In episode #18 of Good Chemistry I spoke with genetic engineer, Dr. Alina Chan. The conversation centered around her research into the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for the COVID19 pandemic. One of Dr. Chan's most important points was to describe why it's important to understand exactly how this virus originated:
In short, very different policy and security strategies will be called for depending on how the virus originated and began spreading. Dr. Chan described two plausible scenarios for how the virus may have originated (each with a couple variations). Her research suggests that we can't rule out either scenario today; we simply don't know what happened yet.
Scenario #1: The virus is of zoonotic origin, i.e. it spread to humans from another animal species. You've probably heard about bats, pangolins, or other species in connection with SARS-CoV-2. That's the zoonotic origin hypothesis. Virus "hopping" between species is quite common.
Direct spread: One version of this scenario is that the virus spread to humans directly from another species, such as bats. Dr. Chan explained why direct spread is relatively unlikely.
Indirect spread: This involves a virus spreading from one species to second species more closely related to humans, and from there, to humans. This is considered a more likely scenario. If you've heard about "wet markets" in China and elsewhere, where many different animal species are sold, that's a potential indirect spread scenario.
Scenario #2: The virus spread to humans through scientific research activities. There is lots of virology research happening around the world and, inevitably, this poses some risk the viruses being studied by scientists can escape containment.
Fieldwork scenario: In this scenario, scientists going out into the field may become infected and subsequently transmit virus to the general population. For example, scientists going into caves to study or collect samples from bats may catch a virus.
Lab leak scenario: For humanity to understand viruses and how they work, we need to study them in detail in the lab. For example, viruses from the wild (e.g. obtained by scientists doing fieldwork) may be brought to the lab for detailed study. The work might even involve intentionally allowing the virus to mutate in order to understand how it might evolve the ability to become more infectious to humans. Medical research labs working with potentially contagious viruses exist around the world. They have various levels of security for different infectious agents, but we're all human and containment won't always be perfect.
Dr. Chan explained each of these scenarios as well as what her own research (done in collaboration with other scientists) as uncovered so far. She also discussed a variety of other topics relevant to understanding SARS-CoV-2, including:
Basic virus biology. What are viruses, how do they work, and how does this particular virus infect human cells?
SARS-CoV-2 research published since 2020. What kind of scientific papers have been published on this virus, do they hold up to scrutiny, and what kind of peculiarities have been observed by other scientists?
The SARS-CoV-1 pandemic. How did the "first version" of this virus originate and what does that tell us?
The strategic consequences of different origins scenarios. If the the virus hopped to humans from an animal, very different precautions need to prioritized compared to if the virus leaked from research activities.
New variants and where this virus might be going.
It's important to emphasize that Dr. Chan has not drawn any conclusions about exactly how SARS-CoV-2 originated. She is simply saying that we have not yet solved this mystery and we cannot rule out either the zoonotic spread or the lab leak scenarios. For now, we are uncertain.
Human beings like certainly and closure. We jump to conclusions and get anxious when unanswered questions linger. I suspect this is related to why this topic has become toxic in many ways. A viral pandemic is scary. A pandemic caused by a mystery virus with unresolved origins is even more unsettling.
Our bodies contain viruses at all times. Most of them are dormant or benign. Some may even be beneficial. And of course, some can cause severe illness. To stop the spread of bad viruses, humans need to collaborate and innovate. This requires us to share ideas. Without the free exchange of ideas, innovation suffocates and with it our ability to adapt.
Ideas, like viruses, require a host population to spread and survive. Good ideas help humanity prosper and adapt; bad ideas prevent us from adapting, or worse, lead us to pursue maladaptive strategies which undermine our ability to prosper. Suffocating the free exchange of ideas, suppressing unpleasant facts, and clinging to apparent certainty in the face of real uncertainty allow bad ideas to spread at the expense of good ones.
Vaccines help prevent the spread of bad viruses. By exposing our immune system to a weakened version of something that would otherwise be harmful, our body's become better at recognizing and neutralizing the real thing. Paradoxically, it's exposure that leads to prevention. If we didn't have vaccines, if we scrubbed and sterilized every inch of our environment, never exposing ourselves to what's in the world, we would perish. If we don't test our immune systems, they don't learn how to protect us.
As with viruses, so with ideas. If we want our brains to be well-tuned for neutralizing bad ideas, they need exposure to new ideas. We need to consider possibilities and put new ideas to the test. If we don't investigate and test different ideas, our brain's don't learn how to identify and protect us from bad ones. We wouldn't learn how to be effective in the world. We would perish.
Vaccination is important. It isn't fun. No one enjoys getting poked in the arm with a needle. But it provides our immune system with the exposure it needs to be effective, and we need it to be effective so we continue to prosper. Likewise, our brain's need exposure to ideas. Ideas aren't always pleasant. Sometimes they feel like getting poked with a needle.
But if you don't get poked with a needle sometimes, it's only a matter of time before something far worse starts to spread.
To listen to my conversation with Dr. Chan, you can listen to audio-only version or watch the video version on YouTube. For security reasons, the video version of this episode only displays the episode graphic.