the same logic I’d distrust any theory coming from Trump just because it’s Trump. Anything the man says is worthless by definition.

    Worthwhile noting that some of the conspiracy theories say that yes, it was man made, but planted by the CIA in Wuhan for that purpose. US intelligence had indeed sounded alarm bells about a mystery disease in Wuhan late 2019 when no such news had even transpired yet. Chinese comments have suggested the same in a few isolated news. That would neatly explain why the US so far hasn’t pushed the lab leak theory too hard yet, not even under Trump.

  7. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    2. June 2021 at 22:21

    Now that’s finally a balanced article on this matter. It took Scott over a year to write it and, interestingly, at the same time when Biden took the theory more seriously as well. Before that it was just stupid politics: Idiot president Trump believed in it, so of course it must have been wrong in the eyes of most people. This was purely political reasoning at its very best.

    I miss an apology though. I myself have no problem with apologies, I do mistakes all the time – but then I try to apologize.

    Commenters like Ray Lopez and myself were ridiculed hard, and now over a year later, Scott is saying quite similar things that others have been saying since day one. Why the change in mind, the facts didn’t really change.

    I also remember readers such as mbka claiming how supposedly incredibly important gain of function research is, whileo others already wrote last year that they are shocked that such research even exists. Essential benefits are not apparent, but the extreme risks should be obvious to anyone by now. Some people were just talking out of their asses back then, for whatever reason.

    The same is true for the difficult to explain, mathematically improbable coincidence that this virus had its first major outbreak exactly where the most important corona lab in China is located and where gain-of-function research happens. It was strange from the very beginning and now Biden and all the other “serious” people found it strange as well. Good for them!

    On the other hand, most evidence still points toward a natural origin for the Covid-19 virus. If Covid-19 is eventually found in nature, it will be a huge black eye for the US and a huge PR coup for China.

    The most obvious points here, even to laymen, are that no good links have been found so far. The closest related virus is said to be about 95% similar and, guess what, it comes from the Corona Lab in Wuhan. It has been calculated that its evolution into today’s virus would take about 10 years in nature, so in other words, one must have to find quite a few intermediates, but not a single intermediate has been found so far, which is highly surprising since the CCP has a huge incenvitive to find these different stages.

    So they are either not looking for it at all (here one must wonder why) or they are looking for it desparately, but they are not finding anything.

    It also speaks volumes that the WHO mission in China was completely sabotaged by the CCP. The CCP does not want any real unbiased investigation at all, they don’t seem to believe in a natural origin themselves. Instead, the CCP relies on repression and terror, as so often, which seems to be a quite effective method by the way. It worked over a year so far.

    It also makes less and less sense to talk about alleged probabilities that one can no longer serioulsy determine. Possible explanations are now over a year old:

    1) Some leading virologists have massive conflicts of interest. They have no interest in the lab theory in the first place, because they view it as attack on tehir research and their profession. They think way too much in political terms instead of purely scientifical.

    2) The localization of the first outbreak remains extremely suspicious from the very beginning.

    3) The behavior of the CCP government is highly suspicious. Serious research is being sabotaged. The CCP is even more thin-skinned than usual and is highly aggressive against all critics and researchers.

    4) Developmental stages in nature have not been found after more than a year – but finding them would be in the interest of the CCP.

    5) The virus itself behaves strangely in my opinion. Of course, there might be transitions of viruses from one species to another species every year, as mbka claims. But these should be more gradual, small mutations. The current virus seems to have made at least 2-3 giant leaps right before Wuhan happened in rather short time and it even never really stopped since then, even though just one year passed so far. So it’s not unserious to ask what (or who) opened Pandora’s box? Did it have a birth attendant or not, and if so, what was it.

  8. Gravatar of J.V. Dubouis J.V. Dubouis
    3. June 2021 at 02:08

    I agree here. The gain of function research has potential of wiping out billions of people if something bad happens. There is almost 60 labs of biosafety level 4 that are characterized as follows:

    “Biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) is the highest level of biosafety precautions, and is appropriate for work with agents that could easily be aerosol-transmitted within the laboratory and cause severe to fatal disease in humans for which there are no available vaccines or treatments.”

    There are thousands of people working in these labs. There are many things that can happen here ranging from failure of technology, human error but also deliberate breach – there are for instance credible theories that 2001 anthrax attacks may have been conducted by one of the scientists working in the biolab. Also these labs are not located somewhere in the desert of New Mexico. They are mostly located next to universities in largest cities on earth – there are for example three BSL-4 labs in London for instance. The fact that this was allowed to happen is incredible to me.

    The second issue I have here is the behavior of journalists. The fact that COVID appeared literally across the street of the singular BSL-4 laboratory in one of 100 cities in China with population over one million should immediately rise suspicion. Even if unconfirmed it should have definitely led to articles about dangers of gain of function research as a broader topic. As you say, it is orders of magnitude more horrifying finding compared to let’s say nuclear power plants. But the fact was not only that journalists ignored the topic – they were actively suspending any “lab leak” theory as debunked conspiracy and many journalists or even scientists would not touch the whole area of discussion in 10-foot pole at risk of being considered as conspiracy hacks. It was really amazing to watch over the year.

  9. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    3. June 2021 at 02:58

    I just read that Tyler Cowen now gives lab theory a 50-60% chance. These are exactly the percentages we gave the lab theory in the first half of 2020. It feels good that Tyler Cowen is on our side.

    I hope there is no need to mention that no one serious is saying that the CCP acted in bad faith. There is no indication that they acted in bad faith regarding the research. The virology research community, especially in China and the US, have acted in good faith.

    But they also haven’t really seriously considered the massive damage they can do and how few benefits their gain of function research has in comparison. That was their mistake.

    And regarding the investigation of this pre-apocalyptic catastrophe, the CCP is now obviously acting in bad faith. This is their second mistake. That’s not responsible, that’s not transparent, it’s a cover-up, sabotaging, and criminal.

    @J.V. Dubouis
    I think such labs are necessary, of course. Research is also necessary. But not gain of function research. This must be made taboo, I guess. The comparison to nuclear power (or even weapons) seems spot on. There are international treaties, regulations and prohibitions regarding nuclear power (and weapons), something similar must happen in the field of gain of function research, where the benefits are far less clear and where the danger is much higher. It’s basically a weapon of mass destruction that can completely wipe out large parts of humanity, or even all humans, and one doesn’t even have to pull the trigger, it just happens by accident and unintentional.

  10. Gravatar of Lizard Man Lizard Man
    3. June 2021 at 05:28

    “Another former NYT science reporter (these guys get cancelled pretty often)”

    Strange that some people’s favorite paper doesn’t believe in science… reporting.

  11. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    3. June 2021 at 06:05

    Christian,

    ” also remember readers such as mbka claiming how supposedly incredibly important gain of function research is” .

    Well I don’t remember writing such things, I was more of one of the ones shocked that it was done in this way and on viruses that easily transmitted. That said, as you say yourself, not doing research isn’t going to help either. And that’s probably what I defended, if any.

    I will readily admit that I didn’t give the lab leak theory much credence last year. This was (and is) mostly due to various contradictions by the people who clamored for it. Not just Trump, or here, say, Ray Lopez, but also famous virologists such as Luc Montagnier of HIV fame who backed the lab theory from the beginning. But he also now backs homeopathy and is an anti vaxxer. Reminds me of famous virologist Duesberg who denied that HIV causes AIDS, initially with some good points, then veering off into crankdom. Then there is those who say it’s man made alright but it was planted in China by the CIA. That’s Unz review territory. Once you see that one theory is pushed by people that mostly seem cranks, politicians, or armchair commenters with an axe to grind, whatever theory there is takes some serious hit in credibility.

    So what changed my mind now? Same thing. I don’t have enough technical knowledge to evaluate the pros and cons on the molecular biology side. Mind you, I actually used molecular biology tools in microbiology research some decades back. But this is highly technical stuff, I am not good enough to have an opinion on the science. However. Once I realized that the same people attacking the lab leak theory most fervently are also having massively to lose were it true, the lab leak became much more plausible in my eyes.

  12. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    3. June 2021 at 06:19

    Here’s hoping we learn the right lessons from all this. GoF research seems too scary to me, but I’m not a virologist and there are intelligent and well-informed people who advocate for it: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK285583/

  13. Gravatar of steve steve
    3. June 2021 at 07:14

    The moratorium placed on gain of function testing did have some exceptions. Of the 21 studies paused 10 were allowed to restart. A few more details are in the Nature piece on the lifting of the moratorium. AFAICT from reading and talking with some researchers, it appears the moratorium was lifted as part of the general emphasis on reversing regulations imposed by the Obama administration.

    https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-017-08837-7

    Steve

  14. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    3. June 2021 at 09:41

    mbka, I’m still skeptical of the lab leak theory. But I do believe that gain-of-function research is too dangerous, and should not be done.

    BTW, if you listen to the podcast I link to at the end, they suggest that Wade is in way over his head and is misinterpreting the evidence. I’m in no position to know who is right.

    Deserving, These jumps are very common, and see my reply to Nick. If I am a moron, is that also true of most of the US intelligence services, and most of the scientific community? You should educate yourself on an issue before making such silly remarks.

    Nick, There’s no evidence that it originated a mile from that lab. And there’s nothing surprising about the epidemic starting in Wuhan, which is a huge hub of the Chinese wildlife business. Would you be surprised if in 1910 mad cow disease had first showed up in Chicago? Wuhan is China’s Chicago.

    dtoh, Agree with your first two points. Not sure why you single out “liberals”. Are liberals the one’s who think Trump will be back in office by August? Are liberals the ones who favor a Myanmar style military coup to overthrow Biden? Just asking.

    Christian, You said:

    “Now that’s finally a balanced article on this matter. It took Scott over a year to write it and, interestingly, at the same time when Biden took the theory more seriously as well.”

    Actually Biden raised this issue in February 2020, when Trump was lavishing praise on the CCP’s handling the the pandemic. And I’ve raised the same points in many previous posts.

    I stopped reading after your first two sentences.

    Lizard, Who views the NYT as their favorite paper?

    Steve, Yes, it’s ironic that this was a part of Trump’s “deregulation”.

  15. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    3. June 2021 at 09:53

    Everyone, Here’s what I said in January:

    https://www.econlib.org/the-mad-scientist-problem/

  16. Gravatar of John Hall John Hall
    3. June 2021 at 09:58

    I’m not really sure what I think, but Robert Garry seems to have proven that the virus is not designed in a lab. I don’t think I’m convinced by his follow-up arguments about gain-of-function research, but I’m not knowledgeable enough to really judge it. There’s still some non-zero probability that it escaped from the lab in my view.

  17. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    3. June 2021 at 11:14

    I think it is far worse if a gain of function virus “leaked” from a lab in a dense city/province than it “could have” leaked. This should be obvious and one need not be a Bayesian to see it. List already said what I wanted to about Trump, so I will let his comment stand. I assume you have read something that gives you a higher degree of confidence that this is was not a leak. Even though it “could have been”. Must be something different than what Tyler read. Despite my snarkiness, I do agree that even if this time it may not have been a leak it eventually will be as long as these experiments are conducted.

    The push idea that these are conducted to protect ourselves from natural occurring viruses (to help create cures) strikes me as absurd. We cannot replicate nature—-and if we could we should just start with the cure research.

    To repeat myself from a previous comment, these are transparently bio weapons research. And just because some scientists don’t view it that way (the truly dumb ones) we can feel confident the military does

    And maybe we can voluntarily stop this by treaty—but —I really doubt it. Under the “could have leaked” concept, we should at least do it on islands or isolated places. The problem with that is that it’s proof we are doing it.

    Politics at this stage is useless. I would love to have a clearing of the air and an admission of what we know and what we have done. And what we should do. But that won’t happen.

  18. Gravatar of DeservingPorcupine DeservingPorcupine
    3. June 2021 at 11:44

    “Nick, There’s no evidence that it originated a mile from that lab. And there’s nothing surprising about the epidemic starting in Wuhan, which is a huge hub of the Chinese wildlife business. Would you be surprised if in 1910 mad cow disease had first showed up in Chicago? Wuhan is China’s Chicago”

    Suppose there were 100 places around the world that were naturally likely to be the location of such a job (which are indeed rare, not matter what you and mbka say because you can only list a handful of them). Now suppose that in two of those 100 places there are one of only two labs in the world that handle/study/manipulate viruses of of type X. Now suppose a pandemic emerges due to a virus of type X, and it emerged from one of those two locations with labs. Also suppose that in the market area nearest the lab, they had tested many thousands of animals but failed to find the intermediate species.

    Yes, I would be very, very surprised if the virus didn’t originate from the lab.

  19. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    3. June 2021 at 13:49

    Scott,

    Well as I said, it might be a sampling error. I don’t know many actual conservatives, and I pretty much ignore anything liberals write or say about conservatives.

    That said, in my experience, conservatives are more objective, logical, thoughtful and open minded than liberals.

  20. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    3. June 2021 at 13:54

    Scott,

    I’m not going to follow this old childish game of yours of what you supposedly wrote and what you supposedly didn’t write.

    Any long time reader of this blog knows what you wrote, just as anyone who follows American politics knows what the “conservative” camp has said 90% of the time and what the liberal camp has said at least 90% of the time. If you want to turn all that around, I don’t really care. Do what you want if it makes you happy.

    It all comes back and it only reflects on the person who wrote it, just like that silly reasoning of yours that you have made multiple times over many months, that the origin from an animal market would be so much more embarrassing for the CCP than a lab leak.

    There were rows of readers shaking their heads about this, it was such a bad argument that hardly anyone could even remotely follow it. What were you even trying to say? You said it wasn’t an absurd CCP defense, too embarrassing even for the CCP itself, but what was it then? It was autistic, it was grotesque. And don’t come up with Iglesias again, you’re grown up enough yourself.

    At least this mistake you now seem to partially admit, even though, as soon as I write this, you will tend to say again, no you have nothing to admit at all. A silly game, as I said, that I no longer play.

  21. Gravatar of myb6 myb6
    3. June 2021 at 14:19

    I don’t have two hours to kill on the Garry video at the moment, so if he’s come up with much better arguments since please let me know, but his paper from last year was so weak it ironically drove me to consider the lab leak more likely.

    He argued that it was natural evolution not bioengineering because (1) the spike protein was a counterintuitive design and (2) covid-19 wasn’t based on a virus known to be dangerous to humans. Those are on the face remarkably stupid arguments, as (1) ignores gene insertion, passaging, etc and (2) ignores the apparent reality that viruses not currently dangerous to humans are indeed regularly experimented with.

    Now the following isn’t his fault, but also drove my suspicion into overdrive: whereas his paper was exclusively about whether or not the virus evolved naturally, other virologists and the media used it to further conclude that this meant a lab-leak wasn’t possible. Again, remarkably stupid on the face, because there’s no reason a naturally-occurring virus couldn’t leak from a lab that was studying it.

  22. Gravatar of myb6 myb6
    3. June 2021 at 14:29

    I’m going to add that my issue with this isn’t political. I agree it is extremely unlikely covid was intentionally weaponized, and a lab leak in of itself ought only be a “black mark” on GOF research and the competency of the lab and its overseers (which would include us as funders).

    [[sidenote: post-outbreak obstruction of investigation is indeed a huge “black mark” on China, but whether covid turns out to be a lab leak is actually pretty irrelevant to that]]

  23. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    3. June 2021 at 14:43

    mbka,

    Thank you for your good comment, you are self-critical, self-reflective and polite. Unlike perhaps others, and I specifically include myself here, I am quite rude at times, impolite and possibly not self-critical enough.

    I also understand that in this sea of mad conspiracy theories, it might be no longer easy to tell when the mainstream is off the mark and when it is not, especially since the conspiracy theorists are extremely exaggerating it as usual.

    I’m just glad that Tyler Cowen is now also at 50-60%, which simply means ofc that a lab leak is as likely as a purely natural cause. Nothing more and nothing less. And that’s something, over one year after this catastrophe.

    What not many have written yet is this: a lab leak would be extremely calming, because then a catastrophe like this could be prevented much more easily in the future. There is then a clear cause (humans always need a reason) which could be easily prevented if we really want to.

    We really need to clarify this issue right now, it’s extremely important for the future of humanity. If this virus comes purely from nature, then we have a much much bigger problem, I assume a few magnitudes larger. It is shocking that there is so little research on the origin of the virus, a centennial issue that has dominated all media for months. Where is the research? And have our so-called “intelligence” agencies been doing since over a year? It is 100% correct of Biden to hold them accountable now. They need to do their job and do it now.

  24. Gravatar of steve steve
    3. June 2021 at 18:25

    ” There is then a clear cause (humans always need a reason) which could be easily prevented if we really want to.”

    A lab leak does not rule out the possibility of a zoonotic origin. Could still be a virus that was collected in the wild that they were replicating and studying in the lab. May be the most likely scenario.

    Steve

  25. Gravatar of DeservingPorcupine DeservingPorcupine
    3. June 2021 at 18:29

    I find it so odd that Scott continues to act like there’s some kind great consensus against the lab leak theory among experts. There isn’t. It’s extremely easy to find experts who say it’s the most likely possibility.

    And then citing US intelligence? LOL.

  26. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    4. June 2021 at 06:21

    No one has made a comment on bio-weapons. Except yours truly. So let me clarify. We study viruses for many reasons. One of them ——even if just an unavoidable outcome——is bio weapons research. This matters. This does not mean I believe the Wuhan lab was cooking up weapons to attack us. Although they were de facto cooking up weapons—-just as we do. And in the end, whether by accident or intent the result can be as devastating. No, I do not think China wants to engage in bio-warfare no more than the Soviets want to engage in nuclear war.

    But the one certain thing this research can produce is viruses that kill.But Moderna had the “formula” for the vaccine in Jan 2020. Maybe they were part of the Wuhan experiments so had a head start on gain of function counter research. But that is absurd. We don’t need this research.

    We will always have it. And if wet markets in China also cause it—-that is an add-on.
    This is the big picture problem——we engage in bio weapons research. And China is careless—-if only because “Covid could have escaped” from the lab.

    One massive anomaly which for some reason does not get explored—-is how Extraordinarily high the NYC death count was. In spring of 2020, within a a 20 day period, deaths went from 10 a day to 600 day and back down to 40 a day in 60 days.

    There are many explanations—-but none that are evidence based.

  27. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    4. June 2021 at 08:50

    John. Garry doesn’t prove there’s no lab leak, rather he suggests that there’s no evidence.

    Deserving, So this new evidence for a lab leak is that it started in Wuhan? That’s it? We knew that a year ago.

    dtoh, You said:

    “That said, in my experience, conservatives are more objective, logical, thoughtful and open minded than liberals.”

    Your experience presumably doesn’t include the comment section of this blog, which has QAnon conservatives calling me a CCP-loving pedophile. The liberals over here are far more rational, on average.

    Christian, You said:

    “I’m not going to follow this old childish game of yours of what you supposedly wrote”

    So now you think I’m faking old blog posts? You really have gone off the deep end.

  28. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    5. June 2021 at 01:22

    Scott,

    I did not say that IME, all conservatives are objective, logical, thoughtful and open minded. I said that IME they “are more objective, logical, thoughtful and open minded than liberals.”

    Who are the QAnon conservatives on this blog? Didn’t your mom teach you to ignore the nutjobs? 🙂

    Speaking of nutjobs, whatever happened to Major Freedom?

  29. Gravatar of DeservingPorcupine DeservingPorcupine
    5. June 2021 at 04:19

    What do you mean “new evidence”? You’re right. There isn’t any new important evidence. As time has gone on the by far most plausible theory, a lab leak, has been slightly more confirmed by the failure to find the intermediate species (after lots of testing) and the uncovering of how quickly and baselessly those who were connected to the lab began asserting (without evidence) that the lab leak theory was a “conspiracy”, but overall any reasonable person should have assigned the lab leak theory an extremely high probability from the beginning.

  30. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    5. June 2021 at 10:13

    @DeservingPorcupine
    We haven’t even identified the reservoir host for Ebola yet, a disease we first encountered in 1976. https://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/history/summaries.html

  31. Gravatar of DeservingPorcupine DeservingPorcupine
    5. June 2021 at 10:38

    Yes, but we discover for lots of viruses, so when we don’t we reasonably adjust our estimates of the probabilities accordingly. Because of the proximity of the lab and the nature of its research, we adjust already an already high estimate for the LL hypothesis upward.

    I mean, Scott’s reaction here is just mind-boggling. His entire career, or at least the parts he’s known for, involve advancing positions that are at odds with the prevailing opinion in his field. He constantly calls out famous economists for missing obvious, common sense stuff. I started reading him because of his very common sense observations about the stupidity of most “bubble” rhetoric resonated with me.

    And now, we have what is *obviously* the most likely and straightforward theory about the origins of this pandemic, and he’s hiding behind “the experts!” who are clearly entwined in some of the most political, wagon-circling, deceitful attempts to shut down inquiry we’ve seen in a scientific community.

  32. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    6. June 2021 at 06:00

    I, unfortunately, can’t say much about the probabilities beyond just guessing. That’s why in a comment on a previous post I just leaned on a virology expert’s estimation of a 1% chance of lab origin. I’ve come up empty trying to find studies showing how long it has taken historically to identify animal reservoirs of zoonotic viruses. I thought that such a number might help me get a sense of how unlikely it is that we haven’t identified the animal reservoir yet.

    I figure, unless you’re talking about GoF research, the lab leak theory has the same challenge as the non lab-leak theory: you still need to identify the animal reservoir from which the lab sample came. As for the GoF research origin theory and the ability of scientists to obfuscate that fact, there seems to be vigorous debate among experts.

  33. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    6. June 2021 at 08:34

    Deserving, The difference is that I’m an expert on macroeconomics and I’m not an expert on science. So when one scientist tells me it looks like a natural virus and another says it looks like an artificial virus, I’m in no position to offer an intelligent opinion on that dispute.

    I’d add that from a public policy perspective I’m on the “lab leak” side. I favor a ban on gain of function research; that’s the public policy implication of the lab leak hypothesis. So why get so outraged by my agnosticism about the lab leak hypothesis; what matters is public policy going forward.

    Again, what matters is not whether it was a lab leak, what matters is that it might have been a lab leak. That’s bad enough.

  34. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    6. June 2021 at 15:45

    @Carl

    We haven’t even identified the reservoir host for Ebola yet, a disease we first encountered in 1976.

    False comparison. You have to talk about coronaviruses, especially SARS-1. In 2003 and 2004, there were huge studies done in China that proved the link for SARS-1 to raccoon dogs and civets.

    SARS-1 was huge, but it was a hundred thousand times smaller than SARS-2. I just read a recent interview with the best German coronavirus expert in a Swiss medium, who said that he was not aware of one single good study currently investigating the origin, and he wondered how that could be, a year later after a catastrophe of the century.

    Why did China research transparently and with great effort on SARS-1, but not at all on SARS-2? What is your explanation???

    The whole research is intransparent. China is a complete black box. Even the German coronavirus expert cannot say whether anyone there is doing research at all.

    China did not hide during SARS-1, everything was pretty transparent for the researchers worldwide and they got their data. Why is the German expert not getting any data now? Why is the CCP hiding so extremely, when there is supposedly nothing to hide?

    The next scandal is that too few coronavirus experts have complained about these absurd conditions so far. There is no real unbiased research on the origin going on right now and this is simply not acceptable. Biden needs to do something about this asap. And not as stupid and clumsy as Trump please, but this time in smart.

  35. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    6. June 2021 at 20:06

    Scott,
    I don’t think the “I’m not an expert on science” argument really flies. If you look at the papers or studies, in most cases the methodology and logic are pretty straightforward, and it doesn’t require a lot of expertise to form a judgement about their validity.

  36. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    7. June 2021 at 07:31

    @Christian List
    No argument from me about the CCP. Their behavior has been appalling and, most likely, self-defeating. I was merely responding to the claim that the lack of an identified animal reservoir argues for a lab-leak.

  37. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    7. June 2021 at 07:42

    dtoh, So are you able to look at a virus and tell if its natural and man made? That was my point. I have to rely on the experts.
    And if looking at scientific papers is so easy, then why are most people unable to understand technical economics papers?

  38. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    7. June 2021 at 15:16

    @Carl

    I was merely responding to the claim that the lack of an identified animal reservoir argues for a lab-leak.

    Okay, granted.

    Let’s just consider that the CCP found the reservoir of SARS-1 within 1-2 years in a coordinated effort with researchers around the world. The fact that not even the most important German coronavirus expert knows about any such research now, in the face of a catastrophe that is 100,000 times worse, says all about the CCP and their background that one needs to know.

  39. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    9. June 2021 at 15:09

    Scott,
    Don’t buy it. You need specific expertise to look at methodology, author’s credentials and possible conflicts of interest, etc.

    It’s not that people don’t understand technical econ papers, it’s just that they’re too lazy to read them.

  40. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    10. June 2021 at 14:54

    dtoh, Again, I can’t look a virus and tell if it’s manmade. If you can that’s great. More power to you.

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