Alina Chan: The Mystery of COVID-19 & the Origins of SARS-CoV-2 | Transcript
Full episode transcript below. Beware of typos!
Alina Chan, welcome back to the podcast.
Alina Chan 5:40
Thanks for having me for the second time.
Nick Jikomes 5:42
Yeah, you're the first, the first guest who's come back for a second visit. Part of the reason you're back Is that what you're working on. And what we're talking about is just so timely and moving so quickly. We're of course talking about the origins of the SARS cov to virus and COVID-19. Because this is it's obviously a relevant and ongoing mystery. And it's it's changing very quickly, you guys have written you and Matt Ridley, the science writer have written a book called viral the search for the origin of COVID-19. And it's a really interesting book, one of the one of the reasons it's interesting is because, you know, by the time it comes out, practically within a few weeks or months, you're going to be probably ready to update it. And I just want to basically start at what you might call the beginning of the story. So we're gonna be talking about where this virus potentially came from. Before I even ask that I should just ask, you should just say up front. Very quickly, very concisely. Do we know the origin of the virus yet?
Alina Chan 6:45
No, we don't know the origin of the virus yet. So right now, the focus should be on gathering more information, not guessing where it came from.
Nick Jikomes 6:53
Exactly. So that's one of the things I liked about the book is, by the time I got to the end of it, you guys didn't end it by saying, you know, this is the end, you ended it by saying, We don't know yet. And this is still an ongoing thing. So from a scientific perspective, I thought it was really, it was really nice to see someone say that and frame everything in those terms, because you often don't see that in, in the public sphere. But anyways, the story in some ways starts in this copper mine in southern China. So tell us about this mind. And tell us about, you've got this, you've got a literal timeline in the book in the back and the very first entry is 2012. And it says, Six men are hospitalized in April and May of 2012. After working in a bat infested mind, in the southern part of China, by a bad virus suspected about a bat virus is suspected and top laboratories, including the Wuhan Institute of virology, start to search the mind for viruses. So what is important about this mind, and why does the timeline start there?
Alina Chan 8:00
So let's picture what's happening in 2012 in China, about 10 years has passed from the first SARS epidemic that occurred in South China in Guangdong. And these teams of scientists in China's searching for the natural reservoir, so they already have found the proximal intermediate hosts of SOS one which has civet cats, and that's a strong link to the wildlife trade in terms of where the first SOS virus came from. But they haven't found the natural reservoir. So where did the civet cats get the SARS virus from? So they are hunting and bats looking all over South China where these viruses tend to be fun. And just then the hear about these cases, in 2012 Six miners were admitted to Kunming Hospital, in the capital of Yunnan province, and they present with a mysterious viral pneumonia. So the treat of antifungal doesn't work. Half of them eventually die. Miraculously, one person was in the hospital for more than 100 days. He recovered after getting anticoagulants so anti blood clotting therapy. So there was some aspects of what disease they had that looked like COVID-19, but not identical, because none of these miners pass the disease to anyone else. But you can imagine that tension that drew so the top SAS expert in the country, Joe Manchin was drawn in he's kind of like the Dr. Falchi of China. And so he comes in and he looks at the case data and he says, go to that cave immediately than mine. And sample the bats that send them to check for SARS viruses. Check with patients on pulsars antibodies. These antibodies as our patients are both sent off to one and still virology as well as other places for testing. And in a medical thesis as well as a doctoral theses that came from the then from from the now director, the Chinese CDC lab. We hear that these patients on post test positive for antibodies, and the doctoral thesis says is antibodies for SARS virus so the medical thesis concludes the six people suffer from a SARS like illness and might have been infected by SARS viruses from bats.
Nick Jikomes 10:10
So it's 2012. This is after the SARS one epidemic in China. It happened earlier earlier on. And obviously it's before today so it's before the SARS cov two epidemic happens. There's a mine in southern China, it's filled with bats, because it's just a big cave that bats like to hang out and, and it's a copper mine. So there's miners down there doing mining work. Six of them get seriously ill and it looks like a pneumonia type of illness that is not unlike SARS one or SARS two half of them die, and at the time to reiterate what you're saying. So by 2012, they figured out that the SARS one virus came to humans from civet cats, but they didn't figure out yet how it got to civet cats, and they thought it might have come from bats. So the six miners get sick half of them die. They're told to go check the cave. And they're collecting bat viruses. So fill in the blanks they're forced when they go to the cave. How do they actually do that? They have to physically capture the bats. And are they sending saliva samples? Are the blood samples from the bats back to labs? Are they bringing bats physically back to the labs? How does that work?
Alina Chan 11:22
A lot of this information only came to light to the work of like open source intelligence. Like detectives, like internet sleuths and detectives, so they were scouring the internet looking for archive pages and documents and thesis from even the Institute of virology. And they found that yes, they were actually capturing bats and sending them up to an institute of virology. But they were also taking samples so they could lay sheets on the ground and collect fecal samples, they could trap the bats of nets and also just take samples from them. They found at least or knowledge between 2012 and 2015. Nine of the closest relatives dissolves cough to at the time sauce cough to emerge in Wuhan. So we don't know how many more viruses they got after 2015. But we know that between 2012 and 2015, they had at least nine of the closest relatives of Sasquatch to.
Nick Jikomes 12:12
Okay, so they they went to this mine, they collected bat samples in different ways. And you're saying at the very first SARS cov to virus variant that we know about from the current pandemic. They have nine different viruses that are very close relatives to that virus. Yes. At least there could be more we just don't know. Yes. And you're saying that all of that information came to us. Pretty much from like random people with Anonymous accounts on the internet just digging around and finding stuff.
Alina Chan 12:45
There were a few independent scientists like Rosana segreto, and Mona Rahaga. But by and large, it took the work of independent detectives or analyst they had to go through all of the papers from these research institutes, go through the grant proposals go through, like leaked documents, archived websites and put it all together sorting through all of the sample IDs, to see that actually, hey, we most of the viruses we know about from the one entity virology were collected before 2016. So after 2016, there's just a blank page. We don't know what they found.
Nick Jikomes 13:19
I see. So from all of this evidence, we deduced that there's at least these nine viruses, but they were captured, you know, back around 2012. You don't really know what's happening since then. And just to fill in the blanks for people here. So you mentioned that they found a lot of this information by digging through the theses, the thesis that was written by individual medical students or individual graduate students in China. And I just want to say for people that don't know, nobody goes in. Yeah, no one reads the thesis of a grad like no one on the internet is going to Google around and just like for fun, go read a medical thesis or a PhD students thesis that almost like that essentially never happens, you would have to be like, like, maybe my mom would go read my thesis or something like that. But like, no one's gonna go like, look at this stuff.
Alina Chan 14:09
I think even parents don't read their children's thesis. It's still technical and dry and right. But this this is they are really carefully written. It's not like you can write a blog post and put that down as your thesis like you actually have to have supervisors signing off on it. And so when the medical thesis said that the conclusion of the studying all these cases from that mine was that they had been sickened by besides like bat Coronavirus. It's serious like it's not like he was guessing any people at the sign off on the thesis,
Nick Jikomes 14:40
right? Like this is the virus I literally spent four years studying it. Here's the sequence. It's very well documented in something like that, as obscure as that document might be. And so these internet slews, literally independent scientists or even people on the internet who don't even necessarily know their identity, dug this stuff. up and put it on, like literally posted it on social media. Is that what we're talking about here?
Alina Chan 15:05
Yeah, so they, they shred all these documents via links on Twitter. And it was actually quite surprising how this happened so that it relates to my work actually. So I had put up a tutorial. So it's like good a trend on Twitter that goes through, for example, my preprint. And it attracted a lot of attention from individuals across the world who were really interested in this topic on the origins. And they found each other on this trend. And they started talking to each other asking questions like, finding answers for each other. And boom, like the medical thesis shows up. The seeker is the one who found it, he managed to login into a Chinese thesis database using passwords and usernames he found online. And he posted the medical thesis and the doctoral thesis, showing that describing these cases in great detail.
Nick Jikomes 15:57
So this is like, this guy's literal, the his name, his Twitter name is the seeker and he's basically a digital private detective, who just took it upon himself to somehow find login credentials to some Chinese database, and then personally read through all of this arcane documentation. Yep. and post it on Twitter.
Alina Chan 16:22
Nick Jikomes 16:25
Okay, so this is sort of an organic process. It's a decentralized process, individual human beings, with names like the seeker are just digging this stuff up and posting it. What do we know who that person is? Actually?
Alina Chan 16:39
Yeah. And we reveal that in our book, but I won't go into too much detail on outside of the book. Yeah. To find not sure the book,
Nick Jikomes 16:49
the book, but it's an interesting little subplot, I think, and I now follow the seeker on Twitter, how did social network so at this time when this is happening, and people are put a time to this what what time on the timeline? Are we talking about here when this stuff is starting to bubble up on the internet? And how is this being handled by Twitter and by Facebook and by by Reddit and other websites?
Alina Chan 17:13
So this was in May 2020. Most platforms had banned any talk of olemme origin, whether like let that accidental bio weapon dependent, or it was only on Twitter that you could actually talk about it. But even even so it was viewed with a lens of these people are crazy conspiracy theorist. So I mean, I clearly didn't think so because my preprint, which we posted online, at the beginning of May, said that we considered it plausible that this virus might have an accidental lamb origin.
Nick Jikomes 17:45
And I mean, that's the thing that is so fascinating, and infuriating, I guess about this whole thing as so I'll just reiterate what you said, we're in 20. You said early 2020. At this point,
Alina Chan 17:58
still, May 2020. So actually a bit later,
Nick Jikomes 18:01
so may 2020. At this point, it's considered basically forbidden to talk about an accidental lab leak as a possibility. So no one was saying like, Oh, my God, this definitely leaked from a lab. People were just digging around and people like you and others were saying it could have leaked from a lab. There's some indications that are consistent with that. And we don't actually know that it was a wildlife spillover yet. Let's talk about it. And this was sort of like that discussion was more or less banned from large parts of the internet. And you've, as you said, you've literally got groups of users on Twitter sort of whispering to each other almost online, trying to just discuss the possibility.
Alina Chan 18:40
Yeah, so it was really lively group of people talking to each other. And they eventually found found the group like the internet sleuth team, called drastic. But unfortunately, since the book was published, drastic has fractured into two drumsticks. So what I say about this group of people is that they're really tenacious and determined, they will, like find as much information as they can. But they're really separate people. So it's not like they're offering to each other and agree with each other. They each bring different things to the table, both good and bad. And we have to acknowledge them for their contributions. But also it doesn't mean that we we say we put them on a pedestal and like everything they do is good.
Nick Jikomes 19:21
Yeah, yeah. What does? What does it actually say about the, the state of our official like, sensemaking bodies, that so much of this information has come from anonymous individuals like this, you know, is it Is it strange to you? Or what do you think about the fact that all of this evidence that's bubbled up and all of you know the stitching together of what actually happened and when has come from the sort of organic, semi anonymous internet process rather than through our actual official institutional apparatus?
Alina Chan 19:59
So essentially, Pre sensitive issue amongst the drastic team, for example, that actually some of them are real scientists, they actually have degrees in related fields like biology, life sciences, but they have been lumped together as internet sleuths and outsiders, because none of them are really part of the scientific establishment. And hopefully I can communicate this better. But since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been some scientists, some experts who call themselves the authority. So they're like, We are the ones who know what's happening. And we can tell you what the conspiracy theory not and anyone else, even other scientists who tell you otherwise unscientific. They are unqualified, or that the conspiracy theorists, so because of the vacuum that the established scientists left, all of these open source intelligence or internet sleuths or independent scientists had to come in and fill that niche define the origin of COVID-19.
Nick Jikomes 20:59
So again, May 2020, is where we're at at this part of the story. This evidence is bubbling up on the on the internet. But at the time, the official scientific authorities science with a capital S, what are they saying at the time about the plausible origins?
Alina Chan 21:19
Well, they they said it's a conspiracy theory. There's even a article from from a really well known infectious diseases Institute in America that caused a lot of accidents were a natural virus is released, they say that's a conspiracy theory to so they don't leave any room for the possibility of someone being infected by a virus they collected from nature, accidentally transmitting it to people outside of the lab.
Nick Jikomes 21:45
I see. So they were calling it a conspiracy theory at the time. Does that mean that like, this has never been observed before that viruses never accidentally leaked from a lab before?
Alina Chan 21:54
No, that couldn't be further away from the truth. So there's actually quite a few accidental releases of dangerous pathogens. For example, there's a statistic in 2019, the on average, more than four accidental releases of select agents in the US. So select agents means like the most dangerous of the dangerous pathogens. So this is not counting any of the other less dangerous human pathogens. And surprisingly, most is not even on that list. So we don't know how many times most might have been accidentally spilled or put someone was exposed to it and labs in the US. And in fact that there's so many examples like smallpox, SARS, one. Marburg virus, for example. And so I'll zoom in on the story of Marburg virus, because prior to it escaping from a lab, no one had ever known about this virus before. So the first time it was characterized, it was after it had spilled from three separate laboratories around in Europe, because samples from Africa had been sent up there, from monkeys from monkeys had been sent up there for making vaccines. And the lab was another received that didn't know about the virus, and they handle the tissues of the monkeys and got sick at three separate Institute's so and cause an outbreak. So it's totally reasonable that when you send samples of pathogens, especially across the world, and someone on the other end receives it, they might get infected without doing any dangerous research.
Nick Jikomes 23:18
Yeah, I mean, when you say it out loud, it almost sounds silly. It's like when you send viruses around the world, from person to person, sometimes they get away or they infect someone. Yeah. So it happens all the time. So viruses leak from labs, often, viruses also jumped from one species to another. Often, these are both common things, and we should expect a priori without knowing anything, that either scenario is perfectly within the realm of possibility,
Alina Chan 23:50
especially when there is a laboratory in the very city of the outbreak that is known for doing that research. So if there was no lab in that city that was doing the kind of research then, you know, fine, like then it's not on the table. But in this case, there's
Nick Jikomes 24:03
a Coronavirus lab that does this specific work at the location where we think the outbreak first happened. Yeah. Yeah, again, when you say it out loud, it's like Okay, should we should at least consider this. So let's, let's actually, so we just talked about May 2020. And this is sort of beginning sort of the beginning phase of the pandemic. I remember at this time, right, we were already in the US. I'm on the West Coast of the US. So we had already sort of started working from home and everything. Let's actually back up. So because at that time, there was still a lot of information. We didn't know that we do know now. Let's talk about like the very first SARS cov to human infections that we know about, when do we think that happened? And where exactly do we think that happened?
Alina Chan 24:51
So one major challenge is that up till today, we don't have very clear data describing the first cases of COVID-19 diagnosis and even retrospectively detected in Wuhan. And part of that has to do with political reasons. Like there have been people in China, like really brave people in China, who tried to archive all of the news, as it was emerging from Wuhan. And they were sent to prison. So from what is still available online, what has been successfully archived, for example, on GitHub, even, we know that some of the earliest cases might have been as early as November 2019, in Wuhan. But according to all of the formal official sources, the first case only started showing symptoms in the first week of December 2019.
Nick Jikomes 25:41
I see. So according to official sources from China, first cases are December 2019. What you're saying is, there's other evidence that shows as early as November, and that evidence was put onto the Internet into archives by Chinese citizens. And they were not supposed to do that. And some of those people are literally in prison right now for for putting that online.
Alina Chan 26:04
Some of them were recently released from prison, but that some have disappeared completely. So no one knows where they've been taken to. So it's very serious like that just fought preserving the news just for preserving records of what happened in Wuhan, you can be disappeared.
Nick Jikomes 26:21
I see. So you feel confident in stating that the first cases of COVID-19 probably happened in November of 2019, if not earlier, but the we can say that at least November 2019. Is the probable starting point. Yes. At least. Yeah. See. Okay, so this is, you know, that would be seven years after 2012. So this is about seven years after the miners got sick with the mystery virus. Yep. Okay. So first case is happened in late 2019. We think what, talk to us about the seafood market, because I remember early on, people were talking a lot about this Chinese seafood market, and that this was a good candidate for where the jump the potential jump from one species into humans may have been made. So why were people talking about the seafood market? And what do we what do we know about it?
Alina Chan 27:15
So we know for sure that one of the earliest clusters or COVID-19, in Wuhan was associated with this one and seafood market in central Wuhan. So this was a very large marketplace, like on average, they said about 10,000 people visit a day like 10,000 people in one market per day. So however, the amount of wildlife trained in there was diminutive. So if you look at the actual data that's become available this year, on average, about 11 civet cats per month, so across the entire city, so not just this market, but other markets in the city. So Central China is not really well known for this kind of wild animal life trade, especially like wild mammals. In the South China is more well known for that.
Nick Jikomes 28:01
I see. And this is important, right? So we're talking about a seafood market. So there's probably lots of fish and crabs and like seafood type creatures, and correct me if I'm wrong, but when a virus jumps from one animal into humans, it typically comes from a mammal, so like a civet as a mammal, a bat as a mammal, they're relatively closely related to us because we're mammals. So it would be you would not expect a virus like this to come into humans from like a fish or something like that. No. Yeah. So that's why you mentioned the wildlife trade, so to seafood market, but there is some mammalian species that are being traded in that market.
Alina Chan 28:37
I mean, the there has been a pretty fantastical theory floated by Chinese government officials that it's possible the virus came from a batch of frozen lobsters from Maine, USA, because somehow the seafood market had been receiving shipments of lobsters from Maine, USA. But I think anyone who has been who has received a scientific education should know that this is not, this is not even possible like it. Yeah.
Nick Jikomes 29:05
And so the idea here is just from an evolutionary perspective, for a virus to jump from one species to another, it needs to change, right to adapt the new species. And in order to have any chance of doing that, or any plausible chance of doing that the two species need to be relatively similar, right? Because if you go from one mammal to another, most mammals have the same basic cell types, lots of the same receptors, a lot of similar molecular machinery that the virus in one species can recognize in the other night when you go to more distant evolutionary relatives like a lobster in this case, they're just so different from us physiologically that there's much much much lower chance of that happening. I mean, has anything like that ever happened where you go from a crustacean or an insect to a mammal?
Alina Chan 29:49
Well, I mean, the insect borne infectious diseases Yes, but But not this type. So not not Corona viruses, not not SARS. Like viruses. These require a more similar Oh, animal hosts. So people even wonder whether they can jump from bats directly to humans. That's why up to today, they keep searching for an intermediate host because a lot of people don't think that a sauce like virus can jump make the huge leap from bats to humans is two different IC. But but that's the mystery. So when the local CDC and the Beijing CDC went to the supermarket, they found zero traces of life mammals, they sampled all of the carcasses they could find. They found zero traces of SARS cov. Two. So the only evidence they found was that in some of the sewage or like, environmental surfaces, like doors and tables do find some viral content. But this is totally expected. Like, if you look at the cruise that was first hit by COVID-19, the whole place was plastic with wireless on all the services like this is why there was so that hygene theater earlier and the pandemic like everyone was cleaning everything because when the sick people around the viruses in the air, it's all the place I see. Yeah,
Nick Jikomes 30:59
so seafood market, it's this candidate location for where this thing may have come from. Probably not where it actually came from, for the reasons that you mentioned. So then the other thing that I remember people were talking about were pangolins. So you're gonna have to explain what the hell a penguin is, because most people do not know what a penguin is. And so walk us through the so called penguin papers. After that you have an entire chapter in the book called The Penguin papers.
Alina Chan 31:24
So penguins are these scaly and eaters. When they encounter a predator, they can curl up into tiny ball and they have this hot skills. The skills are kind of made like with keratin with our nails, for example. And it protects them from from being mauled by a lion, for example. And they're found in several places they found in Africa, they also found in China and parts of Asia, they've been highly trafficked into China, especially in Vietnam, because people believe that eating the skills has medicinal properties. So it's a really tragic story. Because you're just eating nails, you're eating like keratins. But you're paying 1000s of dollars for these really poor like endangered species that, unfortunately, they get sick along the way as you traffic them all your home countries into like, like really scary, dangerous market place in the wall. I've traded in China. And so in February 2020, there was a news conference in China. And some scientists claimed that they had found a 99% match to sasco v2 in a batch of smuggled pangolins
Nick Jikomes 32:25
are mammals, right? Yes, they are mammals.
Alina Chan 32:30
And that drove the internet wild, because people had been looking for the intermediate hosts really hard, like scientists had been telling them even in February 2020, don't worry, we will find it soon. There's so many smart scientists in China, they independently found the intermediate hosts of sales one, so there's no reason why they shouldn't find the intermediate hosts or sauce to like, immediately. So everyone was just like, on edge waiting for the intermediate hosts to be found. And when they heard the 99% match with pangolins had been found. They were just erupted on the internet, like all the scientists, journal editors. We all wanted to find you in Yeah, yeah, exactly. And, and it fit like the story that had been told a million times, right. And like people are bad, we traffic, like the full animals. We are horrendous to them. And now we get sick, because we have these uncivilized behaviors. So it fit the story that we've been told, again and again by scientists by the media. But when those pangolin papers, four of them got released from China, within a span of three days when they came out, actually, it showed that pangolin Coronavirus, wasn't that closely related to SARS, cov. Two, and actually all four papers described the same pangolin Coronavirus from a single batch of sick pangolins. So, even though there were just papers everywhere, like everyone was talking about pangolins actually, it was a single batch, like only two or three sick pangolins that resulted in this data that was just markets across multiple papers.
Nick Jikomes 33:57
So you're saying it was not when you actually scrutinize the data? It was not close enough to be the culprit here. Yeah, not at all. Okay, so but But you said it was a 99% match? Was it less than 99? Or is that? Is that misleading to focus on the 99% match?
Alina Chan 34:13
So it turns out not to be a 99% match. The scientists who gave that number at the news conference might have been too excited. And they gave the wrong number. So when it came on, it was actually broke. Yeah. Yeah. So but but the the effects of the news conference and all these papers was to drive the media into a frenzy. Yeah. pangolins Yeah. And then afterwards, China's seem to suggest that they would cook the wildlife trade, but actually, they they banned the consumption of wild animals, but they actually didn't ban the trafficking of animals for medicine for medicinal purposes. And we know that pangolins are not traffic for the meat. They're traveling for the for the skills for the medicine, so in effect, nothing happened.
Nick Jikomes 34:59
Yeah, in effect happened. The regulations are not the kind of regulations one would need to prevent this from happening again. Why do you think that is? Is it because probably so many people in that part of the world, including the government officials that would be responsible for crafting these regulations, might themselves believe that there are medicinal properties to these things.
Alina Chan 35:17
I'm sure that that is a small number of people who still believe that eating pangolin scales has some health benefits, like probably the just the most desperate situation possible, but they think it can cure cancer or something. But the wildlife train in China over the years is, has evolved so that the consumption of these wild animals and their products is actually part of a rich person culture. So only rich people will spend 1000s of dollars on these things just to show off that, hey, I have all these wild animals that we eating for dinner tonight. So it's not consumption. Yeah, it's not. It's not like, I don't have Park today. So I'm going to eat some raccoon dog. No, it's not like that. Like,
Nick Jikomes 35:58
I see. It's very wealthy people showing off their wealth.
Alina Chan 36:02
Yeah, like I have all these exotic game on my table, and I can pay like $2,000 A half a pangolin. So it's, it's not what it used to be. But people were just living sustenance off the land like hunting wild animals for game. Yeah.
Nick Jikomes 36:17
Interesting. So this wildlife trafficking network, which was probably quite vast over there, really, it really hasn't been tamp down at all.
Alina Chan 36:27
I don't think that they believe SARS. cov. Two came from pangolins. So for the people who made a session out of eating pangolins like this is like that, why would we change anything?
Nick Jikomes 36:39
Okay, so let's circle back to two bats and talk a little bit more about why bats are so often tied to two viral outbreaks like this. So you mentioned that, you know, we often go from bats the virus will a virus often hop from a bat to another animal to us. But why is it that bats seem to be especially associated with viruses? Is that actually true? Is there something about the biology of bats that makes them good reservoirs for viruses like this?
Alina Chan 37:07
Yes. So that's a really good reservoirs for viruses. And it was a debate for a long time amongst specialists in that field about whether bats have more viruses than other animals. And recently it was proven yes, they actually do carry much more viral diversity compared to other animals. The the other source of like Marburg, Ebola, NEPA Coronavirus, is like SARS MERS you could go on for days, they have a very unique immune system that they have evolved to be able to handle the kind of damage that viruses do to your body. So they don't over respond to viruses, which is sometimes the thing that kills you is not that the virus is killing you is that your body's or responding to it. So in bats, they've adapted over the years to not all respond. And so it was pretty hilarious to me when there was a grant and document leaked recently, like September 2021, from the equal Health Alliance in collaboration of the one Institute virology and partners elsewhere around the world where they wanted to vaccinate bats. And I thought they don't need to be vaccinated, they are fine where they are, we do not need to be spraying bats with vaccines.
Nick Jikomes 38:16
So okay, so this organization called Eco Health Alliance, in collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of virology, wanted to do something that you basically just said was a silly idea, which is vaccinate bats. And let's take you at your word for a sec. That's silly. So we've got some people with grant money, just doing these really bizarre experiments, we're proposing to do them. What is the Eco Health Alliance? How do they come into this? And what should people know about this organization and how it actually operates?
Alina Chan 38:48
So the equal Health Alliance emerge from a different wildlife conservation organization. So they rebranded themselves as equal health. So like this one health idea where ecosystems and human populations depend on each other, right. And so they formed an international network of collaborations, and particularly with China, with the one Institute virology. And one of their main goals was to build the biggest database of wildlife viruses you can have. And the purpose of this database after you sample like millions of viruses, or at least 10s of 1000s of viruses. You would try to use that data to predict what future pandemics might happen. So trying to predict what viruses might spill over from bats or other animals into humans and cause a pandemic. The problem is when the pandemic actually happened, that database that was hosted by the wanted to do virology was normally taken offline, but has since then never been shared publicly of any one in the US as far as I can tell. So a database built for pandemic response was taken away when the pandemic happened.
Nick Jikomes 40:00
So, I mean, this is just so striking, I have to say it back to you out loud. So you're saying that the Eco Health Alliance, which which is a US based organization, was working with the Wuhan, a center biology and a number of other? Yes, labs, probably. And the entire point of doing all of this work of going around the world, and collecting all these viruses and bringing them to one place and tinkering with them in the lab, was to create a database that we could look at and use in a preventative manner, we could say, look, here's all the viruses that we know that are out there, here's all the ones that we think could jump from another animal to humans. And we should be using this as a kind of strategic playbook of some kind, to help prepare ourselves for another pandemic, prevent them from happening, or at least respond to them when they do happen. And you're saying that database, which was supposed to be used for that exact reason, just disappeared? Yeah. So no one no one has access to it, at least outside of
Alina Chan 41:02
China. Yeah, as far as we can tell, no one has produced a copy of this database, which can exist as an Excel sheet. So it's, it's really stunning that the prototype for what would become a global virome projects, a global collection of viruses, that prototype, just suddenly, the experts who had raised all his funds to build this database said there was nothing useful in there, you don't need to see it. Like, they didn't even ask for it. When they went to Wuhan to visit the institute. Yeah.
Nick Jikomes 41:33
How, when you talk about the funding, how much money was spent, you know, order of magnitude ballpark, how much money was spent putting together this database and doing the related research? And where do places like eco health get their funding from
Alina Chan 41:47
at least hundreds of millions? So that's the range. Yeah. And they had proposed, and they tried to raise up to a billion after the pandemic, they wanted to raise more money for more of this work to produce databases that disappear when a pandemic happens. So
Nick Jikomes 42:02
so there's hundreds of millions dollars to create a database for a pandemic, a pandemic happened, the database disappeared, because someone here, yeah, sponsz to that from the same organizations that put together this database that disappeared was to raise even more money to create more databases.
Alina Chan 42:19
Yeah, but without sharing the data when a pandemic happens.
Nick Jikomes 42:23
I mean, I just have to keep saying it out loud. Because it like it's stunning. Yeah. So eco health, where do they get their money from?
Alina Chan 42:31
They get their money from from a variety of sources. Many of the biggest funders are US government agencies, so like DOD, DARPA, the Pentagon, but also from from the NIH and NIH ID. Sorry, there's so many abbreviations. Yeah. Yeah.
Nick Jikomes 42:51
So Department of Defense, DARPA, places like that. And that kind of makes sense, right? If the idea here is to prevent some kind of pandemic or deal with it, that's a that is a matter of national defense. That makes sense. National Institutes of Health. That also makes sense, because this is a this is a health global health related topic. The NIH being a funder of eco health, who's doing all of this stuff. That brings me to another question I have, which is Francis Collins. So Francis Collins is the head of the NIH, the National Institutes of Health in the United States, he has been for some time. He, you know, he's obviously a major player and how all this funding gets distributed. The reason I want to bring him up is because I recently heard him speak on another podcast about this very topic. And we were just talking about origins of the virus we're talking about, you know, civet, cats and pangolins. And viruses jumping from bats to other species to humans. We were talking about that in comparison to the idea that it leaked accidentally from a lab. And the very beginning of this conversation, Francis Collins said a couple of things that jumped out to me. Let me look at my notes here. So he was asked whether he thought there was a reasonable chance that the virus leaked from a lab just a reasonable chance. He said he couldn't exclude that, but he thinks it's fairly on likely. So he favors the so called natural origins hypothesis that a jumped from another species into humans. And he said something that made me pause actually went back and listened to it again to make sure I got it right before this conversation. Yeah, according to Francis Collins, he said it took 14 years to identify that civets that mammalian species that we talked about before that civets were the intermediate host species for SARS one, but that contradicted something that Nicholas Wade told me in a conversation I had with him just a few weeks ago. Is that accurate that it took 14 years for us to identify civet cats as the intermediate host species for SARS one?
Alina Chan 44:52
No, he must have misspoke or miss remembered and that happens a lot on interviews like you You say something and And later you go back and you read your notes and you're like you're confused these two facts. So I don't blame him for it. But I do think a correction is necessary.
Nick Jikomes 45:07
But but he did say, I just want to dwell on this for a second because he did say 14 years. But he also said in the context of mentioning that particular timeframe, he said, you know, these things take time, it's going to take, you know, a while to identify, enter any intermediate host species that's out there. So he did basically emphasize that it takes time and we need more time. And that's perfectly fair. But just for context, how long did it take us to find that intermediate host species for SARS? One, two months, two months, one week, two months from when so when you start two months,
Alina Chan 45:41
two months from knowing that the virus was a SARS was the Coronavirus, so two months from isolating the virus and culture. So being able to see this, this is the virus that's causing the disease. So two months from that, even using the technologies which flow way more basic, yeah, like 20 years ago, it took them only two months to find not just animals, but lots of animal traders who had pre existing immunity to cells like viruses, so that the scientists and China independently and rapidly established this really robust link between the animal trading activities and Kwangtung to the outbreaks
Nick Jikomes 46:18
I see. And so and that is my understanding that once you isolate a virus and identify it, finding any intermediate host species from which it jumped into humans, takes months typically when you when you actually start looking for it.
Alina Chan 46:31
It took them days, the second round. So it says one actually spilled over again at the end of 2003. And one of the index cases was a waitress, and they asked her other civet cats in your restaurant? And she said, No, they didn't care. They just went straight to her restaurant anyway, and the devil cages. So they sampled the animals that they sampled her coworkers and just sighs everywhere. So it it took them a week.
Nick Jikomes 46:57
Yeah, so, so sorry, one actually leaked twice. Yeah, from nature jump from nature. Yeah. But um, six times
Alina Chan 47:03
from a lab.
Nick Jikomes 47:04
So it takes it usually takes a few months. That's not to say that there might not be cases where it could take longer. Yeah, you know, it's now been How long has it been since we identified SARS? cov? Two, and how long have people been looking for this intermediate host species?
Alina Chan 47:19
It's been close to two years, right? Since if we think that the earliest cases were November. But if we come from when it was first isolated, so December or early January 2020, then it's still been close to two years. And like zero signs, zero leads No, no sign of sounds like viruses circulating in animal trading community in up there in central China. And the thing is the city, the city of Wuhan, it houses the world's foremost expertise on tracking SARS, outbreaks, like you got
Nick Jikomes 47:50
the most the most qualified human beings on the planet for doing like this, everyone. I mean, I'm both on the US side of this, and on the China side of this are completely motivated to find this intermediate code species for various reasons. We haven't done it yet. So either, that, to me, that means one of two things is true. Either there is no intermediate host species, because this is not how the virus came into humans. Or for reasons that really you can't explain right now. It's been really, really difficult to track down this intermediate host, because this virus is somehow unlike the other viruses that have done this before.
Alina Chan 48:28
Yeah, and the problem here is that some extremely basic routes of inquiry have either not been done, or they have been done, but we haven't been told what the outcomes are. So for example, some of the farms that were supplying the low levels of wild animals to Han, they were shut down by the Chinese government, and apparently didn't even test those farms for us COVID, too. So why the first thing you should do is test those farms first, right? Didn't you want to shut them down? So you definitively identify the source of the virus? Another thing is, the first case is like, why didn't the contact trace the first cases like this, the most obvious thing to do is to figure out like, Have you been exposed to someone who worked in a lab? You know, and taking samples from the animal trading community that to see whether Are there many other SAS viruses circulating in the city? Is this a place then you expect a novel SARS virus emerge? But so far, it looks like nothing, there's zero evidence to suggest that one would be a place where SARS like viruses are emerging.
Nick Jikomes 49:28
I mean, one of the major themes here is just that, like, people, people lie so often. I mean, you mentioned you mentioned the waitress from the SARS outbreak are there civet cats in your restaurant? Nope. And then you go and there are you You know, you mentioned already stories of you know, people claiming that certain lines of inquiry were just off limits and and we can't ask those questions that certain things were just preposterous like a lab leak even though that those people at the time that they said that knew that this stuff you know happens on all the time, basically. And so, you know, people are basically just lying or withholding information everywhere that that you look in the story.
Alina Chan 50:11
I mean that this doesn't mean that there's a giant conspiracy. So as your one point, yeah, so
Nick Jikomes 50:18
what does it mean? So if it's not if it's not a giant conspiracy, how do you explain something like this? And and what kind of language would you use to do that, because I do think this is an important point for most for many people.
Alina Chan 50:31
So let's look at the virus itself to this virus is extremely stealthy. Thank you, a lot of people have had COVID Without knowing that they had COVID. A lot of people who might not have had COVID, but had similar illnesses think that they had COVID. So it has presents a range of symptoms that you get sore throat, fever, diarrhea, like loss of smell, or you might have no symptoms that you felt at the time, it can spread before someone developed symptoms, or when they have only mild symptoms. So even if a virus like this spilled over in a market or in a lab, the first people who were sick may not have known. And that's why contact tracing the first detected cases is so important, but somehow hasn't been done. It's pretty bizarre. If people don't know for sure that they were the first cases and why would you go out there and put yourself out for the firing squad? No, no one seems to be looking and no one wants to find the answer. Why would you volunteer yourself out there to take the heat?
Nick Jikomes 51:33
Okay, so let's, let's zoom out a bit. So let's kind of step away from the human controversy and like the politics and all of that stuff. And let's let's think about this, like scientists, we've got sort of two plausible explanations for where the virus came from. One is that it jumped into humans from another mammalian species, potentially jumping into that species from yet another species. And that's called the wildlife spillover hypothesis happens. Often, we have many cases in history where that's happened. The other is the lab leak hypothesis that there was an accidental leak from a virus leak of a virus from a lab. And that also happened. So these are both plausible. And let's think about how we compare and contrast the plausibility of these two by considering what we know about the virus itself. So let's go inside the virus and talk about what its genome looks like. What characteristics are salient to you about the genome of this virus?
Alina Chan 52:34
So the genome of SARS cov, two looks mostly very natural. So by that, I mean it looks very similar to other salts like viruses that have been found in the wild. There's no like humongous appendage financing that I came from a lab. So there's only one very minor but unique feature called a few ring cleavage sites. And this is a feature that lies inside the spike of a Coronavirus spike gene encodes a spike protein that sticks out of the Coronavirus particle, and it latches on to host cells and unlocks the door or window to get into the cell and let the virus hijack the cell and make more copies of itself. So this in this family of cells like viruses, no one has ever seen a few ring cleavage site insertion in the spike like this one. So None None of the other sites like viruses have a few include which site there at that junction in the spike. But there has become a trend like a fashion in research for scientists to insert these fear and cleavage sites into novel viruses novel coronaviruses in the lab, to see how does this novel feature impacted infectiousness of the virus. And so when when the genome of SARS cov, two was first published in early January 2020, a lot of the scientists who saw this feature got really concerned and you can see it from leaked emails or like freedom of information, acquired emails, that they were all talking about it privately, they're like, this is chilling. This is like, could it be potentially engineered? There's some scientists who are even more strongly convinced that it's a smoking gun, maybe that it's so highly unusual that perhaps a engineered origin of the site should be the default.
Nick Jikomes 54:17
I see. So this, this aspect of the genome, this thing called the Fearon cleavage site, it has characteristics that are quite easy to explain. If you suppose that a scientist took a natural virus and inserted this thing into that viral genome, because this is the type of thing that happens all the time in labs like this. But it's not so so unusual that it could not possibly have arisen naturally. It is possible that it arose naturally.
Alina Chan 54:47
Yes. So the issue is that there are two types of scientists and it's fine. That's the type of scientists that's it. If it looks natural, then it must be natural. And that's the other side that says even if it looks natural, It could still be engineered because the technology today is so good, we can just throw in things like in whatever approach we want, leaving no trace of engineering. So no matter how, how the frame shifts are, no matter what code is used, you cannot rule out an engineering origin or a natural origin of this feeling of sight.
Nick Jikomes 55:21
So basically, genetics is so advanced these days that when we do engineer things artificially into a genome, we're so good at doing that, that we can just like smoothly put stuff into a genome such that it looks perfectly natural. And therefore we can't really distinguish whether something was of natural origin or artificial origin, just by looking at the genome itself.
Alina Chan 55:42
Yeah, and this was really problematic in early 2020, because people so desperately wanted to know whether this genome was off Sapkowski was genetically engineered, that they threw it to some scientists who quite, I think, maybe overly confidently. They said that, yeah, we ran a few minutes of machine learning and can rule out the genetic engineering origins of this genome. But in parallel at the same time, scientists in Europe and scientists in the US separately within two weeks recreated the entire genome of Saskatoon from scratch. Exactly like they had to put in mutations to differentiate it from the parent because it was so good and making these synthetic Coronavirus genomes. So you can't tell you can tell if maybe a scientist collected a rare specimens in nature and just synthesize the virus? No, just look natural.
Nick Jikomes 56:32
Okay. So identifying something like the spirit of cleavage site inside of the genome of the virus can't definitively tell you one way or the other, whether or not it was a natural thing, or whether it was an artificial thing. What do we know about, you know, was the Wuhan Institute of virology or anyone else doing or planning to do exactly this type of experiment where we would put in this type of site into Coronavirus?
Alina Chan 56:58
Yeah. So I can tell you've read the book. Because at the end at the end of the book, and we had the rushes off for printing in September, this year, bombshell documents leaked onto the internet. So this one these batch of documents were not even obtained while Freedom of Information Act they were they were elite. Yeah. So from where we don't know. But they will lead through the drastic internet sleuth group. And they posted it online. And in those documents, which were grant proposals from early 2018, submitted by the equal Health Alliance in collaboration with the University of biology and other collaborators. They had proposed searching for novel Furin cleavage sites or other cleavage sites in nature in natural viruses. And inserting these into novel sounds like viruses in the laboratory. So this was an idea proposed in early 2018. And even though the proposal wasn't funded by that application, so the application didn't go through, but partly because the the reviewers at this research looks kind of dangerous. But it doesn't mean that they didn't get the money from elsewhere. This was a very highly funded, like group of scientists ago, hundreds of millions of dollars.
Nick Jikomes 58:12
The other thing that's important to mention here, and I went over this in my discussion with Nicholas waiters, if you know anything about the mechanics of how science actually happens, and how that connects to the grant proposals you write, when you write a grant proposal, that doesn't mean that this is all stuff in the future. Oftentimes, you write a grant proposal to get additional funding to do stuff that you've already started to do. And you have some preliminary evidence for.
Alina Chan 58:35
Yeah, and if you read this grant proposal, it's actually I feel like it's quite clear, or at least very reasonable to deduce that they had already started because they said, Yeah, we are reviewing our sequencing data. And there are these novel rare cleavage sites we see in normal cells like viruses. So if they hadn't already seen this, how could they predict that? Right, right, the internet grants, because no one has observed these sites before.
Nick Jikomes 59:01
So tell me if this is accurate. So now, I want to connect this to something that we mentioned earlier about that, that database that disappeared. So my Eco Health Alliance, and I'm the Institute of Radiology at the time that they wrote this grant proposal, the basic thought I'm having, and what I'm justifying this work to do is I'm saying, hey, we want to tinker around with these viruses, we've collected a bunch of these viruses, we've put them all in the same spot. We are doing experiments and messing around with their genomes. And it's all in good faith, right? It's all done with the idea that we are going to identify how these viruses work and how they can change in order to be able to play defense to prevent an actual outbreak from happening. And all of that data is going to be put into this giant database, which will be our pandemic prevention database. And that sort of would have been the thinking around why they were trying to do this.
Alina Chan 59:54
Yes, I believe that the scientists engaging in this type of work believed in the noble mission. So they When like crazy mad scientists like the stereotype like, oh, sorry, oh my god, Google Calendar popped up something, or sorry, let me go back to that. They weren't like the scientists in Jurassic World or something, you know, you're splicing together all these dangerous animals to create the most ferocious like dinosaur Chimera possible. They they actually we're trying to understand basic viral biology and develop therapeutics and vaccines against novel emerging pathogens.
Nick Jikomes 1:00:29
And then, okay, so that that grant proposal goes out and gets rejected. Who's Who's rejecting it? Is that happening in the US? Where does that rejection come from? Yes.
Alina Chan 1:00:39
So it was DARPA that received this proposal and rejected it. And so the question is, why didn't all of the scientists who are in this proposal, tell the rest of the world in January 2020, when a novel SARS like virus with a novel Furin cleavage site burst upon the doorsteps of the 101, instead of virology in Wuhan city, so that any of them even have a moment where they will like, you know, back in in 2018, in early 2018, will pitch looking for these sites and putting them into novel sounds like viruses like could this sauce do virus have come from those research experiments?
Nick Jikomes 1:01:24
Okay. Is there anything else? In so this was a question that came online that I thought was really good. So aside from the sphere and cleavage site, which is very interesting, and is an important sort of piece of the puzzle here, but it's not definitive, we can't really conclude anything from the spirit and cleavage site. Is there anything else about the SARS to genome, that either the lab leak proponents or the wildlife spillover Proponents claim as evidence for either hypothesis?
Alina Chan 1:01:53
Unless you're talking about the debunked like HIV inserts, I'm not sure what else you might the prime me?
Nick Jikomes 1:01:59
No, no, I'm not either. I'm genuinely asking. So So in your, in your view, there's nothing else about the genome that's salient that that would sort of favor a natural origin versus a lab Lake.
Alina Chan 1:02:11
Not one genome by itself. But if you look at all of the genomes that have been collected to date, I'd say that the genetic evidence points to the seafood market being a secondary site of infection. So a place where a human had brought the virus into the market. Sorry, there's a motorcycle. So human brought the virus into the market and cause an outbreak there. But other than that, the genome, it doesn't tell us that, hey, I'm from a lab.
Nick Jikomes 1:02:44
What Why do you think the seafood Why do you say to the seafood market is like a secondary site, and that's not where it really started.
Alina Chan 1:02:51
So this is gonna bring us on a on a long journey into into a fantastical realm of a hypothesis called the multi market hypothesis. So recently, scientists started discussing in more at greater length that several early variants of SARS cov, two were found outside of the market. So these other variants early, very early variants from December, January 2020, they looked more similar to the bat viruses related to SAS cough to so many scientists speculated that this means that the earliest version of Saskatoon never made its way into the seafood market. So seafood market had its own variant that was found on on the surfaces and in the cluster, the seafood market, but it didn't have all these other earlier variants found in other parts of the city. So a reasonable assumption is that the virus had started spreading way before the market and one of the variants made its way into the into the market and caused the class of them. Some scientists who insist on the natural origin, what they insist that the natural origin of sales coffee was the most likely they they have not been pushing this hypothesis, that that not only was the one market where there was a natural Spiller, but there were multiple markets in the city where multiple animals was spreading the virus. So no evidence was single market matter was a single animal spreading it but now we are hearing that these experts think there were multiple markets when it was natural spillover happening.
Nick Jikomes 1:04:20
I mean, to me, this is just like, you know, Copernicus and epicycles. Like it's, it's just, you know, the hypothesis becoming more complicated.
Alina Chan 1:04:29
It just raising. They can't even prove the natural origin and then raising you to multiple natural origins. This is crazy.
Nick Jikomes 1:04:40
So so when I spoke to Nicholas Wade, who who's written very nicely on the subject, the point that he made was he was like, Look, given that we know how SARS one and MERS and other viruses have have arisen in the past. We know that once you identify the culprit virus, it takes just usually a few months. If not less, as you pointed out even just a few days to identify when there is an intermediate host species, if it did, in fact, jump to humans from another species. So his argument was, every day that goes by, makes it just that much more likely that this was in fact, the lab lick. As long as you keep failing to identify that intermediate host species, do you think that's a reasonable argument? Is that Is that where we sit where as more time goes on, the spillover hypothesis becomes less and less likely to be true?
Alina Chan 1:05:29
I can see why some people would want to favor that that mindset. But the I'd say the rival hypothesis did that or the rival mindset, and that is that some natural origin proponents have said that maybe China is covering up a natural origin. So this may be China has actually found the wild animals that were the source of source cough, too. But for some reason, they're hiding it to try and pitch a foreign origin like the the main lobster hypothesis. So this like all blame from China?
Nick Jikomes 1:05:59
I see what I mean, we're in the realm of speculation here. But I mean, I would have said, I would have thought naturally, like, Wouldn't China be motivated to show that it is of natural origin? Because
Alina Chan 1:06:08
it looks, that's what I think to be better.
Nick Jikomes 1:06:11
That looks way better than that, at least from a laboratory. That was, you know, due to basically human failings. But you're saying that people counter that and say, like, Well, that may be true, but they actually want to show that originated naturally from another country. Again, that's, that's rank speculation. But at the very least, as you pointed out, it's been almost two years no intermediate host species has been identified. So it seems like the only two explanations on the table for that are either there's no intermediate host species, or human beings in this case in China are actively covering up what the intermediate host species is.
Alina Chan 1:06:50
On the last option is that the intermediate host species was being experimented with in a laboratory. I see. So we know that labs in Wuhan were using a variety of animal models. So they had kind of obscured the fact that they were catching bats and bringing these back into the lab for experimenting with with SARS. Like viruses. We were also experimenting with civet cats, the intermediate hosts of the first SARS pandemic or epidemic, and they were also working with humanized mice. So mice that carry the ace to entry receptor for the SARS virus from humans. So
Nick Jikomes 1:07:26
you're talking about the Wuhan Institute of virology? Yes. So they've got bats physically there. They've got civet cats physically there. They've got viruses physically there, they've got human eyes to mice, all this stuff is in one place. You've already told us and I've already learned from other people that these laboratory accidental laboratory leaks happen all the time. We know that they happen every year multiple times, even with more dangerous pathogens. Can you talk to me about the security stringency in this lab? Is it even possible is it can a reasonable person conclude that you can do this kind of work and completely avoid a leak? Or is it inevitable?
Alina Chan 1:08:03
So even the first SARS virus after it started being studied, and labs escaped from a BSL four, the highest biosafety lab once in Taiwan, and just due to luck, the person who had traveled, crossed out of the country outside went to Singapore for conference and came back to Taiwan on another international flight. He only developed symptoms after he returned home. But if he had developed symptoms just a day before he returned home like it will have been another outbreak in across multiple countries. So the biosafety level of a lab in matters Yes, but it's not foolproof. So even if you did the work at the bias, highest biosafety level, it doesn't mean that you never have an accident, like all it takes is one mistake. Like one day, you're just really rush, you want to get off the lab, and you do one thing wrong, like you're exposed. But here's here's the thing. A lot of the dangerous virus research unfortunately, was done at low biosafety levels in Wuhan, it was done at BSL two, so two levels below BSL four. And this level, most virologists will tell you that it is not acceptable for working with airborne pathogens, because you only protection is essentially gloves. There will be times when you take your samples in and out of the tissue culture when you're looking at the under microscope. You might even do like, you know, things that could aerosolized the sample and be able to like this is just I mean, it's not surprising to me that if you were working with hundreds of cells like viruses and maybe putting in advantages features that one of them might spill.
Nick Jikomes 1:09:39
Okay, so to summarize all of that, what you're saying is that it's common practice at certain laboratories in the world, to bring in intermediate or potential intermediate host species to bring in viruses you've collected from samples outside the lab, to tinker with all of these things in different ways inside the lab. And to do that Aside of a set of security protocols, which no reasonable person would conclude will actually contain any pathogen in a foolproof way. Yeah. And that's just, that's just simply where we're at. That's just what happens in this neck of the woods,
Alina Chan 1:10:17
and unsteady, but you can take a plane to almost any other major city in the world. So it's, it's like, throwing a gender reveal party in a place that hasn't rained for many, many months in the forest. Right? This is extremely dangerous. I think that these laboratories should be moved out of urban centers, or moved away from like airports, international airports.
Nick Jikomes 1:10:41
And why, why are they in urban centers? And there, there's probably a very simple reason for this. But let's just make it very clear to people, why isn't that already true.
Alina Chan 1:10:50
So a lot of scientists say that if you move these procedures, laboratories out of major city centers, then you won't be able to recruit the best scientists who do this work. I think that's kind of a lazy excuse to be honest, like, we could be building this like fantastic, beautiful, like city in the middle of nowhere, where scientists all around the world can come and do the risky pathogen research, quarantine, get tested, and then go home. So if you did that, you would localize all these hundreds of different groups doing risky pathogen research under different standards, bring them on to one place where you can actually monitor and surveil for escapes, and then just make this place just a wonderful place to be right don't number in the middle of like the Tundra's or something, make it a place where scientists actually want to come, then everyone will be writing grants and proposing to bring their work there. This just brings the the consequences of a potential escape a lab escape down by magnitudes, because even if someone that gets sick in this isolated city, it's not like they're gonna hop on the plane immediately and bring it to like New York or like Barcelona, Rome. Yeah.
Nick Jikomes 1:11:56
So you wrote, you and Matt wrote near to the end of the book, you said, quote, if another pandemic of ambiguous origins occurs in the next decade, you can call it SARS, cov, three MERS, cov, two influenza whatever, then unless we learn key lessons from this pandemic, we will make the same mistakes. So in your view, what are the key lessons that we should be learning based on what we know today.
Alina Chan 1:12:21
So we have to, even if this virus came from the wildlife train, it doesn't mean that in the future, no pandemics and no outbreaks will come from labs. In fact, it's becoming increasingly frequent, like more likely, because we are getting more labs and more money for hunting for novel viruses. And so we have to start putting in new measures like ASAP to make this type of pathogen research more transparent and accountable and safer. So things like localizing all of that research to one place on the planet. When people have good quarantine protocols. I think that that should be done and more transparent so that there are things you can do, like penalizing people who hold on to pathogen data for years without telling anybody encouraging people to publish as quickly as possible. And the top journals like just general shouldn't be telling people to accumulate data for years and years so that when the pandemic happens, you, you suddenly realize I have no insight to any of the viruses collecting the past five years, like there should be new protocols in place. So all the data gets uploaded to international database where nobody can just take an offline immediately that there's so many things you can do.
Nick Jikomes 1:13:37
So what would at this point, what would definitive evidence for lab leak or definitive evidence from for wildlife spillover actually look like?
Alina Chan 1:13:47
So I am not sure that we will get definitive evidence unless a whistleblower comes forward. And that may not happen for like years, it may not happen for decades, until someone feels safe enough to share that secret. It wouldn't require a lot of people to know frankly, if people have suspicions right, but who has the actual evidence who has the actual like notebook or like health record, or animal test that shows that the virus actually came from here? Probably only a handful of people have that definitive evidence. So everyone else is just kept in the dark. They have adults, but they don't know enough to become a whistleblower. But I do think that there is plenty of evidence out here in the United States that should be evaluated as soon as possible. We shouldn't be banking on the whistleblower to come out like you can't do that. You should then put all your hopes on one person,
Nick Jikomes 1:14:42
what could the government be doing? So for example, the Eco Health Alliance is a US organization. It correct me if I'm wrong, but it's entirely reasonable to suspect that they have a copy of that missing database that we mentioned earlier. Can't Congress just just walk in and say we're going to pick apart everything in your building. And you know, we we're gonna take your laptops and we're simply just going to see what you have is that is that reasonable?
Alina Chan 1:15:08
No, certainly people in government who are calling for the equal Health Alliance and even virologists are calling for the equal Health Alliance to release all of the documents, data emails, with the Ohana, sociobiology and other people working in cells like viruses. For me, I think that this is such a fast moving issue. Just remember that in May of this year, it was still basically conspiracy theory, according to top experts, right? So we are like half a year out. Lots of stuff are being leaked, lots of stuff are being fired the Freedom of Information Act in most of us come out in the last two months in September and October. So I think we're far from done. Like you said, the book that I wrote with Matt Ridley, it's not a conclusion. At the end of the book, we're really saying that there's so much more coming out like this, you need to get caught up on all that already happened, so that you can understand the significance of new developments.
Nick Jikomes 1:16:02
One of the things that I thought was interesting is when I looked at the acknowledgments section of the book, typically you get to the end of the book, and you probably don't even look at the acknowledgments, because it's just, you know, I want to thank my parents and my girlfriend and my editor, and you know, the people that I worked with, but But you say, you know that a lot of people helped you, ranging from scientists, to junior researchers, to intelligence officials, to anonymous individuals, to journalists, politicians, etc, etc. He said, quote, because it would be unwise and unhelpful, possibly even dangerous to name some of them, we have taken the unusual decision to name none of them. And I think we understand what that means, given what we've discussed. I'm curious how you being involved in this whole thing is impacting you, and your trajectory, your career trajectory as a scientist, so your postdoc, which for people that don't know, that means you completed your PhD, you've now moved on, and you're doing another line of research as a postdoc, and typically on the the normal academic track, the next step would be to apply to become an assistant professor at a major university. So what what sort of trajectory Are you on? And how is this book and everything you've done on this topic, affecting all of
Alina Chan 1:17:15
that? So first, say that this book will offend the interest in a lot of powerful people, unfortunately, and this was never our intention. You know, we just want to help people learn about what has been fun relating to the origin of COVID-19. But it will disturb a lot of people who will say that we are racist, or say that we are anti China about it might offend the Chinese government, honestly, I suspect that it will offend them. And so for example, when the seeker the key internet sleuth who's been contributing to the search for the origin, he, he went to the radio silence on Twitter for about two weeks, and everyone has been freaking out because they're worried that someone got him. So it's real, like we're worried about each other. Like, we're worried that maybe one day there will be like a clamp down that anyone named in the acknowledgments, anyone's seen as a key contributor to to letting the lab leak all that original hypothesis, see the light of day they might get, they might get taken down in some way. Like, it might get hacked, it might get disappeared, they might get abducted. So these are real fears that real concerns. But on top of that, on top of enraging, possibly the most powerful country on Earth, the most scariest government on Earth. It will also offend a lot of scientists and science journalists. So people who are more establishment who control the flow of money and publications in research, they have been calling the lab origin a conspiracy theory for more than a year. They have lost a lot of face. When when the Biden Administration called for the intelligence community to produce a report on both lab and natural origins. It I think humiliated a lot of these establishment scientists who had been telling everyone that you must be crazy to think this come from a lab, maybe not even just crazy but racist to think it comes from a lab. And then now that suddenly they're shown wrong, they have had to slowly shift their opinion from conspiracy theory to possible but not plausible to plausible but not probable to doesn't even matter. It's kind of the book will offend them, I expect to see a lot of flames. In fact, I hope that a copy of this book reaches the equal Health Alliance and other virologists who have tried to shut down discourse on this topic before me as a junior, like early career researcher, I think well, I'll use the words of my my friends who have said you've committed career suicide. Yeah, I will have to watch my back In the future, and I don't think I can use my name on like applications for things anymore, because you never know who is the one reviewing your grant application or your publication
Nick Jikomes 1:20:12
and tell people where are you from? And where's your family from?
Alina Chan 1:20:17
Oh, I was born in Canada. But I grew up in Singapore. And then I moved back to Canada. And now I am based in Boston.
Nick Jikomes 1:20:24
And so how would this has this impacted whether or not for example, you might go visit family in Singapore or something like that?
Alina Chan 1:20:33
I am cautious because I have seen, for example, the Chinese state media have branded people calling for an investigation of lamb origins, they've called them terrorists. And we know what China does to people they call terrorists. So it's not it's not a joke, you know, like these people being tortured, and then put in camps. So I am worrying, like, it's not I can just decide to go home anymore, or to visit family and friends in Singapore.
Nick Jikomes 1:21:05
So what what do you think comes next is basically the the next thing to do for people that are working? Or are following this mystery? Is it just to wait for more documents to get foiled and or leaked? What's sort of the next step? Or what are you working on right now.
Alina Chan 1:21:22
So I think it is very important to organize formal and international investigations of the origin of COVID-19. So right now, the World Health Organization has just set up its own scientific advisory group for the origins work called psagot. But this team is extremely imbalanced it has most of the team members from the previous team, which failed spectacularly. Several of the team members have caught the lab origin of conspiracy theory, a classic conspiracy theory. So they and many of them have a vested interest in making sure this virus doesn't come from a lab because they could lose funding, they could be blamed for the pandemic, even. So we cannot rely on the WH o investigation that have to be in parallel independent investigations. It's already very shocking to me that two years post outbreak, there is still no formal investigation of the origin of COVID-19.
Nick Jikomes 1:22:22
I mean, when you think about, you know, global, official organizations like the World Health Organization, when you think about other agencies that we can talk about, what has this whole episode? How is it? How does it make you feel about the, the state of those institutions? Is it Have you lost confidence in them and their ability to do what they're supposed to be doing? And and if so, what does that say about the future?
Alina Chan 1:22:52
Yeah, you can actually see this transition or change in mine in my tweets over the past year and a half, like in May 2020. When other people were telling me who can do this, like they are buyers, they're puppets or like, they, you know, they have no influence. I actually tweeted something like no, the who was the only organization that can do this. And today, I'm like, they are the organization that cannot do this. They've demonstrated time and again, that they lacked the influence the mandate and any power to do to stand up against a member state like China. So they were completely constrained, they were forced to participate. Well, okay, let me let me take back that word force, they they agreed to participate in like a circus, like a potamkin. Was it to one city where they were showing like the cold storage area of a seafood market and like to sign off on the report, that's it. Frozen cold chain, like frozen seafood, were more likely to be the source of this pandemic Nanolab accident, so just cannot be trusted to do this investigation. Again. We need a real investigation. So like we need one that is ideally has the power to subpoena or obtain documents from let's say the equal Health Alliance has international support because a lot of these documents are not just in the US, they spread all around the world. There were many people collaborating with ohana, Steve virology. We know now from leaked documents, that seven countries were sending SARS like virus samples up to one city in the years leading up the pandemic seven countries. So like we we cannot do this just like America alone. The needs of an international agreement to investigate, but not to the World Health Organization. Yep.
Nick Jikomes 1:24:41
Right. Well, Elena, thank you for your time. Thank you and Matt for putting together the book. I mean, if anyone is interested in what we actually know, at this point about all of the major events associated with COVID-19. This book basically documents all of them very meticulously. There's the As I mentioned before, a really nice timeline, literally a timeline in the back that has all of the key events in order. And it really sort of spells out where we're at. And even though the book doesn't come to a conclusion, it's really an ongoing mystery. It really probably is the best resource for actually understanding all of the all of the pieces here. And there are many. So I'll just thank you for your time. And if there's any final thoughts you have, feel free to share them now.
Alina Chan 1:25:28
Oh, thank you so much for the praise for the book, we had written it, to beat the book on the origin of COVID-19. And so we had each decided to take on the risk of offending powerful players in order to write this book, so that as many people as possible around the world can have a resource on the sand. What has been found, both in terms of the chances of this virus coming from the wildlife trade, was this from research activities.
Nick Jikomes 1:25:53
And one last time, what's the title of the book? When does it come out? And where do you get it?
Alina Chan 1:25:58
The title is viral the search for the origin of COVID-19. The book releases on November 16, Tuesday, so in five days from now, very exciting, very exhausting journey, but I'm glad that it is paying off like I hope lots of people will read the book and I look forward to both positive and negative feedback.