A little Bit of Knowledge

Prof. Joel Eissenberg, Saint Louis University discussing Senator Rand Paul’s outburst on the beginnings of the Covid-19 virus.

“A little learning is a dangerous thing. Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring; There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.”

~Alexander Pope

By now, we’ve all seen the spectacle of Rand Paul, a former ophthalmologist, bullying Tony Fauci, the internationally famous virologist and director of the National Institutes for Allergy and Infectious disease about gain-of-function mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

“‘We don’t know,’ Paul remarked.

‘All of the evidence is pointing that it came from the lab and there will be responsible for those who funded the lab including yourself.’

‘No one is saying those viruses caused the pandemic! What we’re alleging is gain of function research was going on in that lab and NIH funded it. It meets your definition and you are obfuscating the truth.'”

‘I’m not obfuscating the truth!’ Fauci shot back.

‘Are you are implying that what we did was responsible for the deaths of individuals? I totally resent that and if anybody is lying here, Senator, it is you.'”

Rumors of nefarious activity at the Wuhan Institute of Virology have been the stuff of right-wing conspiracy theory since the pandemic was in its infancy. So far, there is no evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is the product of genetic engineering or an escaped lab experiment. Every hypothesis about engineering or lab selection has been scrutinized and either debunked or found to have perfectly benign explanations.

Nobel Laureate virologist David Baltimore even got into the act. Baltimore had suggested that a specific feature in Covid-19’s genome, known as the furin cleavage site, was the “smoking gun” to the theory the virus had been contained inside a laboratory and then escaped via a leak. He later back-pedaled

There’s a saying in research science: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Given what we know about the origins of nearly all viral pandemics—that they resulted from a virus jumping from an animal to a human host (zoonotic infection) – the null hypothesis for the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic should be and was zoonotic. The competing claim that the SARS-CoV-2 originated in a research lab at the Wuhan Institute for Virology (WIV) has been widely circulating on conspiracy theory web sites. Based on what we know about SARS-CoV-2 genome structure, comparative coronavirus genomics and viral epidemiology in general, it is fair to say that the burden of proof falls upon those who support the lab origin hypothesis.

According to a recent preprint review, this burden has not been met, and the most parsimonious hypothesis is a zoonotic origin. The authors also underscore the importance of further research to define the origin of COVID-19 and the danger of distracting claims to the research necessary to prepare for future pandemics.

“There is currently no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 has a laboratory origin. There is no evidence that any early cases had any connection to the WIV, in contrast to the clear epidemiological links to animal markets in Wuhan, nor evidence that the WIV possessed or worked on a progenitor of SARS-CoV-2 prior to the pandemic. The suspicion that SARS-CoV-2 might have a laboratory origin stems from the coincidence that it was first detected in a city that houses a major virological laboratory that studies coronaviruses. Wuhan is the largest city in central China with multiple animal markets and is a major hub for travel and commerce, well connected to other areas both within China and internationally. The link to Wuhan therefore more likely reflects the fact that pathogens often require heavily populated areas to become established.

We contend that there is substantial body of scientific evidence supporting a zoonotic origin for SARS-CoV-2. While the possibility of a laboratory accident cannot be entirely dismissed, and may be near impossible to falsify, this conduit for emergence is highly unlikely relative to the numerous and repeated human-animal contacts that occur routinely in the wildlife trade. Failure to comprehensively investigate the zoonotic origin through collaborative and carefully coordinated studies would leave the world vulnerable to future pandemics arising from the same human activities that have repeatedly put us on a collision course with novel viruses.”

The Origins of SARS-CoV-2: A Critical Review | Zenodo

Could SARS-CoV-2 have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology? Yes, it’s possible, and proving the negative – that it didn’t – is impossible. But given the experience of viral epidemiology over the past several decades, the burden of proof is on conspiracy mongers like Sen. Paul to come up with evidence.

Bellicose showboating in a Senate hearing is no substitute for scientific evidence, even in the field of ophthalmology.