They called it a conspiracy theory. But Alina Chan tweeted life with the idea that the virus came from a lab.

The obvious problem with the lab leak theory, however, is that there is no concrete evidence left. Chan has no particular opinion on how an accident could have happened – that a student got sick in a bat cave, for example, or that a secret research to infect mice with a new virus has gone bad. After reading Chan’s posts, I noticed that many of his claims don’t even relate to direct evidence at all; most often, they revolve around his absence. She tends to point out things the Chinese researchers didn’t do or say, important facts they didn’t reveal quickly, the infected market animal they never found, or a base of. data that is no longer online. It clearly suggests that there is a cover-up and, therefore, a plot to hide the truth.


Last February, when top scientists got together to analyze the genome of the virus, they ended up publishing two letters. One, in The Lancet, outright dismissed the possibility of a lab accident as a “conspiracy theory” (its authors included a scientist who funded research at the Wuhan lab). The other was the “Proximal origins”In Nature Medicine, co-authored by Kristian Andersen, evolutionary biologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. Andersen and his co-authors examined the genome of the virus and put together arguments as to why it was most likely a natural occurrence, supported by evidence that it was similar to others found in nature.

The 30,000 genetic letters of this genome remain the most widely studied clue to the origin of the virus. Coronaviruses frequently exchange coins, a phenomenon called recombination. Andersen found that all components of the virus had already been seen in samples taken over the years from animals. Evolution could have produced it, he believed. The Wuhan Institute had genetically engineered bat viruses for science experiments, but the SARS-CoV-2 genome did not match any of the preferred “chassis” viruses used in these experiments, and it did not contain any others. obvious sign of engineering.

According to Clarivate, an analytics company, the Nature Medicine letter was the 55th most cited article of 2020, with more than 1,300 citations in the journals followed. Email records would later show that as of January 2020, the letter had been the subject of high-level urgent messages and conference calls between the authors of the letters, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Allergy Institute. and infectious diseases; the best virologists; and the head of the Wellcome Trust, a major UK pharmaceutical research funding organization. Very early on, the authors worried that the virus would appear suspicious before quickly regrouping around a scientific analysis supporting a natural cause. Initially, one of their goals was to quell rumors that the virus was a biological weapon or the result of engineering gone wrong, but they ended up taking it a step further by writing, “We don’t think so. that some type of laboratory scenario is plausible. “

Working from his home in Massachusetts, Chan quickly found a way to revive the theory of lab accidents by looking for differences with SARS, a similar virus that erupted in 2002 but caused only about 8,000 illnesses. . Along with Shing Zhan, a bioinformatics specialist at the University of British Columbia, Chan examined the first human cases of covid and found that the new virus had not mutated as quickly as SARS. If this were an animal virus from a market, she thought, its genome would show signs of adjusting faster to accommodate its brand new human host. She prepared an analysis claiming the virus was “pre-adapted” to humans and came up with some theories as to why. Perhaps it had spread undetected in people elsewhere in China. Or maybe, she thought, it had grown somewhere in a lab, possibly multiplying in human cells or in transgenic mice to which human genes had been spliced.

The possibility that an unmodified virus has “adapted to humans while being studied in the laboratory,” she wrote, “should be taken into account, however likely or unlikely”.

On May 2, 2020, Chan published a preprint article, co-authored with Deverman and Zhan, on the bioRxiv website, an online site for quickly communicating results that have yet to be reviewed by other scientists. “Our observations suggest that by the time SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in late 2019, it was already pre-adapted for human transmission,” they wrote. The Broad Institute’s communications department also gave Chan examples of how to compose a “tweet,” a chain of daisy-chained posts, with images, that present a compact scientific argument to a larger audience. She posted it first tweetorial The next day.

For journalists suspicious of China’s handling of the virus, the common thread – and those who followed – was dynamite. Here’s a real scientist from America’s largest genetic center explaining why the official story might be wrong. “The coronavirus did NOT come from animals in the Wuhan market,” a Daily Mail headline shouted, in what became Chan’s first breakthrough in public conversation.

Although his report was a media success, what The Daily Mail described as Chan’s “flagship paper” has never been officially accepted by a scientific journal. Chan says it’s because of the censorship due to her raising the possibility of the lab’s origin. UC Davis’s Eisen, however, believes Chan’s expectations of how the covid-19 virus should have behaved remain speculative. He doesn’t think we’ve tracked enough outbreaks in enough molecular detail to really know what’s normal. And, he notes, covid-19 has continued to change and adapt.

“My colleagues said: It’s a conspiracy, don’t bother. I said, no, I’m going to treat this like any other document, ”said Eisen, who took the time to study the manuscript. “I think it’s interesting what she tried to do, but I’m not convinced by the conclusion, and I think the deductions were wrong. I congratulate her for publishing it. Many people who defend the theory of the origin of the laboratory do not make claims based on logic, but it has presented its evidence. I don’t agree with that, but it’s science.

Rightly or wrongly, however, the word Chan used – “pre-adapted” – has thrilled people like author Nicholson Baker. “We were dealing with a disease that was exceptionally good, from the start, at chewing on the human airways,” says Baker, who contacted Chan to find out more. Several months later, in January of this year, Baker would publish a lengthy report in New York magazine saying he had become convinced that a lab accident was to blame. He cited various sources, including Chan.

Pangolin problem

Chan had not finished punching holes in the natural origins account. She then picked up four papers that were quickly published in early 2020, including two in Nature, describing viruses in pangolins – endangered scale-covered mammals sometimes eaten as delicacies in China – that shared similarities with SARS-CoV-2. If researchers could find all of the components of the pandemic virus, especially in wildlife illicitly trafficked for food, they could justify an overflow from nature, given the way coronaviruses exchange drugs. rooms. The articles on pangolins, published in rapid succession in early 2020, were a promising start. For the authors of “Proximal Origins”, these similar viruses offered “strong” and “parsimonious” evidence of natural emergence.

Chan and Zhan noticed that all of the articles described the same batch of animals, although some did not recognize the overlap. One of them even relabeled the data, which made it look new. For Chan, it wasn’t just shoddy work or scientific misconduct. There might have been, she thought, “coordination” between the overlapping authors of all these papers, some of whom had previously published together. She created the hashtag #pangolinpapers, reminiscent of the Panama Papers, documents revealing secret offshore financial transactions.

Perhaps, she thought, researchers were now whitewashing data to make it look like nature was swimming with similar viruses.

Chan started emailing authors and journals to get the raw data she needed to further analyze what they had been doing. The availability of such data is usually a condition of publication, but it can still be difficult to obtain. After what she calls months of obstruction, Chan finally lost his temper and detonated a charge from his navigator. “I need the scientists + editors who directly or indirectly cover serious research integrity issues regarding some of the major SARS-2-like viruses to stop and think a bit,” she posted on Twitter. “If your actions obscure the origins of SARS2, you are playing a role in the deaths of millions of people.”

Eddie Holmes, a prominent Australian virologist and co-author of one of these articles (as well as “Proximal Origins”), called the tweet “one of the most despicable things I have read on the question of origins “. He felt accused, but he wondered what he was accused of, because his paper had correctly considered his data sources on pangolins. Holmes then circulated a complex timeline prepared by Chan of the release dates and past connections between the authors. The board’s dense network of arrows and connections unmistakably resembled the cork board of an obsessive man covered in red string and thumbtacks.

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