Lockdown day 39

  1. This is really getting depressing. One of the only things that makes it bearable—even though in some sense it shouldn’t—is that most of humanity is in this together. For once, there’s no question of “why me?”
  2. Having watched the eighth and final episode of Devs, the thought occurred to me: if I’d had the opportunity to restart the world from 8 months ago, even inside a simulation, I’d seize the chance and never look back.
  3. I think I finally figured out how to explain the issue with Devs to my literary sophisticate readers. Namely: Devs consists, precisely, of the cultural appropriation of quantum computing. Now, I never felt like cultural appropriation was the world’s worst problem—not even before a pandemic started overflowing the morgues—so I wouldn’t say I was offended by Alex Garland appropriating the images and buzzwords of my quantum computing tribe for a basically unrelated purpose, but it is what it is. Again: Devs is the show for you, if you want a haunting, slow-paced, well-produced meditation about free will and determinism and predicting the future and parallel worlds and “what if the whole universe is a simulation?,” and the various ideas I would’ve had about such topics around the age of 11. It’s just not a show about quantum computing. I hope that makes it clear.
  4. I read with interest this anonymous but PGP-signed article, laying out the case that it’s plausible that covid accidentally leaked from either the Wuhan Institute of Virology or the Wuhan CDC, rather than originating at the Huanan seafood market. Or, as an intermediate hypothesis, that an infected animal from one of those labs ended up at the seafood market. (Note that this is completely different from the hypothesis that covid was purposefully engineered—the authors of the article find that totally implausible, and I agree with them.) Notably, the Wuhan labs are known to have experimented with bat coronaviruses very much like covid, and are known to have performed “gain-of-function” experiments on them, and were probably the central labs in China for such experiments. And viruses are known to have leaked from other labs in China on other occasions, and the nature → seafood market route has unresolved issues, like where exactly the crossover from bats to pangolins (or some other intermediate species) is supposed to have happened, such that people would only start getting infected at the seafood market and not at its faraway suppliers, and … well, anyway, read the article and form your own judgment!
  5. I find it interesting that three months ago, I would’ve hesitated even to share such a link, because my internal critic would’ve screamed “this looks too much like tinfoil-hat stuff—are you ready for all the people you respect sneering at you?” But the me of three months ago is not the me of today. I make no apologies for adapting my thoughts to the freak branch of the multiverse where I actually find myself.

67 Responses to “Lockdown day 39”

  1. Michael Says:

    Reading the article, this paragraph pinged for me:

    “Because 34% of cases did not have exposure to the market yet were exposed to the virus, it is highly unlikely the market is the origin point of SARS-CoV-2. Indeed, the study confirms “No epidemiological link was found between the first patient and later cases” – meaning that the first patient at the market was not responsible for spreading the virus to other cases.”

    Isn’t this a Bayesian mistake? If the market (around 1000 stalls) saw relatively few people (guessing on the order of 100k? out of a city of 10+ million) and was still the direct source of exposure of 66% of cases, that’s a big deal.

    How can you track thousands of people (some already deceased) through their daily movements (well after the fact) for two weeks and be confident in saying the 34% of cases with no direct exposure weren’t indirectly (secondary, tertiary, etc) infected by people who were exposed to the market? It just seems like a weak point to be making so strongly.

  2. Kevin Zhou Says:

    It is disappointing how flimsy many of the 20+ points in this document are. Half of them don’t have anything to do with COVID-19, or are equally well explained by natural emergence. This is essentially a gish gallop, and exactly what Scott Alexander was referring to by building superweapons.

    For example, see point 9.6. It’s extremely long, but the complete evidence they gave here is:

    1. There was a graduate student at WIV that graduated 5 years ago (as graduate students do)

    2. There was once a rumor on Chinese social media that this person was patient zero, but absolutely no reason given why that would be the case (and obviously, Chinese social media is just as unreliable as social media everywhere else)

    3. This graduate student has not recently made any dramatic public appearances or viral social media posts (because why would they)

    That pretty much sounds like zero evidence to me. But how do they summarize it?

    > Would it really be impossible for the Chinese government to get in touch with her and have her issue an in-person statement to the media? _It would only be impossible if she was dead._

    I mean, forget about how weird this demand is — it’s negotiating with China as it they were the Borg. Even if the demand were in good faith, does that sound like a document aiming to find the truth? Or is it just trying to make a series of low-evidence claims sound maximally sinister? You’re a rational person, you be the judge!

  3. Ghenlezo Says:

    If there are any Slatestarcodex readers here craving something resembling face-to-face conversation, we are having a meetup next Sunday at 10:30 AM, PDT. We will be using Hubs, an avatar-based chat system that runs in the browser. We have had 2 meetups so far and it has worked pretty well. Details here: https://www.reddit.com/r/slatestarcodex/comments/g4eda5/next_meetup_april_26th_at_1030am_pdt/

  4. Scott Says:

    Michael #1 and Kevin Zhou #2: I completely agree that it seems plausible that the 1/3 of cases (including, apparently, the earliest cases) that they couldn’t connect to the seafood market, might have been connected to the seafood market after all. I also agree that the section about the graduate student who can’t be located and who was speculated to be patient zero on social media was particularly weak—indeed, that part reminded me of the writings of JFK conspiracy buffs, which are full of crucial witnesses who always mysteriously died or disappeared.

    On the other side of the ledger, China has hundreds of wet markets, but only one BSL4 virology lab that collected an enormous variety of bat coronaviruses and purposefully modified them for research purposes. It’s possible that the origin of the outbreak, only a few miles from the latter, is just one of history’s many horrible and ironic practical jokes. But at the least, I think a large, open inquiry is needed into the origin of the coronavirus—one even larger than (say) the Warren Commission or the 9/11 Commission, since we’re now talking about a larger historical event than the JFK assassination and 9/11 combined. (Incidentally, I think the case is overwhelming that Oswald acted alone and that al Qaida hijacked the planes—which doesn’t mean we there shouldn’t have been fact-finding commissions.)

    So I find it depressing that the Chinese government has been moving in the exact opposite direction, suppressing research into the virus’s origins. We might never understand the full truth—including in the case, which remains plausible, that the virus first jumped to humans in the seafood market and it had nothing to do with the labs.

    I once said on this blog that I had a heuristic of never believing any conspiracy theories. That remains the case. The lab escape hypothesis is, ultimately, yet another hypothesis of human failure and error, not one of some ultra-competent evil organization. And I’m by no means committed to it, but only to the proposition that it should be thoroughly investigated.

  5. Alyssa Vance Says:

    On conspiracy theories:

    “Donald Trump is not personally supervising an operation against “deep state” child sex traffickers any more than my 3-year-old is captaining a pirate ship.

    But the premise of the QAnon fantasia, that certain elite networks of influence, complicity and blackmail have enabled sexual predators to exploit victims on an extraordinary scale — well, that isn’t a conspiracy theory, is it? That seems to just be true.”

    https://www.nytimes.com./2019/08/13/opinion/jeffrey-epstein-suicide.html

  6. dom Says:

    After MK-Ultra, Operation Paperclip, Cointelpro, Tuskegee, etc. etc. … I think it’s healthy to always have a little bit of skepticism about the narratives that surround us.

  7. Ed Says:

    For me, the possibility of this kind of lab involvement in the original spillover event seems (obviously) completely plausible, although I still assign it a low probability.

    I mentioned this recently to friends over Zoom, and the consensus was that it was irresponsible for me to even state the idea out loud because doing so could engender hostility towards Asians.

    Honestly, I _agree_ that if it’s established as true that a lab was involved here, then terrible, racist people are likely to do some terrible, racist things. My friends go further and say that in order to prevent this kind of fallout, it’s the responsibility of decent people not to explore the possibility. The attitude is something like: we shouldn’t poke around in bushes, because we might scare up some snakes that way.

    I assume that everyone commenting here is united in condemning racist attacks on innocent people. With that as a given, I’m curious about whether others see a tension between the priority of truth-seeking, and the priority of protecting potentially-vulnerable populations.

  8. Phil Gossett Says:

    FWIW:

    https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0820-9

    The conclusion is that this virus is almost certainly the result of natural selection on viruses known to be endemic to bats found naturally in the area. Not “enhanced” in a lab.

  9. [Thing] Says:

    There’s also at least one thread discussing the lab-escape hypothesis over at Less Wrong, which I found informative.

  10. Scott Says:

    Ed #7: What doesn’t make sense to me about this is that we know the virus originated in China, and both major hypotheses regarding how it happened seem about equally vulnerable to abuse by bottom-dwelling racists. Like, if it was the wet market, then it’s because of “those people who disgustingly eat wild animals like bats and pangolins”! Ironically, a lab escape scenario that didn’t involve the wet market would refute that hypothesis.

    One of the many reasons why the human race is facing this calamity in the first place is that, back in January and February, the people outside China who worried about the “Wuhan pneumonia” were sneered at by the mainstream press as probable racists. (See SlateStarCodex for links to such sneering.) We have to be bigger than this as a civilization. There has to be some height of the pile of dead bodies, of all nationalities, where we start placing the truth above what other people might think about what we might think about a third group.

    The point here is not just the boneheadedly obvious one, that one can love the Chinese people and culture as much as I have my whole life while still condemning certain aspects of the Chinese government’s response, or specific institutions in Hubei, or specific practices like eating endangered wildlife. (While, incidentally, praising the Taiwanese government for its farsightedness and competence, and also praising the Chinese government for the breathtaking-to-Westerners competence of its later response.) The point, rather, is that even if the Chinese government has been as bad as its worst detractors say, there’s still near-infinite blame to be shared by the US, British, Hungarian, Russian, Swedish, Italian, Brazilian, Australian, Mexican, etc. governments. The hall of shame and incompetence spans the globe—with the US, as often, still in the fight to be #1.

  11. Scott Says:

    Phil Gossett #8: Yes, I’d seen that. Of course, the virus having evolved naturally remains 100% compatible with the possibility of a lab escape scenario.

  12. Hunter Says:

    Phil #8: You probably know this already, but, while finding that the virus had been enhanced would have confirmed the accidental leak hypothesis, finding that it was not enhanced does not disconfirm it. I would imagine that enhancing viruses through natural selection is among the sort of things done in these labs, with the bats local to the lab being natural starting points. It should lower our probability estimate of the release hypothesis a bit, but by how much I am unsure. FWIW my estimate was already low to begin with.

  13. Joshua Allen Says:

    Scott #10, The lab escape hypothesis is more attractive to conspiracy-minded people because it has the desirable feature of being teleological. Teleological stories that allow for mind-reading spread faster and are more intuitive than theories that involve abstract systems and emergence.

  14. Scott Says:

    Joshua #13: Sorry, that’s a little too galaxy-brained for me! Lab escape is not “teleological” in the sense of explaining the covid outbreak by reference to later events. It’s just a straightforward option on the table, a thing that clearly might have happened (or might not have), if for no other reason than that it has happened in other cases. Still, even though it’s not in any sense a conspiracy theory, I agree that it has the unfortunate feature of being more attractive to conspiracy-minded people, which is going to add a lot of noise and make it incredibly hard to learn the truth.

  15. Arzo Says:

    “I would’ve hesitated even to share such a link, because my internal critic would’ve screamed “this looks too much like tinfoil-hat stuff—are you ready for all the people you respect sneering at you?””

    It’s not clear if in the past you would have apportioned some confidence in this belief, but you would just not have shared this belief out of fear. Or, you would not have believed it with much confidence AND would not have shared it. Given everything, it kinda sounds like it’s the latter and what changed is that now you believe it and you’re not afraid anymore to share the belief publicly. So the question is, what has changed epistemologically that now you think it’s ok to accept the provided “evidence”, when previously you may not have. Especially, given there’s no actual evidence for this claim, other than the argument that it’s consistent with the evidence (which is different than evidence for the claim).

    Even if you still don’t believe it now, but what changed is that you’re not afraid to share it anymore, why is that? Perhaps being afraid to elevate a claim that doesn’t have actual evidence for it and is not the consensus and is outside your field, is appropriate?

    ———

    “The lab escape hypothesis is, ultimately, yet another hypothesis of human failure and error, not one of some ultra-competent evil organization. And I’m by no means committed to it, but only to the proposition that it should be thoroughly investigated.”

    Given that the argument relies on “evidence” merely being consistent with the claim, not accepted as the scientific consensus, and seems to tie in nicely with the right’s drumbeat of distracting from trump by focusing on China (https://www.politico.com/news/2020/04/17/china-secrecy-coronavirus-193120), even the (political) proposition that it be thoroughly investigated needs to be justified.

  16. Edan Maor Says:

    Ed #7:

    > I assume that everyone commenting here is united in condemning racist attacks on innocent people. With that as a given, I’m curious about whether others see a tension between the priority of truth-seeking, and the priority of protecting potentially-vulnerable populations.

    I’m almost 100% pro truth seeking. In fact, this is the exact kind of situation that would be a good hypothetical example to people of why truth-seeking matters more than almost anything else – because at some point, the truth *matters*, and it matters *a lot*.

    There is at least *some* chance that finding out the true way this virus broke out will help us prevent a future disaster of Covid magnitude, or even worse. That chance isn’t negligible – if we know it’s a lab escape, we should probably, at a minimum, review the safety procedures of that lab.

    Are we really saying that the chance of increased racism, because of people being idiots (as with all cases of racism), is reason enough to potentially fail to prevent another Covid?

    I think the thing we *should* be doing is grasping for both truths at once – the truth about how Covid happened, including what if any complicity the Chinese government has in it, and the truth about racism, which is that it is stupid and evil.

    Or as Scott succinctly put it:

    > There has to be some height of the pile of dead bodies, of all nationalities, where we start placing the truth above what other people might think about what we might think about a third group.

  17. elif ender Says:

    https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2001316

    In this article it has stated that “Since December 2019, an increasing number of cases of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV)–infected pneumonia (NCIP) have been identified in Wuhan, a large city of 11 million people in central China.1-3 On December 29, 2019, the first 4 cases reported, all linked to the Huanan (Southern China) Seafood Wholesale Market.”

    But if we look at figure 1 in the same article we see first 4 out of 5 cases are not linked to seafood market. I am not an epidemiologist so I double checked and remembered the lecture Gabriel Leung gave at LSHTM.

    Here, listen from 9:00 https://panopto.lshtm.ac.uk/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=83ba0783-b1ce-4053-aaa5-ab6600da76d8

    Mr. Leung states the opposite.

  18. Andrei Says:

    “Devs is the show for you, if you want a haunting, slow-paced, well-produced meditation about free will and determinism and predicting the future and parallel worlds and “what if the whole universe is a simulation?,” and the various ideas I would’ve had about such topics around the age of 11.”

    I think Asimov’s The End of Eternity is perfect for that (coincidentally I read that when I was 11).

  19. Scott Says:

    Arzo #15:

      So the question is, what has changed epistemologically that now you think it’s ok to accept the provided “evidence”, when previously you may not have.

    In the past I might have said, “there’s no smoking gun either way here, maybe I’d put only ~25% probability on scenarios involving the labs if forced to bet, so probably it wasn’t the labs, so given the flak I’ll get from commenters like Arzo I’ll just stay silent.”

    Today I say: “holy shit, this seems like it could have a ~25% probability of actually being right! That makes it really, really important to investigate further! Why isn’t there more curiosity about this?”

    In other words, as far as I can introspect, the change is perfectly described by Scott Alexander’s recent post ”A Failure, but Not of Prediction.”

      Given that the argument … seems to tie in nicely with the right’s drumbeat of distracting from trump by focusing on China … even the (political) proposition that it be thoroughly investigated needs to be justified.

    As they say, “reversed stupidity is not intelligence.” If the Republicans were wrong on 100% of contested empirical questions, that would actually take amazing intelligence; one could then achieve omniscience on such questions by simply reversing whatever they said. But I don’t think they’re that smart. I think they only manage to get things egregiously wrong like ~90% of the time. 🙂

    And if we just looked at the matter fresh, without even knowing who had what political angle, I think we’d say: the fact that out of hundreds of possible origins within China, this outbreak started a few miles from China’s only BSL4 virology lab, which happened to be actively collecting SARS-like bat coronaviruses from caves, and which had been flagged beforehand over concerns about its safety … this would obviously set off flashing red lights, more than sufficient to justify calls for a thorough investigation.

  20. fred Says:

    “This is really getting depressing. One of the only things that makes it bearable—even though in some sense it shouldn’t—is that most of humanity is in this together. For once, there’s no question of “why me?””

    On the word “bearable”: the fact that we’re experiencing something is proof that we’re actually bearing it. But we can’t allow our imagination to make it worse than it is.

    The “why me?” question is always there, just that we usually only bring it up when we feel unlucky. But we don’t get to choose *anything* in life – where we’re born, our parents, our brain, our ability to change, our capability to do the right things, our potential to recognize that everything is luck.
    The “why me?” has to be used to realize how lucky we are, not for self-pity:
    We can for example use our imagination to compare our lockdown experience with what it’s like to be in jail for 10 years, sharing a tiny cell with a couple of criminals, with no privacy whatsoever, and hardly any access to family.
    Or what’s it’s like to catch covid19 and be taken to the ER, losing all contacts with loved ones for two weeks, and not knowing if we’ll emerge okay or dead.

    The key with such thought experiments is to not get even more depressed but use them as an opportunity to be more grateful and compassionate to those who have been less lucky in the big lottery of life.

  21. Noah Motion Says:

    I feel the need to chime in on what is clearly the most important and timely topic raised in this post.

    I’m curious if your description of Devs as cultural appropriation is intended as an illustration of the ridiculousness of (many applications of) that concept, or if it’s a genuine feeling that a culture you are part of has been (mis?) appropriated by members of another culture.

    I couldn’t sleep last night, so I finally finished it. More than anything else, I feel like Devs walked an incredibly fine line between good and bad. It’s beautifully filmed, moody, has a distinct visual style(, and for various personal reasons, the setting hits home for me pretty hard right now). On the other hand, the writing – both in terms of (high-level) plot and (low-level) lines of dialogue – veers from absurd to … mildly absurd. And the acting is pretty much across the board weirdly flat and affectless, I assume on purpose.

    Over the course of every episode, and over the course of the series, I had moments of sincere doubt that it was worth sticking with intermingled with moments of deep engrossment and genuine joy. This made it a very weird experience.

    I’m glad it got made, and I don’t regret watching it, since I’d rather have people swing big and miss (or risk missing) than have everyone play it safe, but I can’t say that it was a success, really.

  22. fred Says:

    About that “racism” angle…
    The goal of the CCP is to turn any criticism of the CCP into evidence of racism against the Chinese people.
    But the two things are actually quite distinct.
    There are racist people everywhere, but in the West it’s actually not being tolerated.
    The irony is that in China actually racist policies are in place, i.e. there are part of the official policy:

  23. Phil Says:

    The chimeric virus studies that are basis of the insinuations in this article weren’t done in Wuhan. They were done in Ralph Baric’s lab at UNC, using sequence data obtained from bats in China. You can see this by reading the Methods section of the paper for 10 seconds. There’s no evidence that the Wuhan lab ever did these kind of experiments. The whole theory is just complete bunkum.

  24. fred Says:

    Scott,

    have you watched Alex Garland’s earlier movies?

    “Ex-Machina” – about the development of the first general artificial intelligence and its potential to turn against its creators.

    “Annihilation” – which is more scifi-y, about the blurry frontier between life and non-life.

  25. Mikko Kiviranta Says:

    I don’t know what evidence one could use to tell apart the lab scenario and the wet market scenario. However, Ebola, SARS-1, Marburg virus and Nipah are thought to originate from bats, too. This suggests that the transmission from bats to humans is not such a rare thing, even when there are no virology laboratories involved. One could probably formulate a (hand-waving) bayesian probability for association of the outbreak with the Wuhan lab, using these other outbreaks to estimate a prior.

  26. Scott Says:

    fred #24: No, I haven’t seen those!

  27. Nick Says:

    > If the Republicans were wrong on 100% of contested empirical questions, that would actually take amazing intelligence; one could then achieve omniscience on such questions by simply reversing whatever they said. But I don’t think they’re that smart. I think they only manage to get things egregiously wrong like ~90% of the time.

    In a better world, fascists in America might take this whole incident as a lesson about crying wolf. They’ve spewed so many insane lies for so long that anything they say is assumed to be propoganda and dismissed. So at a critical moment when something they say might actually be true, what happens to their claims?

  28. Jiayu Says:

    Dear Professor Aaronson,

    I personally feel this is comparable to asking whether a quantum computing lab is responsible for a broken cryptosystem.

  29. I Says:

    #26

    They’re both worth a watch. Ex machin doesn’t play as fast and loose with science as devs does, and is a thoughtful depiction of the idea that understanding humanity does not imply human – like goals or behaviour. At least, more thoughtful than the norm.

  30. I Says:

    #26

    They’re worth a watch, but not with your kids.

    Ex machin seems to get that intelligence or the capacity to understand humans does not equal human values. They don’t butcher AI like devs does QC, but it’s not perfect.

  31. Anonymous Says:

    I sure hope the bat and pangolin species are not going to take the fall for this.

    Although the modern version would see them all commit suicide all while locked in carefully monitored lab cages.

  32. Douglas Knight Says:

    I looked at the original Botao Xiao paper and he asserted that the WHCDC had a BSL-2 lab next to Union Hospital, 280 meters from the market. I was unable to confirm this claim, nor find some other identification of the building he marked (not even a Chinese marking in Baidu).

    This paper quotes this, then asserts that WHCDC is 5km away, without, to my quick skim, ever acknowledging that 280m is very different than 5km and that these are two different locations. This seems pretty weird. Maybe BX had some inaccessible information. Or maybe he made a mistake, but it’s still a reasonable hypothesis, because 5km is close enough (it’s closer than BLS-4 WIV). But you can’t have it both ways. It doesn’t exploit equivocation very much, so it’s not a gaping hole, but it’s bad when people can’t say “I don’t know.”

    ———

    A really simple hypothesis is that the first patient went to Union Hospital and infected people there. And maybe lots of people there go to the wet market, because it’s next door.

  33. Eli Says:

    Scott,

    having read your previous post and your comments for the article on Devs (or rather DEUS, as revealed in the last episode), I don’t understand why you felt the need to bash the show so much. Yes, Laplace’s demon doesn’t have anything to do with quantum computing. But we know for over a 100 years now that the universe is quantum which Laplace didn’t know. Naturally, a simulation of the universe which is what Deus is has to be quantum. And in fact simulations of quantum mechanics are one of the main proposed uses of quantum computers.

    Of course, acquiring all the data to feed into the machine to do a perfect simulation is impossible, that’s why Laplace originally posited it as a thought experiment. But most Sci-Fi requires a suspension of disbelief at some point and I don’t see how Devs is egregious in this demand on their viewers.

  34. Anonymous Says:

    Douglas Knight 32, They indirectly address this in section 11.7 titled “Map Manipulation” – the tldr is that Chinese law requires periodic scrambling of map coordinates for specially designated buildings such as government facilities.

  35. John Figueroa Says:

    Hey Scott, what do you think about this paper that was published earlier today?

    Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience: Massive Scale Testing, Tracing, and Supported Isolation (TTSI) as the Path to Pandemic Resilience for a Free Society

    Video by Vi Hart, one of the authors: How We Reopen

    The timeline seems pretty optimistic to me—I don’t know if we can actually ramp up the production of accurate, fast-turnaround tests that fast. But from my position of relative ignorance, it seems like one of the more plausible exit ramps that I’ve seen. It seems to basically be “do the thing that worked in South Korea, except since we’re starting later we’re gonna need way more resources”, and with more details filled in.

    The other alternatives of sitting around and waiting for a vaccine, or aiming for herd immunity by only infecting the healthiest 25%-75% of the population, seen less of a sure bet.

  36. Scott Says:

    Anonymous #34: I’d wondered about that as well! If the 280-meter figure was just an artifact of China’s map scrambling (is it?), then the article shouldn’t quote it without that clarification.

  37. Scott Says:

    Jiayu #28:

      I personally feel this is comparable to asking whether a quantum computing lab is responsible for a broken cryptosystem.

    Sorry, but I don’t understand your analogy. If quantum computers broke public-key crypto, that wouldn’t be because of a lab accident; it would just be a byproduct of them working as intended! 🙂

  38. Anonymous Says:

    Scott 34

    I agree that pinpointing the location of the suspected WHCDC lab is important – the 280 meters figure comes from Dr. Botao Xiao’s paper whereas the 3 miles figure comes from google maps, so if anything the later should be assumed to be a scrambling artifact, or perhaps there are three location with the one 280 meters from the market not being on the maps at all.

    Jiayu 28

    Really this is more like attributing a broken cryptosystem to a design or implementation flaw that was deliberately put in place by a government as a backdoor

  39. Elizabeth Says:

    About 5 weeks ago I commented on this blog about the possible lab origin of SARS-CoV-2, just to mention it because ctrl-f told me it wasn’t being discussed. The information available from internet sleuths hasn’t evolved too much since January but it is encouraging to see mainstream news finding the courage / permission to discuss this possibility.

    As for whether the virus was naturally discovered or partially a result of genetic engineering, I consider this a 50/50 possibility. Some researchers have stated that SARS-CoV-2 contains HIV proteins that were highly unlikely to appear by a spontaneous mutation. One of these scientists is Luc Montagnier, who won a Nobel prize for discovering HIV. The benevolent hypothesis for engineering is that the lab was trying to develop a vaccine for HIV, whereas malevolent hypotheses related to “gain of function” are easy enough to generate. The extreme domestic response of the CCP to the virus seems in line with this possibility as well.

    Regarding conspiracy theories in general (or anti-authority theories as I more accurately call them), the institutional obstacles that must be overcome to become a scientist tend to select people who are risk-averse conformists. Peer pressure is the main tool for enforcing this, which is why slander like “tin foil” comes out so quickly with regard to exploring nonstandard possibilities. Look at the drones who were put on TV months ago to scoff at the possibility of a lab origin and overstate the certainty about the wet market theory. They are like priests of the modern age, afraid to admit uncertainty or break with standardized dogmas because that could reduce their own position of power.

  40. Scott Says:

    Incidentally, I agree that it’s sadly possible that some people who want a fuller investigation of the origins of covid, might be motivated in that wish by racist animus against people of Chinese descent. Speaking for myself, though, I can go much further than to say that that isn’t my motivation. I can say: were the question put to a referendum, I would eagerly vote right now to make the United States of America a temporary colony of either Singapore or Taiwan, say for 5 years, under some arrangement wherein the colonial overseers would lead a competent response to covid, and would otherwise modernize America’s failing infrastructure and institutions, and in return would be entitled to a significant portion of American wealth. (I’d still demur with the CCP, but only because they’re the CCP, not because they’re Chinese!)

  41. fred Says:

    People who know China well aren’t surprised at all.

    This guy who lived in China for over a decade, and only recently came back to the US (with his Chinese wife and two kids) was one of the very first westerner video blogger from China.

    Now that he’s out of the CCP’s reach, he’s free to really be blunt about the true face of the CCP.
    Three weeks ago, he already had put together an interesting video about the Wuhan lab, just by translating their website and from official Chinese news sources:

  42. Anonymous Says:

    Elizabeth #39

    The authors of the title paper explicitly reject the HIV research scenario pointing out that the sequence in question is not uncommon.

    Occam’s Razor still applies to anti-authority theories – the minimal viable explanation that would be embarrassing enough the for CCP to suppress it should suffice, the only reason an anti-authority theory is entertainable here to begin with is that the existence of at least one lab dealing with SARS-like coronaviruses in Wuhan makes it a more plausible explanation than the wet market and because otherwise we’d have to assume that the Chinese scientists claims that this is likely what has happened and seemingly doing so against their national establishments interests are wrong or fake (which in itself would imply at least some level of ulterior-motives theory)

  43. Anonymous Says:

    I would eagerly vote right now to make the United States of America a temporary colony of either Singapore or Taiwan, say for 5 years, under some arrangement wherein the colonial overseers would lead a competent response to covid, and would otherwise modernize America’s failing infrastructure and institutions, and in return would be entitled to a significant portion of American wealth.

    I hope you’re not planning to do any outreach for the 2020 elections with that approach.
    There isn’t a single population-adjusted metric by which the US is doing significantly worse on COVID19 response than any other western democracy and it sure as hell doesn’t justify giving up democracy even in its sad current form, feel free to delegate the US government to Germany though thereby also replenishing the much depleted resources of historic irony.

  44. fred Says:

    Anonymous #38

    I’ve just done some research.

    I’ve looked for what the sources say is 300m from the seafood market.
    I went to Baidu, a Chinese map service like google map:

    https://map.baidu.com/search/wuhan/@12720580.545568444,3561704.413832442,19.11z?querytype=s&da_src=shareurl&wd=wuhan&c=1&src=0&pn=0&sug=0&l=7&b=(11125264.967280984,2466094.2341325833;13816013.53801363,3730185.489758024)&from=webmap&biz_forward=%7B%22scaler%22:1,%22styles%22:%22pl%22%7D&device_ratio=1

    I highlighted the seafood market and what is referred to as “wuhan center for disease prevention” (that’s according to my wife, who is Chinese):
    https://i.imgur.com/6OfV6i0.png

    But the same area in Google map doesn’t show anything particular there:
    https://i.imgur.com/lgxhcF2.png

    According to google map, the “wuhan center for disease prevention” is 4.2km away from the market:

    https://www.google.com/maps/dir/Huanan+Seafood+Market,+Fazhan+Avenue,+Jianghan+District,+Wuhan,+Hubei,+China/Wuhan+Centres+for+Disease+Prevention+%26+Control

    https://i.imgur.com/SQvf5YS.png

    But, on Baidu, what’s there is listed as the “national virus medical control center” (again, according to my wife):
    https://i.imgur.com/z7xXhqO.png

    So whatever is 300m from the seafood market is legit, and Google map got things wrong/mixed up.

  45. Douglas Knight Says:

    Anonymous 34,
    Thanks, I did not know that and it’s possible that I made errors using satellite maps. But in the end, I don’t think it’s relevant because:
    1. Both BX and this paper use street maps
    2. 300m vs 5km is bigger than the 700m error
    3. 11.7 claims to be a response to something else about WIV not WHCDC

    BX claims that there is a WHCDC lab next door to Union Hospital, whereas this paper quotes the directory that WHCDC is on the other side of the river. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a secret WHCDC lab attached to Union Hospital, but would definitely be a different lab. (BX just dropped a pin on the map, admitting that it’s not in the directory, but I don’t think he explained why, or asserted that it was or was not secret.)

    Also, this paper linked the CDC infographic on biosafety levels. BSL-2 is a pretty low level. I’d think that every lab in a hospital would be BSL-1 and every hospital would have a BSL-2 lab, probably many.

  46. John Cherniavsky Says:

    Scott – I read none of the previous comments but just have one suggestion for you. Get some exercise – better walk or run outside, but if necessary do what you can inside. It will make you feel better and improve your immune system (as long you don’t go crazy and exercise too much, which is not a problem for most of us).

  47. Leon Says:

    Scott #40

    Singapore now has per-capita growth in cases similar to US. The causes are interesting. I’m not sure this is a model for the US.

  48. Scott Says:

    Eli #33: This might be a matter of perception—I really didn’t feel like I was bashing the show. Compared to what I’d expected to be doing before watching it through (based on a few tidbits about how it treated quantum computing), I felt like I was holding my fire! If it helps, I’ll say this: the show succeeded (especially around episodes 2,3,4) at giving me a haunted, creeped-out feeling, suspending my sense for the ridiculous.

    I still don’t understand the motivations of Kenton, though. Did he just, like, enjoy murdering people on a freelance basis, even with no instructions from his boss?

  49. Scott Says:

    John Cherniavsky #46: Thanks for the advice! As it happens, just this afternoon we had a trampoline installed in our backyard. And I’ve resolved to use it every day (weather permitting), to make up for all the lost time when we stupidly didn’t have it.

  50. Anonymous Says:

    Douglas Knight #45

    Street maps would be just as subject to the scrambling as their providers are bound by law to do it, how it’s being done is interesting in itself but I wouldn’t be surprised if google complied with this requirement voluntarily or under the justification that the terms of its contract with the Chinese map suppliers require them to do it.

    I think we all agree that there are discrepancies about how many bat-virus-research facilities are said to exist in Wuhan what their locations, safety levels and distance from the wet market are, but the fact that there is at least one such lab whose existence and research area are not in doubt and conditional on assuming that BX is genuine seems enough to me so as not to dismiss the lab origin theory (even before considering any of the other supporting claims in the github paper)

  51. Douglas Knight Says:

    fred 44,
    Thanks, that clears up most everything. The WHCDC next to Union Hospital is in the Baidu directory, just not in the google maps directory. I think BX used google maps for bilingual labels, so he had to drop pins for the locations. When I claimed that it was not in the Baidu directory, it was probably because I messed up reading BX’s map, because it was a static image, rather than an interactive map with copyable text. (Specifically, I made the idiosyncratic error of believing that he was claiming that WHCDC was west of the hospital, not north.)

    Here is the Chinese phrase: 武汉市疾病预防控制中心
    Put that into google translate to get Wuhan CDC.
    I wanted to give a link to baidu, but I don’t have a clean link. So follow Fred’s, or just search this phrase. When I do, there are a bunch of locations, but the right one is #1, near the green subway line.

  52. Douglas Knight Says:

    Anonymous #50,
    No.

  53. Anonymous Says:

    Douglas Knight, 52

    No on what part ?
    Google maps does appear to follow the GCJ02 coordinate system

    And if the discrepancy is resolved in favor of the Union Hospital location this only increases support for the lab origin theory.

  54. Tamás V Says:

    Or, as an intermediate hypothesis, that an infected animal from one of those labs ended up at the seafood market.

    Eureka! This sentence resonates so much with my experiences. Intermediate hypothesis? No way, it’s a 100% sure bet! 🙂
    Actually, even back in February there were rumors that something was fishy about this virus. What I found really misleading is how it was communicated in the news (at least in those “reasonable” and “balanced” ones I came across) that scientists proved that the virus developed naturally, and as such, conspiracy theorists should just shut up, because it was all Mother Nature. But one doesn’t have to be a brain surgeon to figure out that natural development can happen in lab experiments too, right?

  55. fred Says:

    Scott #49

    Scott, I don’t want to scare you, but please be extremely careful with things like trampolines and whatnot… last thing you want is for a loved one to have to go to the ER for some accident that could have been easily avoided (FDNY EMTs told me themselves that going to a hospital right now is a guarantee to catch covid).

  56. Scott Says:

    fred #55: Thanks for the well-taken advice! Indeed, with Lily finally riding a bike with no training wheels, zooming around the neighborhood next to cars, the thought has certainly crossed my mind that I don’t want any of us to need a hospital right now for any reason. But if we really need to stay in the house all day with a wild 3- and 7-year old, with no outdoor activities and no exercise, then my fear is that we’ll end up in the hospital anyway for self-harm! 😀

  57. JimV Says:

    Re Anonymous @ #43

    As of this minute,

    https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/?utm_campaign=homeAdvegas1?#countries

    shows several nominally democratic counties doing better than the USA in cases per million and deaths per million. South Korea, India, Japan, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Austria, Poland, Romania, Israel, France (close though), Germany, …

    Not all are western, but so what? Western equates to more stupid, or otherwise disadvantaged so have be be graded on a curve? Or has more contact with China where the virus came from?

    (Some might be even more de facto undemocratic than the USA though, I don’t know.)

    I think the main idea is that almost anything would be better than Trump, and we can dream, can’t we?

  58. superdense_coder Says:

    How certain are we that the outbreak even originated in Wuhan? Maybe this was not the first unusual cluster of viral pneumonia cases in the area, only the first where there was a specialist virology lab nearby which made it convenient and quick to work with them to figure out what was happening.

    In other words, it seems almost tautological that the discovery of the virus was connected to a virology lab. It also sounds plausible that the cases they used to discover it were local even if they were not the very first victims of the virus.

  59. Bunsen Burner Says:

    JimV #57

    That’s a valuable resource but does require some caveats. Not all of the countries got the contagion at the same time. You might expect countries struggling with the virus for longer to have more deaths. Also, not all countries measure deaths the same way. For example, the UK only records COVID deaths that occur in hospitals.

    One statistic I would like to know more is what we might call second-order deaths due to overwhelmed health services. There was a case in the UK of a 21 year old carer dying from the virus due to the ambulance not being able to arrive on time. I wonder if there is also an increase in people dying from heart attacks, strokes, accidents, etc because they can no longer get help quickly enough.

  60. fred Says:

    JimV #57

    In terms of deaths, keep in mind that NY state is far ahead (nearly half the death tool for the whole country), mainly because of NYC, which is its own special case – very packed islands and boroughs, a huge mix of communities, a crowded subway system everyone has to use (I live in NYC).
    NY state also has quite a huge rate of testing (for a 19 million population).

  61. Anonymous Says:

    JimV 57

    If you look at deaths per capita you’ll see that Sweden is doing somewhat worse than the US, France is doing much worse.

    Germany is indeed doing better hence the recommendation to cede government to them rater than Singapore or Taiwan, so does Canada.

    I’m comparing the US to Canada and Western Europe because that is the peer group as far as interpersonal culture, economic development and medical care standards are concerned.

    I think the main idea is that almost anything would be better than Trump, and we can dream, can’t we?

    a Singapore-style government would be categorically worse than Trump (Scott – what is it about Singapore that you find so different from the CCP China other than the fact the later has ‘communist’ in its name ?) whose power is still constitutionally limited much to his own frustration.
    Also Singapore is tiny and is hardly facing the challenges of managing a pandemic in a federation that spans an entire continent, that goes for South Korea as well.

    If trying to attribute COVID19 outcomes in the US to Trump requires spinning a narrative that is poorly supported by reality it will not go down well, not being limited by facts is mostly a Republican prerogative these days.

    And Scott is rightfully angry not just with Trump but with the entire institutional dysfunction that was supposedly exhibited here so I think it’s important to compare it with countries at least somewhat comparable in size, development and societal structure.

  62. Anonymous Says:

    superdense_coder, 58

    If the outbreak originated elsewhere we would expect it to explode there first, portraying it as having originated outside of China is allegedly the instruction that was issued by the Chinese government to its embassies some months ago back when they thought they could plausibly pull it off.
    Re. what came first the virus or the lab – if the BSL-4 WIV was the only lab involved it could go either way but still not tautological because if you have a sharply rising unexplained epidemic in one city and your virology institute is located in another you would still get it involved no ?

  63. fred Says:

    The concept of reopening a place like NYC is really puzzling.

    How do you do “contact tracing” when someone who is suddenly testing positive has been riding the subway system for an hour with hundreds of other people?!

  64. fred Says:

    The root causes of the coronavirus coverup in China.

  65. superdense_coder Says:

    Anonymous #62: I agree that it would be unrealistic for it to have originated
    outside of China. But I would not be at all surprised if it originated
    somewhere else in Wuhan further from the virology institute than the wet
    market. Nobody seems to know who the first victim was anyway.

    I would also not be surprised if it originated in some village outside of Wuhan
    was not noticed until it spread to Wuhan soon thereafter.

    Of course the further you get from Wuhan, the harder it is to misattribute the
    origin to Wuhan. How far away can you get before it becomes unrealistic? I have
    no idea really. But maybe this area of misattribution around a large virology
    center is large enough that we should not be too surprised that the origin
    happened there?

    This has some similarities with the drunk man who looks for his keys under the
    streetlight. Should we be surprised if he finds his keys right by the
    streetlight and announces that he must have dropped them there? Maybe not, if
    the keys are self replicating and keeps moving around on their own on the
    ground, and he cares more about quickly announcing to the world that he knows
    exactly where he dropped them than he cares about being right.

  66. ed Says:

    Wuhan lab theory has been disproven.

    https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/04/23/841729646/virus-researchers-cast-doubt-on-theory-of-coronavirus-lab-accident

  67. Michael Says:

    Here’s a recent (April 23rd) article taking a look at the genetics of CoV2. It’s by Yuri Deigin, who leads an anti-aging research firm (presumably he has substantial experience with analyzing genomes). His conclusion, roughly speaking, is that CoV2 appears to be a chimera, combining the ‘backbone’ of the RaTG13 bat coronavirus with the spike protein from a pangolin coronavirus, with the addition of HIV-like furin cleavage sites. CoV2’s genome doesn’t look like someone set out to ‘make the perfect bioweapon’ but strictly from a look at the genome and past research, there’s a plausible story that there was a research arms race around gain-of-function research in coronaviruses and this one got out.

    https://medium.com/@yurideigin/lab-made-cov2-genealogy-through-the-lens-of-gain-of-function-research-f96dd7413748

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