Friends in viral places

Nicholas Wade is the excellent former New York Times science reporter. I want to recommend his City Journal essay/review “Friends in viral places.” Wade takes up a new book on the origin of Covid-19 whose author he describes as “a well-regarded and widely published writer about viruses and natural history[.]”

The review is educational and entertaining. Among other things, Wade indicts the author for shortchanging the lab-leak theory of the virus’s origin. Wade writes: “The case that Covid originated in a lab is not yet proven, but as circumstantial evidence goes, it’s pretty good. Few people appreciate quite how compelling this case is (see the outline below) because science journalists who work for the mainstream press have, by and large, failed to present it in full to their readers.” He finds this to one of the book’s failings, but not the only one.

Here is the promised case for the lab-leak origin that Wade presents briefly at the conclusion of his review:

Collins and Fauci have advocated since 2011 for the benefits of enhancing natural viruses in the lab with the hope of predicting future epidemics. From their powerful bureaucratic positions—they fund most virology research in the U.S.—they outmaneuvered critics who argued that the risks of creating novel infectious viruses were sky high and the benefits nugatory.

From 2014 onward, Fauci gave money, via Daszak, to researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology to collect bat coronaviruses in the wild and to manipulate the viral genomes in the lab. The goal was to see which held the greatest potential for infecting people.

In 2018, the Wuhan researchers applied to DARPA, a Defense Department agency, for a grant to construct novel, SARS-like viruses. Their plan was to take genetic elements such as the one known as the furin cleavage site and to insert them into a specific position on viral genomes. That position, a single point on the virus’s 30,000-unit long genome, is called the S1/S2 junction of the virus’s spike gene. Many viruses have furin cleavage sites, but none of the 300 known members of the SARS-like family of coronaviruses do. This is important because viruses often swap genetic elements with other viruses of their own family, but they cannot naturally acquire elements that their family does not possess.

In 2019, a novel virus, SARS-CoV-2, emerged in the city of Wuhan, home of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and launched the Covid pandemic. The virus’s most unusual feature and a cause of its infectivity is a furin cleavage site inserted at the S1/S2 junction of its spike protein, just as outlined in the Wuhan virologists’ proposal to DARPA. The genetic coding of the virus’s furin cleavage site is designated in a sequence of units common to human cells and supplied in laboratory kits, but it is very rare in coronaviruses and unknown in the SARS-like coronavirus family.

Though viruses spill over from animal hosts to people quite often, they usually leave a trail of evidence when they do so. In the case of the SARS1 epidemic of 2003, virus researchers were able to trace the host population of wild bats, the mutations in the virus as it adapted from bats to civets and then to people, and the immunological traces it left in the human population. If SARS-CoV-2 has a natural origin, we should expect the same pieces of evidence to emerge. In three years, none has.

This is Wade’s concluding paragraph: “All this information, including the critical DARPA grant application, was available before Quammen’s book deadline. In telling only one side of a story that has two, he and many of his fellow science writers have failed their readers.”

NOTE: I have corrected my attribution of the essay/review to John Tierney rather than Nicholas Wade. Tierney is also an excellent former New York Times science reporter who writes for City Journal. I regret the error.

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