I’ve moved on from Facebook, but wanted to archive for posterity a few long-form posts I made there. This is Part II, a follow-on to Circling Back to a “Don’t Discount the Lab Leak” Post of January 2020 (Part I).
The essence of learning is to be able to update our prior assumptions as new evidence comes in. I got a few things wrong here, and absorbed what I could of information coming out at the time. In particular, you’ll see my initial credulous assumption that the highly flawed “Proximal Origins” paper had to have some credibility. In truth, that paper — the most cited scientific paper that year — was fraudulent; this fact became evident to me a few weeks later.
April 15 2020
I know that nuance is still in hibernation in America, but I’m going to ask us once again to try to hold multiple competing thoughts in our mind at the same time:
1) It’s important to know how this whole global pandemic started. In terms of deaths and pauses to our lives and economic toll, it’s the greatest global calamity of most of our lifetimes.
Let’s try to keep it that way. In order to do so, we need to know how to prevent future such outbreaks, and particularly, if there are lessons to be learned here.
2) Just as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island warranted (actually, demanded) forensic investigation, so too does the COVID-19 outbreak.
3) Just as in Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, there should not be any assumption of malicious intent. But this is not the same as saying we should ignore the question of how it began, nor shut down those who wish to respectfully, scientifically, forensically pursue that important question. But like a post-crash NTSB investigation, if we do not know the cause, we have no chance of minimizing such events in the future. And as with Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, let’s hold to account the governments and officials who were involved in any coverup or put people in knowing additional danger because of their actions, assuming they exist (and it already appears they do.)
4) It IS racist to “blame”, say, Chinese Americans, or the billion-plus Chinese citizens who are clearly NOT associated with this in any way. Even if incontrovertible proof were found showing an accidental lab leak scenario, they had NOTHING to do with it. Nothing.
And it IS racist and dangerous to expand criticism or action in any way to various Asian communities. We should NOT do that, and protections and kindness should be foremost. In fact extra kindness is called for.
But that also doesn’t mean avoiding forensic, respectful inquiry.
I am an American-Canadian citizen. I had nothing to do with Three Mile Island. It would be wrong to blame me for Three Mile Island. I would find that very unfair. Yet I definitely am glad we pursued the investigation aggressively as to its origin. Doing so made every nuclear power plant safer.
Just as nearly every single Chinese citizen (and all Chinese Americans) had nothing to do with this outbreak — AND many, many have been working hard to control it. And Chinese heroes have died trying to spread the word — we should know and celebrate them.
5) We should do our best to respect, protect and reach out with kindness to our Chinese American and Asian American friends, because unfortunately, we live in an era where terrible people may wish to exploit this, and already are. But this does not mean that we should stifle forensic investigation.
6) The concepts of “engineered in a lab” and “accidentally leaked from a lab” are two entirely different concepts. One does not imply or require the other. Disproving one does not disprove the other. It is entirely plausible that there was an industrial accident from an academic research effort of a discovered, naturally created, naturally mutated virus with NO malicious intent whatsoever, perhaps through multiple steps in a chain of possession (e.g., academic research injecting it into an animal, followed by discarded animal specimen, not properly secured, then picked up and re-sold or consumed or in some way by some other unrelated, unknowing person, with the virus jumping zoonotically) that spiraled into a huge global catastrophe.
In fact I am among those who believe this is one of the most plausible and probable scenarios, which meets Occam’s Razor, which is not contravened by any known evidence, and is supported by a lot of various pieces of circumstantial evidence that we do know (e.g., lab proximity, prior warnings from science community about lab safety at these labs, the fact that the lab 300 yards away just happened to be researching bat caronaviruses that are found to be 90%+ of the DNA of COVID-19, job postings for bat virus researchers at that very same lab verified on the Internet in November 2019, the fact that the virus shares 90%+ DNA came from hundreds of miles away and are not naturally occurring in the city of Wuhan, the fact that the wet market in question never sold pangolins or bats, the fact that the leading bat researcher actually had publicly stated she wondered to herself whether the virus came from her lab, the fact that the Chinese government initially said this emerged from the sea via seafood (and the DNA shows it did not), internal urgent governmental directives discussing lab safety in early January, destruction of samples and suppression of information, etc. — actually several more circumstantial pieces of evidence here, but you get the idea. It’s starting to sound very plausible.)
In no way do I think the virus was engineered, nor have I ever felt that way. And DNA evidence certainly points away from it. And no, I also do not think there was any malicious intent by any individual involved — just like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, where no malicious intent caused the accident.
When humans are involved, accidents happen, even major ones with huge global ramifications. Did it happen here? I think so, and have felt it plausible since January, but don’t know for sure.
It’s not only a very valid but a very IMPORTANT question to pursue.
An accident is just one plausible scenario, and I could certainly be wrong. But we do no favors to science, nor hopes of preventing future such calamities, to rule it out or even decry it as racist or to a lesser degree, employing the cheap “what are you really saying?” innuendo at this stage. The totality of all evidence that I’m aware of, though yes, circumstantial, fairly strongly suggests this might have accidentally leaked from a lab. No evidence that I’m aware of currently contravenes that likelihood. Perhaps it was an accident, a calamitous accident of truly epic proportions. And if so, lab safety MUST be transparently investigated and tightened.
7) All of the above can (and should) happen regardless of one’s views about who should be elected president in 2020.
June 25, 2021
From an opinion piece in the NYT today.
Amazing that three of the very signers of the famous Lancet letter declaring near certainty of natural origin are now not only walking it back but reversing their stance.
Perhaps more important, just a few months ago, Facebook was banning these very statements/stances, and Twitter was slapping them with all kinds of warnings, in large part because they took the Lancet letter speculation as the “definitive” view.
You or I would have run the risk of a permanent ban from social media for saying what these three virologists are now stating on record, such as: “a lab leak is more likely than spontaneous natural origin.”
Note that very little brand new information has come to the fore (at least publicly) since then.
All that’s really changed is that it’s now deemed an acceptable view. And these authors were part of the reason why social media teams determined it WASN’T an acceptable view just months ago.
I hope we can pause a moment and think about that.
January 5, 2021
“It has been a full year, 80 million people have been infected, and, surprisingly, no public investigation has taken place. We still know very little about the origins of this disease.”
Huh. New York Magazine, of all publications, is running this piece today under their banner. This piece goes far further than I would (or do) in speculation about origin.
But is it OK to talk about this now, when just months ago, the possibility that this might have been an accidental lab leak (not even engineered, and certainly not intentional) was treated as an atrocious thing to say?
Yes, it’s a sensitive topic. And we could certainly continue to sweep it under the rug. But there are major benefits to determining the specific origins of the greatest world health and economic crisis in our lifetime.
Just as NTSB exists to make flight safer for all. And in that process, it must consider matters of fault-finding (e.g., pilot error, mechanical process, manufacturing defect, etc.) The process isn’t undertaken with a goal of prosecution or retribution, but to make things safer in the future.
We need to give ourselves the permission to discuss it. It’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s just a theory. And we are not only incurious about it, we actively shout down those who want to respectfully consider the possibility. That’s not enlightened. That’s stupid. I applaud publications like New York Magazine for finally starting to allow the discussion to take place within their brand. I wonder though if we would have been even better served to have such an attitude when the evidence was more fresh.
Regardless, I still think the first time we will likely actually talk about this in depth is when the inevitable Hollywood movie comes out in a few years. Only then, when someone else in pop culture has opened the door, can we have the honest and full conversation that’s needed.
Steve’s a Seattle-based entrepreneur and software leader, husband and father of three. He’s American-Canadian, and east-coast born and raised. Steve has made the Pacific Northwest his home since 1991, when he moved here to work for Microsoft. He’s started and sold multiple Internet companies. Politically independent, he writes on occasion about city politics and national issues, and created voter-candidate matchmaker Alignvote in the 2019 election cycle. He holds a BS in Applied Math (Computer Science) and Business from Carnegie Mellon University, a Masters in Computer Science from Stanford University in Symbolic and Heuristic Computation, and an MBA from the Harvard Business School, where he graduated a George F. Baker Scholar. Steve volunteers when time allows with Habitat for Humanity, University District Food Bank, Technology Access Foundation (TAF) and other organizations in Seattle.