It is a coincidence that, just like the emergence in Wuhan, heavily favours a lab escape if we take into account the specifics of the coronavirus research programme at the WIV, which are outlined below.
China’s research on SARS-related coronaviruses
Consider the following list of publication titles, many accepted in prestigious journals, from between 2005 and the start of the pandemic in late 2019.
They are all authored by Zheng-li Shi. These eighteen research papers constitute the main focus of her published output.
What they have in common is that all use the phrase “SARS-like coronavirus” or, later, “SARS-related coronavirus” or a close variant (all are bolded below).
These phrases should be understood as technical terms. They denote viruses extremely closely related to SARS and only distantly related to other coronaviruses:
‘Bats Are Natural Reservoirs of SARS-like Coronaviruses‘ (2005);
‘Full-length genome sequences of two SARS-like coronaviruses in horseshoe bats and genetic variation analysis’ (2006);
‘Evidence of the recombinant origin of a bat severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)-like coronavirus and its implications on the direct ancestor of SARS coronavirus’ (2008);
‘Difference in Receptor Usage between Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) Coronavirus and SARS-Like Coronavirus of Bat Origin’ (2008);
‘Virus-like particles of SARS-like coronavirus formed by membrane proteins from different origins demonstrate stimulating activity in human dendritic cells’ (2008);
‘Immunogenicity difference between the SARS coronavirus and the bat SARS-like coronavirus spike (S) proteins’ (2009);
‘Intraspecies diversity of SARS-like coronaviruses in Rhinolophus sinicus and its implications for the origin of SARS coronaviruses in humans’ (2010);
‘Immunogenicity of the spike glycoprotein of Bat SARS-like coronavirus‘ (2010);
‘Bat severe acute respiratory syndrome-like coronavirus ORF3b homologues display different interferon antagonist activities’ (2012);
‘Identification of immunogenic determinants of the spike protein of SARS-like coronavirus‘ (2013);
Isolation and characterization of a bat SARS-like coronavirus that uses the ACE2 receptor (2013);
‘A SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses shows potential for human emergence’ (2015);
‘Bat severe acute respiratory syndrome-like coronavirus WIV1 encodes an extra accessory protein, ORFX, involved in modulation of the host immune response’ (2016);
Longitudinal surveillance of SARS-like coronaviruses in bats by quantitative real-time PCR’ (2016);
‘Cross-neutralization of SARS coronavirus-specific antibodies against bat SARS-like coronaviruses‘ (2017);
‘Discovery of a rich gene pool of bat SARS-related coronaviruses provides new insights into the origin of SARS coronavirus’ (2017);
‘Serological evidence of bat SARS-related coronavirus infection in humans, China’ (2018);
‘Geographical structure of bat SARS-related coronaviruses‘ (2019).
What this list demonstrates is that, while Zheng-li Shi at the WIV focused on virus collection, above all, she dedicated her research to understanding zoonotic spillovers to humans of one species alone: the SARS-related coronaviruses.
So while most discussions of a potential lab escape have mentioned that SARS-CoV-2 emerged within commuting distance of the WIV and that researchers at the WIV worked on bat coronaviruses, none have mentioned that the coincidence is much greater than that.
Zheng-li Shi concentrated, especially with her potentially highly risky molecular research, on the particular species of coronavirus that is responsible for the pandemic.
There is a simple reason for this focus. The original SARS outbreak in 2002-04 had a major impact in China.
Finding the origin, explaining SARS and its symptoms, and preventing a repeat all became major research priorities for Chinese scientists.
To be sure, Zheng-li Shi published papers on other coronavirus species over that same time-period, for example on MERS, and even some on non-coronaviruses; but these articles tended to be one-offs and co-authorships with other labs.
The large majority of her output and the dominant theme of her research was collecting and manipulating SARS-related coronaviruses to determine the potential for human spillover.
So, if one accepts as reasonable the assumptions made above, the probability of Wuhan being the site of a natural SARS-related coronavirus outbreak is obtained by multiplying 1 in 630 by 1 in 28. The chance of Wuhan hosting a SARS-related coronavirus outbreak is thus 17,640–1.
The criticism will doubtless be made that the geographic and the phylogenetic evidence described here are circumstantial–mere coincidences.
But critiquing evidence as circumstantial is based on a common logical misconception–that circumstantial evidence represents a special category of evidence.
As the philosopher David Hume first argued, all evidence of causation is composed of coincidences. All an observer can do is to add up the coincidences until they surmise that the threshold of reasonable doubt has been surpassed.
Conclusions are always provisional, but in the absence of evidence to the contrary, anyone open to persuasion ought at this point to conclude that a probability of 17,640–1 far exceeds that threshold. A lab escape should at this point be the default hypothesis.
Such a conclusion is only reinforced by much of the important information that has emerged since the outbreak began. We now know, for example, that, at the time of the outbreak, Zheng-li Shi and her colleagues had in their freezers the virus sample known as RaTG13.
Among all the known coronaviruses, including within the SARS-related coronaviruses, RaTG13 is by far the closest relative of SARS-CoV-2.
We also know that Zheng-li Shi implied she had not actively studied RaTG13 prior to the outbreak (in Zhou et al, 2020).
We now know this was false and they had been studying it since at least 2017 (Zhou et al. 2020 addendum). These facts again do not support a natural zoonotic origin.
The lack of a zoonotic theory
If there were a credible zoonotic origin theory for the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 then such a calculation might be considered moot.
But, despite considerable academic discussion (e.g. Leitner and Kumar, 2020; Seyran et al. 2020; Sallard et al., 2020) and a WHO investigation, there is still no substantive zoonotic theory to speak of.
Snakes, Bamboo rats, pangolins, mink, turtles, dogs, civets, whales, and frozen cod, have all, at various times, been suggested as intermediate vectors that might have carried SARS-CoV-2, or coronavirus precursors of it, to Wuhan; but neither a theory, nor a proximal spillover virus, nor a plausible intermediate host has gained significant support in the scientific community.
The excellent reason is that data supporting them are largely lacking despite the apparently very intensive searching (Sallard et al., 2020).
The most concrete of these zoonotic theories, and by far the most widely known, is the pangolin (Manis javanica) theory (Anderson et al., 2020; Lam et al., 2020; Xiao et al., 2020).
It is proposed that pangolins smuggled from countries to the south of China harboured precursor coronaviruses picked up from bats, thereby bringing them to Wuhan.
However, newly available evidence has made this scenario improbable. First, pangolins do not seem, after all, to naturally carry coronaviruses (Lee et al., 2020).
Second, the pangolin theory rests largely on virus sequences obtained from pangolins confiscated in Guangdong province in early 2019.
Attempted independent verification of these virus sequences has uncovered that, although four publications (now highly cited) discuss or report pangolin coronavirus sequences and therefore appear to support the widespread presence of coronaviruses in pangolins, only one virus genome was ever sequenced (Chan and Zhan, 2020).
The papers by Xiao et al. (2020) and Liu et al. (2020) merely renamed and reconfigured sequence information generated by Liu et al. 2019.
This is the same pangolin coronavirus data set discussed by Lam et al., 2020.
Current thinking, in light of this new evidence, is that the smuggled pangolins were an ‘incidental host’ of the coronavirus.
That is, the pangolins likely caught the virus while being smuggled (Chan and Zhan, 2020; Lee et al, 2020).
In stark contrast, there are four distinct lab origin theories and these, unsurprisingly, are getting increasing attention.
Two are published in the scientific literature (Sirotkin and Sirotkin, 2020; Segreto and Deigin, 2020).
A third proposes that SARS-CoV-2 was a failed attempt to develop a vaccine.
This theory was developed by an independent group of online researchers called DRASTIC. The fourth is our own Mojiang Miners Passage theory.
This latter theory starts from the fact that viruses in the same mine where RaTG13 (the closest related viral sequence to SARS-CoV-2) was sampled appear to have given rise to a disease outbreak in 2012.
In that outbreak, six miners were hospitalized with COVID-19-like symptoms and three died (Rahalkar and Bahulikar, 2020).
All had been shovelling bat guano and were diagnosed at the time as likely suffering from an unknown coronavirus.
Samples from four of the hospitalized miners were sent to the WIV for testing.
To-date, there are conflicting claims about the results of those tests and nothing has been formally published (Zhou et al. 2020 addendum).
The Mojiang Miners Passage theory proposes, however, that, by the time they arrived at the WIV, these patient-derived samples contained a highly adapted human virus, which subsequently escaped.
For the present moment, notwithstanding the claim of the WHO investigation and the censorship of Facebook, all of these accidental lab origin theories appear plausible to us, but all remain uninvestigated.
Our prediction, however, simply based on assessing the probabilities, is that no convincing natural zoonotic origin for the pandemic will ever be found by China or the WHO or anyone else––for the simple reason that one does not exist.