The question of the SARS-CoV-2 origin: whether it was a zoonotic spillover from a wet market, or an engineered virus that escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, is seemingly a debate that will never go away. Most interestingly, while scientists with specific domain expertise seem to be building a consensus towards the former, public opinion appears to be trending towards the latter. This delta between expert and popular opinion has been helped along by the frothy discourse in mainstream and social media, with most figures that we cover in this podcast dead-set certain that it came from a lab.
Most recently, Sam Harris hosted on his Making Sense podcast the molecular biologist Alina Chan and. science writer Matt Ridley, spokespersons for the lab leak case, and authors of "Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19". To a layperson, and certainly to Sam, they put forward a rather watertight case. Intrinsic to the arguments advanced were the ideas that (a) experts in the area were refusing to engage with and unable to answer their arguments, and (b) a strong implication that there is a conspiracy of silence among virologists not just in China but internationally, to suppress the lab leak hypothesis.
So, as a case study in the public understanding of science, it seems like a pretty pickle indeed. To help unravel the pickle(?) in this somewhat special episode, we are joined by three virologists who are amply qualified to address the topic; both in terms of the evidence and whether they are involved in a conspiracy of silence.
Kristian Andersen is a Professor in the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at Scripps Research. He focuses on the relationship between host and pathogen, using sequencing, fieldwork, experimentation, and computational biology methods. He has spearheaded large international collaborations investigating the emergence, spread and evolution of deadly pathogens, including SARS-CoV-2, Zika virus, Ebola virus, West Nile virus, and Lassa virus.
Prof Michael Worobey, is the head of the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona. His work focuses on the genomes of viruses, using molecular and computational biology, to understand the origins, emergence and control of pandemics. Recently, his interdisciplinary work on SARS-CoV-2 has shed light on how and when the virus originated and ignited the COVID-19 pandemic in China and how SARS-CoV-2 emerged and took hold in North America and Europe.
Prof Edward "Eddie" Holmes, is an NHMRC Leadership Fellow & Professor of Virology at the Faculty of Medicine and Health at Sydney University, a member of the Sydney Institute for Infectious Diseases, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and a Fellow of The Royal Society. He is known for his work on the evolution and emergence of infectious diseases, particularly the mechanisms by which RNA viruses jump species boundaries to emerge in humans and other animals. He has studied the emergence and spread of such pathogens as SARS-CoV-2, influenza virus, dengue virus, HIV, hepatitis C virus, myxoma virus, RHDV and Yersinia pestis.
All three researchers have specialist expertise and decades of experience directly applicable to tracking viruses and their adaption to humans, and, fair to say, are fairly eminent in their fields (Eddie in particular!). Further, they are among the relatively small set of researchers collecting and analysing primary evidence on the origins of SARS-CoV-2, communicating their findings in top-ranked journals, including Nature and Science.
In this episode, Chris and Matt put to this trio of Professors the claims raised by lab leak advocates to see what these (
damn conspirators) experts have to say for themselves.
Relevant Research Papers & Letters