On the menu today: The Chinese space program is about as careful and safety-conscious as the Chinese viral-research program; a deep look at the mounting evidence pointing to a lab leak; and why other companies can’t just rush out and make more doses of the Pfizer vaccine, even if the Biden administration suspends the patent.
What the Chinese Space Program Can Tell Us about the Wuhan Labs
Yes, as Michael Brendan Dougherty and everyone else says, you should set aside the 43 minutes or so and read Nicholas Wade’s deep dive into the possibility that not only did COVID-19 originate from a laboratory in Wuhan, it may very well have been deliberately optimized to infect human beings through gain-of-function research — and that the U.S. government may well have financed some of that research.
Before we dive into the Wuhan laboratories again, notice this story in the New York Times this week:
Part of China’s largest rocket, the Long March 5B, is tumbling out of control in orbit after launching a section of the country’s new space station last week. The rocket is expected to fall to Earth in what is called “an uncontrolled re-entry” sometime on Saturday or Sunday.
Whether it splashes harmlessly in the ocean or impacts land where people live, why China’s space program let this happen — again — remains unclear. And given China’s planned schedule of launches, more such uncontrolled rocket re-entries in the years to come are possible.
The article notes that the Chinese space program is the only one that has “lifted rocket stages this big to orbit and left them to fall somewhere at random,” and that the “Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit largely financed by the federal government that performs research and analysis, predicts re-entry will occur on Saturday at 11:43 p.m. Eastern time. If that is accurate, debris could shower down over northeastern Africa, over Sudan.”
The good news is that Sudan has a lot of empty desert. The bad news is that as of this morning, the center of the circle on the Aerospace Corporation’s map is not that far from Khartoum, which is the home of 5.2 million people.
What’s more, this scenario of Chinese space debris landing on populated areas already happened. One year ago, when the world was grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, China launched experimental spacecraft and debris ended up landing on the Ivory Coast: “China’s successfully [sic] maiden flight of its Long March 5B which lofted an experimental spacecraft into orbit last week, has come under scrutiny with reports suggesting that debris has hit parts of the Ivory Coast in Africa. Had its 20 ton core stage passed through Earth’s atmosphere 15-20 minutes earlier during reentry, the rocket’s debris could have rained down on New York City, report those monitoring its progress.”
The Times article quotes astrophysicists who call the Chinese space program’s management “negligent” and “irresponsible.” That’s funny, because over the last year and a half, there’s been a lot of talk about Chinese government-run science programs being negligent and irresponsible. Why, it’s almost like this is a pattern of behavior from a negligent, irresponsible authoritarian regime!
The Chinese government does not give a rat’s patootie if it hurts or kills people in other countries. It wants what it wants, and it doesn’t care who pays the price in blood.
Oh, and one other point in that Times article: “Chinese space officials have not publicly addressed the uncontrolled re-entry since then, despite attention and worry around the world.”
When the Chinese government is confronted with a problem, the regime’s default setting is to deny the problem exists.
The Chinese government’s official statistics would have you believe that the COVID-19 pandemic effectively ended in that country in March 2020. The official statistics declare that the most populated country in the world, with more than 1.4 billion people, ranks 96th among all countries in cases, with just over 90,000, and 58th in deaths, with 4,636. To believe the Chinese official numbers, the entire country has seen four people die from COVID-19 since April 2020, and that they’ve never had more than 1,000 active cases on any given day over the past year. According to the Chinese government, no variant of COVID-19 has touched them in any significant way.
Meanwhile, just across the border, India reported 414,188 cases of infection and 3,915 deaths.
And that’s just today.
Want to see something really odd? The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an independent global-health-research center at the University of Washington, published a new estimate of the total death toll from COVID-19, attempting to account for cases missed earlier and left out of data from unreliable regimes. The report concludes, “Our analysis estimates that by May 3, 2021, the total number of COVID-19 deaths was 6.93 million, a figure that is more than two times higher than the reported number of deaths of 3.24 million.”
But the only reference to China comes in a footnote.
Similarly, The Economist put together a fascinating and detailed chart showing the percentage increase in excess deaths in each country by month, from January 2020 to April 2021. It’s an absolute triumph of data visualization. But China’s not on it, because the publication could only use data from countries and localities that publish data on deaths from all causes.
I don’t begrudge these institutions not listing China if they can’t find reliable data. But shouldn’t someone be making a bigger stink out of this? We already know from leaked documents that China understated the number of cases and deaths and covered up the truth in the opening weeks of the pandemic by at least a third. Why is everyone just shrugging at absurdly implausible official numbers now?
And if a virus that originated in China ended up inflicting calamitous damage to the lives, public health, economies, and societies to all countries all over the world, but most severely the United States and India . . . isn’t that more or less what Beijing would have wanted all along?
We know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that we’re dealing with a regime that behaves negligently and irresponsibly, that barely cares about protecting the lives of its own citizens and absolutely doesn’t care about protecting the lives of foreign citizens, and that reflexively denies and covers up its worst actions and mistakes, no matter how implausible or obvious the counterevidence is. But some people still dismiss the notion of a lab leak as some sort of insane conspiracy theory. The insane stance is to trust the Chinese government’s denials!
I sometimes wonder if the widespread faith of the natural-spread theory relies in part on Western obliviousness about the geographical size of China — “They found a similar virus in bats in caves in China, and it must have spread from there.” Wade writes:
Start with geography. The two closest known relatives of the SARS2 virus were collected from bats living in caves in Yunnan, a province of southern China. If the SARS2 virus had first infected people living around the Yunnan caves, that would strongly support the idea that the virus had spilled over to people naturally. But this isn’t what happened. The pandemic broke out 1,500 kilometers away, in Wuhan.
That’s about the distance from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City, Mo. Imagine having a viral outbreak in New York City, and people arguing it naturally jumped into humans from bats found in caves outside of Memphis, Tenn. Sure, it’s possible, but you would expect to find some evidence or a trail of cases leading from the site of the outbreak to those caves. So far, we haven’t found those cases between Yunnan and Wuhan.
And there’s another complication for the theory that this virus just jumped from a bat into a random, unlucky person: We have yet to find the earlier, milder, less-virulent version of SARS-CoV-2. This is a bat virus that burst upon the scene in near-ideal form to do damage to human beings. A couple of days ago, a new research paper — not yet peer-reviewed — concluded:
In a side-by-side comparison of evolutionary dynamics between the 2019/2020 SARS-CoV-2 and the 2003 SARS-CoV, we were surprised to find that SARS-CoV-2 resembles SARS-CoV in the late phase of the 2003 epidemic after SARS-CoV had developed several advantageous adaptations for human transmission. Our observations suggest that by the time SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in late 2019, it was already pre-adapted to human transmission to an extent similar to late epidemic SARS-CoV. However, no precursors or branches of evolution stemming from a less human-adapted SARS-CoV-2-like virus have been detected.
But that’s not even the big news, says those researchers who looked at the genetic signatures of the samples from the Hunnan Seafood Market in Wuhan:
The market samples did not form a separate cluster from the human SARS-CoV-2 genomes. We compared the market samples to the human Wuhan-Hu-1 isolate, and discovered >99.9% genome identity, even at the S gene that has exhibited evidence of evolution in previous CoV zoonoses. In the SARS-CoV outbreaks, >99.9% genome or S identity was only observed among isolates collected within a narrow window of time from within the same species (Figure 5) (15). The human and civet isolates of the 2003/2004 outbreak, which were collected most closely in time and at the site of cross-species transmission, shared only up to 99.79% S identity (Figure 5) (37). It is therefore unlikely for the January market isolates, which all share 99.9-100% genome and S identity with a December human SARS-CoV-2, to have originated from an intermediate animal host, particularly if the most recent common ancestor jumped into humans as early as October, 2019 (54,55). The SARS-CoV-2 genomes in the market samples were most likely from humans infected with SARS-CoV-2 who were vendors or visitors at the market. If intermediate animal hosts were present at the market, no evidence remains in the genetic samples available.
If the outbreak of cases in the market didn’t come from animals, it means that the outbreak came from a human being — a human being who would have also traveled in other places in the city, infecting the individuals who made up the cases who couldn’t be traced back to the market.
Perhaps a lab researcher working on novel coronaviruses in bats.
ADDENDUM: Regarding the Biden administration’s decision to suspend the patents on the coronavirus vaccine, back when we were discussing the Defense Production Act, I noted that it was akin to telling “other pharmaceutical companies to make the Pfizer, Moderna, or some other vaccine is like instructing fireworks factories to start manufacturing thermonuclear weapons. Or, if you feel the comparison to nuclear fusion is hyperbole, instructing the Ford Focus plant in Wayne, Ind., to start manufacturing Lamborghinis. You would have to tear out almost all of the existing equipment, retrain the workers, and start over, if not quite from the ground up, then only a bit above it.”
Once again, we see the Biden administration wanting to be perceived as “doing something” even though the real-world effect will be pretty small, at least for a while. This isn’t just a matter of baking bread; all the equipment has to be specifically designed and custom-built.
Now every pharmaceutical company that has specially designed custom-built equipment for cold storage, bacterial broth vats, DNA harvesting, quality testing, DNA filters, freezers, packaging and shipping infrastructure, processing plants to turn the DNA into RNA, enzyme transcription machines, mRNA testing facilities, a second set of freezing, packing and shipping infrastructure, and oily lipid production equipment can take the formula for the best COVID-19 vaccines and make their own!
What’s that? None of the other companies already have that specially designed custom-built equipment? Oh.