I stopped posting to FB in late 2021 but returned briefly to circle back to an old post.
Just a brief return to Facebook. I feel compelled to share some thoughts now that our federal government leans ever closer to “lab origin,” which some of you may recall is an issue I’ve talked at length about here in the past.
Dusting off Facebook’s search feature (hey, nice new icons and web refresh, FB!), I see that on January 26th, 2020, weeks before the first American was definitively known to have died due to the virus, I posted my strong suspicion, linked post below, that the outbreak of that was to be called COVID was likely due to a lab accident.
It’s interesting to review some of the discussion which took place then, and in subsequent posts on the topic.
As we sit here today (March 1, 2023), three years later, the lab-leak hypothesis isn’t some crackpot idea. It’s a majority-held American viewpoint, now publicly endorsed by the FBI (moderate confidence) and the Department of Energy (low confidence), and by more than 70% of Americans. A shrinking minority of Americans (~25% and shrinking) think “natural spillover” was the genesis of the greatest health crisis in our lifetime.
Three years ago, I did not post my own view lightly, nor cavalierly. The president at the time was out calling the virus the “Wuhan virus” and creating an atmosphere of xenophobia. The overall public temperature seemed to suggest it an offensive stance to take. I certainly knew that it’s not something to be flip about.
In fact, my own confidence was actually stronger than I wrote at the time. And it wasn’t a casual observation.
Editorial note: Even in January 2020, there was ample evidence that WIV was doing research on bat-borne coronaviruses. There was evidence the facility was rather new, that officials had previously expressed safety concerns about it, and that lab leaks elsewhere had happened with alarming frequency. It was clear a major debate had raged in the scientific community about the risks and potential benefits of "gain of function" research from 2011-2014. Dr. Anthony Fauci was adamantly and quite publicly on the "pro" side, even writing in the Washington Post that generating potentially harmful viruses is "a risk worth taking." This was all knowable in January 2020. I had read all these pieces and more by that time. Further, as an applied math major, I was pretty familiar with basic Bayesian math. The chances that a lab studying bat-borne viruses and an outbreak of a novel coronavirus whose closest cousin was a bat-borne virus were independent things seemed extremely low. There isn't just geographic coincidence, as Jon Stewart was to humorously noted more than a year later, but temporal coincidence. There's also species coincidence and genetic coincidence. Bayesian math isn't that complicated. It's common sense. In shorthand, assume the lab and outbreak are entirely unrelated (i.e., assume natural spillover.) So, of all the cities in the world, why did the outbreak happen in Wuhan? And of all the years that humans have contacted coronaviruses, why 2019? Is it just a coincidence that a "natural" outbreak occurred near a lab which officials expressed safety concerns just a few months prior? It's a coincidence that an outbreak occurred just a few years after research was known to have been initiated? OK. Then, of all the species, why bats? Of all the SARS coronaviruses, why is this one the only one with a furin-cleavage site? Is it just a coincidence that this matches a proposal put forth involving the lab in 2018? Etc. The odds of all of these "independent coincidences" happening and the bat coronavirus lab in central Wuhan NOT being related in any way are infinitesimal. Next, add in just how well-optimized it seemed for human replication right out of the gate. That is unusual. And if it were from a host animal, wouldn’t this highly contagious outbreak have started in some more remote village(s) first? Then, add in all the adverse inference you can and should draw by China's and NIH's actions. China did not allow independent inspectors in when they had every possible incentive to prove natural zoonoses. They proceeded to wipe the lab(s) clean without independent monitors to collect evidence, etc. Then add in, per recent Congressional testimony from former CDC director Redfield that in fall of 2019 (a) the virus database was taken offline, (b) a new HVAC system was bid-out, and (c) lab oversight was changed from civilian to military. If you believe natural spillover more likely, you're saying that all these things -- all of them -- are coincidental. And since these events would normally be independent, you've got to multiply the probabilities of each of these "coincidences" together, since they all occurred. All tolled, natural spillover versus research-related outbreak are not equal-probability hypotheses; the math skews very strongly in one direction.
I worried a bit about Facebook booting me off the platform, and offending friends/family (though it shouldn’t offend!), so I walked up to the edge of it, and simply cautioned people from throwing that in the tin-foil hat bin.
But I believed it then, and I believe it today. There is basically no concrete evidence supporting the “natural spillover” origin theory, and an enormous amount of evidence — circumstantial and otherwise — pointing in the direction of lab accident. And if lab accident is the origin, that means our government failed us, that all this that we lived through these past three years, didn’t have to happen.
Over the past three years, I’ve watched as people who shared my view on this were vilified, ostracized, deplatformed from social media, misrepresented, distorted, and more.
Sure, staying silent was an option open to me. Why didn’t I?
Well, the best analogy I can think of is an earworm. Some of you may get an “earworm” when you hear a song that sticks with you. For me, for about 3 years, I’ve occasionally thought to myself:
MY GOD. NONE OF THIS HAD TO HAPPEN… BUT FOR THE DECISIONMAKING OF A FEW HUMANS.
It has been overwhelming at times — millions of people’s lives ended prematurely. More than 60x the number of people killed in the first nuclear explosion. Sons and daughters not being able to say goodbye to their loved ones in person. Suffocation on ventilators. Learning loss. Addiction. Trillions of dollars of capital vaporized. Mandatory masking. Mandatory vaccination. Political tribalism. Friendships destroyed. Businesses and dreams destroyed. And so much more.
And I’ve watched as institutions we should trust — academia, the news media, the CDC, politicians and more — have drifted so far afield in their roles. Some responded well to the crisis — particularly the health agencies of Western Europe. Too many others, including our own, did poorly. Too many politicians took “Never let a crisis go to waste” and opted for the corollary, “Preserve the crisis.”
So many Americans assumed that one’s public stance on COVID origin MUST imply one’s stance about politics, or even one’s inherent “goodness.” I’ve never believed that. These issues are, or should be, entirely separate. But for some reason, people have allowed these issues to be fused.
To so many people, it’s better to be wrong for the right reasons than right for the wrong reasons. I’m sorry, I reject that bargain.
As 2020, 2021 and 2022 progressed, I continued to respectfully share my viewpoint, which ran against most progressives’ viewpoint on it. And many (most?) of my friends are progressive, or at least were.
But nevertheless, I felt compelled to stick to what I thought then and still think today was grounded in more significant evidence. I also thought, and still think, the magnitude of this issue — the greatest health, education, lifestyle and economic disruption in our lifetime — was important to talk about, and to process some of those ideas.
But these sentiments were and I think still are a mismatch with social networking. And they’re certainly not ideal for Facebook and interleaved with friendly catch-up notes, as my wife rightly pointed out privately to me in increasing fashion. I departed Facebook at the end of 2021 (and it’s been a good decision, and one I’ll soon return to.)
But I wanted to return to FB momentarily to say that I appreciate that all of you — my many friends and family members — did NOT do what a lot of other people did to those who felt that lab origin was the most likely source of the greatest health crisis of our lifetime. You did NOT take my contrarian viewpoint on this as any kind of statement about me, or who I am. You did not (for the most part, at least) assume that this implied which team jersey I was sporting, or even if I owned one at all. You may have believed in natural spillover. No doubt some of you may even still believe that today, and that’s OK. (If you are at all interested, I’d be happy to patiently walk through the copious evidence suggesting otherwise, but I’ll leave that for a face to face chat if you’d like.)
A few points:
- Forgiveness is powerful. As we move closer and closer to consensus of lab origin, there will be many people who want to move onto the retribution phase. But all the evidence suggests that it was accidental, and that we in the US are culpable here too, as this research likely would not have happened were it not for our misguided, impossibly tragic proactive enablement of it.
- Please try not to let politics or tribal affiliation keep you from what you think to be true. Break out of your tribe — there are many forces pushing people to choose team A or B. Neither owns the truth. The media has become ever more interested in AFFIRMING, not INFORMING. It’s about engagement now, and nothing engages more than affirmation and outrage. It’s up to you to be your own news editor. Do you have enough respectful dissent in your information diet?
- Accidents happen, even catastrophic ones. Never once have I ever implied, nor do I believe, this catastrophe was intentional. I think the research was well-intentioned, but safety precautions lax. SARS, for instance, has leaked from labs multiple times, and from a lab-safety standpoint, this is no different. Chernobyl, Deepwater Horizon, Exxon Valdez and Three Mile Island were all unintentional. I could EASILY envision myself as an earnest medical researcher in a lab in China, unknowingly infected, visiting a market on my commute home. There will be a time to review the legacies of Anthony Fauci, Francis Collins and others, who likely were quite proximal in funding and later obfuscating the research which went on.
- What do we do with the knowledge that it’s likely of lab origin? It’s absolutely gob-smacking to basically know, with high probability, that none of this needed to happen. None of it. The deaths, the trillions of dollars of capital vaporized. The Zooms. The masking. The vax mandates. The inflation. The arguments and fissures in our very social fabric.
- Do you realize we are STILL funding EcoHealth Alliance with our tax dollars? (And many of the scientists enlisted to debunk the lab leak hypothesis have been granted millions of dollars from NIH. And Fauci’s personally designated successor now heads USAIAD. And. and. and.)
But we can take sensible action.
For one, if there’s ever been a role for Congressional oversight, the premature death of millions certainly calls for it. Second, on a practical level, maybe let’s not locate BSL facilities in major metropolitan areas. There are in fact hundreds of these labs around the world, and we need to consider their existential risk. Third, let’s please determine out how this research WAS funded and approved despite a clear presidential moratorium that was in effect at the time (2014-2017.) The evidence strongly suggests that the presidential moratorium caused federal advocates to look to a third-party packager to continue this research abroad, in what turned out to be much more loosely supervised settings. We need limits on how this new technology that’s been unlocked (ACE2 mice, etc.) stays in responsible hands.
We clearly need to overhaul institutions that failed us (NIH, CDC in particular, but also, it’s been tremendously disappointing to see medical organizations and even medical schools being captured by ideologues.) The role of public health should be to help navigate the path of least overall harm. It failed to do so.
We need Congressional oversight, and it will continue to be political. But let’s try to stick to the science and probabilities about it.
Anyway, it’s been a crazy three years.
Some of you may find issues like Climate Change existential and all-consuming, because you are good people, and you care. For me, to be quite frank, I think this issue has much greater probability to be of existential risk in the next 250 years if we do nothing. It mattered to know how Chernobyl and Deepwater Horizon happened, and how and why planes crash. We have the NTSB for a reason.
I appreciate that nearly all of you are still my friends & family. You may not think Facebook is the right forum for this, and, well, you are right. But I did want to circle back to you and close the loop on this thread, since it’s now not just in the Overton Window, it is a majority-held American view.
The essence of learning is to be able to update one’s own prior assumptions as new evidence comes in. We should not let political tribalism prevent us from doing so.
As we have seen time and time again with COVID — whether it’s relative risk for the young vs. old, the cost/benefit of remote schooling, the strength of natural immunity, how much vax mandates work or don’t, whether mandates or informed consent are superior — the stakes are pretty enormous, and what we are told may not be precisely what is true.
To see just how insane it’s all become, try this counterfactual: Imagine if Trump, a germaphobe, had forced a full nationwide lockdown in 2020, remote schooling, mask mandate, mandated shots, etc. as harshly as he could, and was -adamant- it was natural spillover (“bat soup” has always been more racist to me, than well-intentioned lab worker gets infected, as any of us might.) What would the Democrat position be today?
I am quite well, luckily, and though the above might sound like the rantings of a madman, I’m fine and happy. The past three years have taken a toll on everyone, but far lighter than it could on me. I’m extremely optimistic for what’s ahead.
Love to you all. Stay well,