The scientifically unvalidated theory that the COVID-19 virus escaped from a Chinese lab has recently received impetus from some otherwise respectable media, such as CNN and The Atlantic.
But we must not overlook the support given to the theory by a less respectable but influential source: the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal.
Long famous as a source of political and economic distortion, the Journal’s opinion section has more recently become a center of speculation about lab leaks.
The opinion section reveled in China denigrating the virus through unsigned editorials and contributions from its team of commentators and guests such as former CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
He published uninformed speculation from Robert Redfield, the discredited former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that the virus was indeed made in a government laboratory in Wuhan. (This piece required an embarrassing correction.)
This week, it hit a low mark, with an editorial from two potential experts saying the lab leak hypothesis has been virtually “confirmed” by some recent research. Here’s the problem: The authors of a key research article cited as evidence for their claim say they got the article wrong.
Before going into details, let’s remember why this problem is important: scientists have grouped together around two theories on the origin of the virus. First, through the natural transfer from host animals to humans, how the vast majority of viruses reach mankind.
Two, by an escape from a lab. The most common suspected culprit is the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is researching bat coronaviruses that are similar, if not remotely, to the virus that causes COVID-19. The more rococo version of this theory is that the virus was deliberately made at the WIV and either inadvertently escaped or was released on purpose.
Whatever conclusion scientists end up on will guide anti-pandemic research and policy for the foreseeable future, prompting the international community to either seriously improve biosecurity in virus labs or regulate more. strictly contact between humans and animals carrying viruses.
But it’s important to recognize that virologists think the natural fallout hypothesis is much more likely than a lab leak. Discoveries giving credibility to this theory have multiplied in the scientific press. Yet no one has found evidence of any lab leak.
This brings us back to the Wall Street Journal’s last run to the lab close. This is an article published on October 5 by Richard Muller and Steven Quay. Neither is trained in virology.
Muller is a physicist emeritus at UC Berkeley who is known to have been a skeptic of global warming until he made a sudden about-face in 2011. Quay is a pharmaceutical entrepreneur with expertise in breast cancer who claims to be developing a product “that can prove to prevent COVID.”
Muller and Quay claimed to have found “powerful evidence for the theory of laboratory leaks” in four research articles. They use it to try to suggest that the virus may have been “designed by scientists … via accelerated evolution in a laboratory using humanized mice” – that is, mice bred to model human physiological responses. It’s a throwback to a theory of deliberate virus creation that has been abandoned by all but the most feverish conspiracy theorists.
Notably, Muller and Quay do not mention recent research that undermines the laboratory leak hypothesis, including the discovery of bats harboring viruses very similar to SARS-CoV-2 living in caves in Laos, at all. some 750 miles from Wuhan.
The key evidence cited by Muller and Quay for the laboratory leak theory comes from a recently published peer-reviewed article in the elite scientific journal Cell by 13 researchers at the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. from Seattle.
Researchers examined more than 3,800 possible mutations in SARS-CoV-2, the virus that caused the pandemic, primarily to help create a database of mutations and help determine the effect of each mutation on l ‘man.
Here’s how Muller and Quay described this research: “A team of American scientists mutated the coronavirus genome stem in nearly 4,000 different ways and tested each variation. … Ultimately, they determined that the original pathogen of SARS-CoV-2 was 99.5% optimized for human infection – strong confirmation of the laboratory leak hypothesis. “
There is one problem with this, however: Washington researchers disagree. Additionally, they say Quay and Muller misinterpreted their research.
In tweets responding to questions about the WSJ article, Jesse Bloom, the corresponding author of Cell’s article, wrote that Quay and Muller produced “a not very precise description of [our] study. “He added that” Cell’s article discovery does not shed significant light on the origins of the virus anyway. “
What is particularly interesting about this last remark is that Bloom is a virologist more open to the theory of laboratory leaks than many of his fellow scientists.
In a September 30 roundtable sponsored by Science magazine, for example, he said, “I still think a lab leak is highly plausible. In other words, if Cell’s article advanced the theory of lab leaks in any way, one would expect Bloom to acknowledge it.
When I asked Muller over the phone about Bloom’s response to his editorial, he replied, “He’s wrong.” Bloom and his colleagues did not consider their own conclusions, he said, unlike him and Quay.
Perhaps grateful for the audacity to tell the author of a peer-reviewed article that he did not understand his own results, Muller admitted that he and Quay decided to draw their own conclusions from the article. Cell. He also told me, at the beginning, that he and Quay had “accurately quoted” Cell’s article. This turns out to be wrong.
The claim that the original SARS2 virus was “99.5% optimized for human infection,” central to Muller and Quay’s claim that Cell’s article confirmed the leakage hypothesis in laboratory, in fact does not appear anywhere in Cell’s article. Muller admitted this in an email that was sent to me on Thursday.
“We are not claiming that this number was in the [Cell] paper, but we say it’s easily calculated from the results published in this article, ”says Muller.
Well no. They explicitly attributed the 99.5% figure to Bloom and colleagues, stating, again, that “they determined that the original pathogen of SARS-CoV-2 was 99.5% optimized for human infection – strong confirmation of the laboratory leak hypothesis “.
There are other problems with the Wall Street Journal article. One is the claim in its title that “four studies – including two from the WHO – provide powerful evidence in favor of the theory of laboratory leaks.” (WHO is the World Health Organization.)
I could only find three “studies” cited in the article, including one from the WHO – not actually a study, but the report of a WHO working group that visited China at the start of the pandemic and which has been widely reported. Muller and Quay also mention a dataset of “hospital samples” from the region around Wuhan taken at the end of 2019 from “people with flu-like (therefore COVID-like) symptoms”. But that hardly proves anything – these people might have had, you know, the flu.
Muller and Quay also cite a seminal article on the origins of the virus published in March 2020 by Kristian Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute and four colleagues. But it’s hard to believe that Muller and Quay would take this to support the theory of lab leaks, as it explicitly states, “We don’t think any kind of lab scenario is plausible.”
What’s left? Nothing. Muller and Quay sliced and diced research, some of which has been on the shelves for over a year, and reinterpreted to match their own predilections. This is not their first such effort. In June, also in a Wall Street Journal editorial, they attempted to validate the theory of lab leaks by examining the virus’s genetic fingerprint. They pointed out the genetic sequences which they suggested were very unlikely to be found naturally. As it turns out, these sequences occur naturally, and this particular evidence from the laboratory leak theory has long been debunked.
The Wall Street Journal’s opinion section is keen to portray China as a sinister entity, and the pandemic has been a superlative bludgeon to use against a country that has become a potent threat to America’s global economic primacy. But this caliber of work will only embarrass the newspaper’s serious journalists and damage the newspaper’s credibility.
There are reputable scientists who see a lab leak as a plausible scenario for the origin of COVID-19 in humans. Muller and Quay did not help their case.
Michael Hiltzik is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
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