While we can't rule out a laboratory origin for the COVID-19 pandemic, the evidence to date suggests zoonotic emergence. Objective investigations have been derailed by politics and conspiracy theories. I wrote this perspective piece in @NatureMedicine.
Most serious scientists commenting on the matter have stated, as I have, that all possible origin hypotheses need to be investigated in an evidence-driven way. So far, there is no affirmative evidence of accidental or intentional lab origin.
Historically, epidemics are rarely due to a lab accident, either involving a natural or engineered pathogen. They are much more likely to occur through zoonotic spillover. There is genetic evidence that SARS-CoV-2 has natural origins. There is no evidence to support a lab leak.
Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This basic principle has been seized on by enthusiastic lab origin proponents. Overzealous activists, self-appointed detectives, unqualified writers, and politically motivated conspiracy theorists have converged under this banner.
And while we should objectively explore and investigate all possible hypotheses, the "I'm just asking questions, this is all very suspicious, what about (insert non-evidence here)" has been extremely harmful, both individually, to the scientific community, & to society as a whole
Arguing with the lab leak proponents is like talking to anti-vaxxers. They'll say they aren't conspiracy theorists, but then hit all the major conspiracy theory talking points:
-Answering questions with questions
-Strawman arguments about gain-of-function research & COI
-Presenting "evidence" that relies heavily on sinophobic stereotypes
-Ad hominem attacks (though I'll admit I laugh every time the term "knave" is used in this context)
-Using a "both sides" argument that implies scientists and conspiracy theorists are equally credible
-Digging around on the internet to cherry pick Twitter threads and out-of-context documentary evidence that people who collaborate are also friendly with each other, then present this as proof of a grand conspiracy. When this is pointed out, they say "I'm just asking questions!"
-Deeply misunderstanding fundamental virology. We've been cloning viruses and making chimeras and using reverse genetics systems for literally decades. The vast majority of this work is actually not "gain of function" or dual use research of concern.
-Deeply misunderstanding how gain-of-function research is actually regulated. Any GOF research funded by the US government is subject to heavy scrutiny and oversight, per federal law. You can't just take a NIH grant and start making more pathogenic/transmissible bat CoVs.
-Presenting media reports often containing unverifiable information as established fact
-Conflating complex geopolitical issues as further evidence ("China is secretive! Whistleblowers are silenced! It's EVIDENCE!")
-And so on and so on.
The reality is that there is no world pandemic police that can just serve China with a warrant & go search the freezers & archival records at the WIV which would potentially yield more insight as to the likelihood of lab origin. WHO & The Lancet are not law enforcement agencies.
And investigating zoonotic origins can take decades, and you may NEVER find the "smoking bat" or whatever other intermediate species that may be involved. It's like looking for a needle in a planet-sized haystack.
None of this means we shouldn't do an investigation or that we shouldn't consider all possible hypotheses, and by my estimation there are 3:
1. Zoonotic spillover
2. Lab accident
3. Intentional release
But we also shouldn't give these hypotheses equal weight, when the current evidence suggests one of these is more likely. We must investigate this objectively and let the evidence lead the way. Publicly proclaiming belief in the lab origin theories harms our ability to do this.
Robust debate is essential to sound science, but that debate should be informed by empirical evidence, not speculation based on pre-existing personal biases. Currently, this entire conversation has been derailed by the latter.
That will impair our ability to actually conduct the investigation that lab origin proponents are constantly clamoring for, and yet they seem unable to recognize that they are hindering, not helping, these efforts.
I urge everyone reading this to let the evidence lead the way, and to contribute to a climate that makes a fair & objective investigation possible. Call conspiracy theories what they are, distinguish between politics and science, and push back against this harmful misinformation.
A pandemic is by definition a global crisis. Telling the true story of its origin will require global cooperation. We can't move forward collaboratively without trust, and that is eroded by when personal bias and conspiracy theories are given equal weight as objective inquiry.

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More from @angie_rasmussen

15 Jan
Hard agree. And if this is useful, let me share something that often gets omitted (not by @kakape).

Variants always emerge, & are not good or bad, but expected. The challenge is figuring out which variants are bad, and that can't be done with sequence alone.
You can't just look at a sequence and say, "Aha! A mutation in spike. This must be more transmissible or can evade antibody neutralization." Sure, we can use computational models to try and predict the functional consequence of a given mutation, but models are often wrong.
The virus acquires mutations randomly every time it replicates. Many mutations don't change the virus at all. Others may change it in a way that have no consequences for human transmission or disease. But you can't tell just looking at sequence alone.
Read 17 tweets
9 Jan
This is a must-read article by @mlipsitch and @kesvelt and I strongly agree with the central points: we urgently need to step up genomic surveillance & get transmission down now in the US while these are rare.

But a couple things to expand on from a virology point of view.
The piece talks about the B117 variant as if it’s not SARS-CoV-2, but it is. B117 is distinguished by 23 changes across the genome, but it’s still fundamentally the same virus. It’s a different variant (some are calling it a strain depending on how that’s defined).
But 23 nucleotide changes aren’t sufficient to make this a completely different virus. So we are still fighting SARS-CoV-2. Just a new and improved version. Improved how? Well it’s more transmissible but the mechanism isn’t yet known.
Read 18 tweets
6 Jan
We shouldn’t be talking about plunging ahead with new vaccine dosing schemes without data when we’ve already got schedules that work well, esp when we can’t distribute the supplies we have! My latest for @guardian with the great @GermHunterMD:

There are a few reasons for this:
1. Right now supplies are much less of an issue than distribution. Why discuss stretching supplies when we can’t get the supplies we have into people’s arms?
2. We spent all of 2020 achieving a huge scientific breakthrough: developing and authorizing highly efficacious vaccines in record time. Why would we just subvert that process to strike ahead with untested dosing regimens?
Read 8 tweets
4 Jan
Nice of @NYMag to give @nicholsonbaker8 a 5000 word marketing package for his most recent nonfiction book...which is partly about lab accidents in the 1950s.
"I hadn’t interviewed scientists about SARS-2 or read their research papers. But I did know something about pathogens and laboratory accidents; I published a book last year, Baseless, that talks about some of them."
Baseless is an entire book of his theories on FOIA requests for military records from the 1950s. Comparing Cold War-era anthrax weaponization to genomic investigations into the origins of SARS-CoV-2 is the biosafety equivalent to comparing a Commodore 64 to an iPhone 12.
Read 20 tweets
2 Jan
A very small sample size, but Dr. MacCannell shows 2 important findings here: 1. B.1.1.7 variant may not be very common in the US and 2. PCR is not a good substitute for sequencing when detecting variants.
On point 1, you can’t tell much from 31 samples. There are millions of cases of SARS-CoV-2 in the US and such a small sample size isn’t representative. Could be the variant is truly uncommon, could be that the samples only made it appear that way.
There could be much higher prevalence in other states or other communities than samples here. But that brings us to point 2, and calls for greatly expanding genomic sequencing efforts to find out.
Read 24 tweets
29 Dec 20
Very frustrating to see Dr. Dean's work getting attacked from all sides: completely unqualified pundits like Lahren & Martin as well as scientists with no experience in epi or meta-analyses alike. Please read Dr. Dean's excellent thread before dismissing this as bad science 👇🏼
The inability to distinguish between asymptomatic and presymptomatic transmission is an inherent flaw in the studies that are published, which is what meta-analyses are analyzing. If the primary studies didn't address this directly, which most did not, then that data is limited.
It does NOT mean that the study is "garbage." It means that there are still knowledge gaps about the role of asymptomatic vs. presymptomatic transmission in household transmission. Any scientist should be able to appreciate that, regardless of discipline or expertise.
Read 4 tweets

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