Perfect timing.  

Just as most of you (and the analysts at the Department of Energy and the FBI) thought that COVID-19 originated in a Chinese laboratory, along comes a March 16 report in The Atlantic.

The report says that newly discovered genetic data from caged raccoon dogs (a mammal related to the fox) is the “strongest evidence yet” of the pandemic’s natural origin. The dogs’ genetic data comes from a Chinese “wet market,” where these poor crated creatures, among many others, were sold as food. 

An international team of researchers—Kristian Andersen of Scripps Research Institute, Edward Holmes of the University of Sydney, and Michael Worobey of the University of Arizona—“stumbled” upon the new raw data posted briefly on the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID), a worldwide viral genomic database.

Andersen and Holmes, incidentally, were co-authors of an influential March 17, 2020, Nature Medicine article that concluded that the novel coronavirus was not plausibly the product of a lab, but rather had a “natural” origin. Republican staff of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic recently released revealing email traffic showing that Andersen initially had private doubts about the natural origins of the coronavirus.

Data ‘Disappeared’

According to The New York Times’ account, the three researchers offered to “collaborate” with their Chinese counterparts, but then the raw data mysteriously “disappeared” from GISAID. Noting that the raccoon dogs could have been shedding the virus toward the end of 2019, The Atlantic’s Katherine Wu says, “It’s some of the strongest support yet, experts told me, that the pandemic began when SARS-CoV-2 hopped from animals into humans, rather than in an accident among scientists experimenting with viruses.”

Some in Congress and the media might see this latest development as tipping the scales back to the previously dominant “natural” origins explanation, favored by Dr. Anthony Fauci and others.

Well, not so fast.

Andersen and his colleagues have not published anything thus far in a peer-reviewed journal, and the data upon which they would base their published findings quickly appeared and then just as quickly disappeared from the GISAID database, ostensibly to be used in a future Chinese publication on the topic.

Such a publication would, of course, require Chinese Communist Party government approval.

The notion of a raccoon dog COVID-19 infection is indeed intriguing, but recent revelations do not drive home any conclusion concerning the origin of the coronavirus.

Such is the judgment of top science reporters and scientists themselves. The World Health Organization, for example, does not consider anything revealed thus far to constitute “conclusive evidence as to the intermediate host or origins of the virus.” The data only “provide further evidence of the presence of susceptible animals at the market that may have been a source of human infections.”

On March 17, Maria Van Kerkhove, a WHO expert on COVID-19, said, “Unfortunately, this doesn’t give us the answer of how the pandemic began, but it does give us more clues.” Likewise, as The New York Times observed, “The new evidence is sure to provide a jolt to the debate over the pandemic’s origins, even if it does not resolve the question of how it began.”

True enough.

Some Unavoidable Issues

Before giving credence to the raccoon dog/zoonotic origin of COVID-19, American authorities—particularly congressional investigators—might want to explore other issues in more detail.

For example: 

  • The raw data is from China’s Center for Disease Control and, as noted, that data has quickly disappeared. As WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus observed, “These data do not provide a definitive answer to the question of how the pandemic began, but every piece of data is important in moving us closer to that answer. These data could have—and should have—been shared three years ago.”
  •  It remains to be seen what Andersen and his colleagues will publish. It would be impossible to make a scientifically sound argument, one way or another, if third parties could not access the original data that would be the basis of any such publication. Science requires access to hard evidence, not a belief that hard evidence once existed, but is no longer accessible. 
  • Even assuming communist China would release information concerning an initial mammalian infection in a Chinese wet market, upon what basis could Western analysts accept it as trustworthy? Given the entire history of stubborn noncooperation over the past three years, there is no such basis. 

Richard Dearlove, former chief of MI6, the famed British intelligence agency, also holds that COVID-19 is an engineered virus that escaped from a Chinese laboratory. And depending upon the good faith of the communist regime, or the scientists beholden to it, he thinks trust in China’s own assessments is beyond naive.

As Dearlove told The Telegraph last year:

This is the biggest disruptive event globally since World War II. It’s huge. We sit there, and we take at face value what the Chinese say, and what I’m advocating is an absolutely clear debate and proper discussion, and not complete suppression.

If it did come out of a lab, it raises all sorts of questions about virological research, and the mere fact this has happened and disrupted the world’s economy, what does that say to an aggressive, malign regime who might want to go mucking around with a virus?

From the inception of the debate on COVID-19’s origins, there have been two dominant theories: a) that it emerged in raw nature and jumped from an animal to a human; or b) that it is the unique product of genetic engineering that somehow escaped from a Chinese laboratory, probably the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Without access to China’s raw (unfiltered or unredacted) data and information, American intelligence agencies are still divided on the question. According to the Energy Department and FBI analysts, as well as State Department analysts, circumstantial evidence favors a lab leak.

Proponents of the natural origin thesis have sought to find the animal host that was infected with COVID-19 before the first human cases.  

If the raccoon dog is the beast, they still have a lot more work to do—if the communist Chinese break with their past behavior, share all their untainted data and information, and emerge as depoliticized champions of science and international harmony.

Fat chance.

Meanwhile, the newly created House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic might invite the Scripps Research Institute’s Andersen to brief them, in an open session, on how China is cooperating with him and his colleagues on that raccoon dog research.   

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