Last week’s DNA Science post considered the ebb and flow of treatment possibilities for Alzheimer’s disease. This week, it’s Huntington’s disease. Like…
A year ago, the Director General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, delivered the message that would divide time:
“WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.”
What followed was a call to action to all. “We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear.” And instantly, the redundant “global pandemic” ricocheted across the media, reverberating still.
The name of the enemy had changed quickly as 2020 began, from the “Wuhan coronavirus” to “2019 novel coronavirus” shortened to “2019-nCoV,” and finally to SARS-CoV-2, acknowledging similarity to SARS, circa 2003-2004.
Whatever it’s name, did SARS-CoV-2 have an older guise, perhaps in a lab?
The Bioweapon Hypothesis
The possibility of a bioweapon occurred to me in early January, 2020, with the first reports of cases. And so I noticed “Virus outbreak: research says COVID-19 likely synthetic,” on February 23, 2020 in the Taipei Times. The short article was based on a presentation by a public health researcher at National Taiwan University the day before, who blamed the Wuhan Institute of Virology for seeding the scourge.
That presentation was one of the first mentions, outside of science journals, of RaTG13. It’s a virus that infects a type of horseshoe bat. The virus has taken center stage in the COVID origin story because it either illuminates the natural evolution of the novel coronavirus that’s killed nearly 3 million of us, or is an invention, perhaps not even real, intended to make us think the virus that’s killed nearly 3 million of us naturally evolved. That is, while SARS-CoV-2 was being created in a lab, was RaTG13 also being invented – in reality or digitally as a mere RNA genome sequence – to provide a plausible evolutionary scenario for the arrival of COVID-19? RaTG13 would have given rise to the new virus as it replicated, so that, for a time, the two viruses would co-exist and perhaps still do. (Evolution is branching, not the linear chimp-to-human path displayed on bumper stickers.)
Several succinct and strongly-worded articles from prominent scientists swiftly countered the idea of a bioweapon. Notable are “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2” in Nature Medicine and a statement in The Lancet.
The Yan Reports
Much of the bioweapon narrative is spelled out in a preprint, “SARS-CoV-2 Is an Unrestricted Bioweapon: A Truth Revealed through Uncovering a Large-Scale, Organized Scientific Fraud,” published October 8, 2020, on a platform called Zenodo. A preprint is a paper that hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed. Many COVID technical reports debut as preprints in medRxiv or bioRxiv, and appear in well-respected journals soon after.
The October 8 preprint was a follow-up to “Unusual Features of the SARS-CoV-2 Genome Suggesting Sophisticated Laboratory Modification Rather Than Natural Evolution and Delineation of Its Probable Synthetic Route,” which appeared at ResearchGate September 14, also not peer-reviewed. The early paper is by Limeng Yan, then of the University of Hong Kong School of Public Health, and the later one by her and three co-authors using pseudonyms.
Wikipedia and other sources spell the researcher’s name Li-Meng Yan, amid some confusion over her training – degrees in ophthalmology and virology. Both “Yan reports” state affiliation with the Rule of Law Society & Rule of Law Foundation, based in New York City, which is connected to Steve Bannon. They have not been published in peer-reviewed journals.
Why did Dr. Yan write the second bioweapon preprint so soon after the first? (She has authored papers in standard journals). Because another piece of the viral origin puzzle fell out of the sky: discovery that bat virus RaTG13 could have picked up the key part of its receptor binding domain – where it grabs our cells – from a type of virus in a Malayan pangolin, a mammal.
Could the Chinese have created both bat and pangolin viruses, either as actual viruses or just their digital genome sequences, to set the stage for a genetic swap fantasy that could have spawned SARS-CoV-2?
Here are the arguments presented in Yan report #2.
A Bat and a Pangolin Meet in a Cave, a Meat Market, or a Lab
To recap the basic idea behind the bioweapon hypothesis: the Chinese government knew or created the genetic sequences of a bat virus and a pangolin virus that could have swapped parts to give rise to the virus behind COVID, providing a plausible natural explanation of the origin of the pandemic. At the same time, they created SARS-CoV-2.
Yan report #2 mixes the technical and the logical as follows, with my comments in italics.
1. The genetic sequence of bat virus RaTG13 was uploaded to NIH database GenBank on January 27, 2020. Was it the same virus that was one of several that infected six miners in Mojiang, Yunnan province, in an abandoned mineshaft, excavated in 2012 and 2013? Three miners died of pneumonia. If this widely accepted explanation is true, why the delay in uploading the viral sequence? Yan argues. (“RaTG13” represents the host bat Rhinolophus affinis, the town of the mine Tongguan, and the year of discovery, 2013). The bat virus is more likely a recent invention, Yan writes. (Logic)
Instead, the genome of the bat virus, Yan and colleagues claim, originated as a cut-and-paste of two military-lab-made viral sequences (ZC45 and ZXC21). The genome could have been created by synthesizing pieces of RNA, overlapping their sequences and joining them, and throwing in a few bits of RNA from fecal samples (to mimic viruses living amid bat excrement) to avert suspicion. This paper and others debunk Yan’s claim of a simple laboratory creation. (Yan’s technical description reads a little like instructions to make a bomb posted on the Internet.)
As I read on, the refrain “RaTG13 does not exist in nature” began to appear.
2. RaTG13 went by different names years ago, and that’s suspicious. (Not really. HIV was once HTLV3 and then LAV.)
3. RaTG13 differs from related coronaviruses in a part of its anatomy crucial to its ability to spread and sicken us: the precise site where the two subunits of the spike protein meet. (Technical, logical, and human hubris: the virus behind COVID is so perfect a weapon that someone must have created it.)
4. The high number and severe nature of the mutations in RaTG13 are too unlike those of its coronavirus cousins to have occurred naturally. (Experts estimate it would have taken at least 50 years for the bat virus to have mutated itself into SARS-CoV-2. The genome sequences are 96.1% alike.)
Here begins another refrain, like the intertwining musical themes in the score of Hamilton. The word “fabrication” starts to crop up, providing subtext to “RaTG13 does not exist in nature.” (If a virus is unnatural AND invented, it must be a bioweapon. Repeat until accepted.)
5. The tale of the bat and pangolin viruses meeting and swapping parts, with SARS-CoV-2 emerging, just seems too neat. Yan’s answer to that? The pangolin coronavirus was invented too. She questions four studies frequently cited as supporting the pangolin connection, claiming that the quartet of research groups got their virus from the same pangolin, diluting the strength of the assumption of independent corroboration of findings.
6. The timing is suspect. The paper in Nature introducing bat virus RaTG13, published February 3, 2020 and submitted just two weeks earlier, was a day after Yan first presented the bioweapon hypothesis on social media. Online comments beneath the Nature paper suggest a rush to publish.
Yan concludes “… the unleashing of the virus must be a planned execution rather than an accident.” It is an “unrestricted bioweapon.”
A Checklist for a Bioweapon
SARS-CoV-2 fits general criteria of a bioweapon: it spreads easily even among the asymptomatic, resists environmental changes, can be transported and intentionally released in a targeted manner, and can cause severe disease and death.
The Grunow-Finke assessment tool digs a little deeper, helping public health officials tell whether a scary new pathogen is more likely of natural or unnatural origins. Some criteria:
1. A political or terrorist environment that could inspire invention of a bioweapon.
2. Novelty. Odd place of origin? Traits that suggest genetic modification, such as increased virulence and unusual environmental hardiness? Persistence despite public health measures or treatments? Difficult to detect?
3. High concentration in the environment (air, soil, and/or water).
4. Many cases.
5. Patterns of transmission that differ from those of related pathogens, like the coronaviruses that cause the common cold.
6. Rapid spread, reflecting the pathogen’s virulence, resistance, concentration, and ease of transmission as well as the host’s exposure and susceptibility.
A factor that argues against SARS-CoV-2 being a bioweapon: it doesn’t target, by a biological mechanism, specific groups of people in terms of their ancestry.
Composing the Narrative of SARS-CoV-2
Anyone who’s ever watched Law and Order or played Clue, or is actually in law enforcement, or in science for that matter, knows that evidence can be assembled in more than one way. It can be re-ordered, ignored, or amplified to propel alternative narratives.
The story of the coronavirus bioweapon makes me think of the “Paul is dead” myth that Time magazine dubbed one of the most enduring of conspiracy theories. In both cases – the supposedly deceased Beatle and the new virus – I think the clues are too sparse to connect into conclusions that reflect reality.
The “evidence” that Paul McCartney died on November 9, 1966 and was replaced by a lookalike is familiar to those of a certain age: Paul walking out of step and barefoot on the cover of Abbey Road, John supposedly chanting “Paul is dead” at the end of “I Am The Walrus” played backwards, and the lyric “here’s another clue for you all, the walrus was Paul” in “Glass Onion.”
Paul McCartney isn’t dead. And I don’t think that SARS-CoV-2 is an invention, a bioweapon that’s killed millions. The story of an intentional origin, with faked evolution from other viruses, is just too convoluted.
But I’m not 100% certain.
Determining the origin of SARS-CoV-2 may be a moot intellectual exercise at this point – the “global pandemic” is, after all, a year in. But knowing with greater certainty whether terrorists tinkered with nature could be a first step in preventing future bioterrorism at this unprecedented scale. I’ve only scratched the surface of the bioweapon hypothesis here and welcome comments and corrections.