‘Viral’ book falsely promotes the COVID-19 lab leak theory – Community News
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‘Viral’ book falsely promotes the COVID-19 lab leak theory

On the shelf

‘Viral: the search for the origin of Covid-19’

By Alina Chan and Matt Ridley
Harper: 416 pages, $30

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Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, has become one of the leading exponents of the hypothesis that the virus causing the COVID-19 pandemic leaked from a Chinese lab. Matt Ridley, a widely publicized science writer and member of Britain’s House of Lords, emerged as a leading climate change denier with a provocative Wall Street Journal article in 2014.

The book they bundled to write, “Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19,” presents the case for the lab-leak hypothesis, presumably with the secondary aim of establishing the authors as the preeminent truth tellers about the topic . (The book’s epilogue is titled “Truth Will Out,” a line from “The Merchant of Venice.”)

“Viral” is coming to bookstores amid a wave of hype. The publisher describes it as a “unique insightful book” in which the authors “get tantalizingly close to a shaft leading to the light” about the origins of the pandemic.

In reality, however, ‘Viral’ is a perfect lab example of how not to write about a scientific topic. The authors rely less on the scientists who do the painstaking work of tracking down the virus’s origins than on self-proclaimed sleuths who broadcast their dubious claims, sometimes anonymously, on social media. In the end, Chan and Ridley highlight all the shortcomings of the hypothesis they wanted to defend.

Alina Chan, proponent of the lab-leak theory, is co-author of "viral."

Alina Chan, a proponent of the lab-leak theory, is co-author of ‘Viral’.

(Alina Chan)

As Chan and Ridley acknowledge, determining the origin of the virus technically known as SARS-CoV-2 (or SARS2 for short) is of paramount importance to humanity. “If we don’t find out how this pandemic started,” they write, “we are ill-equipped to know when, where, and how the next pandemic might begin.”

But if the authors were really concerned about the origins of COVID-19, they would care precisely because of the prevailing scientific judgment about it: that COVID was “zoonotic” and passed from infected animals to humans through natural contact as most viruses are known. until science has reached mankind. As virologists reported this summer, the emergence of SARS2 bears undeniable signs of those past zoonotic events. However, Chan and Ridley don’t pay enough attention to the scientific consensus, or to the significant research results around which it is fused.

The hypothesis that the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, in the same city where the pandemic first emerged, was initially defended in 2020 by ideologues at the State Department under then-President Trump. For them, blaming the Chinese government and its labs for a pandemic served the dual purpose of scoring points against a geopolitical adversary and diverting attention from the Trump administration’s incompetent response.

In its original form, the theory held that the Chinese deliberately created the virus as a biological weapon. Over time, it turned into a claim that the virus originated in experiments to increase the infectivity of microbes studied in the lab (so-called gain-of-function experiments) — and eventually to the claim that researchers at the unknowingly became infected while doing fieldwork and carried the virus into the institute, where it escaped through inattention. Blaming the Chinese government for the pandemic has remained the only immutable element of the hypothesis.

No evidence has ever been provided for any of these versions. All that remains is an argument based on unsubstantiated suspicions and the lack of evidence: why don’t we know more about the work at the Wuhan Institute unless the Chinese government hides its guilt?

It’s true that the Chinese government has blocked research into the virology lab, but basing a conspiracy theory on government secrets is a dead end. The Chinese are secretive about all things, and anyway, there is no government on Earth, including the US, that enjoys poking around in its operations with the likely purpose of blaming.

The red cover of "Viral: the search for the origin of COVID-19," by Alina Chan and Matt Ridley.

The authors make extensive use of the location of the virology institute in the city where the outbreak was detected. Lab leak theorists call this “circumstantial evidence,” but it’s not really a circumstance. Wuhan is a metropolis of more than 9 million inhabitants, comparable to New York City or Los Angeles, and a major transit and trade hub for Southeast China. In Wuhan and the surrounding area, interactions between consumers and animals sold in so-called wet markets are common.

It is true that dangerous microbes have escaped from research labs in the past, although none have caused a pandemic. But that doesn’t justify the conclusion that the same thing happened in Wuhan, especially with scientific findings weighing heavily in favor of a zoonotic spillover.

‘Viral’ is based on vague allusions, dressed up with claims that may seem plausible to laymen, but have long been debunked by experienced virologists. For example, an entire chapter is devoted to the “furin cleavage site,” a feature of the virus’s structure that allows the enzyme furin to make the spikes on the surface — which it uses to penetrate and infect healthy cells — more effective.

The furin site was originally described by lab leak advocates as so unusual that it could only have been placed there by humans. Virologists have since determined that the trait is not so rare in viruses similar to SARS2, and in any case it could have arisen through natural evolutionary processes well known to experts. Chan and Ridley put a head-on-win-tail-your-lose gloss on these findings, writing that if the site “turns out to have been artificially inserted, it confirms that the virus was in a lab and modified. … If, on the other hand, the furin cleavage site turns out to be natural, it still says nothing about where the virus came from.” Then why would you write about it at all?

Contrary to the curiosity-provoking subtitle, the authors don’t tell us much about how virologists actually search for the origin of new viruses. They don’t seem to have spent much time watching experts at work in the lab. That could at least have been interesting as an explanation of scientific methods. Instead, Chan and Ridley have put a conspiracy theory between hardcovers to pretend to be sober scientific research.

Matt Ridley, co-author of "viral."

Matt Ridley, co-author of ‘Viral’.

(Anya Hurlbert)

Spoiler alert: Towards the end of their book, Chan and Ridley admit that they went on a wild chase. “The reader may want to know what the authors of this book think happened,” they write. “Of course we don’t know for sure. … We’ve tried to sort out the evidence and follow it wherever it leads, but it hasn’t led us to a definitive conclusion.” After 400 pages of arguments, the reader may feel that the readers feel cheated.

That points to “Viral”‘s main unanswered question: who thought this book was necessary right now? Virologically and epidemiologically, the search for the origin of COVID-19 is still in its infancy. Those skilled in the art know that the critical links, the original animal source, and the intermediate species that may have been the direct transmitter to man, may never be identified; similar studies have taken years and some have never come to a conclusion.

The lab-leak theory, if proven, would point to the need to tighten biosafety in labs around the world. The zoonotic theory reminds us that human interactions with wildlife, a common phenomenon in rural China, must be closely regulated. The shame of ‘Viral’ is that it promotes an unfounded theory that threatens to lead both policymakers and the public astray, at the expense of humanity.