An occasional review of technology, markets, and ideas.

Origin of Covid, A Timeline of Narratives

Did COVID naturally emerge or was there a lab leak? I compile a timeline of who was saying what, when.

People are coming out of the university with a masters degree or a PhD and you take them into the field and they literally don't believe anything unless it's a peer reviewed paper. It's the only thing they accept. And you say to them...Let's observe, let's think, let's discuss. They don't do it. It's just is it in a peer-reviewed paper or not. That's their view of science. – Allan Savory
And now that I have allowed myself the jest to which in this two-sided life hardly any page can be too serious to grant a place, I part with the book with deep seriousness, in the sure hope that sooner or later it will reach those to whom alone it can be addressed; and for the rest, patiently resigned that the same fate should, in full measure, befall it, that in all ages has, to some extent, befallen all knowledge, and especially the weightiest knowledge of the truth, to which only a brief triumph is allotted between the two long periods in which it is condemned as paradoxical or disparaged as trivial. The former fate is also wont to befall its author. But life is short, and truth works far and lives long: let us speak the truth. – Arthur Schopenhauer

As I was reading through Nicholas Wade's excellent article "Origin of Covid — Following the Clues" I thought I would start pulling together a timeline to get a better sense for who was saying what, and when. I consider this a work in progress and will likely update this document as new information comes out.

Update (9/7/2021): I just came across a reading list which has links to hundreds of articles regarding what is known (and not known) about the origin of SARS-CoV-2. I'll continue to update my list with what I think are the most important articles, but if you want to drink from the proverbial firehose, I'd recommend heading to the link.

January 3, 2020

In early January, China ordered full information lockdown regarding the disease and ordered the destruction of any lab samples:

[O]n Jan 3, China's National Health Commission (NHC), the nation's top health authority, ordered institutions not to publish any information related to the unknown disease, and ordered labs to transfer any samples they had to designated testing institutions, or to destroy them. – "How early signs of the coronavirus were spotted, spread and throttled in China"

January 6, 2020

The NYT first reports on COVID saying that Beijing is "racing to identify a new illness that has sickened 59 people." They also pointed out that Chinese workers were disinfecting the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan since the market was likely where the virus originated:

Workers wearing hazmat suits disinfected and shut down the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, which also sold poultry, pheasants and wild animal meats, after the city health department said it traced many of the cases to it. Viruses that caused SARS and the H7N9 strain of bird flu in humans were first detected in markets that sold animals and experts have said contact with infected animals was the likeliest source of transmission."China Grapples With Mystery Pneumonia-Like Illness"

January 24, 2020

"Both SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV were believed to originate in bats, and these infections were transmitted directly to humans from market civets and dromedary camels, respectively.35 Extensive research on SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV has driven the discovery of many SARS-like and MERS-like coronaviruses in bats." – Clinical features of patients infected with 2019 novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China

January 26, 2020

The Washington Times ran a piece quoting a former Israeli military intelligence officer who said that it was possible that the virus could have originated in a lab:

“In principle, outward virus infiltration might take place either as leakage or as an indoor unnoticed infection of a person that normally went out of the concerned facility. This could have been the case with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but so far there isn’t evidence or indication for such incident.” – "Coronavirus may have originated in lab linked to China's biowarfare program"

January 28, 2020

Politifact claims that the "Wuhan lab mentioned in the [ZeroHedge] story does deal with dangerous pathogens like coronaviruses, but there is no evidence that it is the source of the latest outbreak."

February 3, 2020

Nature ran an article in which Chinese scientists from Wuhan sequenced SARS-CoV-2 to a coronavirus from a bat (RaTG13) and found that it is "96% identical at the whole-genome level to a bat coronavirus."

Here we report the identification and characterization of a new coronavirus (2019-nCoV), which caused an epidemic of acute respiratory syndrome in humans in Wuhan, China. The epidemic, which started on 12 December 2019, had caused 2,794 laboratory-confirmed infections including 80 deaths by 26 January 2020. Full-length genome sequences were obtained from five patients at an early stage of the outbreak. The sequences are almost identical and share 79.6% sequence identity to SARS-CoV. Furthermore, we show that 2019-nCoV is 96% identical at the whole-genome level to a bat coronavirus."A pneumonia outbreak associated with a new coronavirus of probable bat origin"

Februrary 17, 2020

The NYT ran an article titled "Sentor Tom Cotton Repeats Fringe Theory of Coronavirus Origins" in which the paper chastised Tom Cotton for the following statement:

“We don’t have evidence that this disease originated there,” the senator said, “but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says, and China right now is not giving evidence on that question at all.” – Tom Cotton, February 2020

The article claims that Cotton was trafficking in conspiracy theories that "[lack] evidence and have been dismissed by scientists":

Although much remains unknown about the coronavirus, experts generally dismiss the idea that it was created by human hands. Scientists who have studied the coronavirus say it resembles SARS and other viruses that come from bats. While contagious, so far it appears to largely threaten the lives of older people with chronic health issues, making it a less-than-effective bioweapon.

February 19, 2020

The Lancet published a letter co-signed by 27 public health scientists who applauded the work Chinese scientists did to study COVID-19, condemned conspiracy theories which suggest that COVID-19 did not have a natural origin and cite 9 papers which they claim provides ample evidence about COVID-19 having originated in wildlife:

"The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins. We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin. Scientists from multiple countries have published and analysed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2),1 and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife" – Calisher et al. 2020

February 20, 2020

A pre-print of the article "The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2" was posted on virological.org. This article claims that it's improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a coronavirus:

It is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus. As noted above, the RBD of SARS-CoV-2 is optimized for binding to human ACE2 with an efficient solution different from those previously predicted7,11. Furthermore, if genetic manipulation had been performed, one of the several reverse-genetic systems available for betacoronaviruses would probably have been used19. However, the genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone20. Instead, we propose two scenarios that can plausibly explain the origin of SARS-CoV-2: (i) natural selection in an animal host before zoonotic transfer; and (ii) natural selection in humans following zoonotic transfer. We also discuss whether selection during passage could have given rise to SARS-CoV-2.

March 12, 2020

Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry suggested that the U.S. military might have brought the coronavirus to Wuhan:

March 12, 2020

Vox published an article "The conspiracy theories about the origins of the coronavirus, debunked" in which the author claims "The emergence of the virus in the same city as China’s only level 4 biosafety lab, it turns out, is pure coincidence." [it appears this article was edited by Vox to now say "appears to be pure coincidence.]

Barclay writes:

The scientific evidence disproving these rumors matters because the conspiracy theory could persist and undermine trust in public health authorities at this critical moment. As the Washington Post reported, the rumor that the virus came from a Chinese lab is one reason residents of one Alabama county are currently unnerved and distrustful of the response to Covid-19 in their state. – "The conspiracy theories about the origins of the coronavirus, debunked"

March 17, 2020

Nature published "The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2" which was pre-printed on virological.org. The article claims the "lab leak" hypothesis was improbable and that the virus was not purposefully manipulated.

"It is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus. As noted above, the RBD of SARS-CoV-2 is optimized for binding to human ACE2 with an efficient solution different from those previously predicted." – The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2
"Here we review what can be deduced about the origin of SARS-CoV-2 from comparative analysis of genomic data. We offer a perspective on the notable features of the SARS-CoV-2 genome and discuss scenarios by which they could have arisen. Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus."The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2

Spring, 2020

The NYT decided not to run an article tentatively headlined "New Coronavirus is 'Clearly Not a Lab Leak,' Scientists Say" because of a deep divide between what national security sources were saying and what the virologists/zoologists were saying.

In early spring 2020, I reported an article for The New York Times on which I put the tentative headline: “New Coronavirus Is ‘Clearly Not a Lab Leak,’ Scientists Say.” It never ran...The experts all agreed that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was not a deliberate weaponization of a previously known virus and that it had no obvious signs of lab manipulation."How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the Lab-Leak Theory"

April 16, 2020

Look, first, the idea that this virus escaped from a lab is just pure baloney. It’s simply not true. I’ve been working with that lab for 15 years. And the samples collected were collected by me and others in collaboration with our Chinese colleagues. They’re some of the best scientists in the world. There was no viral isolate in the lab. There was no cultured virus that’s anything related to SARS coronavirus 2. So it’s just not possible.Dr. Peter Daszak

April 17, 2020

Professor Luc Montagnier, 2008 Nobel Prize winner for Medicine claimed that SARS-CoV-2 is a manipulated virus and hypothesized that it was accidentally released from a laboratory in Wuhan, China:

“we came to the conclusion that there was manipulation around this virus. […] To a part but I do not say the total […] of the coronavirus of the bat, someone added sequences, in particular of HIV, the virus of AIDS. […] It is not natural. It’s the work of professionals, of molecular biologists. […] A very meticulous work.”

April 29, 2020

Vox published a follow-up piece on the "lab leak hypothesis" which concludes that "focusing too much on the lab-leak theory could ultimately be dangerous" and that it "could become a conspiratorial distraction with serious consequences." It seems that the logic of "lab leak denialism" was thus: Trump is up for re-election and he is pointing to the lab-leak as the cause for the virus as a way of scapegoating China and "divert[ing] attention from his failures" thus the conspiracy theory must be stamped out.

Some excerpts:

[Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance and a disease ecologist] says he’s confident SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus, originated in bats and jumped into people somewhere, likely in China, because he and his colleagues have established that viruses like it are out there and there are so many opportunities for this to happen.
Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, also sees the lab-leak theory as very unlikely. “This virus came from bats under unknown circumstances,” she told me. “While I cannot rule out the lab-accident theory, there are so many other possibilities for how it could have happened. It could have been someone collecting bat guano for fertilizer, somebody cleaning out a barn, somebody exploring a cave. It could be any situation like that of someone in contact with animals who then spread it to other humans. There are so many other options than a lab leak.”
“The reason I’m not putting a lot of weight on [the lab-escape theory] is there was no chatter prior to the emergence of this virus to a discovery that would have ended up bringing the virus into a lab,” he says. “And if nothing else, the scientific community tends to be very gossipy. If there is a novel, potentially dangerous virus which has been identified, circulating in nature, and it’s brought into a laboratory, there is chatter about that. And when you look back retrospectively, there’s no chatter whatsoever about the discovery of a new virus.” – Dennis Carroll, former director of USAID's emerging threats division
“I have worked in this exact laboratory at various times for the past 2 years,” wrote Danielle Anderson, scientific director of the Duke-NUS Medical School ABSL3 Laboratory, in a March 2 post on Health Feedback, a site where scientists review the veracity of news reports. “I can personally attest to the strict control and containment measures implemented while working there. The staff at WIV are incredibly competent, hardworking, and are excellent scientists with superb track records.”

May 2020

According to a WSJ report, in May 2020, a classified report prepared by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory determined that the "lab leak" hypothesis was credible and deserved further investigation:

A report on the origins of Covid-19 by a U.S. government national laboratory concluded that the hypothesis claiming the virus leaked from a Chinese lab in Wuhan is plausible and deserves further investigation, according to people familiar with the classified document. The study was prepared in May 2020 by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and was drawn on by the State Department when it conducted an inquiry into the pandemic’s origins during the final months of the Trump administration. – Wall Street Journal

May 2, 2020

In a pre-print, Zhan, Deverman, and Chan point out that when they compared the evolutionary dynamics between the 2019/2020 SARS-CoV-2 and the 2003 SARS-CoV they were struck by the fact that right out of the gate, SARS-CoV-2 seemed to have adaptations that made human-to-human transmission very easy with no evidence of evolutionary branches or precursors:

"Our observations suggest that by the time SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in late 2019, it was already pre-adapted to human transmission to an extent similar to late epidemic SARS-CoV. However, no precursors or branches of evolution stemming from a less human-adapted SARS-CoV-2-like virus have been detected." – SARS-CoV-2 is well adapted for humans. What does this mean for re-emergence?

May 25, 2020

The Director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology argues that the "lab leak" hypothesis is pure fabrication:

Wang: This [rumor that the novel coronavirus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology] is pure fabrication. Our institute first received the clinical sample of the unknown pneumonia on December 30 last year. After we checked the pathogen within the sample, we found it contained a new coronavirus, which is now called SARS-CoV-2. We didn't have any knowledge before that, nor had we ever encountered, researched or kept the virus. In fact, like everyone else, we didn't even know the virus existed. How could it have leaked from our lab when we never had it? – CGTN Exclusive: Director of Wuhan Institute of Virology says 'let science speak'

June 5, 2020

The British intelligence service weighs in and argues that the "lab leak" hypothesis is fake news:

"MI5 regards the theory that the coronavirus was manufactured in a Chinese laboratory as “fake news”, intelligence sources said yesterday. The service, responsible for internal UK security, dismissed the idea as rumour and conspiracy and likened it to the claims made by the anti-vaccination movement." – MI5 believes coronavirus came from Wuhan market

July 2, 2020

Birger Sørensen, a Norwegian virologist claims that certain insertions suggest that the virus was manipulated in a lab:

“I understand that this is controversial, but the public has a legitimate need to know, and it is important that it is possible to freely discuss alternate hypotheses on how the virus originated” Birger Sørensen starts to explain when Minerva visits him in his office one morning in Oslo.

Sørensen points to several factors which led him to conclude (with 90 percent certainty) that the virus was not natural in origin:

There are several factors that point towards [the virus not being natural in origin],” says Sørensen. “Firstly, this part of the virus is very stable; it mutates very little. That points to this virus as a fully developed, almost perfected virus for infecting humans. Secondly, this indicates that the structure of the virus cannot have evolved naturally. When we compare the novel coronavirus with the one that caused SARS, we see that there are altogether six inserts in this virus that stand out compared to other known SARS viruses...four of these six changes have the property that they are suited to infect humans.” – "The most logical explanation is that it comes from a laboratory"

July 10, 2020

September 15, 2020

Politifact wrote an article stating that an on-air claim made on the Tucker Carlson show that "this virus, COVID-19 SARS-CoV-2 virus, actually is not from nature" runs "counter to scientific evidence."

"The consensus of the scientific community and international public health organizations is that the coronavirus emerged from bats and later jumped to humans. Scientists worldwide have publicly shared the genetic makeup of the coronavirus thousands of times. If the virus had been altered, there would be evidence in its genome data. But there isn’t."

January 4, 2021

Nicholson Baker of the NY Magazine suggests that the lab leak hypothesis is true:

What happened was fairly simple, I’ve come to believe. It was an accident. A virus spent some time in a laboratory, and eventually it got out. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, began its existence inside a bat, then it learned how to infect people in a claustrophobic mine shaft, and then it was made more infectious in one or more laboratories, perhaps as part of a scientist’s well-intentioned but risky effort to create a broad-spectrum vaccine. SARS-2 was not designed as a biological weapon. But it was, I think, designed. – NY Magazine

January 29, 2021

Bill Maher discusses the lab leak hypothesis with Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein. They discuss the likelihood of the virus coming from a lab and Weinstein argues that the likelihood that this came from a lab is around 90%.

March 31, 2021

China calls on the WHO to explore whether COVID-19 emerged from other countries and suggested that the virus may have originated at Fort Detrick in Maryland.

“As you know relevant study is already done in Wuhan labs, but when will Fort Detrick be open to those experts?” [Hua Chunying] asked. “If necessary, we hope the U.S. can be as open and candid as China.” – China Says Covid-19 Origin Probe Should Shift Focus to Other Countries

May 5, 2021

Nicholas Wade, a science reporter for the New York Times wrote in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that the "lab leak" theory deserves greater scrutiny:

I’ll describe the two theories, explain why each is plausible, and then ask which provides the better explanation of the available facts. It’s important to note that so far there is no direct evidence for either theory. Each depends on a set of reasonable conjectures but so far lacks proof. So I have only clues, not conclusions, to offer. But those clues point in a specific direction. – "The origin of COVID: Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan?"

May 14, 2021

18 scientists sent a letter to Science calling for an investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2:

[S]cientists have made remarkable progress in understanding the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), its transmission, pathogenesis, and mitigation by vaccines, therapeutics, and non-pharmaceutical interventions. Yet more investigation is still needed to determine the origin of the pandemic. Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable. – "Investigate the origins of COVID-19"

May 23, 2021

The WSJ reports that three researchers from China's Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care, according to a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report.

The State Department fact sheet issued during the Trump administration, which drew on classified intelligence, said that the “U.S. government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and seasonal illnesses.” The Jan. 15 fact sheet added that this fact “raises questions about the credibility” of Dr. Shi and criticized Beijing for its “deceit and disinformation” while acknowledging that the U.S. government hasn’t determined exactly how the pandemic began. – Intelligence on Sick Staff at Wuhan Lab Fuels Debate On Covid-19 Origin

June 14, 2021

Appearing on The Late Show with Stepen Colbert, Jon Stewart points out the odd coincidence that the origin of SARS-CoV-2 happens to be in the same city as a virology lab whose goal is to investigate novel coronaviruses:

"There's a novel respiratory coronavirus overtaking Wuhan, China...Oh, you know who we could ask? The Wuhan novel respiratory coronavirus lab. The disease is the same name as the lab! That's just a little too weird, don't you think?""

September 2, 2021

Science published an article, "Call Of The Wild", in which Jon Cohen makes the case that it's unlikely that SARS-CoV-2 originated from a "lab leak."

  • Robert Garry: “Why would the virus first have infected a few dozen lab researchers?” he asks. The virus may also have moved from bats into other species before jumping to humans, as happened with SARS. But again, why would it have infected a lab worker first? “There are hundreds of millions of people who come in contact with wildlife.”
  • Linfa Wang: “Accidents can only happen when you already have a live virus in culture that can leak,” Wang says. Bat coronaviruses are notoriously hard to grow. Shi told Science last year that her lab had more than 2000 bat fecal samples and anal and oral swabs that tested positive for coronaviruses. But the lab had only isolated and grown three viruses over 15 years, Shi said, and none closely resembled SARS-CoV-2.
  • Shi Zhengli: After copper miners contracted an unknown virus, researchers sequenced them and found that a SARS-related virus, RaTG13, was 96.2% genetically identical to SARS-CoV-2 but did not find evidence of coronaviruses/coronavirus antibodies. “We wanted to prove that a coronavirus caused the deaths,” says Wang, who grew up in Shanghai but is now an Australian citizen. “If we proved that another SARS-like virus was in humans in China that would have been scientifically brilliant,” he says. “It’s a Science or Nature paper. No scientist is going to wait for this to leak.”

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