We can be far more efficient in our fight against pandemics.
Biosecurity’s Faustian Bargains (Part I)
How all-too-human scientists have opened the door to pandemics—and worse.
I spent much of my childhood in biology research labs. My father studied epidemiology in grad school and then pursued a career in molecular biology. Although most of his work had nothing to do with infectious diseases, I saw people following basic biosafety protocols like wearing gloves and shoe covers, disposing waste into biohazard bags, and doing experiments under tissue culture hoods almost every day. For me, wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) and following biosafety protocol was the norm. Every working adult I saw during my childhood wore PPE every day.
Most people who know me through Twitter see me as some sort of mimetic theory philosopher, but in reality, I’ve only been casually picking that up over the past few years. I have no insider information on pandemics and bioterror, but I’ve been building up my 10,000+ hours of biology research experience since early childhood.
My father used to rant for hours about how back in the 1980s, when all the experts accepted “junk DNA” as a fact, he thought it was bullshit. (How could 90%+ of your DNA be junk? God would not create junk and evolution would not keep junk around.)
He also did peer review for research journals and would rant about the various experimental design mistakes made in most submissions. He taught me to be skeptical of most published scientific papers and to always review the methods section of the paper before believing the conclusions. I was trained from birth to be a meta-skeptic, debunking the bad arguments of your typical atheist skepticTM first-order thinkers.
So I’ve always felt that the general public and governments were not well prepared. I’ve been quietly preparing myself, but I never said anything publicly because I didn’t want to be seen as crazy. Despite thinking about biosafety for almost my whole life, I restricted my engagement to private conversation among friends. Social media strengthened that instinct.
Asking for citations on Twitter usually isn’t honest intellectual curiosity, but an appeal-to-authority argument used by closed-minded midwits to shut down the exploration of new ideas. “Do yoU hAvE a sOuRce??” is a tell for first-order thinkers, or as Nassim Taleb would call them, intellectuals yet idiots (IYI).
Even if you provide a source, odds are that the source is bad and the idiot who asked for the source won’t check how bad it is, being unable in the first place to recognize flaws in experimental design and data analysis.
Biologists are by and large notoriously bad at probability and statistics. There was a joke in college that biology majors are the students who failed out of engineering, math, and the harder sciences.
Origin of the Coronavirus
When I first heard of the novel coronavirus back in late January, I immediately thought the most likely possibility was that the virus escaped from a lab due to bad biosafety practices.
Current research suggests that SARS-Cov-2 was not purposefully manipulated, yet this does not rule out the possibility that lab animals and/or samples were involved. There’s a nuanced view that most people seem to have trouble understanding: the virus could be zoonotic and not a bioweapon, yet still come from a lab that’s capable of creating bioweapons. No genomic analysis could eliminate this possibility. All virology labs are potentially dual-use. Most researchers are not intentionally trying to create bioweapons, but their lab facilities can be easily converted to researching bioweapons, and their research findings could be repurposed.
The typical authority/expert/researcher is a first-order thinker who assumes that the absence of evidence equals the evidence of absence. They also want to view themselves as good people who follow proper biosafety protocols, so they are incentivized to deny that researchers at some other lab could ever commit such costly mistakes due to incompetence and carelessness.
When an epidemiologist or virologist at your local university sees a top official at the WHO or CDC, they don’t see a bureaucrat, they see a colleague whom they aspire to emulate. These officials are the mimetic models of your average academic researcher. When the average academic researcher’s thoughts get affirmed by a more prestigious researcher, they swoon and get giddy, just like what a teenage girl would do if she was praised by Beyoncé.
Consensus among experts is often nothing more than a social approval game in a network of influencers—a mimetic pyramid scheme. That means there’s no need even to bother looking at how many experts agree on an issue: most are just mimicking the opinions of their higher-ups. To get at the truth, go directly to scrutinizing the thoughts and works of the highest-centrality nodes.
Let me illustrate some possible scenarios for the origin of COVID-19.
When I was maybe 5 years old, back when my father used to work in a lab in China, he brought home a rabbit from the lab and we ate it. It was delicious. He made sure that the rabbit was uncontaminated, but I don’t doubt the possibility that some other researchers could have been eating or selling contaminated lab animals at wet markets.
Customs are different in different countries. There are various reports of researchers being involved in bushmeat trade.
The typical biology researcher in the West is usually a goody two-shoes who is either completely unaware or doesn’t want to admit that shady shit goes down in other countries. Selling lab animals to wet markets is not the norm in China either, but if someone wants to do it, they could find a way to get away with it. And if university or government authorities found out, they’d try to cover it up.
But the wet market is probably a red herring, as Wuhan is hundreds of miles away from the natural habitats of bats and the typical Wuhan native would be as shocked as any Westerner to find out that people ate bats. If the wet market is related to the origin of the virus, a researcher likely infected some other type of animal with the bat coronavirus, then sold it at the wet market.
Another possibility: the virus emerged from an experiment that would not have been approved in the West but could be approved in China, especially if bribery was involved. In China, you can basically get away with anything if you bribe the right people. It’s common sense in China that not everyone is equal under the law. A virus could have easily mutated zoonotically in a lab without being genetically engineered if they just locked a bunch of different species of infected animals in the same cage.
People like to point to the BSL-4 lab in Wuhan, but really it could have happened in almost any local biology labs. SARS is only BSL-3. In fact, even in the U.S., rodents can be housed at animal biosafety level 1 (ABSL-1) 72 hours after exposure to viral vectors with the approval of the Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC).
This brings me to my next point: I’ve seen some pretty damn careless researchers in BSL-1 and BSL-2 labs. I’ve seen plenty of them not wearing gloves, disposing waste in the wrong trash, or even eating while doing experiments. Researchers often take their kids to the lab after school, and the kids would run around the lab with little supervision. I’ve seen this happen frequently ever since I was 5 years old. Pretty early on in my life, I realized that a bad accident was inevitable.
Honest researchers will admit that this is all true, but plenty others would vigorously deny it to cover their own asses. Researchers are incentivized to cover up their mistakes, especially if they are applying for grants and don’t have tenure.
Viruses have already been leaked from labs around the world. This has been a commonly acknowledged problem for many years. “One of the things that we want to do is reduce the number of laboratories that work with dangerous agents to the absolute minimum necessary,” said former CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden in 2014. “Reduce the number of people who have access to those laboratories to the absolute minimum necessary. Reduce the number of dangerous pathogens we work with.”
Suggesting that lethal viruses can be leaked from labs is the opposite of a conspiracy theory. There is nothing to organize, plan, or conspire. It’s a decentralized, emergent phenomenon. Human error exists and risk compounding over time is non-ergodic.
This pandemic isn’t a black swan. It’s an inevitability.
Every human makes errors every day. It’s just that in some jobs, the errors are much costlier.
In successful organizations, if you make an honest mistake and you analyze the lessons learned from the incident, you won’t get into trouble. There should be a transparent investigation into the origin of the virus, and if it is shown to be an honest mistake, these who stayed honest should be forgiven, while these who tried to cover it up should be punished. The conspiracy is the ex post facto cover-up, not the leak itself.
In 1978, smallpox infected and killed a researcher in England. The government conducted an official investigation of the incident. They found that Dr. Bedson, the head of the microbiology department, lied to the WHO about the volume of work handled at the lab, and that the facilities did not meet WHO standards. Several researchers at the lab also did not receive the proper training or vaccinations. Dr. Bedson committed suicide, presumably because he recognized this.
Something like this could very well be what happened in Wuhan—only this time, they were handling what was thought to be a harmless animal virus, rather than smallpox, which is known to be dangerous. In 2017, Rutgers biologist Richard Ebright noted that “SARS virus has escaped from high-level containment facilities in Beijing multiple times…. These facilities are inherently dual use.” He was anxious about the prospect of testing such pathogens on monkeys: “They can run, they can scratch, they can bite.” Lab animals in Wuhan could have been injected with various viruses to allow for organic mutation.
Let’s take a closer look at the Nature paper on the origin of SARS-Cov-2. “The genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone.” “Neither the bat betacoronaviruses nor the pangolin betacoronaviruses sampled thus far have polybasic cleavage sites. Although no animal coronavirus has been identified that is sufficiently similar to have served as the direct progenitor of SARS-CoV-2, the diversity of coronaviruses in bats and other species is massively undersampled.”
I can only think of one possibility as to how the virus might have been engineered that’s being overlooked: using components from undocumented animal coronaviruses. This is an extremely unorthodox approach and would increase the complexity of creating a bioweapon by magnitudes. Running such a huge project with an extremely low chance of success and keeping it hidden is basically impossible. A bureaucracy has little incentive to support such a grand secret project.
In 2015, researchers created a chimeric virus made up of a surface protein from a bat coronavirus and the backbone of SARS. However, SARS-CoV-2 is not the result of that project. There are other bat coronaviruses more genetically similar to SARS-CoV-2 than the SHC014 bat coronavirus used in that project. But it is clear that researchers have been developing bioweapons using animal coronaviruses, and the threat of a bioengineered pandemic is greater than ever.
I’ve been yelling into the void about this since late January, but now the mainstream media is finally coming around. The Washington Post published this on April 14, 2020: “As many have pointed out, there is no evidence that the virus now plaguing the world was engineered; scientists largely agree it came from animals. But that is not the same as saying it didn’t come from the lab, which spent years testing bat coronaviruses in animals, said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley.”
For another good write-up on the possible origins of the virus, read this post.