Claire Berlinski, Paris
Rapid advances in biotechnology mean that soon, millions of labs, around the world, will have the know-how and the means to create genetically engineered viruses. The law of averages says one of them will screw up. Nothing else poses a greater threat to the human race.
At the dawn of the atomic era, H. Sapiens acquired a terrifying ability: It now had the power to make its own species go extinct.
But there is a small, saving grace to the Bomb: It’s very difficult to build. Until now, only a small number of people have possessed the ability to end human civilization.
Biotechnology, however, will soon give this power to tens of thousands—perhaps millions. It is a statistical likelihood that one of them will be irresponsible or insane.
SARS-CoV-2 may well have emerged from a laboratory in Wuhan. This is not a conspiracy theory. The effort to obscure this hypothesis was a genuine conspiracy, a lamentable one, all the more so because it served its intended purpose: Even though we are living through a pandemic that has stopped the world in its tracks, killed many millions, and will kill millions more, the global public is insufficiently alarmed about the danger emerging from the world’s laboratories.
Set aside, for now, the question of the origins of this particular pandemic. How great is the risk of an even worse pandemic owed to laboratory mishap? If the risk of a catastrophic accident involving nuclear weapons is greater than most people realize, the risk of a catastrophic laboratory mishap—accidental or deliberate—is far greater still.
THE GREAT FILTER AND THE GREAT SILENCE
In the 1960s, the astrophysicist Frank Drake, a pioneer in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, attempted to estimate the number of alien civilizations in the Milky Way. The famous Drake Equation estimates the probability that human beings are alone in the universe:
Unless the odds of advanced life evolving on a habitable planet are astonishingly low, he concluded, ours can’t be the universe’s only technologically advanced civilization.
In 2016, a paper in Astrobiology updated this equation in light of recent discoveries in exoplanet studies. A New Empirical Constraint on the Prevalence of Technological Species in the Universe argues there is a firm lower bound on the probability that one or more technological species have evolved anywhere and at any time in the history of the observable universe. Our civilization is apt to be unique in the cosmos only if the odds of a civilization developing on a habitable planet are less than roughly one in 10 billion trillion.
As of 2010, 10,639 workers in the US had approved access to biological select agents and toxins. Between 2004 to 2010, 639 accidental releases were reported to the Centers for Disease Control. That’s no trivial number.
But even though we have searched for it assiduously, so far we’ve found no evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations. The contradiction between rosy estimates of the probability of the evolution of advanced civilizations and this profound disappointment is known as the Fermi Paradox.
In 1996, the economist Robert Hanson wrote, The Great Filter—Are We Almost Past It? Life in the universe, if it is anything like life on Earth, should be expanding to fill all the available ecological niches, he observes. So it’s truly significant that no one has come to visit.
There are two possible explanations for the Great Silence. The first is that the odds of a civilization like ours emerging from the component parts of the universe are vastly less than roughly one in 10 billion trillion. If so, the Great Filter is behind us. We have achieved the near-impossible—we’re here.
The second is that something—something law-like—prevents advanced civilizations from advancing beyond their planets. If so, the Great Filter is ahead of us.
Why might the Great Filter lie ahead of us? Perhaps—as Nick Bostrum speculated in Where are They?—technologically advanced societies are inherently doomed to wipe themselves out before they master the technology for space colonization.
Could there be something about the process of becoming technologically advanced that inevitably spells catastrophe? A small inevitable catastrophe wouldn’t do the job: A nuclear war might wipe most of us out, but you only need a few to survive—just two of us, really. We’d repopulate the planet in no time, geologically speaking. No, Bostrum writes, you’d need a terminal global cataclysm. An existential catastrophe. What might it be?
We can identify a number of potential existential risks: nuclear war fought with stockpiles much greater than those that exist today (maybe resulting from future arms races); a genetically engineered superbug; environmental disaster; asteroid impact; wars or terrorists act committed with powerful future weapons, perhaps based on advanced forms of nanotechnology; superintelligent general artificial intelligence with destructive goals; high‐energy physics experiments; a permanent global Brave‐New‐World‐like totalitarian regime protected from revolution by new surveillance and mind control technologies. …
If the Great Filter is not behind us, it’s ahead of us. What might it be?
Of all the grim possibilities Bostrum imagines, “a genetically-engineered superbug” is the best candidate.
Pandemics have ended civilizations before. Antibiotics and vaccinations mitigate these risks, but only to an extent. Probably, nothing that emerges from nature will wipe all of us out. But engineered microorganisms—made by states or even by one single person—might be able to do the job.
On the current trajectory, we will soon cure cancer. This is joyous news. But it means it won’t be long before every advanced hospital in the world will have the technology to cure cancer. This technology will be suited to killing any genetically-defined target, not just cancer cells.
The pace of progress in biotechnology is inexorable; the pressure to make lifesaving advances in medicine irresistible. But all of this technology is dual-use. All of it has a worldwide reach. You don’t need to be a state to make a bioweapon: Soon, millions of us will have the ability to end our civilization. It could happen by accident, or it could happen on purpose.
Who would do such a thing? Consider the number of people who think it’s a good idea to purchase a high-powered rifle, walk into a grocery store, and shoot as many people as they can. Consider, too, how many deeply disturbed people believe there are simply too many human beings for the planet’s good.
Some people are wired up wrong. There’s a fixed number of psychopaths in every population. Within the foreseeable future, there could be a million-odd people on the planet who know enough about molecular genetics to figure out how to engineer a deadly virus. It is not just possible but likely that someone with his head screwed on wrong will be among them.
Although a presumption of human malice is realistic, no such presumption is needed. Deadly pathogens escape from well-meaning laboratories all the time. All the time. In the wake of the SARS epidemic in 2003, for example, SARS reemerged four times. Only once did it reemerge zoonotically. The other three times? Lab accidents.
In Singapore, the accident was due to “inappropriate laboratory standards and a cross-contamination of West Nile virus samples with SARS coronavirus in the laboratory,” according to a WHO investigation team. Among the team’s other findings:
inadequate record-keeping procedures, totally inadequate training, inexistent virus stock inventory, patchy maintenance records plus a variety of structural problems including the absence of gauges to indicate the pressure differentials, the lack of a freezer to store samples, problems with HEPA filters and air supply, and other equipment deficiencies.
The second escape, from the Taiwan Military Institute of Preventive Medical Research—a military P4 complex—involved a researcher who found a ripped, leaking bag in the negative-pressure transport cabinet. He was in a rush, so instead of cleaning it as he should have, with vaporized hydrogen peroxide, he used an ethanol solution. He stuck his (improperly gloved) hands and his head in the cabinet to reach the spill, then dumped the leaking bag in the trash. He promptly got on a commercial flight to Singapore. Six days later, he was critically ill with SARS. He tried to isolate himself at home for fear of bringing shame upon himself and the laboratory. His father only persuaded him to seek medical attention by threatening to commit suicide.
The WHO investigation team, again, found “many management problems associated with this facility,”
including working alone at a BSL-4, inadequate staff training, a lack of standard operating procedures and a failure to have a medical monitoring program in place. Senior management could not explain why, after he had reported to the clinic with a respiratory disease, he was not followed up for the next six days when he was absent from work.
In Singapore and Taipei alike, these accidents sent shockwaves through the country and were followed by root-and-branch reform of national biosecurity practices. Such reform did not happen after a similar episode in Beijing. This was the most serious of these three cases, resulting in community transmission, but it’s also the most opaque, since there was a speedy cover-up.
What happened is hard to piece together, but it seems an inadequately inactivated preparation of the SARS virus was used in laboratory areas that weren’t properly secured. A 26 year-old graduate student died. Nearly 1,000 people had to be quarantined. The WHO sent an investigative team, as it had to Singapore and Taipei. They discovered they were expected to nod in agreement with the Chinese investigators and otherwise keep their mouths shut.
All of these laboratories were ranked P3 or P4. As DRASTIC notes, “a P3 or P4 certification is largely secondary in terms of biosafety.”
The major risk factors are the people entering the lab and the processes that are applied there. It is thus very easy to build a P3 but practically run it as a P2 as far as people and processes are involved, a point that the 2004 Beijing SARS lab leaks amply illustrated.
Compared to other industries, such as nuclear industries for instance, the situation is worse. People working in nuclear power stations typically go through lengthy qualifications. Also a radioactive exposure or increased coolant temperature can usually be immediately detected and measured via sensors. In contrast, biological P3 labs often see students with limited qualification in biosafety working there (see Singapore and Beijing leaks), and pathogen exposure is typically not detected until too late. The parallel would thus be a nuclear power station where students are routinely given a chance to manipulate radioactive fuel, or put in charge of reactor controls with limited oversight and limited sensors—all after a short risk induction. In the extreme a P3 or P4 designation may actually be counterproductive if it leads to a false sense of safety.
Immediately after the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2, the Global Times—China’s English-language propaganda organ—reported that China’s Ministry of Science and Technology had issued new regulations on laboratory safety. It was a move, they reported, “that experts said could fix chronic inadequate management issues.”
The release of the guideline deals with chronic loopholes at laboratories, Yang Zhanqiu, a deputy director of the pathogen biology department at Wuhan University in Hubei Province, told the Global Times on Sunday …
Laboratories in China have paid insufficient attention to biological disposal, Yang said.
Lab trash can contain man-made viruses, bacteria or microbes with a potentially deadly impact on human beings, animals or plants.
Some researchers discharge laboratory materials into the sewer after experiments without a specific biological disposal mechanism, Yang explained.
The Global Times was at pains to report this had nothing to do with Covid19, even if “some Internet conspiracy theorists” and “obscure online articles” had tried to link the outbreak to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Such a thing was impossible, said Yang, “given its extremely strict management.”
It’s not just China—not by any stretch of the imagination. The 1977 influenza pandemic was man-made. Russian-made, to be precise. Smallpox, too, escaped from a lab in the Soviet Union. So did anthrax. So did the Marburg virus—twice. Smallpox escaped twice from the same lab in Birmingham. It escaped from a lab in London. Another researcher in London gave himself Ebola with a needle-stick. So did a researcher in Russia.
Labs in the US have seeded repeated outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease. Swine fever virus, too. A researcher at the Center for Infectious Disease Research in Milwaukee punctured his hand with a needle loaded with a highly pathogenic avian influenza. One in Pittsburgh gave herself Zika the same way. The CDC has shipped H9N2 vials contaminated with H5N1 to the USDA.
A lab in Russia that handled highly pathogenic avian flu once suffered a gas explosion that blew out the window panes of the decontamination room. The Virus Research Laboratory in Ibadan, Nigeria, seems to have been particularly ill-starred; it unleashed Venezuelan equine encephalitis, Kyasanur Forest disease, vesicular stomatitis, Rift Valley fever, Tick-borne encephalitis, louping ill, Chikungunya, West Nile fever, yellow fever, and Wesselsbron virus upon its environs, serially.
To judge from the literature, lab mice—infected with every stripe of disease—are especially prone to going missing. And who could blame them? Of course they make a dash for it when they see the Bad Man approaching them with the electric paddles. But infected and genetically-engineered mice are impossible to find again once they make it into the wainscotting.
As of 2010, 10,639 workers in the US had approved access to biological select agents and toxins. Between 2004 to 2010, 639 release reports were reported to the Centers for Disease Control.
That’s not a trivial number.
GAIN OF FUNCTION
Gain-of-function experiments, in which researchers manipulate pathogens to see if they can make them even more dangerous, pose obvious risks. You would think the risks so obvious that no one would dream of doing these experiments, but you would be so very wrong. Experiments that augment the virulence and transmissibility of dangerous pathogens, for example the H5N1 bird flu virus, are now not only performed, but performed in universities in urban areas—a formula for disaster. It hardly seems as if the world has seen much benefit from this research, has it?
As early as 2015, sober voices were sounding alarms about the hybrid bat coronaviruses they were cooking up at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Engineered bat virus stirs debate over risky research, reported Nature. Subsequently, the very same journal primly deplored as conspiracy theorists those who wondered whether engineered bat viruses might have leaked from the very same laboratory that stirred this debate.
It is worth dwelling on this report. Roll these words around in your mind:
An experiment that created a hybrid version of a bat coronavirus—one related to the virus that causes SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome)—has triggered renewed debate over whether engineering lab variants of viruses with possible pandemic potential is worth the risks. …
The findings reinforce suspicions that bat coronaviruses capable of directly infecting humans (rather than first needing to evolve in an intermediate animal host) may be more common than previously thought, the researchers say.
But other virologists question whether the information gleaned from the experiment justifies the potential risk. Although the extent of any risk is difficult to assess, Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, points out that the researchers have created a novel virus that “grows remarkably well” in human cells. “If the virus escaped, nobody could predict the trajectory,” he says.
There is no reason to think labs engaged in bioweapons research are less accident prone than those engaged in civilian research. Indeed, there’s reason to think they may be more dangerous. Inspectors aren’t welcome in bioweapons labs. Neither are the WHO’s dutiful occupational health and safety teams.
China in particular is believed to be a paramount producer of biological weapons. Dany Shoham is one of Israel’s leading authorities on the subject. His 2015 paper, China’s Biological Warfare Programme: An Integrative Study with Special Reference to Biological Weapons Capabilities, is eye-popping. He reviews a wide variety of facilities affiliated with China’s defense establishment and military and concludes that no fewer than 42 facilities in China are involved in research, development, production, testing, or storage of biological weapons.
Although China joined the Biological Weapons Convention in 1984, no one seriously believes it adheres to it in good faith. Signatories to the Convention are obliged, for example, immediately to share information about outbreaks of acute infectious diseases with the relevant international organizations. China did not do so when SARS-CoV broke out in November 2002: By the time Beijing informed the WHO, in February 2003, the virus had spread to 37 countries. Nor did it do so when SARS-CoV-2 emerged. This record suggests, at best, an ambivalence about the letter and spirit of the Convention. The United States’ intelligence community, for what it’s worth, has assessed consistently that China is lying about its biological weapons capability.
For historic reasons, China is particularly keen to master these technologies. The memory of Japanese biological warfare against China, between 1933 and 1945, remains bitter. China is now poised to become the world’s leader in biotechnology innovation. “The range and magnitude of consequences and implications are vast,” Shoham writes. Among them is China’s emerging ability to upgrade biological warfare agents by genetic engineering. China, he suggests, may have “the tentative option of modifying certain biological warfare agents (in theory, at the least) so as to increase their impact against particular ethnic groups.”
Advocates of a more vigorous investigation of the lab-leak theory have focused on the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention as sources of the putative leak, and reasonably enough, given that both have conducted large projects on novel bat viruses; both maintain large collections of these viruses; and the Institute of Virology held in its collection RaTG13—the closest relative we have so far found to SARS-CoV-2. But the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products might be a good place to look, too. The PRC’s Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention declaration listed this facility as part of its “national defensive biological warfare R&D program.” The Institute of Biological Products is just next door to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Some of these facilities, Shohan notes, have “frequent and systematic interactions with American scientists, often aiming to absorb—ostensibly academically—advanced know-how from the concerned scientists.” These contacts are directed by the Commission for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, or COSTIND, and the PLA Military Intelligence Department. COSTIND also supervises seven universities and research institutes, all of which conduct biotechnological and biomedical research and development. “Interestingly,” Shohan notes, they concentrate “mainly on epidemic modelling, space microbiology, and, occasionally, medical microbiology.
“One can conclude,” Shohan writes, “that China is capable of developing, producing and weaponizing, on the whole, some 40 anti-human pathogens and toxins, either intact or genetically upgraded, if not largely engineered.” He presumes the inventory comprises, at the least, your basic set: plague, brucellosis, Japanese Encephalitis, SARS, Ebola and flu.
I have singled out China because it is reasonable to think China’s biological weapons program is now the world’s most extensive and advanced, and because this pandemic—on schedule to kill ten million people before it’s finished—emerged from China. But many other countries have had, or are believed now to have, similar programs, including Canada, Cuba, Egypt, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Libya, North Korea, Russia, South Africa, Syria, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Irrespective of the hostile intentions of the nation in question, the possibility of accidents—indeed, over time, the statistical likelihood of them—makes these laboratories a massive threat to the world.
And of course, often nations do have hostile intentions.
THE LIFETIME OF TECHNICAL CIVILIZATIONS
In 2018, John Sotos wrote a prescient paper for the International Journal of Astrobiology titled Biotechnology and the lifetime of technical civilizations. From the abstract:
The number of people able to end Earth’s technical civilization has heretofore been small. Emerging dual-use technologies, such as biotechnology, may give similar power to thousands or millions of individuals. To quantitatively investigate the ramifications of such a marked shift on the survival of both terrestrial and extraterrestrial technical civilizations, this paper presents a two-parameter model for civilizational lifespans, i.e. the quantity L in Drake’s equation for the number of communicating extraterrestrial civilizations. One parameter characterizes the population lethality of a civilization’s biotechnology and the other characterizes the civilization’s psychosociology. L is demonstrated to be less than the inverse of the product of these two parameters. Using empiric data from PubMed to inform the biotechnology parameter, the model predicts human civilization’s median survival time as decades to centuries, even with optimistic psychosociological parameter values, thereby positioning biotechnology as a proximate threat to human civilization. For an ensemble of civilizations having some median calculated survival time, the model predicts that, after 80 times that duration, only one in 1024 civilizations will survive—a tempo and degree of winnowing compatible with Hanson’s Great Filter. Thus, assuming that civilizations universally develop advanced biotechnology before they become vigorous interstellar colonizers, the model provides a resolution to the Fermi paradox.
It’s reasonable, Sotos suggests, to think that as a rule, “civilizations will develop and use sophisticated biotechnology before dispersing themselves on other planets.”
He concludes that he is therefore obliged to advise advanced technical civilizations to stop worrying about megascale computation and start worrying about microbes.
… the experience of 20th century Earth is likely typical, i.e. the progress of medicine and public health in the era antedating genetic biotechnology creates a population explosion, so that civilization consists of a large, dense, mobile population on a single homeworld at the time that potentially CE biotechnology is developed. Because such ecological conditions are conducive to the spread of communicable agents, it is reasonable to hypothesize that all planetary civilizations will face existential threats from contagious micro-organisms—whether engineered or not— before they become vigorous interstellar colonizers.
Claire Berlinski is the co-founder and editor of the Cosmopolitan Globalist.
“Is our species wise enough to survive the technologies we have invented?”
Is our species smart enough, let alone wise enough, to survive without our technologies?
Drake’s equation also makes a number of heroic assumptions. A few of them are:
-communications: aliens think enough like we do to have communications media we’d detect
-communications: aliens think enough like we do to communicate in a way we’d recognize, even given a possible detection
-communications: aliens would recognize us as a life form, or as a life form worth the effort of talking with
-communication: is two-way. Our present understanding of physics suggests that communication with aliens is either a years-long (assuming something communicable exists in nearby systems like Centauri) or thousands of years long, just for a single exchange. More likely, what we’re not detecting is a one-way, general purposes blat–which from a security standpoint would be pretty dumb to put out. The ordinary noise of alien radio or TV could easily be beyond our receivers’ capability. See, also, whether we’d recognize what we’d hear.
Which brings me to a short list of questions that also bear on Drake’s equation, along with my answers:
Do we understand what life is? No
Do we understand what communication is? No
Do we understand even what language is? No
Those are all homocentric concepts, so far. And still enormously hazy.
Do we understand physics? No. It’s entirely possible that the aliens have figured out communications that is FTL–in which case we’d not detect their calls because we don’t have that tech. We may be getting to that point, though; we’re aware of tachyons.
“There are two possible explanations for the Great Silence. ”
There’s a third possible explanation. All the aliens extant in our neck of the time woods are inside the Dyson spheres they built to capture their sun’s energy. In which case nothing about them would be detectable. At least by our current technology.
Ms. Berlinski, I agree with your assertion that most of us are not scared enough of the array of possible civilization ending catastrophes that may await us. But regarding the Fermi Paradox, there is actually plenty of eyewitness evidence, and possibly some hard evidence, that other civilizations are visiting us. That they haven’t announced themselves by landing on the White House lawn seems reasonable. After all, when viewing an ant colony, we don’t look for the queen with the idea of introducing ourselves to her.
I am going to admit something which is probably difficult for a lot of people to admit but I was a Star Trek fan or Trekker when I was a kid in the 1990s and still watch an episode or two on occasion. What I find interesting about the Star Trek franchise are not totally unrealistic premises of how we get from today to the future not just technology wise but also politically wise. In the later iterations of the Star Trek when it changes from a solely American centric franchise to one with a more global following the writer’s make an implicit argument that the United Earth and later the United Federations of Planet take on the values of we would associate today with the United States and the European Union in part as other societies on earth like Russia and China when extraterrestrial life is discovered are essentially unable to deal with the implication for the human race and force to cede political leadership in uniting the peoples’ of earth into a single political entity to the United States and Europe who are more open-minded and able to cope with implications(Not a totally outrageous thought if say we discovered extraterritorial life next week)
The second interesting argument of Star Trek canon especially as time has disproved some of the premises of the original 1960s TV series is that not just Earth has been visited multiple times in secret by alien lifeforms but that humans from the future have also traveled backward in time on multiple occasions and changed some of the supposed events of the late 20th century that were in the timeline of the original 1960s series(such as World War 3). Transparent aluminum which is a real thing and was even conceptually something the writers knew was possible in 1986 when they wrote “Scotty” having brough and introduced the technology to late 20th century Earth.
The third comment I will make is I find interesting that writers of Star Trek also assumed that while the future discovery of extraterritorial life politically unites Earth into a single political entity it also quickly creates an intergalactic version of 18th and 19th century European imperialism as the Earth led United Federation of Planets faces off against extraterrestrial “imperial” rivalristic “great” powers like the Klingons, Romulans, and Cardassians in the Star Trek series. Perhaps this is how you get people to watch the tv show and buy tickets to the movies but it is also a somewhat dour view of how contact with other alien species might like look like. Obviously the humans and earth have “allies” in the show but the tend to be “weaker” planets and races like Bajor and the Bajorans(which the writers in the early 1990s modeled off of the newly independent post Soviet states in Eastern Europe) The big premise of Star Trek Deep Space is the journey of the Bajorans to join the United Federation of Planets(akin to Eastern Europe wanting to join NATO and the EU). I have a feeling the DS9 writers were basically writing stories coming out of Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s news reports right into the show(Right down to famed “villainous” character actor Frank Langella playing a Viktor Yanukovych/Alexander Lukashenko like figure).
Anyways enough of my Star Trek analogies.
Yes. As I recall, the Enterprise returned to the earth from the future to save us from more than one self-inflicted disaster. If you liked Star Trek, you might like this spoof,
You’re in good company here. A surprising number of us are hardcore Star Trek fans. Something about Star Trek and Cosmopolitan Globalism just goes together naturally.
Big Star Trek fan here, too, especially when I was a kid in the 90’s. I haven’t completely outgrown it. 😉
I have to say, the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” regime was too much like the EU…
It’s complex as to why this happened. One reason is Gene Roddenberry at a personal level started to just believe a lot of strange stuff in the 1970s(I have heard him compared to L Ron Hubbard in this regard) but it is also true the franchise would have evolved with or without him. Nicolas Meyer who was brought in by Paramount to “clean up” Roddenberry’s mess after the failure of the first movie and Roddenberry moving “back” to TV with NextGen, was a noted Francophile and Europeanist and in his own way also brought the franchise through the movies towards a more EU-like direction. The decision to have the President of the Federation office in Paris was actually a Nicolas Meyer decision. Meyer actually wanted all of the Star Trek IV, the Voyage Home to take place and be filmed in Paris until the studio told him no on that one replacing Paris with San Francisco(not sure how serious Meyer was but it has been reported multiple places).
Anyways there is great documentary by none other than William Shatner on the production of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the general craziness of Gene Roddenberry in his later years.
Claire, another masterpiece; really informative and well-researched.
Not to go all Fox Mulder on you, but there’s another bio threat worth reflecting on; the deliberate release of engineered organisms for the best of reasons that goes spectacularly wrong.
To be clear, I’m not talking about genetically engineered crops; that’s a remarkably safe endeavor where the risk is remote but the rewards are enormous.
To give you an example of what I am talking about, consider the example of the Florida Keys.
The Aedes aegypti family of mosquitos makes up only 4 percent of the mosquito population in the Keys but account for almost all of the mosquito borne illness impacting the area. Selectively eradicating these mosquitos would be a boon.
A company called Oxitech just released a genetically altered male mosquito which passes on a gene to its female offspring that kills them in the larval stage. Over time, the Company hopes that it will be a great way to exterminate this very harmful mosquito family. Consider it Aedes aegypti genocide.
This particular experiment is unlikely to go wrong. But remember, insects, especially mosquitos and ticks, are ideal vectors for diseases that afflict humans. Malaria kills an enormous number of Africans; developing a vaccine for it has turned out to be extremely challenging. Lyme disease has become a major league headache in the Northeast of the United States. Ironically, investigators at Yale developed a safe and highly effective vaccine against Lyme Disease many years ago. It was marketed by Glaxo SmithKline. After 3 shots, it offered close to 80 percent protection.
Things went well until the anti-Vaxers got hold of it. After a series of frivolous lawsuits facilitated by ridiculous American tort law, GSK pulled the vaccine from the market in 2002. The resultant unnecessary human suffering is hard to fathom.
Anyway, while genetically engineering mosquitoes to kill them sounds great, the more we learn about how to modify these insects, the more likely it will be that someone will figure out how to turn the insects into a lethal weapon. Things could go very wrong very fast. See,
Claire, I wonder whether Anthony Fauci and Francis Collins are getting a bad rap on funding WIV. NIH provided $600 thousand to the Institute; other American organizations provided far more.
It’s very hard to believe that the Chinese bioweapons program did not work very cooperatively with the WIV. It seems likely to me that in light of that fact, American intelligence operatives must have tried to penetrate the the place. American funding might have provided cover to do precisely that. Perhaps American funding gain of function experiments at WIV provided insight into work that Chinese bioweapons experts might have been conducting. Maybe Fauci and Collins encouraged the NIH funding because they were implored by the American intelligence community to do so. It seems to me that we would be negligent as a nation not to try and penetrate that lab.
Most of the real work in American laboratories conducting biomedical research is done by postdocs (budding scientists who achieved the PhD but are a few years away from getting a faculty appointment). Without postdocs and graduate students senior scientists don’t have a viable lab and will never obtain NIH funding.
Here’s a secret that experienced investigators share amongst themselves but would never admit out loud; they all want Chinese postdocs. Japanese, Israeli and Russian postdocs are also in big demand but there are just fewer of them than Chinese postdocs who’ve recently moved to the United States to work in American labs. Why are they in such high demand? It’s mostly because they work much harder than postdocs from the United States and Europe.
Obviously this is a generalization so it won’t be true every time, but there’s nothing unusual about a Chinese postdoc practically living in the lab. 20 hour days are not unusual; long after the Americans have left for the pub, postdocs from China and the other countries listed above can be found burning the midnight oil.
Much of what goes on in research labs can be used for fair or foul. Anyone who thinks that Chinese intelligence operatives haven’t penetrated American university labs is just being naive. But that’s not the most common problem. The really vexing problem is what use is put to the techniques Chinese postdocs learn when they return to China.
Give it a decade or so; this could all really work out very poorly.
Great comment. And yes, if I had to bet–especially because DoD funded this research, too–we were trying to gain insight into that lab. That doesn’t get anyone off the hook, though. When it goes wrong, it goes wrong. If that’s what happened, we need to admit it. We need the truth about what happened, even if it’s deeply embarrassing. We *need* it–it wouldn’t just be “nice to have”–to prevent it from happening again. It would cause great embarrassment to both the US and China to come clean, if this theory is correct (both that they were conducting bioweapons research there *and* that we were funding it to gain insight into this research), but we could really distinguish ourselves from China–and morally, we must–by being the ones who admit this to the world. If we do not, however–for fear of the massive reputational damage and opprobrium, international and domestic, and because we’re embarrassed–then we’re not as different from China as we like to tell ourselves.
Neither China or the United States will come clean in the end. The cover-up will surely continue. Biden asked the intelligence community to investigate and prepare a report within 90 days. Isn’t this a case of the fox being asked to surveil the hen house?
Given the DOD funding of the WIV can we really expect a report by American intelligence agencies to admit that funding gain of function research at the WIV was provided as a cover to facilitate American penetration of the Institute?
That seems very doubtful to me. Putting the American intelligence community in charge of the investigation is more likely to promote a cover-up than reveal one.
Biden doesn’t want the truth to come out because he’s certain that Americans can’t handle the truth.
As for an investigation by the WHO, it’s a waste of time to even bother. Any incriminating evidence has already been destroyed by the Chinese.
There will never be real proof of how or why the virus emerged.
The incriminating evidence hasn’t been destroyed. There are some 200 employees of that lab, and many civilian, military, and government officials who know what was going on there. I wouldn’t take out life insurance on any of them, but surely enough will be alive for long enough that people who know–if there is something to know–will sooner or later talk. I doubt the records and databases have been totally destroyed. The medical records of the workers there haven’t, I’m sure, disappeared. A full and unrestricted international scientific and forensic investigation into all COVID-19 origin hypotheses, with full access to all relevant records, samples, and key personnel, is still possible, and if there is adequate international pressure, it may happen: This isn’t just about China versus the US; it’s about China and the entire world. It shouldn’t be so difficult to persuade the entire world to demand this. Even those intimidated by China have been so personally affected–not a person on this planet hasn’t been personally harmed–that I suspect it will be possible to put a great deal of pressure on the regime. They’re not 18 feet tall.
I really I hope that you’re right about evidence, if any, of Chinese malfeasance. I also hope that the full story of American support of the WIV emerges.
The story is way too important for the truth to be covered-up.
You know more about the press than I ever will. It might help if the mainstream media took an interest in the story instead of closing its eyes and hoping it just goes away.
The press seems to be quite interested in the story now. I’d pay special attention to Josh Rogin’s reporting for more about this.
It would help a lot, though, if more journalists took the time to read the scientific literature and more were able to read Chinese. That’s one reason DRASTIC has been so successful: They’re capable of doing both. This is a case where the story is apt to be buried in a paper or a Chinese database that no one reads. The bills of lading of shipments to that lab, for example, during the time the three employees supposedly got sick, could be very interesting. Records of traffic patterns would be, too; for example, there’s a metro line that goes right to the lab–if that station was “shut down for maintenance” during the period when three employees reportedly fell ill, it would be quite interesting. It would be very helpful if US journalists could get more information about the lab accident that sickened researchers–someone leaked the story to the WSJ; so someone wanted that to be in the news. That person or entity would be doing the world a favor if they leaked a little more of that story. Do we have the names of those employees? How do we know? If we know from signals intelligence, obviously, that would be highly classified, but if we were listening to the labs’ phone calls, that would say a lot about what we knew and why we were funding it. Likewise, if we heard the PLA discussing such an accident, we probably heard them discuss a lot more.
It would also be extremely helpful if our journalists in Taiwan–not that we have many, because we no longer have foreign news bureaus–cultivated Taiwanese military and intelligence sources, because if anyone’s apt to have evidence, it’s them.
One day, if I can turn CosmoGlobe into a big, fully-funded international news organization, this is the kind of thing we’ll be able to do. But it takes a lot of money. While I don’t think it’s true that Americans can’t handle the truth, I do think they’re not interested in the truth. If they were, newspapers and news shows would have the kinds of big budgets for international reporting that you need to cover a story like this. But they don’t.
The New York Times is in the best position, financially, to devote resources to a story like this, and every so often they do fabulous investigative pieces overseas–their investigation of the fire at Notre Dame was better *by far* than anyone else’s, including all of the French press. Their recent investigation of the Mexico City subway overpass collapse was superb too (and surprising, given they fingered Carlos Slim as the villain. Or perhaps not surprising. I don’t know the real story of why he sold his NYT shares; maybe there’s bad blood). But the NYT purged their competent Covid reporter (McNeil) for Badspeech and replaced him with the woman who thinks asking about Covid’s origins is racist. It will be hard for them to recover from that.
A lot of the story of the cover-up was buried in the footnotes of that paper by Anderson et al. in Nature. At the time, I just didn’t bother to read it closely; I only looked at it after that blockbuster piece by Nicholas Wade in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Any reasonably careful journalist would have seen, if he or she checked the references, that they didn’t amount to a slam-dunk case for zoonotic spillover–at all. And any reasonably curious journalist would have been alerted by that to the possibility that things were … getting strange. Why didn’t I read it at the time? It wasn’t my focus; it’s not that I wasn’t reading the scientific literature at all, but this was the very beginning of the pandemic: I was devoting my time to what struck me as more important: trying to figure out whether the forecasting models (from e.g. Imperial College) were solid. And they were, as I wrote here: https://claireberlinski.substack.com/p/welcome-friends-of-newt
I’m writing today about cognitive biases that affect our perception of catastrophic risk. One of them is hindsight bias. It *now* seems the community of journalists, including me, should have spent more time on those papers in the Lancet and Nature and less on other scientific papers published early in the epidemic. But at the time–without benefit of hindsight–this would have meant paying equal attention to *everything* published in the scientific literature, looking for anomalies like that. No one has the time to do that. As I write in the essay, it’s also easy in hindsight to say they should have paid more attention to the warning signs that the Space Shuttle Challenger’s o-ring might fail, but at the time, this would have meant paying attention to *every* warning of possible failure, and if you overdo that, you’ll never get a space shuttle off the ground. Neither of those papers came with a label that said, “Here’s your story!”
Still, it’s remarkable that none of the many journalists covering the pandemic story read them closely. I suspect this is because, first, there aren’t all that many journalists with a solid science background, and even those who have one aren’t entirely confident in challenging subject-matter specialists–the potential for embarrassment is huge. (I don’t have a solid science background either, but I can recognize logical errors, and I’m not intimidated by academia.) Second, at the time, journalists were trying frantically to learn about the *most* urgent questions: How do we treat this thing? How many of us are going to die? Why don’t we have a test for it? What does this bug do to you? Those papers just weren’t a priority. And of course, the majority of journalists now aren’t really doing journalism at all, in the investigative sense, but rather writing opinion pieces. Probably 90 percent of the articles written about Covid at the time weren’t investigative at all; they were either partisan opinion pieces about the way our politicians–and the media–were handling or covering the pandemic. (And we ran those too–here, for example.)
Pieces like that *are* important. No matter the origins of the virus, it can’t be allowed to overshadow the staggering failures of Western governments and societies which turned a crisis into a catastrophe. But media organs used to offer a balance of about 80 percent reporting to 20 percent opinion; that ratio has been reversed. It’s deeply unhealthy. The reasons are, as I’ve said over and over, economic; the cause is the Internet, and no one knows how to solve it.
So … subscribe to the Cosmopolitan Globalist and ask all your friends to subscribe and invest. The only way to get the journalism we both want is to figure out how to get people to pay for it.
(I should probably publish this in a place more people can see it.)
I think we can be confident that the Chinese regime will never, ever, under any circumstances, permit an independent investigation of the origins of COVID—since it’s very likely that some kind of lab leak is to blame. The circumstantial evidence for this being strong, the so-called world community should go ahead and impose sanctions on China. The presumption of innocence is a Western legal principle, inapplicable to diplomacy—particularly where a country like China is concerned.
My conclusion is that all the hand-wringing over the lack of definite proof on the part of the West is just a dodge. Nobody really wants to get tough and squeeze China’s shoes over its irresponsible, despicable behavior—which has taken millions of lives. But talk is cheap so we get plenty of that.
I so enjoyed your recent issue on biotech safety and pandemics. I have been tuned in to Dr. Bret Weinstein (“wine-stine”) since 2018. He was an early adapter to the lab leak hypotheses in early 2020 and at present he suggests the Wuhan Covid lab be relocated to a ship in the ocean- where a leak wouldn’t encounter necessary human hosts beyond the ship.
You *enjoyed* it? You’re scaring me. “Appreciated,” maybe, or “found worthwhile,” but if this vision gave you pleasure, you’re who I’m worried about. (But I assume this is just a case of failure to use le mot juste …. )
You are indeed a journalist’s journalist. And you have a sense of humor. The “it” I enjoy is the validation of ethics in science. That is the nerd in me.
Biowars, spycraft, Star Trek, alien life forms, existential threats. The CGs are fearless. I like Neil deGrassie Tyson’s comment that we share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees and can barely communicate with them. Imagine the barriers to communication with life advanced enough to get here. It’s possible they have come and decided there is no intelligent life here.
The assumption seems to be that an intelligent species would eventually evolve a science-based, technological civilization. But is that assumption valid? It could well be that our own technological civilization is a galactic anomaly. Perhaps the overwhelming majority of intelligent species take their civilizations in a different direction and never hit upon the empirical scientific method at all. There are human precedents for this, for instance the ancient Greeks. Their highly developed civilization had no science at all, as we understand the term.
That is an interesting intellectual gambit.
Lets start with the Greeks. I think saying they had no science is a bit harsh. Did you ever see Bronowski in the Ascent of Man, prove Pythagoras’ theory using triangular tiles? The basis for geometry. And then there is Archimedes and his eureka moment discovering the law of buoyancy and Pythagoras again observing that because children looked like their father, the genes must be passed through the semen. (Of course it took a few centuries before someone noticed they might also look like their mother.) The point is those Greeks drew conclusions from empirical observations, rather than superstition or religion, flawed though they were.
But to address your bigger point, the Greeks fought off the Persians, only to be conquered by the Macedonians, then the Romans, and then the Turks. The latter three were militarily and presumably technically superior.
I am thinking that successful life is something that replicates itself using the mechanics of DNA/RNA and then survives using Darwin’s law. And if DNA/RNA is based on chemistry, is it unreasonable to assume that life in other galaxies would probably be based on a similar DNA/RNA process, and that the surviving life forms would be the fittest?
If being the fittest is necessary for survival, then competition becomes a way of life and striving for superiority the norm.
Of course, there might be a Buddha figure that taught them that pain, hunger and envy were mere externalities and they might all Zen out and find good karma within, without needing to find food or figure out how to replicate or avoid discomfort. Not sure if that’s a recipe for survival. (I read recently that the Buddhists in Myanmar have taken a very un-Zen dislike to Muslims.)
Looking forward to your riposte!
It’s true that Greek philosophers engaged in what we would call scientific theorizing. But except in the case of mathematics, it yielded little or nothing in practical terms. A technological civilization depends not simply upon science but upon applied science. The Greeks did nothing to verify their speculations—which admittedly were sometimes correct—and so there was no spur to technological development.
The Greeks fell to the Macedonians and later to the Romans because Greece itself was not a unified polity. It was a patchwork of (usually antagonistic) city-states. To be Greek was to give one’s allliegence to the polis and nothing higher. Such unity as classical Greece exhibited was cultural and that was not sufficient to prevent the Peloponnesian War, whose deprivations were the proximate cause of Greece’s decline. The Persian War was thus a great anomaly: the one occasion when classical Greece mustered sufficient unity of purpose to defeat a powerful invader. But that unity did not last long.
The Hellenistic and Byzantine periods raise other issues too tangled to go into here.
As for the rest, I shall quote J.B.S. Haldane and leave it at that: “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
The Great Filter is the smartphone.
I believe that’s plausible, yes. Or certainly, the epistemic derangement to which it’s given rise, along with the loss of deep literacy.