These days anytime any politician makes any claims about Covid-19, you’ve got to wonder whether it’s more about politics than real science. After all, throughout the pandemic, politics has infiltrated Covid-19 decision-making like botox in a reality TV star. So when the office of Senator Richard Burr (R-N.C.) dropped “An Analysis of the Origins of the COVID-19 Pandemic Interim Report,” just two weeks before the midterm election, you’ve gotta wonder whether this report was more about politics than actually determining what really happened.
After all, in the report, Burr did indicate that last Summer he and Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington) “announced a bipartisan Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee oversight effort into the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic as part of our effort to address pandemic preparedness and response programs.” Dictionary.com defines bipartisan as “representing, characterized by, or including members from two parties or factions,” and not “screw it, why don’t I just issue a report myself?” It’s also interesting why such a interim report would be issued so quickly now before it’s been properly vetted by the scientific community. Why the rush? And why wasn’t there more of a heads up to everyone that this would be on its way? Was this designed to be a Halloween scare? Or maybe just maybe the midterm elections had something to do with it?
Plus, this interim report drew some pretty strong conclusions that usually would require a lot more supporting scientific evidence than the report actually provided. What’s a strong conclusion? How about, “Based on the analysis of the publicly available information, it appears reasonable to conclude that the Covid-19 pandemic was, more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident.” Yeah, that statement certainly has drawn headlines and attention on social media. The phrase “more likely than not” sounds fairly definitive. For example, if you were to tell your significant other that “based on analysis of publicly available information, it appears reasonable to conclude that you are more likely than not a cheater,” you had better more likely than not provide enough specific concrete evidence to justify such a claim. Otherwise all of your possessions including your butt would more likely than not end up on the street. Similarly, this report seemed to be claiming that the evidence is already strong enough to conclude that a lab leak started the Covid-19 pandemic. But what evidence did the report then provide? Well, here’s a hint. It rhymes with “Not a troll bot.” Yes, not a whole lot.
Did any real scientists develop, vet, and support the findings of this Interim Report?
Let’s take a look at what some real scientists who have real expertise in this area said on Twitter about this report. Spoiler alert: some expletives more likely than not emerged. For example, Kristian G. Andersen, PhD, a Professor of Immunology and Microbiology at Scripps Research, used the phrase “Flood the zone with bull [bleep]” when referring to what’s going on with this report:
And Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine, wrote, “My view: a total load of antiscience [bleep],” in the following tweet:
To adapt the words from that song in the movie Bring It On, Burr, it’s cold in here— with here being real scientists’ reaction to the report. Bull-bleep and antiscience bleep weren’t exactly words of endorsement. Hotez also provided some real scientific papers describing how the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) may have jumped from other animals to humans and the evidence supporting such a natural jump:
Speaking of real scientists. Were any real scientists involved in developing and reviewing Burr’s interim report? Well, the cover of the report bore the names Minority Oversight Staff, Senate Committee on Health Education, Labor and Pensions, which was a fancy way of saying that it was compiled by the office of Burr. The report didn’t really list any other authors or contributors other than Burr. So, assuming that Burr himself didn’t compile and write everything like a high schooler doing a book report, it’s unclear who actually did the research and writing for this report. The report didn’t really clearly delineate what process was used to assemble and review the available evidence, who determined what should and shouldn’t considered, or how the report was vetted either.
What counterarguments did this Interim Report provide against evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 had jumped from other animals?
That being said did the report at least provide some strong arguments to support its conclusions? Well, the first of the four sections attempted to offer some kind of counter to the existing evidence of a natural animal original of the SARS-CoV-2 without even mentioning that evidence. That was sort of the “I’m going to ignore what you have said and provide only my side of the story” tactic. This section basically presented six arguments that were weak at best. The first two arguments were essentially the same: that the intermediate host animal species—meaning the intermediate between bats and humans—for SARS-CoV-2 hasn’t yet been found. That argument would hold water about as well as a fish net thong.
It’s been only about three years since the Covid-19 pandemic first broke. Science rarely can move that quickly, especially when Congress isn’t providing nearly enough funding to support the needed studies. It can be challenging to find such a intermediate animal host species. It’s not as if you can post a message on Twitter or Facebook saying, “hey all animals, come by and get tested for SARS-CoV-2 or some virus similar to it” or “hey, did you host this virus before passing it along to us humans? Come one, you can tell us.” Plus, scientists around the world have been kind of busy with something called, you know, the Covid-19 pandemic. So unless Burr and his Senate colleagues want to provide much more support and funding to help find the intermediate host species, “you haven’t found it yet,” really isn’t a very strong argument.
The third argument provided was that the “SARS-CoV-2’s high binding affinity for human ACE2 receptors suggests that it is possible for it to directly infect humans without needing a period of adaptation in an intermediate host.” In other words, the virus took to humans so well, it couldn’t have jumped from other animals. That’s a bit like saying, “hey, that velour track suit fits you so well that it was probably tailored specifically for you.” Such an argument doesn’t pass much muster because it wasn’t clear what the virus was doing before the start of 2020. Weaker versions of the virus could have very well been spreading between other animals and humans long before late 2019 and early 2020. The world didn’t have much of a surveillance system in place to really track what every possible viral threat was doing before 2020. It still doesn’t have such a system.
The section’s fourth argument was that Wuhan, China, seemed to be the only place where the virus may have jumped from non-humans to humans. The claim was that if the virus had jumped from other animals to humans, why didn’t such jumps occur elsewhere as well. Again, all of this assumes that the world already had great global surveillance systems in place that could readily determine exactly where and how everyone had gotten infected with the SARS-CoV-2. Yeah try doing that when there’s been well over 630 million Covid-19 cases around the world so far. And that’s not even counting those folks who never ended up getting tested.
The fifth argument was similar to the fourth, claiming that “After the unidentified source transmitted SARS-CoV-2 to humans, it stopped transmitting SARS-CoV-2.” Again, this has never been established. With so many cases emerging every day, it’s difficult to say who caught the virus from where. The Covid-19 pandemic is not the same situation as the 2002-2004 SARS and the 2013 avian influenza A (H7N9) outbreaks where there were a lot fewer cases so that infections and transmission chains were a lot easier to track.
The sixth argument was that “The low genetic diversity of the earliest SARS-CoV-2 samples suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic is most likely the result of a single successful spillover of SARS-CoV-2.” That’s not exactly true. Plus, once again, the lack of a comprehensive surveillance system means that cases may have been missed early on in 2020 and before that time. Moreover, even if the pandemic had started with a single spillover event, how exactly would that prove that it was lab-leak rather than a natural spillover event that triggered the whole pandemic? All of these arguments didn’t seem to be that scientific, which raises the question again, what specific scientists contributed to this interim report.
Did the Wuhan Institute of Virology actually have major safety concerns as the Interim Report claimed?
The second section of the report tried to paint a picture of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) as a place with numerous safety concerns and incidents. It did include brief descriptions of events and items that you probably normally wouldn’t find at your home, assuming that you don’t regularly sleep and shower at a Biosafety Level (BSL) 3 or 4 laboratory. So all of these could have sounded ominous and scary to the general public or anyone else who doesn’t conduct virology experiments on regular basis.
So, assuming that Burr and his staff aren’t running enzyme linked immunosorbent assays in their Congressional offices, wouldn’t it have been better to ask a real laboratory scientist who regularly works with viruses to put together that section?Angela Rasmussen, PhD, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, would qualify as such an expert. So let’s turn to Rasmussen’s tweet thread about this section of the Burr report:
As you can see, Rasmussen’s tweet stated that the report “claims to show evidence of multiple biocontainment breaches. That sounds very bad! But how reliable is this evidence?” Her tweet thread went on to review each thing listed in this section of Burr’s report and explain how much of it seemed pretty normal for such a lab to her:
For example, Rasmussen explained how procuring a vaporized hydrogen peroxide system to disinfect air coming from the lab and renovating the HVAC system were not evidence of biosafety failures but instead business-as-usual:
A little later in the tweet thread, Rasmussen concluded, “No evidence of a breach or biosafety failure, but lots of evidence that they were operating a containment lab in a pretty standard way, with one exception: WIV was more innovative than many others and patented some of the bespoke systems they developed,” as you can see here:
Rasmussen went on to assess what was written in the report about the working conditions, training, and management at WIV and determined that “No evidence of a biocontainment breach or a biosafety failure, other than lab leak fan fiction invented by people with no clue about how biosafety actually works reading documents that reflect the daily considerations & challenges of operating a containment lab,” at the conclusion of her tweet thread:
Remember you can make anything sound scary when describing it in a certain way to people not familiar with the situation. Imagine relating the details of a high school football practice to someone who has never ever seen football. You could talk about high speed collisions, violence, things getting intercepted, jock straps, and people slapping each other on their butts in a manner that could prompt someone to say, “what the bleep is going on? Call the authorities.”
Is it relevant that China developed Covid-19 vaccines faster than the U.S. did with Operation Warp Speed?
The third section presented a rather weird argument. It pointed out that teams in China were able to develop and start administering Covid-19 vaccines faster than Operation Warp Speed could in the U.S. The section tried to suggest that the only way the teams in China were able to move more quickly was if they had access to genomic sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 much earlier.
Hmm, that sounds a little like the “they beat us, therefore, they must have cheated” argument. While Operation Warp Speed did result in Covid-19 vaccines at the end of 2020, it was by no means a perfectly run operation. For example, it July 2020, Jon Cohen wrote for Science magazine an article entitled “Operation Warp Speed’s opaque choices of Covid-19 vaccines draw Senate scrutiny.” And in December 2020, I covered for Forbes a range of supply chain and distribution missteps made by Operation Warp Speed. In general, the word well-oiled machine didn’t seem to apply the Trump Administration’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Moreover, it’s not clear what shortcuts the teams from China may have taken in order to get Covid-19 vaccines out there sooner. For example, did they do the same about of human testing as Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna did before rolling out vaccines to the general public.
One thing’s clear. The government of China wasn’t as open and transparent to the rest of the world as they could have and probably should have been about the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak in late 2019 and early 2020. The first reports of this “mysterious pneumonia” emerged late in December 2019 and very early in January 2020, as I reported for Forbes on January 3, 2020. The government of China likely knew more about the virus and its deadly nature at the time. If that were indeed the case, then China’s government chose poorly and should have been more forthcoming to get help from the international community. It is very fair to criticize China’s government for withholding information and not being more cooperative. But again all of this does not necessarily mean that the Covid-19 pandemic started with a lab leak.
Did the development and release of the Interim Report follow a scientific process?
All in all, this so-called “Analysis of the Origins of the COVID-19 Pandemic Interim Report” didn’t seem to follow many of the steps and criteria needed for a truly scientific report. It didn’t even fulfill basic criteria such as clearly describing the methods employed or identifying the people who did the analyses and wrote the report. Whenever you don’t transparently describe how you chose what evidence to consider and not consider, you’ve gotta wonder how much cherry-picking happened. While cherry-picking may be great when you are making a pie, selectively choosing what evidence to follow and not follow is just not appropriate scientifically.
If Congress really wants to shed more light on the actual origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, it would commission and fund a panel of real and most importantly independent scientific experts to compile the report. At the same time, Congress members would then stay clear of this panel to avoid the perception that they are applying any political pressure to see a particular outcome. The U.S. has been leading the world in Covid-19 cases and deaths throughout the pandemic in big part of its failure to consistently follow science and instead defer to politics. And in the end, while politics may cover up to a degree what the virus does, only real science will be able to work against the SARS-CoV-2 and any future viral threats.