Friday, May 14, 2021

If COVID Leaked from a Wuhan Lab, Should We Blame Francis Bacon?


Zhengli-Li Shi is a virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology who is a leading expert on bat coronaviruses.  In 2015, she co-authored a paper published in Nature Medicine entitled "A SARS-like Cluster of Circulating Bat Coronaviruses Shows Potential for Human Emergence."  She and her colleagues reported that they had created a new coronavirus that was a chimera combining genetic material from two strains of virus.  They took the backbone of the SARS-CoV virus--the coronavirus that caused the SARS epidemic of 2003--and replaced its spike protein with one from a horseshoe bat coronavirus known as SHCO14-CoV.  This artificial coronavirus was able to infect the cells of the human airway when injected into a lab culture of these human cells or into mice genetically engineered to carry the human version of a protein called ACE2 that covers the surface of cells along the human airways.  They found that neither monoclonal antibodies nor vaccines could protect the human cells from infection by this new recombinant coronavirus.  This was what virologists call a "gain-of-function" study: they had altered a virus to increase its pathogenicity--its capacity for causing disease. 

If this new virus had escaped from their laboratory, it could have infected human beings with a dangerous disease, which might have become a pandemic.  Since we know that Shi has continued such gain-of-function research in her lab in Wuhan, we have to wonder whether the SARS-CoV-2 virus that has caused the COVID pandemic was created in her lab and then escaped from the lab in 2019.  Shi has denied this by saying that the SARS2 virus must have emerged naturally in bats and then jumped from bats to humans.  But no one has ever found the SARS2 virus in a bat, despite an intense hunt for it among bats over the past 15 months since the virus was first found in humans in Wuhan.

In her 2015 article, Shi recognized the high risk in gain of function research.  She also reported that her research was completed with funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) before a moratorium on the funding of such research was announced in 2014, during the administration of President Obama.  The NIH announced the lifting of that moratorium in 2017, during the administration of President Trump.  Some scientists warned that this was a serious mistake.  For example, Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, said that gain-of-function studies "have done almost nothing to improve our preparedness for pandemics--yet they risked created an accidental pandemic."  

Even between 2014 and 2017, while the moratorium on funding such research was in effect, Shi continued to receive NIH funding--passed through the EcoHealth Alliance in New York City under the supervision of Peter Daszak--because she benefited from a footnote in the 2014 moratorium document that stated: "an exception from the research pause may be obtained if the head of the USG funding agency determines that the research is urgently necessary to protect the public health or national security."  Either Anthony Fauci (the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) or Francis Collins (the Director of the National Institutes of Health) or both must have invoked this footnote to preserve the federal funding for Shi's gain-of-function research.

There are two primary theories for explaining the origin of the SARS2 virus that has caused the COVID pandemic.  One is that the virus emerged naturally through evolution by natural selection in bats and then passed to humans, perhaps through some intermediary animal.  The other theory is that it was created in Shi's lab in Wuhan and leaked from the lab by infecting people working in the lab.  The creation of the virus in the lab would have been done either by genetic engineering or by evolution through serial passage of viruses (transferring viruses from one cell culture to another and selecting those that had higher pathogenicity).  

Last year, I wrote about the debate over these two theories here and here.  There is no conclusive proof for either of these theories.  The proof for the theory of natural emergence would be finding the SARS2 virus in bats, which has not happened.  The proof for the theory of leaking form the Wuhan lab would be finding some record of the virus being created in the lab, but the lab has refused to release its records of research.  Without such proof, we can only judge the relative plausibility of the theories in accounting for the relevant facts.  In my posts last year, I favored the natural emergence explanation.  But now I have been persuaded by a long article by Nicholas Wade arguing that the most reasonable conjecture is that the virus escaped from Shi's Wuhan lab.  (Some years ago, I wrote a series of six posts on Wade's book A Troublesome Inheritance and how human biodiversity supports the natural right to equal liberty.)

Wade's article is part of a big shift among scientists towards taking seriously the lab leak theory.  This shift began in response to the World Health Organization's report issued on March 30th that dismissed the lab leak theory as extremely unlikely.  This report was not based on a thorough and unbiased investigation, which led even the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Adhanom to criticize the report.  And since then many scientists have signed public letters saying that a full investigation is necessary.  Remarkably, one of the signers of a letter sent to Science is Ralph Baric, an epidemiologist and microbiologist at the University of North Carolina, who has collaborated with Shi in her gain of function research.  Some of this has recently been reported in The New York Times.

Here is Wade's summary of his arguments.  I have added numbers to distinguish the arguments:

"(1) It's documented that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were doing gain-of-function experiments designed to make coronaviruses infect human cells and humanized mice.  This is exactly the kind of experiment from which a SARS2-like virus could have emerged.  (2) The researchers were not vaccinated against the viruses under study, and they were working in the minimal safety conditions of a BSL2 laboratory.  So escape of a virus would not be at all surprising.  (3) In all of China, the pandemic broke out on the doorstep of the Wuhan institute.  (4) The virus was already well adapted to humans, as expected for a virus grown in humanized mice.  (5) It possessed an unusual enhancement, a furin cleavage site, which is not possessed by any other known SARS-related beta-coronavirus, and (6) this site included a double arginine codon also unknown among beta-coronaviruses.  What more evidence could you want, aside from the presently unobtainable lab records documenting SARS2's creation?"

"Proponents of natural emergence have a rather harder story to tell.  The plausibility of their case rests on a single surmise, the expected parallel between the emergence of SARS2 and that of SARS1 and MERS.  But none of the evidence expected in support of such a parallel history has yet emerged.  (1) No one has found the bat population that was the source of SARS2, if indeed it ever infected bats.  (2) No intermediate hosts has presented itself, despite an intensive search by Chinese authorities that included the testing of 80,000 animals.  (3) There is no evidence of the virus making multiple independent jumps from its intermediate host to people, as both the SARS1 and MERS viruses did.  (4) There is no evidence from hospital surveillance records of the epidemic gathering strength in the population as the virus evolved.  (5) There is no explanation of why a natural epidemic should break out in Wuhan and nowhere else.  (6) There is no good explanation of how the virus acquired its furin cleavage site, which no other SARS-related beta-coronavirus possesses, (7) nor why the site is composed of human-preferred codons.  The natural emergence theory battles a bristling array of implausibilities."

"The records of the Wuhan Institute of Virology certainly hold much relevant information.  But Chinese authorities seem unlikely to release them given the substantial chance that they incriminate the regime in the creation of the pandemic.  Absent the efforts of some courageous Chinese whistle-blower, we may already have at hand just about all of the relevant information we are likely to get for a while."

So if this is true, who should we blame for allowing the human creation of a virus that has caused a global pandemic that has killed over three million people and continues to kill more every day?  

Wade identifies four groups of people who deserve some blame.  We can blame the Chinese virologists who performed the gain-of-function experiments in the Wuhan institute.  We can blame the Chinese authorities who allowed these experiments and then covered up the evidence that the SARS2 virus was created in Wuhan.  We can blame the worldwide community of virologists, because many virologists have engaged in gain-of-function research, despite their knowledge of how risky it is.  We can blame the American government for funding the Wuhan Institute of Virology, because Shi's research has been funded by a grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) given to Peter Daszak's EcoHealth Alliance.

Since Dr. Anthony Fauci is the director of NIAID, we might blame him if he knew about this funding for Shi's gain-of-function research.  Surprisingly, there are some reports now that Fauci has said that he is "not convinced" that the SARS2 virus originated in nature, and that there should be a full investigation of what happened in Shi's lab.  

Or should we blame Francis Bacon?  After all, wasn't it Bacon who in the 17th century proposed the modern scientific project for mastering nature that has supported the research done in laboratories like those at the Wuhan Institute?


Bacon's book New Atlantis (1627) is the imaginary story of an island in the South Pacific inhabited by the people of Bensalem and ruled by scientists dedicated to the technological conquest of nature, based on research they do in Salomon's House.  Bacon's description of Salomon's House is remarkable, because it is the first account of a modern scientific research institution supported by public authority to promote progress in science and technology to conquer nature for human benefit.  Salomon's House is said to have two purposes--"the knowledge of causes and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible."  The first purpose is knowledge for its own sake.  The second purpose is power over the world.  The aim is to unite human knowledge and human power.

Salomon's House has facilities and tools for studying every realm of nature, including soil, minerals, air, light, wind, water, plants, animals, and human beings.  Scientists work to produce new kinds of drugs, foods, and machines.  They produce flying machines, boats that move under water, robotic devices that move like animals and human beings, powerful military weapons, and artificially created plants and animals.  The latter would presumably include the biotechnological creation of new forms of life, like what Shi does in her Wuhan lab.  The scientists search for ways to preserve human health and prolong life.

The scientists in Salomon's House are assigned various duties.  Some travel throughout the world secretly gathering whatever experimental knowledge human beings have developed.  Others draw out general conclusions from these experiments.  Others apply these experiments to develop new inventions.  Still others build on this knowledge to develop a comprehensive understanding of nature.  

The scientists consult together to decide which inventions and experiments should be made public and which should be kept secret.  They all take an oath of secrecy to conceal whatever should not be publicized.  

Inventions are particularly important in Salomon's House, and for every new invention, the inventor is honored with the erection of a statue.  So it seems that these scientists are motivated by two natural desires--the natural desire for intellectual understanding and the natural desire for social status--the same desires that drive modern scientists today.

The scientists in Salomon's House visit the major cities of Bensalem to announce useful inventions and to help people explain and protect themselves against natural dangers such as diseases, threatening animals, earthquakes, floods, comets, and scarcity of resources.  Salomon's House conducts daily religious ceremonies to praise God for his works and to ask His aid in applying knowledge of His works to good and holy causes.

Throughout his life, Bacon had tried unsuccessfully to persuade the British monarch to sponsor scientific research just as Bensalem supported the work of Salomon's House.  After his death, many people were inspired by New Atlantis to device plans to set up publicly supported scientific institutions for promoting experimental studies of nature and useful inventions.  The establishment in 1682 of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, with a royal charter from King Charles II, was one of the most successful outcomes.  Modern publicly funded institutions for collaborative scientific research dedicated to new discoveries and inventions, such as the U.S. National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, also seem to follow the model of Bacon's Salomon's House.

As indicated by the fact that the scientists in Salomon's House are sworn to secrecy, Bacon suggests that some of their research would be seen by the public as harmful.  So, for example, their research is supposed to help people protect themselves against diseases; but some of that research might run the risk of creating and releasing new forms of life that could cause unusually dangerous infectious diseases--like COVID.  Can we trust scientists to have the wisdom to refrain from research that is too risky?  Or should there be public debate over whether such research should be conducted or prohibited?

Some scientists today are worried that if the general public learns that SARS2 was indeed created by a laboratory experiment, the public outrage could damage the whole modern scientific project initiated by Bacon.  The public would learn that we cannot trust the scientists to keep us safe.  As Antonio Regaldo, the biomedicine editor at MIT Technology Review, has said: "It could shatter the scientific edifice top to bottom."

At the very least, this could lead to a public demand that there be no government funding for gain of function research, and that scientists doing privately funded gain of function research should be held criminally liable for the dangerous diseases they might create.  This could be understood as contributing to the cultural evolution of the human behavioral immune system.  I have written about that in a previous post.


Jon said...

Bacon's name has come up before in my recent intellectual wanderings; first when I wandered down the rabbit hole of the Shakespeare Authorship Question then in Patrick Deneen's book Why Liberalism Failed.

Jon said...

This entry led me to an old New Atlantis article by you. Interesting that both Deneen and the neocons (at least Fukayama and W Kristol) aren't fond of Bacon.

Larry Arnhart said...

I have defended Bacon, particularly in my writing for the Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics. As suggested in my article for The New Atlantis, I do not see the modern scientific project as a great disaster--although I agree that some risky scientific research (like gain-of-function experiments) needs to be limited.

Jon said...

Thanks for the reply and the blog. I've been following it on and off over the past couple of years after reading Loathing Lincoln pointed me here. I think that the Scientific Revolution is a mixed bag. You mentioned Aldous Huxley as a pessimist about the project. He was writing in the aftermath of the Great War and I think that colored his views. But I'm glad that I experienced this pandemic in 2020 as opposed to even a year as recent as 1975. We now have the technology to work from home.

Larry Arnhart said...

My disagreement with the stance taken by the contributors to The New Atlantis journal is explained in my disagreement with Leon Kass (see my post on 11-21-18).