Choppin at Hughes Medical Institute Hired Good Scientists and Let Them Pursue Hunches and Serendipitous Insights

(p. A27) Purnell Choppin, whose research on how viruses multiply helped lay the foundation for today’s fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, died on July 3 [2021] at his home in Washington, one day shy of his 92nd birthday.

. . .

Dr. Choppin (pronounced show-PAN) focused on measles and influenza, but his research, and the methods he developed to conduct it, proved critical for later work on other viruses, including severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, the virus behind the Covid-19 pandemic, said David Baltimore, an emeritus professor of biology at the California Institute of Technology and a winner of the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

“The issue of how viruses infect cells was very much on his mind, and the mechanisms he worked out studying influenza were central to thinking about coronaviruses,” Dr. Baltimore said. “Thanks to his work and that of so many others, when the pandemic hit, we were able to formulate questions about the virus in quite precise terms.”

Dr. Choppin was equally well known as an administrator, first at Rockefeller and then at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which hired him in 1985 as its chief medical officer. He later ran the institute for 12 years, turning it from a modest-size research organization into a global research powerhouse.

. . .

With a calm, easygoing demeanor that disguised a fierce, visionary ambition, Dr. Choppin took an innovative approach to funding. Unlike other institutions, which provide grants for specific projects, he focused on identifying top researchers and then showering them with money and resources. Even better, he did not ask them to move to the institute, in Chevy Chase, Md. — they could stay where they were and let the Hughes largesse come to them.

. . .

While Dr. Choppin was sometimes criticized for making safe bets on established scientists who probably didn’t need his help, he made no apologies, and had the track record to prove the soundness of his approach: Dozens of Hughes researchers had gone on to become members of the National Academy of Sciences, and six won the Nobel Prize.

“We bet on people who look like they are going to be winners,” he told The Washington Post in 1988. “You look for originality. How they pick a problem and stick to it. Their instinct for the scientific jugular.”

For the full obituary, see:

Clay Risen. “Purnell Choppin, 91, Researcher Who Focused on Viruses.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, July 25, 2021): 27.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date July 23, 2021, and has the title “Purnell Choppin, 91, Dies; Researcher Laid Groundwork for Pandemic Fight.”)

Scientist Phillippy Co-Led DNA Completion Because Gaps “Were Just Really Bugging Me”

People with different ways of thinking are better at doing different kinds of work. For instance those who are obsessive/compulsive or have some types of Asperger’s, may be better at careful detailed work that requires perfectionism. (I do not know anything about Phillippy beyond the article quoted below, so I am in no way suggesting that he is an examplar of either of these ways of thinking.)

(p. A10) Two decades after the draft sequence of the human genome was unveiled to great fanfare, a team of 99 scientists has finally deciphered the entire thing. They have filled in vast gaps and corrected a long list of errors in previous versions, giving us a new view of our DNA.

. . .

In 2019, two scientists — Adam Phillippy, a computational biologist at the National Human Genome Research Institute, and Karen Miga, a geneticist at the University of California, Santa Cruz — founded the Telomere-to-Telomere Consortium to complete the genome.

Dr. Phillippy admitted that part of his motivation for such an audacious project was that the missing gaps annoyed him. “They were just really bugging me,” he said. “You take a beautiful landscape puzzle, pull out a hundred pieces, and look at it — that’s very bothersome to a perfectionist.”

Dr. Phillippy and Dr. Miga put out a call for scientists to join them to finish the puzzle. They ended up with 99 scientists working directly on sequencing the human genome, and dozens more pitching in to make sense of the data. The researchers worked remotely through the pandemic, coordinating their efforts over Slack, a messaging app.

. . .

Dr. Altemose plans on using the complete genome to explore a particularly mysterious region in each chromosome known as the centromere. Instead of storing genes, centromeres anchor proteins that move chromosomes around a cell as it divides. The centromere region contains thousands of repeated segments of DNA.

In their first look, Dr. Altemose and his colleagues were struck by how different centromere regions can be from one person to another. That observation suggests that centromeres have been evolving rapidly, as mutations insert new pieces of repeating DNA into the regions or cut other pieces out.

While some of this repeating DNA may play a role in pulling chromosomes apart, the researchers have also found new segments — some of them millions of bases long — that don’t appear to be involved. “We don’t know what they’re doing,” Dr. Altemose said.

But now that the empty zones of the genome are filled in, Dr. Altemose and his colleagues can study them up close. “I’m really excited moving forward to see all the things we can discover,” he said.

For the full story, see:

Carl Zimmer. “Scientists Have Finally Filled in All the Gaps in the Human Genome.” The New York Times (Saturday, July 24, 2021): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated July 26, 2021, and has the title “Scientists Finish the Human Genome at Last.”)

Leading American Scientists Endorsed False Soviet Denial of Anthrax Lab Leak

(p. A4) YEKATERINBURG, Russia — Patients with unexplained pneumonias started showing up at hospitals; within days, dozens were dead. The secret police seized doctors’ records and ordered them to keep silent. American spies picked up clues about a lab leak, but the local authorities had a more mundane explanation: contaminated meat.

It took more than a decade for the truth to come out.

In April and May 1979, at least 66 people died after airborne anthrax bacteria emerged from a military lab in the Soviet Union. But leading American scientists voiced confidence in the Soviets’ claim that the pathogen had jumped from animals to humans. Only after a full-fledged investigation in the 1990s did one of those scientists confirm the earlier suspicions: The accident in what is now the Russian Urals city of Yekaterinburg was a lab leak, one of the deadliest ever documented.

Nowadays, some of the victims’ graves appear abandoned, their names worn off their metal plates in the back of a cemetery on the outskirts of town, where they were buried in coffins with an agricultural disinfectant. But the story of the accident that took their lives, and the cover-up that hid it, has renewed relevance as scientists search for the origins of Covid-19.

It shows how an authoritarian government can successfully shape the narrative of a disease outbreak and how it can take years — and, perhaps, regime change — to get to the truth.

“Wild rumors do spread around every epidemic,” Joshua Lederberg, the Nobel-winning American biologist, wrote in a memo after a fact-finding trip to Moscow in 1986. “The current Soviet account is very likely to be true.”

Many scientists believe that the virus that caused the Covid-19 pandemic evolved in animals and jumped at some point to humans. But scientists are also calling for deeper investigation of the possibility of an accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

There is also widespread concern that the Chinese government — which, like the Soviet government decades before it, dismisses the possibility of a lab leak — is not providing international investigators with access and data that could shed light on the pandemic’s origins. Continue reading “Leading American Scientists Endorsed False Soviet Denial of Anthrax Lab Leak”

Warburg Focused on Cancer’s “Ravenous” Metabolizing of Sugars

(p. A15) Hours before Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, SS leader Heinrich Himmler convened a perplexing meeting. He and his minions put aside preparations for the offensive to chitchat about a gay biochemist of Jewish descent in Berlin. Not to rage about the man, or plot his downfall—to the contrary, the Nazis believed this scientist could save the Reich, by ridding it of a threat they feared every bit as much as Jews, homosexuals and communists—the scourge of cancer.

That scientist, Otto Warburg, is the subject of “Ravenous: Otto Warburg, the Nazis, and the Search for the Cancer–Diet Connection,” an eye-opening work by journalist Sam Apple.

. . .

There’s no doubt Warburg was brilliant—the greatest biochemist of his day—and in the 1930s he focused on cancer, a major concern of the Nazis. Cancer deaths skyrocketed 287% in Germany between 1876 and 1910, “making a quiet mockery of the extraordinary march of German science,” Mr. Apple notes. From the Führer down, Nazi leaders trembled at the disease, and they enacted surprisingly modern measures to fight cancer. They railed against cigarettes, encouraged women to examine their breasts for lumps and worked to eliminate pesticides and artificial preservatives in food.

In his lab, Warburg made seemingly fundamental discoveries about how cancer worked.

. . .

The second half of “Ravenous” shifts into the (somewhat tenuous) links between Warburg’s research and our modern understanding of cancer. The biochemical complexities get a bit gnarly—there’s a dizzying amount of detail, making it hard to follow the main thread on occasion. Among other things, Warburg discovered that cancer cells gobble up far more glucose (a sugar) than their nonmalignant neighbors—“eating like shipwrecked sailors,” Mr. Apple writes. Oddly, cancer cells also metabolize sugars through fermentation, in a manner analogous to yeast cells. Biochemically, fermentation is normally a backup power generator for human cells, used only when oxygen runs low. Warburg found that cancer cells were running the backup generator all the time.

. . .

. . ., it’s not clear how much credit Warburg deserves. I walked away from “Ravenous” thinking of Otto Warburg as a sort of Sigmund Freud of cancer research. Freud got One Big Thing right—that the unconscious drives much of human behavior. But he was wrong on nearly every detail. Similarly, Warburg explicitly rejected good evidence for the insulin-cancer link during his lifetime, among other blunders, making it tricky to uphold him as a pioneer of modern cancer research.

Nevertheless, history will show that Otto Warburg always insisted that cancer was intimately tied to metabolism. As one latter-day biologist noted, marveling over Warburg’s rehabilitation, “We found out that son of a bitch was right.”

For the full review, see:

Sam Kean. “BOOKSHELF; Untangling a Disease.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, June 16, 2021): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 15, 2021, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Ravenous’ Review: Untangling a Disease.”)

The book under review is:

Apple, Sam. Ravenous: Otto Warburg, the Nazis, and the Search for the Cancer-Diet Connection. New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., 2021.

Media Used “Censorship and Vilification” to Suppress Wuhan Lab-Leak Theory

(p. A23) If it turns out that the Covid pandemic was caused by a leak from a lab in Wuhan, China, it will rank among the greatest scientific scandals in history: dangerous research, possibly involving ethically dubious techniques that make viruses more dangerous, carried out in a poorly safeguarded facility, thuggishly covered up by a regime more interested in propaganda than human life, catastrophic for the entire world.

But this possible scandal, which is as yet unproved, obscures an actual scandal, which remains to be digested.

I mean the long refusal by too many media gatekeepers (social as well as mainstream) to take the lab-leak theory seriously. The reasons for this — rank partisanship and credulous reporting — and the methods by which it was enforced — censorship and vilification — are reminders that sometimes the most destructive enemies of science can be those who claim to speak in its name.

. . .

Was it smart for science reporters to accept the authority of a February 2020 letter, signed by 27 scientists and published in The Lancet, feverishly insisting on the “natural origin” of Covid? Not if those reporters had probed the ties between the letter’s lead author and the Wuhan lab (a fact, as the science writer Nicholas Wade points out in a landmark essay in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, that has been public knowledge for months).

Was it wise to suppose that the World Health Organization, which has served as a mouthpiece for Chinese regime propaganda, should be an authority on what counted as Covid “misinformation” by Facebook, which in February [2021] banned the lab-leak theory from its platform? Not if the aim of companies like Facebook is to bring the world closer together, as opposed to laundering Chinese government disinformation while modeling its illiberal methods.

. . .

Yet the lab-leak theory, whether or not it turns out to be right, was always credible. Even if Tom Cotton believed it. Even if the scientific “consensus” disputed it. Even if bigots — who rarely need a pretext — drew bigoted conclusions from it.

Good journalism, like good science, should follow evidence, not narratives. It should pay as much heed to intelligent gadflies as it does to eminent authorities. And it should never treat honest disagreement as moral heresy.

Anyone wondering why so many people have become so hostile to the pronouncements of public-health officials and science journalists should draw the appropriate conclusion from this story. When lecturing the public about the dangers of misinformation, it’s best not to peddle it yourself.

For the full commentary, see:

Bret Stephens. “The Lab-Leak Theory and The Media.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, June 1, 2021): A23.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added; italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 31, 2021, and has the title “Media Groupthink and the Lab-Leak Theory.”)

“If It’s Consensus, It Isn’t Science”

(p. C9) . . . science itself is not conducted by polls, regardless of how often we are urged to heed a “scientific consensus” on climate. As the science-trained novelist Michael Crichton summarized in a famous 2003 lecture at Caltech: “If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.” Mr. Koonin says much the same in “Unsettled.”

. . .

As for “denying,” Mr. Koonin makes it clear, on the book’s first page, that “it’s true that the globe is warming, and that humans are exerting a warming influence upon it.”

The heart of the science debate, however, isn’t about whether the globe is warmer or whether humanity contributed. The important questions are about the magnitude of civilization’s contribution and the speed of changes; and, derivatively, about the urgency and scale of governmental response. Mr. Koonin thinks most readers will be surprised at what the data show. I dare say they will.

As Mr Koonin illustrates, tornado frequency and severity are also not trending up; nor are the number and severity of droughts. The extent of global fires has been trending significantly downward. The rate of sea-level rise has not accelerated. Global crop yields are rising, not falling. And while global atmospheric CO2 levels are obviously higher now than two centuries ago, they’re not at any record planetary high—they’re at a low that has only been seen once before in the past 500 million years.

. . .

Mr. Koonin’s science credentials are impeccable—unlike, say, those of one well-known Swedish teenager to whom the media affords great attention on climate matters. He has been a professor of physics at Caltech and served as the top scientist in Barack Obama’s Energy Department. The book is copiously referenced and relies on widely accepted government documents.

. . .

Never have so many spent so much public money on the basis of claims that are so unsettled.

For the full review, see:

Mark P. Mills. “The ‘Consensus’ On Climate.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, April 26, 2021): C9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 25, 2021, and has the title “‘Unsettled’ Review: The ‘Consensus’ On Climate.”)

The book under review is:

Koonin, Steven E. Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, 2021.

Mainstream Elevates Wuhan Lab COVID-19 Origin That They “Once Dismissed as a Conspiracy Theory”

(p. A1) DANAOSHAN, China—On the outskirts of a village deep in the mountains of southwest China, a lone surveillance camera peers down toward a disused copper mine smothered in dense bamboo. As night approaches, bats swoop overhead.

This is the subterranean home of the closest known virus on Earth to the one that causes Covid-19. It is also now a touchpoint for escalating calls for a more thorough probe into whether the pandemic could have stemmed from a Chinese laboratory.

In April 2012, six miners here fell sick with a mysterious illness after entering the mine to clear bat guano. Three of them died.

Chinese scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology were called in to investigate and, after taking samples from bats in the mine, identified several new coronaviruses.

Now, unanswered questions about the miners’ illness, the viruses found at the site and the research done with them have elevated (p. A12) into the mainstream an idea once dismissed as a conspiracy theory: that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, might have leaked from a lab in Wuhan, the city where the first cases were found in December 2019. Continue reading “Mainstream Elevates Wuhan Lab COVID-19 Origin That They “Once Dismissed as a Conspiracy Theory””

Always-Curious Microbiologist Found Useful Robust New Bacterium in Yellowstone Hot Spring

An enzyme in the bacterium that Brock discovered was used by Kary Mullis to create the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) that is part of Covid-19 tests.

(p. B11) Thomas Brock, a microbiologist, was driving west to a laboratory in Washington State in 1964 when he stopped off at Yellowstone National Park.

. . .

What fascinated him, on what would be the first of many trips to Yellowstone, were the blue-green algae living in a hot spring — proof that some life could tolerate temperatures above the boiling point of water.

It was the beginning of research that led to a revolutionary find in 1966: a species of bacteria that he called Thermus aquaticus, which thrived at 70 degrees Celsius (158 degrees Fahrenheit) or more.

. . .

The yellow bacteria — discovered by Dr. Brock and Hudson Freeze, his undergraduate assistant at Indiana University — survive because all their enzymes are stable at very high temperatures, including one, Taq polymerase, that replicates its own DNA. It proved essential to the invention of the process behind the gold standard in coronavirus testing.

. . .

When he arrived at Yellowstone, he did not have grandiose ambitions.

“I was just looking for a nice, simple ecosystem where I could study microbial ecology,” he said in an interview for the website of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he was a professor of natural sciences in the department of bacteriology from 1971 to 1990. “At higher temperatures, you don’t have the complications of having animals that eat all the microbes.”

Stephen Zinder worked with Dr. Brock as a student from 1974 to 1977, a period that included Dr. Brock’s last summer of work at Yellowstone and his research into the ecology of Wisconsin’s lakes, including Lake Mendota in Madison.

“He had an encyclopedic knowledge of microbiology and science in general,” said Dr. Zinder, now a professor of microbiology at Cornell University. “He was always learning and picking up new things.” He added, “I think his real ability was to see things simply and to figure out simple techniques to find out what the organisms were doing in their environment.”

For the full obituary, see:

Richard Sandomir. “Thomas Brock, 94, Scientist Who Shared a Nobel Prize’.” The New York Times (Saturday, May 1, 2021): B11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated April 26, 2020, and has the title “Thomas Brock, Whose Discovery Paved the Way for PCR Tests, Dies at 94.”)

Clarity Is Rewarded, at Least Among Cave Experts

After Deirdre McCloskey published her classic “Economical Writing” in Economic Inquiry, Jack High published a critique in the same journal arguing that young economists would ruin their careers if they followed McCloskey’s advice to write clearly. High claimed that clear writing would be less published and economists who wrote more clearly would therefore be less likely to receive tenure. McCloskey published a rebuttal saying that clear writing was more likely to be published, to be read, and to help the writer receive tenure. But she added that even if she was wrong about that, we should try to write clearly because it is the right thing to do.

The study mentioned below provides some evidence to support McCloskey’s claim that clarity is rewarded.

(p. D2) . . . a team of researchers has analyzed jargon in a set of over 21,000 scientific manuscripts. The study focused on manuscripts written by scientists who study caves, . . .

They found that papers containing higher proportions of jargon in their titles and abstracts were cited less frequently by other researchers. Science communication — with the public but also among scientists — suffers when a research paper is packed with too much specialized terminology, the team concluded.

For the full story, see:

Katherine Kornei. “Confused by All That Scientific Jargon? So Are the Scientists.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 13, 2021): D2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date April 9, 2021, and has the title “Are You Confused by Scientific Jargon? So Are Scientists.” Where the wording in the online version differs from the wording in the print version, the passages quoted above follow the print version.)

The study discussed in the passages quoted above is:

Martínez, Alejandro, and Stefano Mammola. “Specialized Terminology Reduces the Number of Citations of Scientific Papers.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Britain (April 7, 2021)
https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2020.2581.

The McCloskey classic article, and the exchange with Jack High, are:

McCloskey, Deirdre. “Economical Writing.” Economic Inquiry 23, no. 2 (April 1985): 187-222.

High, Jack C. “The Costs of Economical Writing.” Economic Inquiry 25, no. 3 (July 1987): 543-45.

McCloskey, Deirdre. “Reply to Jack High.” Economic Inquiry 25, no. 3 (July 1987): 547-548.

Still Plenty of Fruit to Pick from the Tree of Science

Some pessimists have argued for imminent economic stagnation on the grounds that technological progress depends on new scientific knowledge and that we already pretty much know all there is to know about science. One way in which they are wrong is that the process of scientific discovery still has a long way to go before we fully understand the world. (If C.S. Peirce was right in saying that truth is the result of infinite inquiry, then we will never fully understand the world.)

(p. A1) Evidence is mounting that a tiny subatomic particle seems to be disobeying the known laws of physics, scientists announced on Wednesday, a finding that would open a vast and tantalizing hole in our understanding of the universe.

The result, physicists say, suggests that there are forms of matter and energy vital to the nature and evolution of the cosmos that are not yet known to science. The new work, they said, could eventually lead to breakthroughs more dramatic than the heralded discovery in 2012 of the Higgs boson, a particle that imbues other particles with mass.

“This is our Mars rover landing moment,” said Chris Polly, a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, in Batavia, Ill., who has been working toward this finding for most of his career.

The particle célèbre is the muon, which is akin to an electron but far heavier, and is an integral element of the cosmos. Dr. Polly and his colleagues — an international team of 200 physicists from seven countries — found that muons did not behave as predicted when shot through an intense magnetic field at Fermilab.

The aberrant behavior poses a firm challenge to the Standard Model, the suite of equations that enumerates the fundamental particles in the universe (17, at last count) and how they interact.

“This is strong evidence that the muon is sensitive to something that is not in our best theory,” said Renee Fatemi, a physicist at the University of Kentucky.

. . .

(p. A19) For decades, physicists have relied on and have been bound by the Standard Model, which successfully explains the results of high-energy particle experiments in places like CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. But the model leaves many deep questions about the universe unanswered.

Most physicists believe that a rich trove of new physics waits to be found, if only they could see deeper and further. The additional data from the Fermilab experiment could provide a major boost to scientists eager to build the next generation of expensive particle accelerators.

For the full story, see:

Dennis Overbye. “A Particle’s Tiny Wobble Could Upend the Known Laws of Physics.” The New York Times (Friday, April 16, 2021): A1 & A19.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was updated April 9, 2021, and has the title “A Tiny Particle’s Wobble Could Upend the Known Laws of Physics.”)

My point at the start of this entry is directly relevant to my argument in the first half of the last chapter of:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Distinguished French Scientists Spearhead International Effort to Investigate Possible Wuhan Lab Origin of Covid-19

(p. A8) BEIJING—A World Health Organization team investigating the origins of Covid-19 is planning to scrap an interim report on its recent mission to China amid mounting tensions between Beijing and Washington over the investigation and an appeal from one international group of scientists for a new probe.

The group of two dozen scientists is calling in an open letter on Thursday [March 4,2021] for a new international inquiry. They say the WHO team that last month completed a mission to Wuhan—the Chinese city where the first known cases were found—had insufficient access to adequately investigate possible sources of the new coronavirus, including whether it slipped from a laboratory.

. . .

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Feb. 12 [2021] that the team would release an interim report briefly summarizing the Wuhan mission, possibly the following week, with a full report coming weeks later. But that summary report has yet to be published and the WHO team is now scrapping that plan, said Peter Ben Embarek, the food-safety scientist who led the team.

. . .

According to an advance copy of the open letter, the group of 26 scientists and other experts in areas including virology, zoology and microbiology said that it was “all but impossible” for the WHO team to conduct a full investigation, and that any report was likely to involve political compromises as it had to be approved by the Chinese side.

A credible investigation required, among other things, confidential interviews and fuller access to hospital records of confirmed and potential Chinese coronavirus cases in late 2019, when the outbreak was first identified in Wuhan, said the letter signed by experts from France, the U.S., India, Australia and other countries.

Investigators should also be allowed to view records including maintenance, personnel, animal breeding and experiment logs from all laboratories working with coronaviruses, the letter said.

“We cannot afford an investigation into the origins of the pandemic that is anything less than absolutely thorough and credible,” the letter said. “Efforts to date do not constitute a thorough, credible, and transparent investigation.”

The appeal is unlikely to gain traction, as any future probes would require Beijing’s cooperation. Moreover, many leading infectious-disease experts are skeptical that a lab accident could plausibly explain the origins of the pandemic.

Still, it expresses what has become a more widely shared dissatisfaction, voiced by the U.S. and U.K. governments and many scientists world-wide, that China has provided too little information and data to the WHO to guide researchers trying to determine where the virus originated and how it jumped to humans.

. . .

A laboratory accident is “definitely not off the table,” Dr. Ben Embarek told a seminar last week. Dr. Tedros said in February after the team’s trip that “all hypotheses remain open and require further analysis.”

The signatories of the open letter are mostly members of a broader group, spearheaded by French scientists, who have been sharing research papers and other information on Covid-19 since around December. None are associated with the WHO investigation.

Among the signatories are Etienne Decroly and Bruno Canard, molecular virologists at AFMB Lab, which belongs to Aix-Marseille University and the French National Centre for Scientific Research, France’s state research agency.

Dr. Decroly said he became involved after concluding that on the basis of available data, it was impossible to determine whether SARS-CoV-2 “is the result of a zoonosis from a wild viral strain or an accidental escape of experimental strains.”

The letter was co-organized by Gilles Demaneuf, a French data scientist based in New Zealand, and Jamie Metzl, a U.S.-based senior fellow for the Atlantic Council and adviser to the WHO on human genome editing.

Prominent critics of the laboratory hypothesis have in recent weeks published new research on bat coronaviruses found in Southeast Asia and Japan that they say shows that SARS-CoV-2 most likely evolved naturally to infect humans.

Robert Garry, a virologist at the Tulane University School of Medicine who was involved in that research, said he and other colleagues had initially considered the possibility of a leak or accident from a laboratory, but ultimately deemed it “nearly impossible.”

The Biden administration hasn’t publicly repeated its predecessor’s specific assertions regarding Wuhan laboratories.

Signatories of the open letter say they don’t back any one hypothesis but think it is premature to exclude the possibility of a leak or accident at or connected with a research facility such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or WIV, which runs high-security laboratories and has conducted extensive research on bat coronaviruses.

WIV scientists deny the virus came from there, saying they neither stored nor worked on SARS-CoV-2 before the pandemic and none of their staff tested positive for the virus.

Signatories said investigators should look at several possible scenarios, including whether a laboratory employee became infected with a naturally evolving virus while sampling bats in the wild, during transport of infected animals, or during disposal of lab waste.

They also said investigators should probe whether SARS-CoV-2 could have stemmed from “gain-of-function” experiments, in which viruses found in the wild are genetically manipulated to see if they can become more infectious or deadly to humans.

For the full story, see:

Betsy McKay, Drew Hinshaw, and Jeremy Page. “WHO Delays Release of Virus Origin Report.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, March 5, 2021): A8.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed dates, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated March 5, 2021, and has the title “WHO Investigators to Scrap Plans for Interim Report on Probe of Covid-19 Origins.” The online edition says that the title in the print edition was “WHO Team Delays Release of Report on Virus’s Origin.” But my copy of the print edition had the title “WHO Delays Release of Virus Origin Report.”
The last 11 paragraphs quoted above appear in the online version, but not the print version, of the article.)

The open letter mentioned above, signed by 26 scientists from Australia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, India, New Zealand, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States, is:

Butler, Colin D., Bruno Canard, Henri Cap, Y. A. Chan, Jean-Michel Claverie, Fabien Colombo, Virginie Courtier, Francisco A. de Ribera, Etienne Decroly, Rodolphe de Maistre, Gilles Demaneuf, Richard H. Ebright, André Goffinet, François Graner, José Halloy, Milton Leitenberg, Filippa Lentzos, Rosemary McFarlane, Jamie Metzl, Dominique Morello, Nikolai Petrovsky, Steven Quay, Monali C. Rahalkar, Rossana Segreto, Günter Theißen, and Jacques van Helden. “Open Letter: Call for a Full and Unrestricted International Forensic Investigation into the Origins of Covid-19.” March 4, 2021.