Follow The Science ? What Science?
The first thing to observe about the ubiquitous media meme “follow the science” is that it is silly English. There is no such thing as “the science” only “science” because its very nature depends on critical evaluations of propositions made in its name. Of course, when Dr. Fauci or some other anointed head asks us to “follow the science”, they simply ask us to follow what they present as science, on whatever ground other than actual evidence. We are not to think much about it, or compare it with what they said about the same subject last week.
There are many examples of “bad science” in history. We had the phlogiston, luminiferous ether, the invisible planet Vulcan, phrenology, cold fusion. We also had a humungous example of insanity cloaked as “science” that managed to hold sway over two generations of scientists and caused untold damage to large swaths of land, to agriculture and ecology. The author of “that science” was the agronomist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko whose ideas owned the Soviet natural sciences for thirty years. His theories denied the laws of genetics in favor of Lamarckian theory of “acquired characteristics” which aligned with the Marxist-Leninist “nurture-not-nature” philosophical outlook. “Lysenkoism”, as his theories were called, became during Stalin’s purges a state-held gospel which allowed no dissent. The most famous Soviet plant geneticist of the time, Nikolai Vavilov, died in the Gulag, others were executed by the NKVD. Worse still, Lysenko’s general outlook survived Stalin, and its principles were taken even further under Khruschev in maniacal experiments that greatly damaged lands and vegetation both in the Soviet Union and communist China. The worst of them was the attempt to irrigate the Uzbek-Kazakh “virgin lands” to produce crops. The project caused the greatest planetary ecological calamity to-date, the draining of 90% of the Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake in the world, and the destruction of the local and surrounding eco-systems.
We have seen troubling signs of a return to the Lysenkoist approach to science in our days. And nowhere is the style more apparent than in the climb, and response, to the Covid-19 pandemic, by the global scientific community, and health organizations relying on science. They begin with the adoption of self-validating theoretical assumptions. They falsely present theoretical possibilities as knowledge, or factual evidence. They destroy and manufacture evidence. They seek programmatically to suppress discussions and challenges to their adopted theory. They are dismissive or use ad-hominem attacks to discredit those who hold opposing views. Mind you, Lysenkoism Redivivus is not spun around a tight state-sponsored ideological cocoon. Rather, it is a mesh of diverse established groups (scientific, health bureaucracies, private investors, pharma industry) with converging, or complementing interests, loosely connected via general globalist ideology and cues, through which they recognize and support each other, procure resources, and ensure political protection against opinions opposed to their program. The new format may not have produced as drastic effects internally as in the original, i.e. execution squads and Gulags for dissenting thinkers. However, given the enormous new powers humans have acquired recently to manipulate the genomic life structures on the planet, this returning specter of “bad science” promises end results far worse than dust bowls around wrecked boats in the middle of a desert.
The disease we know could come
In February 2018 the W.H.O. published its annual list of pathogens that receive priority in research and development funding. Among the items on the list of the emerging health threats from the previous years, i.e. Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, Ebola and Marburg viruses, SARS & MERS, Nipah, Zika and Rift Valley fever, there was a new, strange looking title. It was called “Disease X”, and was defined thus: “Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international pandemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease”. This was the first time the organization saw it fit to include among existing “emerging human pathogens” one that actually did not exist. Notice the strange syntax around the word “knowledge”. That an unknown pathogen will strike us in a way that causes global epidemic in a defined future time frame, can be said to have certain probability based on past data but unless we can specify our frame of reference, such notion is useless. That something “could happen” does not qualify as “knowledge”. But the W.H.O. has a reason to use the Orwellian double-think around the word. We are talking access to resources here, and there were (and are) groups interested in being funded, and mind you, not for the kinds of things that we should absolutely have.
We need to be prepared for a nasty future outbreak of an new, unknown infectious disease, by having globally coordinated communication and remediation plans, secure supply channels for PPE, life-saving equipment, supplies, extra hospital beds and places to isolate the sick, se well as drugs known to be generically effective antibiotics and antivirals. We evidently need more doctors and nurses specializing in infectious diseases. Perhaps, the med schools should strengthen the curriculum for communicable diseases, so the future health professionals would be able to step in effectively when the health facilities are struggling with personnel capacity.
But the funding for Disease X sadly is not about that.
In 2008, Ralph Baric the researcher at UNC, Chapel Hill, created a “synthetic SARS-like virus” in search of an isolate that could represent the “consensus” in that family of viruses, in order that scientists may design antivirals and vaccines that would be effective against future outbreaks of all the SARS-like viruses, no matter how infectious or deadly. That type of research has continued ever since both in the U.S.A. and in China and has had the support of the National Institute of Health for most of that time.
There are two problems with it. First, even though the SARS epidemic in 2002 did spread from China into four countries, the outbreak was small (9000 infected, 900 dead) and disappeared after a few months without any special therapeutics, with only local quarantines. It did not return. Yet, in CBS’ 60 Minutes interview in 2003, Peter Dazsak claimed that the idea that a SARS would become a world-wide deadly pandemic robbed him of sleep at night. Since then, he and his organization EcoHealth Alliance, have been front and center in the coronavirus research, securing funding and doing public relations for it. Peter Daszak’s name has regularly appeared in nearly all related science and media events. He was the person who secured the inclusion of a non-existent plague called Disease X by the W.H.O. to prioritize his research, some of it at the Wuhan Institue of Virology. In 2008, (which for the purposes here, I consider the start of the coronavirus bio-engineering) there were five known coronaviruses. One of them was lethal but not known to spread quickly or thrive in human populations. What made Baric and Daszak convinced that specifically this family of viruses had the potential of a planetary scourge for humankind ? This question — which should be at the center of concern to everyone in our time — has never been asked, let alone answered. On the surface, it does not appear to have originated in a sober, fact-grounded, scientific assessment of the scale of the SARS outbreak, and its potential escalation.
Second, a crucially important tool in searching for pan-coronavirus drugs, has been a procedure known as “DNA infectious cloning”. This type of “gain-of-function” technique tries to modify existing viruses which are not human pathogens at present to assess how “close” they are in their evolution to be able to infect, and propagate in, human populations. If they are enhanced to infect human tissues in a lab, the theory goes, we can rank them and seek what in their functional makeup should be addressed in creating the pan-corona antivirals. The danger in such type of experiments (existing also e.g. in the search for a universal influenza vaccine) has been pointed out by a number of scientists. After one notorious lab work with a SARS-like virus in Wuhan in 2015, Richard Ebright of Rutgers U., one of the country’s leading epidemiologists commented: “The only impact of this work is the creation, in a lab, of a new, non-natural risk”. Regardless of the origin of SARS-Cov-2 (the virus behind Covid-19), the risks of lab escape of a deadly pathogen, either by accident, or through an act of sabotage by an unbalanced individual, are huge.
In contrast, the benefits even after twelve years of sustained efforts of building pan-corona solutions, still appear far more fiction than science. None of the major vaccines against Covid-19 have been built around the pan-corona grand theory. In fact, the mutations of the specific pathogen behind it is a major concern for all of them.
On the surface, it is not hard to see why the theory does not bear fruit. By the admission of EcoHealth Alliance’s own web page on Disease X, of the more than three quarter million viruses possibly dangeous to humans we know 263, that is ~0.03% (!!!) of them. Yet, with reckless abandon the next paragraph claims that : “[We] know which species are most likely to be carrying Disease X. We know the viral families to which Disease X is most likely to belong and, therefore, which known viruses are likely to be similar”. There is no hint as to where such assurance originates. How can doctor Daszak know “which family” of viruses will likely strike in a near-future pandemic with a population sample so small ? It is certainly illogical to extrapolate from this size of sample the viral identity, the extent, the persistence and crucially, the timing of the next outbreak of a new pathogen with a significant global effect. And what makes Dr. Daszak think that nature will follow in mutagenesis the patterns of attacking humans suggested for it by the labs of Ralph Baric in North Carolina and Shi Zhengli in Wuhan? Stop and think about it for a minute: could more funding have predicted in year 2001 a deadly epidemic coming from a virus family whose worst effect for humans was until then a runny nose? Or, is the EcoHealth Alliance’s knowledge simply claptrap spun from gratuitous assumptions which have no scientific basis, if for no other reason, then because its fantastic claims cannot be verified? There are new viruses and family of viruses, that show up in the scientists’ narrow field of vision every year. In a recent collection of bat samples in Yunnan, scientists found twenty four new sarbecoviruses, in an area of just 3.3 km2. Some had significant overlap with SARS-Cov-2, but not close enough to have been the virus’ predecessor. And last year, Brazilian researchers discovered a new virus in a body of water near Belo Horizonte. “Yaravirus”, as it was named, does not have a single gene previously seen in any thing living (!) on Earth. Imagine that!
The wet market theory and its discontents
An old friend of mine in his youthful search for the ultimate truth, discovered a spiritual movement called Eckankar. He was quite taken with it for a few months and tried to recruit new believers. He told me Eck teaches that whatever happens in your life, it is because you wish for it: deep down. The point to enlightenment, he said, is to understand your deep wishes and organize your life around them. I asked him whether if an airliner crashes killing everyone on board Eck would interpret is as three hundred people simultaneously acting on their death wish. My friend became flustered and told me I misunderstood the teachings.
We humans have basically two ways of coping with the vicissitudes that make up reality. The older parts of our brain rely on imagining a friendly supernatural power promising to protect us from all manner of evil and iniquity provided we follow its chosen spokespersons and their precepts, and partake in rituals appeasing and celebrating it. The newer evolutionary acquisition, intelligence, proposes to defend us by studying nature, learning its ways, and adapting ourselves to its changing presentations of itself. Sometimes in history these two methods of coping with reality, the religious-ideological vs the scientific had difficulty co-existing. In the struggles, science usually starts as the underdog on the receiving end, because passions arise from the older parts of the brain and are more actionable. The short history of the current pandemic confirms this observation.
In early March 2020, the medical journal Lancet published a curious manifesto. It was a statement of support to the scientists and health care workers in Wuhan and elsewhere in China in their struggle against the emerging Covid-19 disaster. But it was not simply an opportunity to thank those Chinese professionals who deserved to be thanked in the struggle against the virus. Clearly, what the authors — Peter Daszak among them, of course — had in mind was to signal to those members of the scientific community, who held alternative hypotheses about the origin of the virus, and demanded open inquiry into it, that they were out of line. The same anathema was declared for allied media, who would want to repeat Steven Mosher’s unabashed dissent in the New York Post and on Fox News. (He asked among other pointed questions why it was necessary to strengthen the Wuhan Institute’s biosecurity, given as one of the reasons given in appointing the top army epidemiologist, general Wei Chen as the new director at the end of January 2020. The lab already had the highest BSL-4 certification , and the authorities were adamant that the virus did not escape from there.) The language of the manifest was uncompromising: “Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus. We support the call from the Director-General of WHO to promote scientific evidence and unity over misinformation and conjecture”. In other words, casting doubt of any kind on the official explanation of the source of the infection, i.e. the Huanan Seafood Market, was conspiracy mongering. In a genuinely Stalinist causation, any quest for independent inquiry was unmasked as sabotaging the efforts of all peace-loving peoples on the planet to fight the epidemic.
The manifest did indeed have a chilling effect on a healthy debate. Scores of scientific papers were returned from major magazines. Dissenting scientists would not speak up for fear of losing their grants or appointments. If they talked they would not allow to be quoted. Reasoned exchange of views even with esteemed, internationally known scientists, such as the Nobel Prize winning virologist Luc Montagnier gave way to name-calling. He was wrong, by the way. But my point is that It would have been enough to point out that his opinion relied on a debunked claim around a short sequence of SARS-Cov-2.
It is a matter of some irony, that the Lancet manifesto should call for “scientific evidence” given its timeline. The Huanan Seafood Market theory had been adopted on faith as the majority of the early sick in Wuhan came into contact with it. It started to be doubted as early as one month before the Lancet manifest. A study, published in the same magazine(!) on January 20, 2020, carried a crucial finding that out of the earliest cluster of 41 Covid-19 patients, 13 (later changed to 14) cases had no connection to the wet market. That finding was never challenged by anyone. In fact, when Georgetown U. epidemiologist Daniel Lucey contacted the paper’s authors they wrote back to him that “it seems clear that [the] seafood market is not the only origin of the virus.” But Lucey was adamant that on the available data the virus “came into the marketplace before it came out of the marketplace”. Surely, if there was a single recent origin of human infection, as most virologists still believe, the Huanan Seafood Market was not where the spillover event occurred.
The Lancet’s Statement of Support claimed in that scientists “overwhelmingly conclude” that the virus originated in wildlife. There were nine references cited in support of that statement. What were they? One of those was a reference to US Covid-19 statistical summary which has no bearing on the question, one was a pre-print of the much-quoted Kristian Andersen’s “Proximal Origins” study, another disagreed with Andersen’s conclusion of a spillover as a single recent recombination event, and the remaining six had no doubts about the cornerstone fact of the market as the place where the first humans were infected by the new virus. Among those papers was the earlier Lancet article quoted above whose authors corrected themselves. So, even in March 2020, there was no real evidence supporting the virus wildlife origin theory, much less justifying the vilification of scientists who disagreed with it. At the end of May 2020, having completed a thorough scrub of the market, and an exhaustive review of the clinical case evidence, the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention discarded the market-as-ground-zero theory altogether, and concluded the Huanan Seafood Market was in fact an early “superspreader” of the disease.
In times when respectable science prevailed, the wet market theory would have been quietly set aside and the investigators would have moved to other, more realistic, hypotheses. But that is not what happened with the virus behind Covid-19. Peter Daszak, speaking from Wuhan during the W.H.O. team’s visit earlier in the year, told a CNN interviewer he still believed the market was responsible for the virus’ jump to humans. He claimed, incredibly, that the absence of tainted meat there cited by the CDC, was “evidence” for a new theory that the virus began infecting humans via frozen filet of an edible mustelate.
The final report of the WHO-convened Global Study of the Origins of SARS-Cov-2 was somewhat more hedging in the assessment of the market role than Daszak: “Many of the early cases were reported to have a link to the Huanan market, a place where animals and animal products were sold to the public. Some reports have suggested the zoonotic spread of SARSCoV-2 through this market, although the role of the market, as either the source of the initial transmission of the virus to humans or as an amplifier of the early epidemic, was unclear, as several early cases reported no link to the Huanan market or any other market in Wuhan.” But it appears that the report just could not give it up despite the verdict of the Chinese CDC, following the absence of any animal samples of SARS-Cov-2 there, and a clear indication there was another, independent source of the epidemic in the city.
The reluctance to move on is not hard to explain. The hypothesis that the virus traveled into Wuhan markets either in animals or meat seems the only plausible alternative to the lab leak theory. But this scenario has not been so far supported by any concrete evidence, one that could explain how the virus came about better than the lab escape theory. You are free to believe that it is simply bad luck that fifteen months after the outbreak the virus (or its ancestor) was not isolated in wildlife AND the virus first created an epidemic hundreds of kilometers from the habitats of corona-carrying bats AND the outbreak happened practically on the doorstep of labs doing research on corona viruses AND the new pathogen was binding with human tissues better than its presumed original zoonotic hosts’ within a couple of months. You may believe that. But you better prepare for a serious blowback if this is your way of explaining the origin of a disease that so far killed more than three million humans on the planet and hugely disrupted the global economy.
Crazy theories abound when science goes AWOL
It has become fashionable for the natural-virus propaganda to conflate reasoned, and certainly plausible, scenarios of lab origins with marginal babble ignorant of basic facts. Two straw-man arguments are seen most often. Daszak, Fauci and Co. like to present silly amateurs who proclaim that the new virus was created in the lab from scratch, as descriptive of the whole of the opposing side. But no-one with even superficial familiarity with the subject matter argues that. The only issue here is whether the new virus evolved in nature in bats prior to jumping to humans via another animal, or alternatively, several viruses originating in wildlife were recombined and passaged serially in a research lab.
The other popular way to mess with the heads of innocents is to claim that all lab-leakers believe the virus is a bioweapon created by the Chinese military and, optionally, unleashed by the PLA in a pre-planned attack on the world. Again, this is not a belief shared by the vast majority of informed people opposed to the current scientific establishment on the issue. It is an idea that appears to been planted by the passions of the Chinese diaspora. Organizations like Falun Gong and The Rule of Law Foundation are not simply critical of Chinese heavy-handedness and abuses in human rights but transparently seek to ratchet up tensions by portraying China as a rogue state, ready to unleash (or already unleashing) untold iniquities upon the world. They use Chinese political manouevres to shed the country’s share of responsibility for the global health disaster, and its manipulation of the servile W.H.O. bureaucracy to that end, to create an illusion of a ghoulish conspiracy to poison the world. Like the bad science on the other end, this viewpoint also falls apart under scrutiny. An upcoming book by Josh Rogin (“Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and The Battle of Twenty First Century”, previewed in Politico 3/8/2021) will argue that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was conducting “secret research projects with Chinese military…despite presenting itself as a civilian institution”. This is hugely misleading. All major military powers in the world conduct research into biological agents that could be used in warfare against its population or armed forces. This so-called “dual purpose” use of research is nothing new or sinister. It does not violate the UN Biological Warfare Convention to which both China and the U.S.A. are pledged. But evidently the author has a poor grasp of his subject matter. He writes: “[US officials] said [about research with links to Chinese military] they had created a new model for studying SARS-CoV-2 by creating mice with human-like lung characteristics by using the CRISPR gene-editing technology to give the mice lung cells with the human ACE2 receptor — the cell receptor that allowed coronaviruses to so easily infect human lungs”. This supposedly relates to experiments in July 2020. But, this type of experiment in coronaviruses was publicized in 2015 and used in civilian research openly ever since to develop platform antivirals. When the Chinese authorities get hold of reports of this sort, they will use them to discredit the lab-leak theory in toto, arguing that it is all based on groundless speculation and faulty intelligence.
Frankly, the Chinese leadership would have to be insane to try to accelerate their country’s fast rise to global dominance by entertaining an adventure with a virus whose trajectory no-one could have predicted. It is true, as one old Chiang’s veteran recently argued in a program on a local Chinese TV channel, that Mao Zedong tried to shame Khruschev into a nuclear war with the Yanks in the 1950’s. But it is also true that Mao’s, and his comrades’, idea of luxury that formed during the Long March, was a cigarette with a cup of hot tea in a drafty hut. By contrast, the Central Committee of today’s CCP are mostly millionaires and billionaires (or their relatives) with a very different outlook on life and China’s prospects in it.
A way back — perhaps without Disease X hanging over us
It remains to be seen whether Covid-19 sprang out of preparing a cure for a non-descript disease some “scientists” insist without proof was about to strike us in the future. If this sounds crazy, it is not my fault. Further, I guarantee you, it is not a crazier idea than that the W.H.O. entertains “Disease X” as one of its priorities for research.
There have been some encouraging signs lately that the ground is slowly shifting in the right direction. The intended vindication of China by an international “investigation” into the origin of Covid-19 ended up in a fiasco. Fourteen countries have underwritten Joint Statement on the WHO-Convened COVID-19 Origins Study released by the U.S. Department of State on March 30, 2021. They called for “a robust, comprehensive, and expert-led mechanism for expeditiously investigating outbreaks of unknown origin that is conducted with full and open collaboration among all stakeholders and in accordance with the principles of transparency, respect for privacy, and scientific and research integrity.” An open letter to the W.H.O. authored by Jamie Metzl and signed by twenty-four prominent scientists sharply criticized the Study’s Final report and proposed a resolution by the 2021 World Health Assembly (W.H.A.), which is to convene in May. The resolution calls for unrestricted investigation into the Covid-19 origins fully examining all hypotheses, for improved national and international regulatory oversight of high-risk lab research, especially gain-of-function research of concern. Should such undertaking prove impossible under WHA/WHO auspices a new, independent body should be organized to negotiate the Terms of Reference. One more encouraging sign is that the director of the W.H.O. is apparently on side. But for this initiative is to succeed, it needs champions in the NIH/NIAID bureaucracy. (The 2020 W.H.A. resolution calling for an open inquiry into the origin, signed by over one hundred countries, failed). This will be difficult with the current leadership that has much invested in the Lysenkoist methods of operation.
Further, Peter Daszak’s school of thought still maintains its privileged access and monopoly of opinion in scientific journals. When Robert Redfield, the former head of the CDC, came out of the closet and announced he believed that the etiology of the of the new virus is best explained by a lab escape, the media was all over him. In a preposterous hit piece on him in Scientific American Josh Fischman attempted to argue that there was “million or so” chances of a zoonotic transfer to “one speculative episode of lab-leak” by Robert Redfield. Again, what we have here is a simplistic argument which assumes a hopelessly naïve reader. What Fischman should have explained is why we humans — sinners against the Earth that we are — do not perish instantly in a deluge of viral mutations which is so big that we don’t have a name for its number. It is because viruses in nature are very picky in choosing their hosts and tissues within those hosts, and it is only very, very rarely they become our enemies. It is rarer still that they become deadly enemies, because being deadly to their hosts hastens their demise, which is not their evolutionary advantage, so to speak. At any rate, Josh Fischman does not address himself to the substantive issues in the debate, which is what matters here. The issues are technical and complex and are best left to the scientists to sort out. The last thing we need at this time is politicized science, with partisan science publications and entrenched bureaucrats who use the public platform in the interest of the few against the interest of the many.
It is clear that Daszak and allies are fully committed to continue their style of pan-corona research and nothing, not even the Covid-19 pandemic, will give them pause to re-think their approach. “The problem isn’t that prevention was impossible,” Peter Daszak said of the pandemic in an interview with NYT in May 2020 . “It was very possible. But we didn’t do it. Governments thought it was too expensive. Pharmaceutical companies operate for profit.” The statement betrays incredible lack of judgment and dwarfish sense of responsibility, irrespective of the origin of the virus. Daszak spoke at the time the first wave of the virus was peaking across the globe with third of a million deaths. Beside the painfully obvious lack of ethical standard, his gimmies change nothing on the fact that the efforts of EcoHealth Alliance were not only incapable to prevent an outbreak, but alleviate it in any palpable way and that despite millions of dollars and the years that went into its dangerous research.
The scientific community needs to keep close eye on enterprises of this sort. Researchers should lean on the W.H.O. to provide the scientific grounding for the thesis of Disease X whose research it supports. What is needed is a full exposition of the theoretical assumptions, data sets illustrating instances of “natural” mutagenesis toward human pathogenicity, criteria and tests of new viruses for potential human pathogenesis, and computer modelling behind the decisions to rank known viruses as dangerous to humans and manipulate them artificially. Further what is needed is a statement of anticipated benefits, by which this research effort can be measured. A group of experts should be commissioned to assess the validity of science behind the Disease X thesis and decide whether it is appropriate for the W.H.O. to underwrite it. It really may turn out that the “knowledge” behind the desire to pre-empt pandemics by fantasy drugs is not much else than fantasy. We should not live with a Damocles’ sword hanging over us if Disease X proves a pseudo-scientific narrative that promises nothing except possibly further mayhem.