Matt Ridley: The Origins of the SARS-CoV-2 Virus | #80
Updated: Jul 20, 2022
Full episode transcript below. Beware of typos!
Matt Ridley, thank you for joining me.
Matt Ridley 4:45
Nick. It's great to be on your show. Thank you for having me.
Nick Jikomes 4:48
Can you start off by just telling everyone a little bit about who you are and what your background is as a science writer?
Matt Ridley 4:54
Yeah, I'm a science writer. I've written about science nonfiction books. but also newspaper reporting and newspaper columns for 40 years or so. And that's been most of what I've done in my life. And I've done various other things, including spending nine years till recently sitting in the UK House of Lords as a politician. But that's finished now. So that that's what I do as I write about science. I think science is humankind's greatest endeavor. But none, it's the most, you know, why would you not want to a ringside seat at the discovery of new facts about the universe?
Nick Jikomes 5:33
And so your latest book, which you co wrote with someone else's called viral, can you tell everyone when that book came out what it's about in very general terms, and why you actually decided to write about this topic?
Matt Ridley 5:48
Yeah, this is the 10th book I've written. But it's co written with Alina Chan, from Harvard and MIT from the Broad Institute, who's a molecular biologist. And it's the first time I've co written a book, we wrote a book together without meeting we didn't meet till the book was published, which is the result of the pandemic obviously. And it it, the genesis was at the end of 2020, both of us had been investigating the origin of this virus, we'd become more and more intrigued by the various pieces of information that had emerged. And we were both thinking that the possibility it came out of a laboratory could not be ruled out, and might be quite a strong possibility. But that the evidence was so circumstantial, so multifarious, so many leads in different directions that it really needed book length treatment to sort it all out. And I suggested to Alena that we joined forces because her knowledge of the field of viral vector engineering where she works in viruses generally and bioinformatics is second to none. I've written about genomics in two or three books, but I'm not pretending I'm an expert, certainly not up to date. But I do have some expertise in how to translate difficult technical subjects into readable prose. So we put our heads together, wrote this book expecting to be overtaken by events, we expected that by the time the book came out, the true story of the origin of the SARS cov. Two virus and the COVID pandemic would become known, it was known pretty quickly in the case of SARS and other viruses. But that wasn't the case. We still don't know what happened. I think we're a bit closer to the truth. But we think our book is a good read anyway, because it's a bit of a scientific detective story.
Nick Jikomes 7:41
Ya know, I read it, and I agree with that. It's, you know, there's there's the subject it's about, which is our scope to and where it came from. But there's also sort of another lens you can read it with, which is, maybe we'll talk about this later, the politicization of science and how evidence actually comes to the fore, and how people choose to use it for reasons that are beyond the science itself. One of the things I want to talk about early on, though, is we've basically got two plausible hypotheses for how a virus like this emerges, and both have happened many times in the past for other viruses. One is the so called wildlife spillover hypothesis. The other is the so called lab li hypothesis. Can you steal man the case that some people make for each hypothesis based on all the current evidence that we have to date?
Matt Ridley 8:33
Yes, I can. But before I do that, just very quickly to rule out the other. The other possibilities, I think, is quite useful, because it's also possible that this is a deliberate release of a bio weapon by a malicious regime. We think we can rule that out pretty. Pretty, pretty conclusively, there is no evidence for that. It's it doesn't stack up, it doesn't make sense in all sorts of ways. Equally, the other end of the spectrum, the Chinese government has been trying to persuade us that this virus might have been imported into China from elsewhere in the world on frozen food, which is why it turned up in a market. We think that that is highly unlikely it would have shown up in the other country would have shown up somewhere along the way it would have shown up in other cities, it will be very unlikely to be highly infectious, after transporting for long distance and so on. So we think it's worth just ruling out other possibilities just to sort of remind ourselves while we get down to two, because it isn't necessary, you know, to needn't be the right answer. There might be more. But as you say, the wildlife spillover hypothesis is a distinct possibility. So is the laboratory leak hypothesis. The wildlife spillover hypothesis is the main explanation for what happened in the past. As of SARS, in 2003. And in the case of a virus called NEPA in Malaysia in around the same time, and in that case, it was very clear fruit bats were eating mangoes that were dropping the mangoes into the cages full of pigs, the pigs picked up a very nasty respiratory virus that clearly came from the bats and so on. In the case of SARS, it was found that the people who were getting infected early on were food handlers, people selling wildlife, in markets and so on. And it was found that some of the wildlife that was selling was infected in particular suddenly blank on certain segments or segments on palm civets is the word I was looking for. So so the first reason for thinking that this is what happened in this case, too, is that there was a significant link to a food market. In the early cases, a lot of the early cases had associations with the food market, they'd either been shopping there, or they'd been working there. And this looks like a cluster of cases. Now, the fact that this wasn't a, you know, a cinema or a church or some other kind of or train station, or some other kind of place where people gather in dense concentrations, but a food market does sort of lead one to suspect that we are seeing a repeat of SARS, what happened in SARS, in 2003. And, you know, that remains a distinct possibility. One of the Steele Manning arguments to support that is that it then emerged very late on I mean, well into 2021, that there had been illegal wildlife sales in that market, which had been denied at first. And that although the Chinese authorities have tested all the animals, they found in the market that none of them had proved positive, nonetheless, that we know that they didn't test any of these illegal wildlife that was for sale wasn't an awful lot of it, not as much as you'd find in southern China in Guangdong, where there is a big culture of eating wildlife. But so, you know, it's possible they missed the infected animal, it's the might be a connection here, etc, etc. Also, there has been a growth in the farmed wildlife trade in China in recent years. Which is to say, people have been encouraged to, to, to rear some of these wildlife species that people like to eat and or to take the skins off for further and so on.
And, you know, this includes things like bamboo rats, and raccoon dogs, which are known to be potentially susceptible to this virus. So so the theory that although it's obviously a bat virus, originally, we know that for sure all these SARS, like viruses are originally about viruses, that's their natural habitat. The theory that a an intermediate animal of some other species got infected, and that infected a person in the market is, is quite a strong. However, we also need to look at some of the anomalies there. And one of them is that the reason there's an association with the market is partly because in the early week or two of the pandemic and the first couple of weeks in January, somebody presenting with pneumonia in a hospital in Wuhan would have been asked have you been to the Anansi food market? If not, we can rule out this new virus. If so we can really did. So there was a circular argument going on here. There was there was what's called ascertainment bias. And you know, they were looking for people with associations with the market to try and trace the early cases of this virus. Besides which, you know, we come back to the fact that they did not find an infected animal in the market. And they did in the case of SARS very easily find lots of infected animals. And that's a pretty big anomaly. So we need to consider the other possibility, which is that which is roughly what happened with SARS, in 2004, in Beijing, and also in Taiwan and Singapore around the same time, and that is the laboratory workers got infected with SARS. They were working on it. They didn't know how they got infected, but they caused a minor epidemic that killed several people in the case of the Beijing outbreak. And this is not unusual. These are highly infectious viruses. People who work in labs on them can catch them can give them to other people. In our case in the 2004 case, there was no SARS In the community animals, so it was pretty obvious how the scientists got infected. They were people working on SARS virus in the lab. So if someone in Wuhan had been working on this virus, SARS cov, two in a laboratory at say biosafety level two, then they would have got infected, it's a very infectious virus, it will be almost impossible not to get infected. So question whether such experiments going on. And this is where things get rather intriguing. Because of all the cities in the world, the one with the biggest program of research on SARS, like bad viruses in bats, is Wuhan. And that's because it has the Wuhan Institute of virology, which has a group that specializes in this, which was the virus with the laboratory that identified the source of SARS, and which specialized in particular in going on long expeditions to southern China, up to 2000 miles away by road to collect viruses from bats in caves and mine shafts, and which in particular, in 2012 to 15 had made seven expeditions to one particular site, where three people had died after contracting what was thought to be a SARS like virus from a bat. And on that in that site, which was a disused copper mine, they had collected a number of signs like viruses, one of which turned out in January 2020, to be the closest relative to SARS, cov, two that was ever known. And they had sequenced the genome of that virus in 2018. Not immediately after they got back in 2030. So a lot of circumstantial evidence, they're suggesting that it could also be a case that the first person to get infected was a laboratory worker, not a market worker. I just like to add one thing, which is that the Chinese authorities don't want either of these explanations to be true. Shooting ping us champion, traditional Chinese medicine, which is one of the reasons these wildlife species are sold in markets, the some connection between his family and the people who own their wine and seafood market, and so on. So it's fairly obvious that the Chinese authorities did not really want to find the market guilty. But they certainly didn't want to find the laboratory guilty. And that explains what has been an extremely untransparent approach to this from the Chinese authorities.
Nick Jikomes 17:40
So you've got these two plausible hypotheses for the origins of the virus. There's the wildlife spillover event, which is what happened to give us the first SARS one outbreak back in 2003. And then you've got the lab leak hypothesis, which is simply that the virus accidentally infected a laboratory worker in the process of doing research on just this kind of virus, which we know is happening, and it's still happening in Wuhan. One question I have, or can you confirm for me? I asked Alina chan when I had her on? Well, for something like SARS one, or in general, when you have an outbreak and scientists isolate the virus, isolate the virus and identify how long does it normally take them to identify the intermediate host species in the cases where it is a wildlife spillover event. And as I recall, she told me that for SARS, one the identification of civets as the intermediate species, and the confirmation that it was a spillover took something like two or three months from the identification of the virus itself. And you know, she basically told me that that's a customary timeline. And in fact, you might even expect it to happen faster nowadays, just because sequencing technology is faster and better. And so it does strike me as a glaring observation that so much time has elapsed over two years now. And we still have not identified such an intermediate host species.
Matt Ridley 18:57
Well, that's right. That's exactly right. Because our technology is now way superior to what they had in 2003. It took several months to sequence the genome of the first SARS virus, but sorry, several weeks, I think it was, but you know, it took 48 hours to do it. In this case, we can set up DNA sequencing and DNA sampling techniques way quicker than we did 20 years ago. And that means that finding an infected animal, any infected animal, one infected animal should have been very easy. And we haven't found Well, now it should just at this point mentioned the pangolins because you probably remember that in February 2020. The story went out that actually they had found the intermediate host it was a pangolin which was carrying a virus. Now that's very interesting, because it was an announcement from not from Wuhan, but from Guangdong, from southern China. And they said they'd found a pangolin with a 99 percent similar virus. Now that's roughly how similar the viruses in SARS and in the intermediate hosts for SARS was. So that that would be the smoking gun if that was true. But that was just a press conference, when the paper came out, it turned out to be 90%, which is way too low. I mean, they already had a 96% relative sitting in the freezer of the Wuhan Institute of virology from that cave that I mentioned. So the Pangolin virus, in that sense, turned out to be a red herring. But there was something very interesting about it, which was that I think all the RBD, the receptor binding domain of the spike protein was very similar in the Pangolin virus to the SARS cov two virus and that's a crucial bit of the viruses, machinery, very similar, but not quite similar enough, it didn't have a thing called a fairing cleavage site, we can come back to that in a minute if you want. But so what was and by the way, those pangolins had been intercepted by Chinese customs. Most of them had died. And only two of them were actually tested positive for this virus. But it appears one of them had this rather similar virus, not not very similar, but with a very similar, crucial section. What's going on here? Well, very recently, just in the last three days of papers come out from some of the people who've been looking into this suggesting that what what we might be looking at here is contamination of sequencing machines. We know that this can happen that if you if you if you use a sequencing machine, and it hasn't been properly decontaminated, it may have a few samples from whatever people were doing with that machine before. Interestingly, there was a weird case just a few months ago where samples of size Goby to turned up in Antarctic soil from 2019. Well, what was the doing that? Well, it turned out that it wasn't doing anything there. It was just that the sequencer was contaminated sequencer have been used for SARS cov. Two, but it's also been used for Antarctic soil. So it's just possible that the Pangolin the Pangolin has never had this virus in them. We know they most of them were dying of a thing called Sendai virus, it's very different virus. But if they never had the virus in them, the machine was contaminated with it. in Guangdong in southern China, with a very similar virus to to SARS, cov, to now, that lab that was doing that work, the Guangdong Institute of Applied Biological Research has worked on bats as well. So it's you know, I mean, I hate speculating at this point. Alena and I are very strong, unbelieving that we shouldn't speculate as to what might have happened. What we what we talk about is, is what we think we can evidence could have happened. And we can't evidence that anything funny happened with the with a contaminated sequencing machine. But do you see what I mean, it's the kind of conundrum we're left with, and which it would be lovely to spend an afternoon at the Guangdong Institute of biological research and awareness of the virology, cross questioning the scientists in detail. And if this had happened in the West, this is what we'd be doing. But it's not an option in China.
Nick Jikomes 23:38
So you mentioned previously that Xi Jinping in China generally, they have an interest in not wanting the virus to have originated in China, whether by a wildlife spillover event for the reasons you mentioned, or by leaking out of somewhere like Wuhan Institute of Technology. Now, on the US side, in terms of the US the relevant us entities involved in this type of research in this world of virology. What are their interests in terms of the stories they do or do not want to see become true?
Matt Ridley 24:09
Yeah, well, I mean, I tried to make sure that the focus remains on China, because there's almost no doubt that there's related in China and Wuhan. And so that's where we should be looking. But you're quite right, that there are groups in the United States that were working on similar things that are developed some of the techniques that were being used in the Wuhan Institute of virology, and that we're collaborating with the Wuhan Institute of virology. And a key organization in this is something called the ICA Health Alliance, which is a New York based nonprofit organization, which started out as a rather small wildlife charity back 15 years ago, and it then spotted an opportunity in the wake of the SARS epidemic. We was a new interest in sampling wildlife all around the world for the viruses they were carrying in order to predict a net prevent the next pandemic. And the eHealth Alliance under the leadership of Peter Desertec does manage to win a lot of very large grants for this work by promising to collaborate with laboratories in countries where these bats and other species lived. And in particular, they developed a very close working relationship with the Wuhan Institute of virology. But they also developed a close working relationship with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where there was a group that under beat and Ralph Beric, which was studying Coronavirus is generally, and had developed many of the most sophisticated techniques for sequencing and manipulating coronaviruses. And the ego of Alliance color. Get put money into the Wuhan Institute of virology money that came from the US government originally, to support their research, but also helped with technology transfer techniques from North Carolina to Wuhan, essentially. willingly and legally. I mean, I'm not saying there was anything underhand here. And one of the things that has been rather difficult for us researching this is that we've had very little cooperation from the ICA Health Alliance. Indeed, you know, we've sent them a huge list of questions. When we'd finished the book, we sent them detailed accusations, not accusations, what's the word? descriptions of what we were going to say in the book about them and said, you know, please comment on this. And we never even got the courtesy of a reply, which is very odd, really. Yeah. But what we do know is that Peter does act, the leader of the cult Alliance was orchestrating a letter to the lancet as early as February, the medical journal, The Lancet, by a number of scientists to rule out categorically the idea that this virus might have originated at the Wuhan Institute of virology or any other lab. And doing so when really, we had no evidence either way on that subject. And also asking that his own role in orchestrating that letter, not be made public. And also saying in that, in that letter, that he had no conflict of interest, even though he was a close friend and collaborator of the Wuhan Institute of virology, and indeed a funder of a lot of their work. So there are there is there is a significant stream of money that has found its way from various US government agencies in Cuba cluding, US AI D, the aid program, but also including the National Institutes of Health, to the Wuhan Institute of virology, to support the work they were doing there, which included some pretty spectacular manipulations of virus genomes, bat Coronavirus genomes, which resulted in significant increases in the infectivity of the viruses in question up to 10,000 times in one case. And so yes, there is a trail from the US to China. And it's a pity that rather than say, Look, we might have made a mistake here in funding this work. Let's have a proper drains up inquiry and look at what we did. The National Institutes of Health and others have just kept saying, Look, this couldn't have been the reason that it didn't happen that way. We don't want to talk about it. And that's really not good enough when 20 million people have died.
Nick Jikomes 28:59
So what key evidence do we lack that would tell us definitively whether this was a wildlife spillover event, or a lab leak event? And is it surprising that to over two years later, we still lack that evidence?
Matt Ridley 29:13
It's very surprising what we lack. The two things that I would like for my birthday best, if you like, our first a definitive intermediate host species that was infected, you know, a civet cat or a raccoon dog from that market that was carrying a 99% similar virus before the outbreak. I mean, if we could find that case closed, we can pack up and go home. That's the answer. The other thing that we could find that would be helpful is the contents of a database that existed at the Wuhan Institute of virology. It's a date Based on bat and rodent pathogens, mainly viruses that they had collected over the years, it's mostly about bats, mostly from bats. It's mostly viruses. And it had 22,000 entries in it. This is samples sequences, with details of where they were collected, under what conditions in which species and so on. And also, what's been done to them, you know, whether they've been sequenced, whether they've been manipulated, whether they've been isolated, that is grown in human cells, and things like that. So that database would be very useful. Because if it doesn't contain a close relative of SARS, cov, two, then case closed, again, the lab does appear to be innocent if that's the case. And so you'd think that they'd be very keen to show us that database. Now we know that the database went offline became unavailable to access to outsiders, on the 12th of September 2019, at two o'clock in the morning, that was the work of someone called Charles small, who found that out. And that's an odd date, it's just a couple of months before the pandemic begins. But it's September slightly too early for it to be, you know, oh, my God, we've had an accident, people are starting to get infected and dying, if that was happening, you know, the pandemic would have started in September, October, not December, January. So it may be completely irrelevant when they took it offline. But what is not irrelevant, is the fact that they won't share it with us now, you know, they were gathering all this data on all these viruses, specifically to predict and prevent the next pandemic. I mean, that was the purpose of all this work. It wasn't, you know, to start a biological warfare program or something it was to predict and prevent the next pandemic, a pandemic comes along, and you don't share the information you've collected about these viruses. It's, it's most extraordinary when you think about it. Yeah. And I tried to ask, but, yeah, yeah. So I mean, you know, in the spirit of not speculating, you know, there's certain things that one might not want to say here. But if the purpose was indeed to prevent the next pandemic, then the fact that they're not sharing the contents of this database naturally makes one wonder, Well, were there other purposes? Yes, although, I think one can't underestimate the degree to which, particularly in China, scientific priority was a huge incentive. In other words, they were very reluctant to share information before they had got a paper published in a high impact journal. You know, they're very ambitious scientists here, the publishing before someone else's, always the most prestigious thing to do. And so with every virus that they collected, and then did clever things to, they were very keen to publish a paper eventually saying, look, here's what we've done, we've inserted the spike gene from one virus into the backbone of another virus, come up with a chimera virus that is more infectious and more deadly to humanized mice. That's a really neat experiment. And it enables us to give you an idea of just how dangerous that virus that we can't grow in the lab, but we can sequence it spike gene is if you see what I mean. So, you know, not wanting to share information that other labs could then use to synthesize their own versions of the virus and do their own experiments and steal a march on the Wuhan Institute of virology was probably the original motive. The motive now is that if we share this database, it'll only encourage people like Ridley and Chan to accuse us of having started the pandemic. I guess that's what they're thinking.
But as I say, you know, I mean, why wouldn't you open up your books, in a case like this? It just seems pretty extraordinary.
Nick Jikomes 34:25
So just to reiterate, for people who don't aren't familiar with the book, it's called viral came out last year. And it's really a, it's a descriptive book, you guys aren't trying to make the case for something or against something. I think you go to great pains in the book to make that clear. It's really just a detailed timeline of what we knew when we knew it. And it just sort of documents all of those facts. And you say very clearly in the book that we don't know if this is wildlife spillover. We don't know if it was a lab leak. There's we don't have definitive evidence one way or the other. And he's just sort of like lay it all out. What did we know? And when did We know it. Now you've just re released it. And I believe it contains new information. So can you go into what that new information is? In other words, what has come to light in the past few months? That's relevant to this that we didn't know last year.
Matt Ridley 35:14
Yeah, the book came out in November 21. And cutoff date was was sort of late September 21, what mid September 21. And so a few things happened in late 2021 and early 2022 that are relevant here. And we've particularly focused in on three of them. The first is the emergence of a very similar virus in the country of Laos, the neighboring country, south of China, French and lotion, scientists isolated the virus from a bat that was caught in Laos in 2020. And that had a very slightly more similar virus in it, than the one taken from the copper mine in southern China. 96.8% instead of 96.2%, roughly speaking. And to some people, that's what Hey, okay, so it's not one of the ones that was collected in China and taken to the wilderness to virology. But as we point out in our update, we have documentary evidence that the Eco Health Alliance was collecting viruses in Laos, and was sending them to Wuhan for analysis. Doesn't mean they said this one. And as I say, we don't know what once they did send we don't know what viruses the Wuhan Institute of virology received after 2016. But it does suggest that this virus came from somewhere between Northern Laos and southern Europe. That seems to be the area where we're zeroing in on. And the big question how it got 1000 miles northeast, from there to to Wuhan remains unanswered. And the LAOs discovery doesn't really change anything either way yet, but it might enable us to look harder in that neighboring country and find out more. The second thing we we looked at was a evidence that emerged about a meeting that took place on the first weekend of February 2020, organized by Anthony Fauci in the United States, Jeremy Ferrer in the UK and about 10 Other virologists on a weekend. And it was a call to discuss this new virus, which had just been sequenced, and the sequence have just been announced by the Wuhan has to virology. And the interesting thing is that we finally got a look at the emails that were exchanged by the participants in this meeting, thanks to a congressional committee earlier this year, and what they show is that the most some of the members of that call some of the people on that call, went into that meeting pretty strongly convinced that this thing had come out of a laboratory because of a particular feature in its genome called a fearing cleavage site, which had been inserted into other viruses in labs in recent years to make them more infectious in the lab. And which we know the Wuhan Institute of virology was interested in inserting into a size like Coronavirus. And that feature has not been found in any wild size like virus at all. So the fact that that that meeting took place, and that these virologists thought that, but then said within days, it couldn't have happened that way, does deepen the suspicions, that the reason they changed their minds might have been political rather than scientific, you know, that they just didn't want to face the possibility of it having come out of a laboratory, which is sort of understandable in a way, but I think it's very dangerous for science because you know, it's perfectly possible, I think, to say, and this would be my view, we made a mistake here. It looks like there was a an accident in the lab. This is terrible. But it needn't mean we stopped doing science, it just means we stopped doing certain dangerous experiments that we shouldn't have been doing anyway, the rest of science is safe. Biotechnology is a great thing and so on. So that's an important part of the argument as it were.
Nick Jikomes 39:49
What what is the case of SARS cov. Two and its origins taught us about the relationship between institutional science and political institutions in The modern age.
Matt Ridley 40:03
Well, I take the view that science as a philosophy is a fantastic thing. And it's humankind's greatest achievement bond none. The ability to discover reliable new facts about the world we live in, you know, I'm incredibly lucky to live at a time when we have become the only species on the planet to read its own recipe, you know, read our genome, I was alive, and that's amazing. etc. But I am increasingly troubled about the behavior of sciences and institutions. Because it seems to me that organized academic science as an institution is behaving more and more like a church. It's saying, Look, here are dogmatic things that you must agree on. We are we have a consensus on this, the consensus is that it didn't come out of a lab. And if you depart from that consensus, you are a heretic and to be excommunicated, I'm exaggerating, but not much. And that feels to me like a terrible dead end for science, because we know that all great discoveries start with Mavericks. Now, that doesn't mean that all Mavericks are great scientists, quite the reverse. Most are indeed nutters, but, you know, you've got to be allowed to disagree within science, and to have professors on Twitter, saying things to me, like, your book is full of lies, and I haven't read it just reminds me too much of priests, and I'm sorry, it shouldn't be that way.
Nick Jikomes 41:49
Interesting. Yeah. And no, it's been very interesting to follow, follow the story and, and just sort of watch who's saying what and what their self interest in in the outcome is? And seeing, you know, people that you would expect to behave one way, behave in a very different way. And, and to put it mildly, that's that's been troubling for many people. I think.
Matt Ridley 42:11
It has actually, and I mean, it, you know, I have a scientist friend who says, look, it's always been this way, stop getting worked up about it. You know, it happened to Darwin, it happened to Newton, it happened to Einstein. You know, the conventional wisdom, fought against a new idea, or an on, you know, an unfashionable and unpopular idea. You Yes, but I think it's worse now, I think, I think the sort of the scale of the operation. And in the United States, in particular, when you think about it, everything in biomedical science in infectious diseases, not everything, but a huge amount flows through one Institute, the National Institute of allergies and infectious diseases. And if the one person in charge of that institute makes very clear what his view is, then you've got to be very careful. If you want your grants to continue to toe the line. Now that person in that case is Anthony Fauci. He's been in that job something like 25 years, that doesn't feel entirely healthy to me, however good he is. And he is a very talented man. And I'm not here to say he's not. But I'm not I'm not American. So I shouldn't be criticizing details of American political organizations. But it feels to me like that there is a degree of control of what gets said, that comes with money in organized science these days. And it's a pity.
Nick Jikomes 44:01
Yeah, and I mean, I think it's important to distinguish between, you know, science in the sort of pure or philosophical sense, from the mechanics of the nuts and bolts of the scientific institutions, which, as you pointed out today are sort of bigger and more centralized than ever. And I think anyone who's sort of been in side, the Belly of the Beast knows that you in order to get in order to get people to converge on certain stories being true, and certain viewpoints being preferred over others. You don't need to have a nefarious man behind the curtain telling people what to do. All you need is to have a centralization of funding sources. And if it's simply known that certain things are believed or disbelieved by the people in control of that funding, you will naturally and organically get people writing grants to do the experiments that will tend to conform with those He is believed by the people that are going to fund that research.
Matt Ridley 45:04
Correct. And I'm not here to say that either in the UK or in the US, somebody picks up the phone and says, look, you've got to believe X, or we're going to cut your grant off. You don't have to be that explicit it can be, it can be very, very much more automatic and insidious than that. But it, you know, it nonetheless, does feel like there's a lot of groupthink. There's a lot of motivated reasoning. Remember, in early 2020, when this pandemic began, and the idea that the virus came out of a laboratory was dismissed in all the media as a conspiracy theory. Remember that that was a time when everybody was terribly worked up about Donald Trump and whether or not he would win reelection. And the the idea that political consider it, you know, had had a scientist stood up and said in early 2020, I think publicly, I think this came out of laboratory, it would have given succor to Donald Trump, who was trying to blame the Chinese government for it at the time. That's not a position most scientists wanted to find themselves in. So they don't, you know, and they don't have to think, Oh, my God, I better not believe this, because it'll hurt because it'll help Donald Trump. But, you know, we're all capable of motivated reasoning. We're all capable of, you know, going, sort of looking for evidence to support a hypothesis and not looking for evidence that contradicts it. And what keeps us honest, in science, what has always worked for science, is that you don't challenge your own hypothesis, you try and support it. But other people, do. You know that Professor X says Professor y is talking through his hat, and they have a route. That's normal. That's, that's healthy. That's that's what enables us to get at the truth, in my view,
Nick Jikomes 47:12
how confident are you that we'll ever get a definitive answer to how this virus originated and how the pandemic started?
Matt Ridley 47:22
I'm fairly confident, and so is Alina, that we will eventually find out. My reasoning is that there comes a moment when Chinese scientists can travel to the west again, can go to conferences abroad. That moment is not yet here because of continuing lockdowns in China. And at that point, I think it's fairly likely that we will find out more about what's been going on in that laboratory. And it might prove to be illuminating. We might even get a whistleblower come forward. Likewise, if it's a wildlife spillover event, again, people might be able to travel abroad who say look, I know what happened. This is, you know, this is where it happened, this is how it happened and so on. So I think it'll be very difficult for the Chinese regime to prevent somebody telling us rather more at some point. There's also a very interesting case of a an outbreak of that killed 65 people in the city of Swed lofts in the Soviet Union in 1979. And the American intelligence agencies said, this is anthrax. You've got a biological warfare plant in that city. We reckon you had a leak, you kill people. Rational said Debbie ridiculous things of the sort is true. It was food poisoning that killed them. The American Settler Can we send an international team to to check out the veracity of your story? Russian said Yeah, sure. And along came this team led by Matt Mendelsohn, a Nobel Prize winner. And they basically went back and said, you know, the Russians are right, don't think this was anthrax. Then the Soviet Union collapsed. And about six years after the event, a scientist came to the west and said, Actually, we were pulling the wool over that group size. We did have a anthrax laboratory in Sverdlovsk. We left the filter off an exhaust pipe, and we didn't tell the next shift. We sent a plume of anthrax over the city, we killed 65 people. And that is now what everybody agrees did happen. So it took a long time and it took a change of regime after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, I hope we don't have to wait for for the fall of the shooting pin regime. But I think at some point we will know more
Nick Jikomes 49:59
and First thing, and what are the practical consequences to answering the question of whether this was a lab leak or wildlife spillover event? Does does it actually matter? What would knowing the answer one way or the other, tell us how to conduct ourselves in some consequential way?
Matt Ridley 50:16
I believe it matters very much, mainly because it tells us how to prevent the next pandemic. I mean, you could argue that we should take drastic action against both laboratory research and the wildlife trade to be absolutely sure. But it would certainly help if we knew the kinds of experiments in the lab or the kinds of species in the markets that brought this pandemic upon us. The lessons are very, very different. You know, if, if it came from experiments in labs, on dangerous viruses that involve deliberately scooping them up a bit, and deliberately collecting them in the wild and bringing them back to lads in the middle of cities, then we know what not to do. And then we've reduced the risk to humanity for decades as a result. If on the other hand, we know it came through the wildlife markets and, and we can work out how then we can reduce that risk. So it really is important to find out the details about what happened. It's also important for two other reasons, in my view. One is that bad actors are watching this, the North Korean regime, the ISIS organization, are probably saying to themselves, whoa, we can do a lot of damage to the world economy with a highly infectious virus, it doesn't even have to be very lethal. Let's step up work on this because the best thing about it is that for two years afterwards, no one's even gonna look, no one's even going to blame us. We, you know, the World Health Organization is going to come along and have a little Potemkin investigation and say, Well, we're afraid we don't know how it happened. And everyone's going to shrug and we don't even get the blame. So that's another reason. And the third reason is because millions of people have died. If millions of people had been killed in a nuclear accident, nuclear bomb had gone off over New York City. We wouldn't say, well, we may never know how this happened. We may never know whose fault it is. It's better not to find out because that might upset international relations. I'm sorry, that would be ridiculous.
Nick Jikomes 52:31
Well, man, it's been a lot of fun watching you and Lina and many others play the role of detective in this saga. It's obviously a very timely subject. And of course, your book is still quite fresh. I also wonder if maybe you have a little bit of fatigue talking about this particular subject, I know that you have all over the place many, many times. Are there any other projects you're working on right now? Or any other areas of science that really pique your interest that might be the subject of an upcoming book or a future book?
Matt Ridley 53:00
No, unfortunately, not. I have been so consumed by this topic for the last two years, that I've put everything else on hold. I mean, that's not entirely true. I mean, I'm obviously following other scientific stories that interests me, but I've not not begun to prepare the ground for another book. I produced a book on innovation, how innovation works in 2020. And then, you know, we did the other book within a year after that. So two books in two years. is not enough. Do I have to be working on another one? Yeah, I'm joking. I'd love to get back to another book. I don't know what the next one will be is the short answer to your question.
Nick Jikomes 53:39
And then SATA curiosity. You know, you've written many well just called traditional books, physical books that you go to the bookstore and buy. But of course, the times are changing. And I'm wondering, you know, as a science writer, and just a writer in general, what's your relationship with new forms of dissemination like substack? Or other things like this? Do you? Do you write through other avenues? And do you think that your relationship to how you publish your work will will change as technology technology continues evolving?
Matt Ridley 54:11
Yes, no. There was much more conversation about that. When I wrote a book 12 years ago called The Rational Optimist. At that time, everybody was saying, Oh, my God, you've got to write an interactive book, you've got to write it, you've got the ebook is very important. You've got to have live links in your books. You could do vlogs around the books, you know, there was a lot of video production when you launched a book, etc. 10 years later, it was much more like a conventional book. Again, you write a book, you read it into the can for the audio version, but otherwise, it's a book you put it out there you hope people read it. The one thing that's changed is the podcast. I mean, by have I been invited on a lot of podcasts and very, very nice it is to it's a wonderful format. I mean, I enjoy it. Clearly a lot of people are reading and listening to podcasts. But, you know, the rise of the podcast has been accompanied by the decline of the blog. You know, 15 years ago, I was consuming a lot of blogs, I was contributing to blogs or writing blogs, I still do a blog. But what it consists of now is my published articles, republished on my blog, I don't as it were, right de novo from my own blog offers AppStack at the moment, social media has come along in a big way. And, you know, publicizing what you're up to, as an author on Twitter, on Facebook on LinkedIn, you know, is a really important part of getting ideas out there now. But in a way, I'm surprised by how the conventional book has survived by listen to a lot of audiobooks myself. So I consume a lot of books orally rather than yeah, whatever, you know, visually, I guess, yeah. Visually, that yeah, thank you. So things change all the time. But yet things stay the same, you know, the book hasn't died.
Nick Jikomes 56:13
Yeah, yeah. No, that's, that's definitely, that's definitely true. Do you have you know, so your book is viral? Do you want to kind of give the little elevator pitch for it one more time and point people to where they can read more about your work in particular, or just any good resources you think are out there from anyone about the origins of this virus and people that people can keep tabs on as as new new findings come to light? Right? Well,
Matt Ridley 56:41
I'm on Twitter at Matt W. Ridley. And I've got a website called about readily.co.uk. And the book is viral the search for the origin of COVID-19, written by Lena Chan and myself. And what it does is it catalogs all the efforts that lots of people have made to try and find out how the pandemic started. And it ends up we think taking the reader down a lot of fascinating rabbit holes, and enabling them the reader to make up their own mind about what happened. That's, that's what we set out to do, essentially.
Nick Jikomes 57:23
Alright, well, Matt Ridley, thank you for your time. You. You've been one of my favorite science writers for a long time now, and I've enjoyed following you the last couple of years on this on this mystery, and I hope you know, I hope we figure it out sooner rather than later.
Matt Ridley 57:39
Thank you, Nick. It's really enjoyable.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai