Thursday, August 26, 2021

"A Science in Shadows": Washington Post piece on gain-of-function research and relevance to COVID19


Cafe at NIH Bethesda MD 2015-3

David Willman and Madison Muller discuss the whole issue of “Gain of Function” research in a long Washington Post pieceA Science in the Shadows”, Aug. 26, 2010.   The tagline, “Controls on ‘gain of function’ experiments with supercharged pathogens have been undercut despite concerns about lab leaks”.

The basic takeaway is that these dangerous experiments have been going on in several labs around the world, including two in the U.S., and at one time the US supported Wuhan on experiments with coronaviruses (if it really stopped is a little unclear).

The article links to another story by Ellen Nakashima, Yasmeen Abutaleb and Joel Achenbach on Biden’s receiving the intelligence review, which is not yet available, awaiting redaction of classified materials.  Some of the motivation for this comes from reports of workers from the Wuhan lab being hospitalized in the fall of 2019, but in China people go to the hospital more quickly than in the IS.

But the report seems to be inconclusive.  I tried to explain the big picture with a comment of my own:

“I've read comments by experts that "furin cleavage" and "receptor binding domain" changes do happen naturally with coronaviruses. But I've also read expert comments that this particular virus's change is still unusual in nature from the viewpoint of the details of the biochemistry. Unfortunately, we need a trace of the virus's evolution back to an animal (whether or not humans intervened with GoF, which sounds plausible -- as does accidental US co-culpability extending back for years even if it did happen in a Wuhan lab).  From a practical viewpoint, Americans (and those everywhere) face a severe curtailment of their freedoms for a common good due to an unpredicted "force majeur" event, and we need to think that idea through as to how we view our freedoms. (Look at what is going on in Australia with lockdowns and "zero Covid", v. counting on vaccines.)”

Update 8/27:  ABC News reports in some detail on the intelligence report, article by Sasha Pezenik,Sony Salzman, andKaitlyn Folmer.  Four intelligence elements said with low confidence that the pandemic came from natural zoonotic spillover, one said with moderate confidence that it was a lab leak.  No one believes it was intentional or weapons development, and does not believe the Chinese realized the seriousness of the epidemic until toward the end of 2019, although there are events (Military olympics, communications shutdown in early Oct., database closure in Sept 2019, and even hospital parking lot use, as well as some specific information about a virus in one cave in southern China) that suggest they could have been aware of a potential problem.  (Reports of wastewater near Spain in March 2019 are interesting.)  It seems as though that near Wuhan the virus started to exponentiate maybe in early December 2019, maybe with scattered cases before. But some private American citizens seem to have become aware of something going on, at least by mid December.  There is an unclassified summary, linked by Fox News's story (similar to AP and ABC), here

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