Josh Mitteldorf at Aging Matters has a series of posts with some bizarro views on COVID-19. First, he argues that we have hugely overreacted to COVID-19. That was written ten days ago when about 2,000 people per day were dying in the United States from it and they were digging trenches for temporary burials in New York. We are now over 50,000 deaths in a little more than a month. Despite his argument that we are overreacting, he then in two additional posts argues that COVID-19 might have the result of genetic tinkering at either at the Wuhan Institute of Virology or at the American virology lab at Fort Detrick. Or, even more bizarrely, the United States has been working with the Chinese on bioweapons research. He elaborates the theory in a third post.
I’ve liked many posts, primarily on aging, on the Aging Matters blog, but I do think he may have jumped the shark with some of these recent posts.
Is there any merit to these claims?
I would say some but not enough to persuade me. It is easy to string together some facts, conjectures, and theories, draw some tenuous connections and come up with a superficially persuasive theory.
It is true that the Wuhan Institute of Virology has been doing research with bats and coronaviruses. It is in the area of the world when human and bat contact is common, because people extract guano from bat caves for fertilizer and bats are caught and sold for human consumption. Naturally they would be working with bat viruses. Scientists there also have apparently engaged in some genetic manipulation of coronaviruses. If we combine those facts with some miscellaneous facts and interpretations from elsewhere, we can generate a full-blown conspiracy theory.
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.
And like you say, it’s really a politicization of the origins of a pandemic, and it’s really unfortunate. The stories, as President Trump said he’s been hearing, have been around since day one of the outbreak, and they’re around in every outbreak. Every single outbreak of a novel virus, somebody somewhere says, “Well, this has been manufactured in a lab.” In fact, a few weeks ago, when this started circulating, I googled ”HIV is man-made.” Do it yourself and see. There are people out there who still believe this is a bioengineered virus that spread around the world. It’s just really unfortunate. And I don’t really know why these conspiracy theories get such traction. I think the people just have trouble understanding what’s going on on the planet.
Are there strands of identical genetic material between HIV and COVID-19? This is a key part of the theory. No. The complete genome of both HIV and COVID-19 have been identified and there is a software program that can look for matches. “Per BLAST, ‘no significant similarity was found’. In plain English, SARS-CoV-2 is not made of the bat coronavirus and small bits of the HIV virus”.
Are there similarities between HIV and COVID-19. Yes. They are both viruses with “have a glycoprotein envelope. Even though if they belong to two completely different families – HIV is a lentivirus while SARS is a coronavirus – the two viruses are bound to have ‘something’ in common”.
So I would still not say the possibility that COVID-19 escaped from a lab is zero. I would just say the odds are much better that it arose naturally from a mutated bat virus. To quote Daszak: “And we estimate there are 1.7 million unknown viruses in wildlife, so there’s a lot of diversity out there that could emerge in the future.” That’s a lot of rolls of the dice that could produce a virulent flu.
Adding to the conspiracy theory is an ABC News report that ““Concerns about what is now known to be the novel coronavirus pandemic were detailed in a November intelligence report by the military’s National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI), according to two officials familiar with the document’s contents.” November was well before anybody had identified a new contagion. So, how did they know? The report, however, specifically does not say that Intelligence knew that whatever was happening in Wuhan in November was a coronavirus.
That Intelligence could pick up signs of a epidemic before it comes to attention of authorities is not at all surprising. I believe trend analyses on Google searches can often provide warning of normal flu outbreaks. There is also the Kinsa thermometer which has been used to track trends here in the United States. In a country like China, likely all or most Internet and phone traffic is tracked. So Chinese Intelligence would likely have known about it from key words in social media, emails, and chats and, if they knew about it, most likely we would have known about if our Intelligence is any good.
I’ll grant one thing about a possible conspiracy if we are looking for deliberate intent. If anybody wanted to disrupt the United States they could hardly have picked a better way to do it with this particular administration at this point in time.
What we have is almost a perfect storm of a viral agent that requires governmental action, coordination, and resources guided by science hitting a administration run by ignoramuses and completely inept at doing anything besides lining their own pockets.
Why would the culprits be the Chinese who the need the markets in the United States? There are any number of others who would have more interest in disrupting the United States – Iran, Russia (who seems somewhat mysteriously unmentioned in all of this). And what better place to release the virus than Wuhan where the blame could be placed on nature or the Chinese.