There are good political/social reasons for wanting SARS-CoV-2 to have entered humans directly from animals, and many pushing the WIV lab accident hypothesis have nefarious intent. I am nonetheless surprised at the degree of confidence people express in a natural origin.
I've looked at a lot of the evidence, and, while the direct transfer from bats remains the strongest hypothesis, the case is far from airtight. And it might never be, because even if it were true, we'd be lucky to find evidence in wild bat populations that would erase all doubt.
And there is an at least plausible case for lab accident too, in that the virus first appeared in the rough vicinity of a lab that is studying precisely this kind of virus and doing the kind of experiments that, if something went wrong, would lead to disaster.
That said, we have to be extremely careful about interpreting the circumstantial evidence relating to the Wuhan virus lab (WIV).
First of all, it's not random coincidence that they're working on bat coronaviruses. They're doing so because there were very good reasons (SARS, MERS) to worry about a new beta coronavirus pandemic coming from the viruses natural reservoir in bats.
Also, that the outbreak originated in Wuhan is far from a smoking gun. It is a major population center within the range of the bats in which the most closely related coronaviruses have been found, making it a strong candidate for where a wild outbreak would be first be observed.
So there's a bit of "blame the fire department for fires because there's a fire station located near most burning buildings" going on here.
But accidental lab releases are certainly not unprecedented, and there are many people who have long thought it was just a matter of time before there was a major outbreak caused by a lab accident involving research on potential pandemic virus strains
And there is certainly a lot of work going on with molecular manipulations of virus strains and in vitro and in vivo selection for various viral properties that would make a release, if it happened, very bad.
Ultimately, this all boils down to a matter of priors. We know there have been beta-coronavirus outbreaks of animal origin before, so there's really nothing surprising about there being another one, and the data are certainly consistent with a wild origin for COVID at this point.
On the flip side, the known events are more or less exactly what you'd expect if there was a lab release from WIV. So if you think lab releases are a serious potential danger (which they clearly are) and likely (not clear), I can see why you'd think the evidence supports this.
I do think it's important to look at the evidence, as I hope the WHO are doing now, and let the data fall where it may. However, I am somewhat terrified of the consequences of it turning out to have been a lab release.
The bolstering of conspiracy theories, the negative ramification for scientific research, and the inevitable geopolitical fallout coupled with racism and xenophobia would be horrific.
If this does come to pass I hope the scientific community responds constructively, first of all by not nationalizing it. If something went wrong, it's a global scientific problem, not a Chinese one.
And even if a lab release is ruled out, the very possibility that this is what happened here should give us all pause and lead to more care and thought about not just about how we work with dangerous pathogens, but also about what kind of dangerous research is worth doing.

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More from @mbeisen

22 Dec 20
Editor: I am your editor.
Author: Well, I didn't ask you to edit my paper.
E: You don’t choose your editor.
A: Well how'd you become editor, then?
E: @LadyOfTheLake, whose profile says their science shimmers like the purest samite, held aloft your preprint from the bosom of bioRxiv, signifying by divine providence that I was to oversee its review. That is why I am your Editor.
A: Listen. Strange scientists in labs distributing preprints is no basis for a system of publication. Supreme editorial power derives from a mandate from the authors, not from some farcical acceptance ceremony.
Read 5 tweets
21 Dec 20
why do people treat current peer review system as if it was optimized to help authors and advance science when its primary features - pre-publication review by 2-3 people, binary decisions, exclusive publication rights - are products of limitations of the technology of the day?
the system has its uses - and we have so completely integrated it into the structures of scientific careers that it is difficult to change it - but can we not at least try to imagine a better system, one that is designed to function in the 2020s instead of the 1870s?
imagine you were charged with designing a system of science community and peer review in the alternative universe where the internet was invented before the printing press - what would such a system look like?
Read 6 tweets
21 Dec 20
I understand the concern - in a world where scientists are judged on the basis of journal citations, anything that might interfere with getting one is scary. But these concerns should be addressed at journals, not at @biorxivpreprint or overlay journals being created around it.
We made a decision @eLife not to do unsolicited reviews because we view what we do as in large part a collaboration with the authors to improve their work. And we let authors control when their reviews get posted so they don't worry they'll interfere w/publishing their paper.
But at same time, we see the presence of reviews published by others as augmenting, not interfering w/ this process. We'll give authors a chance to respond & have great confidence that our editors can integrate this information into the review process fairly and conscientiously.
Read 10 tweets
1 Dec 20
While we talk about the future of science publishing, we need to also have a conversation about how to fund it. The problems with the subscription model is obvious and needs no elaboration. But it's clear that the APC/author pays model doesn't really work either.
Back at the dawn of the #openaccess era, when @BioMedCentral and @PLOS adopted APCs, we knew it was imperfect, but it was the only viable way to cover costs that didn't require locking papers behind paywalls.
It was our expectation that this was a transitional state - that the funders who ultimately provide the money for science publishing would realize that it doesn't make sense to fund research infrastructure like publishing with transaction fees of any kind.
Read 10 tweets
1 Dec 20
I am excited to announce today that @eLife is transitioning to a new model based on author-driven publishing (preprints) and public post-publication peer review and curation…
Our moves are designed to catalyze the desperately needed transition of science from the slow, exclusive, and expensive "review then publish" model born with the printing press to a "publish then review" model optimized for the Internet.
We have been inspired by the embrace of preprinting by our community. A recent internet audit showed that the authors of 70% of papers under review @eLife had already published their work on @biorxivpreprint @medrxivpreprint or arXiv.
Read 17 tweets
19 Nov 20
Vaccine, Vaccine, Vaccine, Vaccine
I’m begging of you take it when you can
Vaccine, Vaccine, Vaccine, Vaccine
Please take it just because you can
COVID symptoms often lead to death
With flaming head and no more breath
With pallid skin and loss of taste and smell.
It shut down schools and businesses
And made us all social distance
But it cannot compete with my
Just two small shots of RNA
Will keep this bad virus at bay
Thanks to the scientists for making this
Read 7 tweets

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