Ep #39 Transcript | Nicholas Wade: Origin of COVID-19 & SARS-CoV-2 - Lab Leak or Wildlife Spillover?
Full episode transcript below. Beware of typos!
Nicholas Wade, thank you for joining me. My pleasure. Can you start off by just explaining for people who you are and what your background is and what you've been doing recently,
Nicholas Wade 5:21
I'm a science journalist, I worked on nature and science through two scientific journals, which have new sections. And then for many years, I worked on The New York Times, where as an editorial writer and sound supporter and stance editor, and I retired from Vat a few years ago and have been writing books and as a distraction, an article on the origin of COVID to COVID-19, I'm sorry, and SARS to its causative virus.
Nick Jikomes 5:52
Yeah, that's that's largely what we're going to talk about today. And for those that don't know, I'll link to this stuff in the episode description. But Nicholas has written two articles relatively recently about the origins of SARS, cov. Two, and those are wonderfully well written articles that are very detailed, and they sort of cover the story, the evolving story of how we've been thinking about where this pandemic, how this pandemic got started, and where this virus actually came from. And so before we get into the present pandemic, and SARS, too, I thought it would be nice to talk about some previous outbreaks that have happened. So can you start by describing what the SARS one virus was and what actually happened in terms of how that virus broke out into human populations.
Nicholas Wade 6:41
Cells are one virus and caused an epidemic in 2003. And it turned out that it came from bats. It was part of a large group of viruses called coronaviruses that bats carry many different varieties of it seems to spread first from bats to animal called civets that is settled for me some Chinese wet rockets and from the civets, it jumped to people and eventually caused a serious epidemic.
Nick Jikomes 7:17
And so why are you know, bats seem to come up a lot when we when we talk about viral outbreaks that eventually get to humans? Is there something special about bats in terms of why there's such a seemingly common common reservoir for viruses?
Nicholas Wade 7:31
Um, yes, there's a biological reason. And I'm, I'm sorry, I forget what he says. I think he's probably just doing that they live in these close communities. So sacred viruses and bacteria among themselves a lot. So that gives them quite a strong immunity and enables them to carry these viruses without it hurting them much. But the virus is certainly hurt us or made managed to spit over.
Nick Jikomes 7:56
I see. And so you mentioned that with SARS one they went from bats into this other creature called a civet and then into humans who are in close contact with those creatures in wet markets. It seems like it's common when something spills over to human that it hops from something like a bat into some other animal first, before going to humans. Is that is that a common pattern? And why does it sort of jump from one species to another before getting to humans?
Nicholas Wade 8:23
I think it may be a matter of opportunity cost if it sees the other animal first, especially if it's in the wild, it may not sort of come in contact with humans very much sure it'll seize the opportunity to to get to an intermediate animal and then to humans, but of course, some many viruses to infect humans directly. The the Ebola virus, for example, which we think come from comes from bats, that seems to be a direct transmission. There's some thought that says to may be able to infect humans directly, but there's no proof of that. It's just conjecture.
Nick Jikomes 8:59
I see. So in the case of SARS, one it got to humans from civets at these wet markets. Is that why this has been sort of a candidate favorite hypothesis for SARS to originating in some of these wet markets?
Nicholas Wade 9:14
Yes, exactly. And there was a second epidemic called MERS in 2012. And they're the intermediary animals, candles or geometries. So when the COVID-19 broke out, and it was clearly a a bat type virus, the natural thought was that what is it is come by a similar route the two previous outbreaks via some intermediary animal to humans.
Nick Jikomes 9:41
I see. And so in the case of SARS, one immerse you've got two viruses that went from bats to another animal to humans. But we then identified that they actually made that progression by identifying the animals that they that they came from, how long did it take in the case of SARS and MERS for scientists to figure out what the Intermediate animal hosts were?
Nicholas Wade 10:02
Well, it was pretty quick. It was about four months in the case of of SARS one and I think it was about seven months in the case of MERS so that intermediate animals were identified very quickly it took it took quite a lot longer to identify the original source one bar virus in the sort of bat in a particular cave where the bats harboring it lift and the MERS virus. Although it's a bat type virus, we haven't linked that to its source, it is not very clear how it got from bats to geometries.
Nick Jikomes 10:38
I see but they found the intermediate species within a matter of months. That's true. Okay, so in the when this happens when the virus goes from a bat, to another animal to a human, does it leave any sort of signatures in its genome that scientists can see that allow us to piece together sort of what that progression was at the level of its genetics?
Nicholas Wade 11:01
Uh, yes, it certainly does. I mean, that viruses are sort of specialized to attack their host animals. And it's quite difficult for them to attack another host. And they depend on a sort of series of mutations to adapt themselves. So when you look at the progression of SARS, one, to some extent to humans, you see it making about six or six or says critical mutations, before it establish itself in Sibbett. So another six or so before it begins to be able to attack humans just as a sort of weak pathogen and another dozen before it's a really strong pathogen in humans. So you can track all these mutational changes. And, of course, that's what people expected to find with SARS. But they do.
Nick Jikomes 11:49
So the idea is, when it's when a virus is happening from bat to another animal, it's going to take a number of mutations, usually before it figures out how to get into that other animal and then basically adapt to that other animal, so becomes more contagious. And then another set of mutations again, to go from that animal to human to be able to get inside the human population, and then to spread more quickly and become a pandemic type virus is that that's what we're talking about.
Nicholas Wade 12:14
Yeah, that's exactly true. I mean, it seems easy when we, for the virus when we look at it, when in fact, it's immensely difficult for the various millions or billions of tries before picking up each successful mutation. So it's very, so it's very difficult process.
Nick Jikomes 12:32
Yeah, so the basic idea is when the virus first like the very first virus gets into humans, at the initial stage, have some kind of spillover. It's actually not it can get into humans, obviously. But it's actually not that good at spreading. And it has to get some of those new mutations over some time period to become very contagious, basically. And have we seen that kind of signature with SARS, to know
Nicholas Wade 12:57
that's one of the most surprising features about SOS to us, especially from the natural emergence perspective, you'd think that it would take a long time to become a very, very own human pathogen. And yet, right out of the box, it was very good at infecting humans. So that's much easier to explain on the lab leak hypothesis, because when you're working with these viruses, you grow them in, in, in human like surroundings, either in, in cultures of human airway cells, or in in humanized mice. These are mice genetically engineered to have the Heelan AC two receptor expressed on that pathway cells, that's the target for for these type viruses. Now, obviously, if you if you go mice in if you live virus in humanized mice, or in cultures of humanized human airway cells, if it escapes, it's going to be very good at infecting humans because that's exactly what it's being trained to do.
Nick Jikomes 14:05
So at the early stages of this pandemic, with SARS to the virus was already really good at being virulent at going from person to person relatively easily, which is not what you typically see at the beginning of a viral pandemic. That's due to a wildlife spillover, as we saw with SARS one. Now, if we go back to earlier into this pandemic, so around February 2020, if people recall, what they were hearing and what they were doing at that time. At this time, it was considered by most people at least what you know what I was seeing in the media and in journals and elsewhere, that the lab like hypothesis was not likely. In fact, many people were calling it a conspiracy theory. And it was stated publicly by many people, many prominent people that the wildlife origin hypothesis was overwhelmingly likely. And in one of your medium articles, you talk about this in particular You quote, a lancet article from February 2020. That says, quote, we stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin. So who was writing that article? And what was the basis for those claims at the time?
Nicholas Wade 15:20
Well, the article it turned out was organized by Peter das AK, who is the president of the Eco Health Alliance, a nonprofit in New York, which funds was funding research at the Wuhan Institute of virology on bad viruses. So this money comes ultimately from the National Institutes of Health, and particularly the NID and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. It goes from there to the Gulf Alliance, and from that to Wuhan in China. So Dr. Das I had an enormous conflict of interest. And published things this last year in The Lancet saying this couldn't possibly be lab lab Lee, because if indeed, it had leaked, from the experiments he was supporting, and was responsible for, then he would stand to be be held responsible in in one of many ways. So not only did he have this underground conflict of interest, but to add insult to injury, the lashing around to concludes by saying, we declare no conflict of interest. And this pertain not just to Dr. dasa, but most of the signatures had ties to the Health Alliance, so also the Wuhan institution in various ways. And hello signatory who's worth mentioning, because he comes into the story later, is a medical Jeremy Farah who is the president of the Wellcome Foundation, the Wellcome Trust in London, which is a big medical research philanthropy and is the source of much funding for virology and other kinds of research. Um, Dr. Fowler has close ties with Chinese medical officials, which he describes in a book he wrote recently called spike. And he certainly seems to have been following the the wishes of the Chinese medical authorities in various actions, he took not only in signing the lancet letter, but in various other other things, which show we can discuss later.
Nick Jikomes 17:42
So there's a lot to dig into here. Let's before before we go go more into the personalities and some of the details of how things progressed from this time. And back in February to the present. Let's talk a little bit more about who are excuse me about gain of function research itself? Because that comes up a lot. And I'm sure people have heard about it, what exactly is gain of function research? And also, what exactly is the lab leak hypothesis, as opposed to say, the conjecture that it was that was purposely engineered?
Nicholas Wade 18:16
So again, function is subject to many, several different definitions. And that's part of the reason why there's such controversy about it, in its most basic sense, is anything you do to enhance the infectivity or transmissibility of a virus. So you have to be careful here, because even the slightest handling of a virus in a lab, for example, if you grow a virus in a culture of cells, you're increasing its capacity, because you're so training it to infect this culture of cells. So if you define gain of function to severely you could sort of cripple all firearms, researchers, no one wants to do. But what it means it's a more serious sense as if you take a sort of dangerous, a dangerous human pathogen and you suit up in the lab, that sort of real that's really dangerous game function. And that is what people are concerned about.
Nick Jikomes 19:21
What would be some examples in recent history of gain of function research? And what are the what are the basic arguments for and against doing this kind of research in general?
Nicholas Wade 19:32
Well, the experiment that started off about 10 years ago was when Dutch researchers learned how to enhance the interactivity of the influenza virus in ferrets. They learned how to make it what in fact, fair, it's just more easy to do before so the virus had had a gain of function. So the purpose of this research was to see how you know similar event might Cut in boxes and facing humans and how to prevent them happening. So that was the legitimate research purpose, but it set of all kinds of alarm bells. Because if you do such an experiment in humans, you've created a dangerous virus that did not exist before. And as the rescue you could set up for human epidemic of the virus escapes. And then there's a long, long history of viruses escaping from labs, when people seriously did not mean themselves. And they're just very hard to contain. So that sets off a debate within the biological community about gain of function. And it kind of sufficient into two camps that size of two groups are fighting under a tent, you can't really tell what's happening. But the the group that was in in favor of restraining gain function, managed to get a moratorium on federal funding, a regulation or put into law in 2014. So the moratorium said you can't fund any new gain of function research. But that victory was short lived, because the proponents of gain of function managed to get the moratorium ended in 2017. And it was replaced by some reporting requirement, which shouldn't, doesn't have very many teeth. And it basically said, if you're doing gain and function, you have to tell this government committee while you plan to do and they can veto it if they wish to. So it's a very loose regulatory system, it's turned down very few requests, and gain of functional research essentially has gone on without really very much in impediment. I think that's fair to say, certainly, far, far less impediment than many critics would like to see.
Nick Jikomes 21:53
I see. So basically, you've got two schools of thought in the virology community. One is basically saying something like, we need to understand the paths that viruses might take throughout the natural course of evolution to become more infectious. And if we can actually sort of recreate what could happen naturally, then we'll sort of be one step ahead of a pandemic. And then you've got another camp saying, Well, that may be true, but you're literally creating such a virus in doing that kind of research. And it's really about sort of a risk benefit analysis of some kind with the risks of creating a virus that is going to be deadly or more contagious, or whatever, versus having that kind of that picture of what could emerge naturally, that might allow you to take a more defensive approach. Yeah, that's exactly so. And so who are some who who have been some of the chief, I know that there's been some important people that have argued in favor of doing this kind of gain of function research, at least in the US, who have been some of those people.
Nicholas Wade 22:58
Well, the two most prominent have been Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci. So far. She is the director of the NIH ID and his immediate responsible for viral illogical research in the US and to some extent abroad. And Collins is his nominal boss, Scott Adams is the director of the National Institutes of Health which the NI rd is part is part. So they wrote a weldon letter in the Washington Post, I think it was 10 years ago, advocating the importance of data function research. Now the principal critic is wishing he bright at Rutgers University, who has been very eloquent in in saying that, experiments like this being being supported by NID, Avalon Institute of virology should never been undertaken.
Nick Jikomes 24:00
I see. So there's these two camps. There's arguments for and against doing this type of research. We can be agnostic for the moment about, you know, which which camp makes better arguments, but you can make arguments in both directions. And very prominent scientists have have done that so far, in the past few years. And then just to sort of round this out, when we talk about a lab leak. We're not talking about someone engineering, a nasty bug, and then purposefully letting it out. We're talking literally about an accident. So people are working with viruses in the lab. Viruses are very tiny creatures, obviously in the very hard to contain. You're saying that these accidents commonly. Can you talk about how common such a leak is and maybe what some of the containment procedures typically are?
Nicholas Wade 24:46
Well, I think it's fair to say but on average, there's about one serious leak a year reported and probably many more that do not get reported. It sort of goes in in a waves and the smallpox virus which is one of the things you would most want to contain various security as escaped three times from labs in England in the 1970s, killing I think pretty people. And coming to more recent times the SARS one virus is a real escape artists that's escaped six times already in its short laboratory life four times alone from the Beijing Institute of virology. So the way these these viruses contain the safety system, it has sort of four levels called BSL 123 and four. BSL one is sort of nothing. Bass L two is sort of, you know, hang a safety hazard on the door and don't do any mouth petting. And level three is, well, you use containment boxes for some of the more aerosol spreading organization. So all the anomalies sort of pretty low level, you know, not sure to above common sense, then you there's a big jump when you go to BSL Level four. So that that is where you have to ask on spacesuits and have mega outflow and special, especially built buildings. And the problem here is that virologist still not like to work in BSL four level conditions, it's very expensive, it's a headache takes you 10 times as long to any experiment. It's just something you'd really rather avoid. And and it's hard not to think that that distaste is originally into the the safety regulations that govern what level is appropriate for each kind of virus. So it may surprise us to know certainly surprised me that you can work with that if you when it comes to the SARS viruses. If you're working with either of the loan causes of the epidemic and SARS one virus or MERS, you have to use BSL Level Three. If you're working with any size related virus, even if it's the closest known cousin of SARS one or MERS, you can do that in BSL Level two, which as we should he right is famously pointed out, it's about the safety level you find in the average dentist's office.
Nick Jikomes 27:20
So you can work with some of these bugs at that level of security. And I can understand the mindset too. I mean, I used to do academic research with mice. And I used to work in a building where you know, to go get the mice or to where the mice were housed, there was a special room and an upper level and you had to, you know, put on a hairnet and like a safety suit and you had to go through like an air shower. And all of this was purely precautionary, there was no no serious risk of anything like an outbreak of a bacterial or a virus that could infect humans, it was all just precautionary, for working with these mammalian critters. And, you know, it was just a huge pain in the ass people complained all the time about having to go all the way upstairs and putting on the hairnet and putting on this. So there's this this natural sort of human tendency to want to put in as little effort as possible to get the job done. Right. It says it's not hard to imagine why why that mindset wouldn't apply in a variety lab as well. So, okay, what you're saying is if we translate so if I go back again to early 2020, when Peter Daz AK was making these statements about how ludicrous it was to consider lab leak, what you're saying is already at that time, we knew that a the SARS virus didn't have the kind of mutational signatures one would expect if it had come from wildlife similar to SARS one. And we also knew at the time that, you know, viruses leaking from Labs is something that's not a freak occurrence, it actually happens fairly often.
Nicholas Wade 28:53
Well, not only did he know that, he knew in detail the experiments that he had been supporting at Blue head Institute of virology. And these experiments consisted of, of taking the spike proteins from one source type virus and sticking them into the backbone of another type, SAS Type virus. And these experiments were very successful, and they're in terms in the new hybrid gain of function, viruses that he created or more virulent and infective from their parents. So he knew these experiments were underway and and what is more, if I can just jump ahead to an astounding piece of information that came available just last week, which was the leak of research proposal. The data are made up of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. He the Wuhan Institute researchers were thinking of, of what they were looking for appropriate human related cleavage sites, including the fearing cleavage site to insert into our viruses. So maybe jumping ahead a little bit the crucial part of sauce to and the sort of the server hole riddled away comes from is an element called the Furin cleavage site. And we now know that even the DOP actually turned down this proposal. We now know that that's the anatomy experiment of inserting Furin cleavage site into viruses was actively being considered by the Wuhan Institute researchers in 2018. So that's that knew the exact recipe for creating a sauce the sauce to like virus had already been cut at least contemplated and maybe had been put into practice as well. So it in light of this knowledge, it's very hard not to interpret his his protests as as as being because he feared the the very opposite of that new process is the lab leak was ridiculous possibility because he knew it was not.
Nick Jikomes 31:22
Let's let's unpack some of this biology a little bit to help people think about this better. So you mentioned this thing called the Furin cleavage site. So can you can you explain briefly how this virus actually infects and get into he gets inside of human cells and what that cleavage site has to do with it.
Nicholas Wade 31:42
So the virus is made of attacks is is to punch one foot. First, it latches on to its target, which is the protein called the AC e two receptor. Then the second the second half of the virus's swipe, spikes, this jet out from the surface also has to be cut away from the first part. So it can then merge its membrane with that of the cells and inject its RNA into the cell and hijack the cells or protein making machinery. So to make that cut between the two parts of the virus about biologists call them SBS one and S two parts of the spike protein. To make the cut between s one and S two the virus relies on on enzymes as a naturally present on its target cell. And the bad virus relies on on various other sort of bat type proteins. But But vowel just to name for some time that you can really soup up a virus and make it a super human pathogen if you if you provide it with a way of recognizing a protein very, very commonly expressed on human airway cells called ference. A fairing is sitting there to cleave various proteins that are circulating in the human media. But if you insert if you insert into your viruses, Spike protein gene, the specific sequence of amino acids that is recognized by fearing then your virus is going to have a much easier task of infecting human airway cells because there'll be fearing proteins all around to help cleave it spike protein, cutting off the s one part allowing the s two part to deploy. So low when you look at the SAS to virus, the most distinctive feature of it but uptown 20 virologist is that right at the S one S T junction just rate needs to have one is if you're in cleaved shape, that's a sequence of amino acids that is recognized by a theory. And the other remarkable feature is that size two is the only member of its foreign family that has this site. It's our family school Bissau baculovirus virus, and SARS one virus MERS virus belong to and many other SAS Type viruses that the EU and researchers have found. So this is so quite a large family and sons to is the only one so far has a cheering creature.
Nick Jikomes 34:34
So if you look at all of the sort of coronaviruses related to stars, two stars is the only one that has any trace of this site. And the site is basically the perfect sequence one would need if you were a virus who wanted to be infecting human cells because you're taking advantage of a human protein that's actually necessary to clip that spike protein in order for it to get inside.
Nicholas Wade 34:57
Yes, that's right. I should just say the Coronavirus is the sort of great big family of viruses. And the sub Beckett viruses are a little sub family within the corona viruses. So there are fewer and cleavage sites in in other coronaviruses. It's just that, as far as our Becco viruses are concerned, it's only size two that hasn't fearing pizza.
Nick Jikomes 35:22
So is it fair to say that it's conceivable that such a site could have gotten Right, right at that particular spot for this virus through natural evolution, but it would have been quite a remarkable mutation or recombination event that would have happened to get it right there. But with the lab leak sort of hypothesis view of this, it's quite trivial because molecular biologists can can just use standard lab techniques to put it right right there.
Nicholas Wade 35:51
Um, yes, that's, that's right, on the natural emergency cases. And then the only way a virus could acquire US, a long string of, of new genetic material, like this would not be for the mutation was just just sort of one base at a time, but it will be through recombination, that's when two viruses, two very similar viruses infect the same cell, and they reassemble their parts each with, with with parts that belong to the other virus. So that that's how viruses acquire new genetic properties. recombination happens all the time. But the one thing you cannot acquire through recombination is a genetic element that your family of viruses does not possess. So since the Sebago viruses, so far as we know, do not possess the fairing P which shape? It's hard to see ourselves, can we too, could have got it that way. It's much easier, as you say, to suppose that it was inserted back in the lab by people who, who who wanted to sue up the virus and now that we have this grand proposal to to data from the Health Alliance, you know that this is exactly the procedure that the researchers had in mind.
Nick Jikomes 37:15
So, you know, DARPA is going to approve funding, approved grants that go to this thing called the Eco Health Alliance, run by Peter Daz AK, and then you're saying that that group can then sort of subcontract or send portions of those grants out to places like the Wuhan Institute of virology? How does how does that chain of command work? Exactly?
Nicholas Wade 37:39
Oh, well, the these are US government grants. So the principal ones go from NIH, AIG to the ICA Health Alliance and the other investigator. That's the guy who's responsible for the research. And the grant is Peter das AK and he then subcontracts people at the Wuhan Institute. It particularly Xi Zhang Li who is the Chief Chinese Coronavirus. Excellent. Now,
Nick Jikomes 38:09
so So what is there? So eco Health Alliance? I understand that peace eco Health Alliance is based in New York City is Peter dasa himself running a lab in New York. And only a subset of the research goes out to places like Wuhan and pseudo virology or how does that work?
Nicholas Wade 38:28
Well, it's a very natural question because my having said he's a principal investigator used to assume these assignments in the lab, but he's not in a lab. He's just a grant, a grant raise at administrate. He's a sort of research entrepreneur. So all the all the scientific work is done. I should say almost all the scientific work is done at the Wuhan Institute of virology. And just not jumping back a second to your question about the grants that the main the main grant from Nid. VA II could help to an institute lasted for it was a five year grant last year from 2014 to 2019. There was then a second grant from NIH energy, which was quickly rescinded after the epidemic broke out. Now the proposal to DARPA was made in 2018. And DARPA did not fund it. It was a bit too risky even for DARPA, but its importance is in his infesting showing what experiments were being contemplated the web. And it doesn't necessarily follow the experiments were not done just because they weren't funded because it's routine, in research to use. Use your money at the end of your, the end of one grant to perform experiments that will support application for a second graph. So these experiments may well have been done, even though DARPA did not fund the grant.
Nick Jikomes 39:59
Yeah, that makes sense. So Peter destech is not actually running a lab himself. He's sort of a professional grant writer. Is he is this all by Ralph virology research, the Eco Health Alliance is funding is he ever virologist is that his specialty
Nicholas Wade 40:14
is biological research. But he's not that I want to just, he has a PhD in parasitology, from the University of East London.
Nick Jikomes 40:24
Interesting. So his job is basically a professional grant writer to fund virology research, but he's not a biologist himself. Yes, that's great. wonder, I wonder how he got that job. So let's move to well, let's move a little bit forward in time now. So So time has gone by. Some of the statements from Peter, Dec and others have come out. There was another one that I thought was interesting that you mentioned in your article, so there was another opinion piece. So this was not a scientific experiment, or a scientific paper, it was an opinion piece, but it appeared in a scientific journal in March of 2020. So So about a month after the lancet article that we referenced previously, and this was from someone named Christian Anderson. And so what were the main arguments of that piece? And can you also talk a little bit about whether or not there was any sort of public dissection or criticism of this from other scientists?
Nicholas Wade 41:18
What the The Christian Andersen article is very important, because this was the sort of principal scientific statement that persuaded the media in general and everyone else that library was impossible and relate this conspiracy theory. And the second thing I would say in background is that Jeremy Farrow, who we've mentioned earlier, has, has said that he put together the authors of this nature medicine article, so he was he, he claims he suggested to Christian Andersen, that he should write this piece. So the article starts out by saying that it's impossible for the, for the sauce to last have been manipulated in a lab. So this is a totally irresponsible thing for a scientist to say, I mean, it's really bad when scientists present themselves to the public, as speaking in a professional capacity and assure the public of things that they cannot know are true. So Dr. Anderson could not have known what he said that it was impossible to neglect the virus, because there are many ways of manipulating viruses that Leave No Trace, I mean, the obvious one is you just grow them in cell culture you but passage them from one cell culture to another, and under this sort of fierce, select selective process, they gain new functions. So natural selection has done all the heavy lifting, but you cannot tell from the virus that comes out at the other end and it's been subjected to, to this selective process. Also, you can, you can now insert genetic elements into virus in devices not leaving a trace. The old methods did leave sort of fingerprints were the restriction enzymes that come with our new very neat methods were not that new. We'll call them those same methods, seamless method, you can insert, you can insert elements without leaving any trace at all. So what Anderson who his colleagues was was saying was pure propaganda and completely untrue.
Nick Jikomes 43:29
Okay, so you're saying he it's not like he there was a subtle myth? Speaking of something, he was saying things that were quite clearly not true. And I would imagine if that was the case, and it was in a place like Nature Medicine, that certainly other scientists, with the relevant expertise would have seen this and said something about it.
Nicholas Wade 43:47
Well, that's a very good supposition. So the question is, why didn't they speak up? And I'm afraid there was you this, this goes to the structure of our current academic communities and scientists, academics have tenure. And the public thinks, Well, they've got tenure. They're totally independent. They can say what they like without without fear. But in fact, the opposite is the case because scientists especially rate dependent on their colleagues for getting grants for you finding jobs for their students writing recommendations. So you hesitate strongly to say something that is unpopular or maybe frowned on by the authorities. So here is a sort of Emin. So research funded like Jeremy Pharos, you know, almost the equivalent of Francis Collins, anti Fauci in the US. Public saying this is ridiculous conspiracy theory and you're also undermining though enterprise if you say otherwise. And no known in that circumstance is going to stand out and say this paper by Andersen these colleges both No one said a word. The media was was slowed by it it despite the fact that the major media outlets, newspapers and television. enterprises don't have science journalists are supposed to be able to see through. See sheep through statements like this and treat their sources skeptically. In fact, they also lapped it up. And, and just repeated the dogma that oh, well, the consensus of the scientific community is this must certainly have emerged naturally has no chance it was a lab leak, then this, this view prevailed for a full year and a half.
Nick Jikomes 45:44
Yeah, I actually remember when that article came out, and I just remember people pointing to it and saying, Hey, this is a piece from Nature Medicine, it says it says things are quite clear. You mentioned Peter Datsik had a conflict of interest that he did not cite in that Lancet article. Does Christian Anderson have any such conflict here?
Nicholas Wade 46:03
Well, Anderson has a problem of a much deeper kind, it seems to me, and this comes from another leads email on January 31, of, of, of 2020. Just after about two weeks after this sequence of SARS cov. Two first came to light. Amazon has been vigorously studying it with the help of several colleagues. I don't know whose behest he done this probably he just started on his own back maybe. But anyway, he was an email to Anthony Fauci saying that he and his colleagues had you down mostly decided the virus was not natural. He I forget the exact phrase, but he said we it does not follow each week. It does not there's no, there's no evolutionary explanation for it. And he referred him directly to the fear and cleavage site. So on January 31, Anderson was convinced, pretty much convinced the virus was man made. Now another leaked email from Amazon. Four days later, he has changed his view underneath degrees. He is saying, lab leak is a ridiculous conspiracy theory. So you have to ask what made him change his mind? And no, uh, no one really knows. All we do know, again, from emails is that there was a conference call, held the following day, organized by Farah and Fauci were present. And so was Anderson and Edie Holmes, who is a well known English virologist to Australia and various other biologists. Now, it's important to note that that Fauci and Farah between them control a big part of all of our energy research funds available in the Western world. So if you're a research biologist, you're going to be very careful to listen to what they say and what they might want to say. And it seems that we have no proof of this, that at this teleconference understand that homes who had unanimously fan to other people they would do fancy deciding the viruses man made the evening before will tell. Sorry, guys, you've got the wrong answer, please think again. And I'm home two days later, we have this email from Amazon saying this ridiculous thing. This is a conspiracy theory. So was there any new evidence that came to light? It seems there was not. And both Anderson and Farah in his book, make out that this process of deliberation was or Long's until the process, weighing all the facts and analysis, many sleepless nights we spent on this Ferris yet. This does not square with the February 4 email from Anderson that says already, just two days after the conference, he changed his mind 180 degrees. So this is the guy along with Holmes and two others who co author of the Nature Medicine article, they give the reader not the slightest hint that they had began began by thinking this virus was was man made, they do not do that. We do the courtesy of explaining that even though it looks man made and this is what we thought originally nonetheless, for reasons XY and Z when it comes to a conclusion that we'll be playing straight with the reader. They did not play straight.
Nick Jikomes 49:49
The other question that comes up is, you know, when you've got us agencies that are responsible for funding research, why Why is it that the money's ending up at the Wuhan incident for algae in China? Naively One might think that we're only going to be funding the US research. So what exactly are the dots that we can connect there? How does that work?
Nicholas Wade 50:12
Well, I think there's reasonable explanation for that, I mean, Fauci, you you regard himself as responsible for unlikely served from so protecting the US populace at least and others to maybe from from outbreaks of new epidemics. So but for the risk perspective, just matter where the epidemic is concerned, he wants to know about trying to prevent it. So we've already had sort of two epidemics coming out of these bad viruses so it seems to be a natural a reasonable for research proposition for 5g to fund money into sort of trying to study these these bad populations and seeing what what else is in store for us and further is pretty reasonable frame sir. Sponsor collaboration with Xi Zhang Li, who's Mr. leading Chinese a Coronavirus, X federal all that seems perfectly reasonable. It's just that when you get down into the details, and you see that she was doing highly dangerous gain of function experiments in memory safe conditions, and overseer was was Peter das ACK and does not have a degree in virology. And and who knows whether or not he was competent to assess the risks. It's there that you begin to see a rather questionably executed research program. But there's a general framework, which takes place is perfectly reasonable, it seems to me,
Nick Jikomes 51:40
I see. Yeah, no, that makes sense. So if we're interested in preventing outbreaks that can occur anywhere in the world and often start outside the US. We those agencies have the authority to fund research that's not happening in the US because, because we might just want to know about it, where it's gonna start elsewhere. Right. So talk to us more about Dr. Xi. So what's her background? And how did she sort of get into this position and, and what's sort of the general umbrella of research going on at the Wuhan Institute of neurology?
Nicholas Wade 52:10
Well, she, she is a very, very capable of virologist. She trained with the French. And then she worked with Ralph Barrick at the University of North Carolina, who's leading American experts on coronaviruses. And then having learned a lot of techniques from Berek she, she went back to the Wuhan Institute, where she's had her own lab, and she's started working on on these bad viruses. She, she identified the the cave where viruses existed almost certainly with a source of the SARS one virus that was a big achievement. And since then, she's been back many times to the caves to collect viruses. And in particular, she went back to a cave in Mojang, where there was an incident in 2012, where six miners who was digging out backwater, and heavily exposed to bad viruses became very seriously ill and three of them died. And the other three race here, she's sick. So this is a very important incident which she has tried to cover up, but nonetheless was ascertained by about by other means. So she was she was working with these potentially lethal viruses that had killed the mind as though these viruses were not transmitted by the minus to anyone else. So they lacked transmissibility, but they were lethal. And this seems to have been what has occupied she ever since.
Nick Jikomes 53:59
I want to paint a better picture for people to about some of the research that happens here. We've touched on some things before, we've talked about things like humanized mice. So the idea is, you know, people are going around the world, they're going into these bat caves and scooping up, you know, bat viruses and other things. They're bringing all of these things back to the lab, and they want to do various experiments that help teach us about how these how these viruses work, how they might naturally hop from one species to another. And all of this is done in good faith, right? It's all done with the idea of actually preventing a kind of outbreak from happening. But when they get back to the lab, and they're infecting human cells in a dish with viruses, or they're using humanized mice, what exactly does that mean what does a humanized mouse
Nicholas Wade 54:45
what is a mouse some genetically engineered to carry the AC two receptor? The human version of it is our mind. The mice were I'm developed, I believe by Ralph Eric and he gave a gave some to she and that's what she's been working with. So in effect, they're like, they're like little humans, as far as, as far as some of our virus infectivity experiment is concerned.
Nick Jikomes 55:23
I see so we can genetically engineer mice. So that part of their body, some of their cells, basically look or act just like human cells. And I would imagine if you are working with viruses that become adapted to such an animal, they're now sort of pre adapted to infecting humans, and therefore, they can more easily spill over into humans.
Nicholas Wade 55:43
Oh, yes, that's exactly true.
Nick Jikomes 55:46
So at this point, at this point in time today, is it fair to say we don't there's no smoking gun? We don't actually know if this was a wildlife spillover for certain and we don't actually know if it was a lab like for certain, we actually are lacking some of that that key evidence that would tell us with certainty whether it was one or the other?
Nicholas Wade 56:04
Yes, I agree with the way that we've got two hypothesis on the table, but it's very plausible. We've got no direct evidence for either so. So we should keep both in, in mind, but we do have quite a lot of circumstantial evidence in favor of lab leak. And in particular, this job of proposal, establishing the Wuhan researchers were thinking of inserting fearing cleavage sites and to not viruses.
Nick Jikomes 56:31
Yeah, so they were at the very least contemplating that they could make a virus just like this, they could insert that urine cleavage site exactly as we see it in the viral genome at exactly the right place. And this is not right. This was not like a new technique or new proposal, right? This is something that has been done in other circumstances.
Nicholas Wade 56:50
Right, right vowel just name some time that this is a good way to soup up viruses. So there are at least 10 or 11 experiments in the literature, including I believe, one by Dr. Qi and Richard fear and claimants rights have been inserted into viruses.
Nick Jikomes 57:05
So what would what would a smoking gun look like? What What kind of evidence are we looking for? And where might we find it?
Nicholas Wade 57:13
Well, I suppose a real smoking gun would be the vowel backbone into which this spike protein and the fairing cleavage shine were inserted. So let's assume that that sounds to was generated in the lab or one of these experiments you described, where you're trying to sort of trace or predict the possible spirit parts of spillover from bats to humans. So you would take a particular virus as your as your backbone virus, and the way it has, we know that they have at least 100 of these viruses that they have not published, that are that are in their data banks, and they could have used, and then they take a spike protein from some other virus and inserted into this backbone. a smoking gun will be the records of such an experiment, and in particular, the particular virus which they used as their as the backbone, I think, along with lab records. Of course, it's not very likely the Chinese authorities ever going to allow that to happen. So I think, if you're, if we're looking for proof, we're going to at some stage have to be satisfied with something a notch short of proof.
Nick Jikomes 58:35
And what would what would proof of a natural wildlife spillover scenario look like?
Nicholas Wade 58:40
Well, that would be very easy to obtain that in the case of South one, for example, we have all the we have the intermediary host carrying the virus we have over human all human epidemiologist, virus of gathering mutations. So one by one, we have, we can see that the virus made the jump to humans several times and this is something that doesn't necessarily happen just once if it's gonna happen at all, it happened several times. So in both the size one and Merced epidemics, we can see these several jumps been being making being made, whereas it sounds to you know, there was only a single episode but gave rise to the whole epidemic. So there's all kinds of proof that we have financial that can be obtained for that Trojans.
Nick Jikomes 59:37
And I would imagine so when you're looking for like that intermediate host, I think you mentioned before that was SARS, one of MERS It took months less than a year but months to find that intermediate host species. We have not found such a species for SARS to yet that doesn't mean we won't find one but I imagine people have been looking quite hard because there's so many people motivated to find such a population is that accurate?
Nicholas Wade 1:00:00
exactly seven, the Chinese authorities have every incentive to produce the evidence the intermediary species, we can be sure they have been looking on, but they've come up with nothing so far.
Nick Jikomes 1:00:11
So how do we think about how to, there seems like a huge problem that's probably intrinsic to the very structure of a lot of the institutions that we've mentioned, that has to do with responsibility? And who, how we can allocate responsibility for things like this. So you know, whether or not it's a natural origin or a lab, like what groups or institutions should be held responsible, at least in part for this pandemic, in your review?
Nicholas Wade 1:00:39
Well, I think once you probably start with the, with the virology community as a whole, you know, I think they've let us done with respect to the general standards in the scientific community for coping with this kind of thing. And if I didn't, if you remember the Sylmar conference of 1975, that was when the recombinant DNA technique at first been invented. So the scientists who invented that were very open and upfront, they publicly declared this is a new technique it has made, it has potentially a serious consequences, we're going to hold a big meeting to discuss what should be done about it, which which they did the meeting was public, they then set very high safety standards, the idea they could be relaxed in feature for danger proved, less serious than thought. And that's indeed what happened. This was a race, sensible and responsible way of dealing with a new technique. And I think sometimes you can point to other instance, where scientists have done the same thing, I'm always the same thing is that gene drives right now. But the virologists with that gain of function problem, it seems to me, can be much more covert, they have handled it behind doors. The whole regulatory procedure is totally opaque. No one knows who makes the decisions on what experiments can be done and what cannot be done. They've certainly gone a different route. And I think professionals that fail to regulate themselves deserve to get regulated by others. And I think I think we should look at our biology community has handled this and I think we're going to see that there was this split, as you mentioned, the split was not resolved. And things have carried on very uncomfortably, since in a way that has allowed this lab leak if such it was to occur, I think that's the first place we should look for responsibility. Another place is as an upscale committee of the CDC, as I understand it, that assigns each pathogen to its appropriate safety level. So it's on the basis of that committee that, that you SARS, one must be handled in safe level three, but any size related virus only in level two, it seems to me that that committee should have someone overseeing it and saying, Look, guys, any virus related to SARS should be handled in level four, no massive inconvenience caused your members.
Nick Jikomes 1:03:19
I see. So So you stated that, you know, when, if the scientists themselves are, are going to be granted the right to come up with the way that they themselves are going to handle research, that how the rules, the rules and the procedures and the precautionary measures they come up with, should it be done transparently in a way that's publicly visible. And that has been done in the past in other fields, but it has not been done more recently with Ghana function research by the virology community.
Nicholas Wade 1:03:46
Yeah, that's my opinion, and maybe misinformed, but just from following this issue seems to biologists have not handled this, this issue with the transparency that you that you rightly says is necessary to keep the public's trust.
Nick Jikomes 1:04:01
Yeah, another thing that occurs to me that that applies here, but it's not specific to virology is just just the general the the way that one goes about getting and justifying getting a grant to do scientific research, you know, generally speaking, when you're writing a grant, it's a very labor intensive process. In fact, most lab had spent a majority of their time writing grants and doing things related to raising that money, because that's what keeps all of the research going. And it's actually also how universities generate a lot of revenue, because so much of that money just goes right to the university. But the way that you basically get a grant, the way that you write a good grant, is you have to make it very clear that your research is very important. And the way that you typically justify that your research is very important, is that you're either going to prevent something very bad from happening, or that you're working with something very deadly. That could lead to something very bad if the grant doesn't get funded. And you know, it's been sort of easy to see, as you've unpacked the story for us how the virology community itself is almost incentivized to try and you know, come as close as they can to creating the very bugs that we're now dealing with in this pandemic, it seems to me that the incentives are aligned in that way. And that if the structure of that system doesn't change at all, this is sort of bound to happen.
Nicholas Wade 1:05:21
Well, that's a very subtle point that you've identified. And indeed, it's the is the contention of many of the critics of this research that this, this is the main reason why it's done. It's not to save the world from epidemics. It's because it's a wonderful excuse for raising money and doing dangerous experiments, which can be assured of publication in Science or Nature.
Nick Jikomes 1:05:42
Interesting, one of the last things I'll simply ask you about is, you know, what can be done on the US side by the authorities here? If we really wanted to get to the bottom of this, there was a quote I picked out from one of your articles and medium and it said, if Congress were at all interested in the origins of the virus, why would it not subpoena Dr. Das sec to turn over all of his records and explain under oath, everything he knows about the research he funded at the Wuhan Institute of neurology, so that is presumably something that could easily easily be done. Do you think it's likely that that that will happen?
Nicholas Wade 1:06:16
I think it's quite possible that it will happen. And the reason that it's been prevented from rise that is that this is bizarrely become such a partisan issue. I mean, for you and me. It's just a scientific issue. And an All we want is the scientific facts to come out. But because the whole origin question became polarized, is starting with Trump's statement. So if Trump said it came from the will have lab therefore it couldn't have done this was his own schoolboy logic that seems to prevail in in our major museums and in Congress. Therefore, there's has been a sort of political split on this issue. So it's because the way the cookie is crumbled, the left is against lab leak, and the writers for it, I mean, it couldn't have been the other way around. But that's waves come out totally arbitrary. So a present but the left in Congress is blocking the rights attempt to find out what that second NIH knows. But in fact, in in Deus Ex records, and after he was the principal investigator, he must have had copious information and progress report streaming back to him from the Wuhan Institute of virology. He has, he has the the topper proposal, goodness knows what else earnings records, and since it's all public money, presumably, it's it's subject to congressional subpoenas. So it just beats that back out of me why Congress is not interested enough to do that. And similarly, the NIH must have lots of information and hasn't shared with us. And so NIH and he could have been allowed to sit tight and, and stone more responsible inquiry into the origins of the virus like I can't think this will be allowed to continue for much longer. I hope he does.
Nick Jikomes 1:08:20
Well, what would you say? You know, some people have articulated the view that it doesn't really matter how this pandemic got started. The fact is, it's here. And we have to deal with it. What does it matter one way or the other? If it was a wildlife spillover or a lab leak? What would be your response to that?
Nicholas Wade 1:08:37
I think obviously matters a great deal, because our response depends on the on on the origin. And if it originated through lab leak is one large set of things you have to do and emerge naturally them as a totally different set of remedies.
Nick Jikomes 1:08:57
So what are you going to be looking for in the coming weeks and months? Is that that's related to resolving this issue? Is there anything on the horizon in terms of, you know, documents that we might gain access to? Or other things? Or is it possible that no new information will come out? And this will never be fully resolved? How are you thinking about the way this plays out?
Nicholas Wade 1:09:20
Well, I started off with that were the pessimistic assumption refer to them. There's only so much we'll get we'll never get any more information. But so each month it seems there's some new revelation, I mean, enormously good work has been done by these little press supported organizations that put in freedom of information, requests and after so long battles, so extract the information from the government so we know at least three lots of emails extracted in this way all over she provides important information that the the data proposal from data which was Late last week, that went to another enormously important group, his little collective of, of scientists, who call themselves drastic and may have have done amazing work at traveling the internet delving into the Chinese obscure Chinese master's theses to see what experiments were done when and by by whom they've been enormously fruitful source of information, and put our intelligence communities to shame, it seems to me, who haven't been able to make up their mind, whether it's what what on earth happened at the beginning of the epidemic. So since since birth, both these sources have been very fruitful, I continue to hope that more information will continue to come out.
Nick Jikomes 1:10:56
Well, Nicholas, Wade, thank you for your time, I want to make sure that we get you out of here in short order, any final thoughts you want to leave people with about everything that we've discussed? Anything that you want to say about the stuff that you've written about this or any new work that you might have coming up?
Nicholas Wade 1:11:13
I think my principal observation is, is how strange it has been, that our institutions, our nation's tissues have failed us in exploring the origins of this virus, and after what could be a more important story than how this virus came about. And yet, our media has been asleep at the switch. They didn't. They hardly mentioned lab leak until about a year and a half after the epidemic broke up. I think our intelligence agencies, as far as I can see, I've been similarly neglectful. I've been similarly sort of persuaded by the propaganda campaign, presumably Chinese in origin, that we don't know that that library was a ridiculous conspiracy theory. I think the scientific community has failed us by failing to come forward for the reasons we discussed, their allergy community in particular, has failed to blow the whistle on the false information, but they've allowed Anson and others to give the public so in one place after another people have, have not behaved as they should have done that. Our society sort of depends on the health of its institutions on each institution performing its assigned function. If they don't do that, then as the fabric of society just sort of tacit. I don't know what it is. I didn't really understand why this has happened. But I just hope it doesn't happen again.
Nick Jikomes 1:12:48
Because Wait, thank you for your time.
Unknown Speaker 1:12:50