How Occam’s Razor led me to Moosehead beer and some big questions about the origins of SARS-CoV-2

My fellow inebriates,

It’s been a while since my friend Scarybear contributed to the blog. He’s been pretty quiet lately, and I finally found out why. He’s been reading this humongous article written by Nicholas Wade about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Scary learned to read by watching the subtitles in Stargate.

Not to be outdone by Scary, I read the article too. It took me ages, and fortunately I was sober. At 10,000+ words, Wade’s article systematically examines the case for and against the suspicion that SARS-CoV-2 is in fact a rogue escapee from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

At the end of Wade’s article he gave props to Stephen Quay, who published a 193-page Bayesian analysis of the virus’s origin and travel, which Scary and I are wallowing around in now.

As you may recall, Scary is obsessed with the apocalypse, so he didn’t mind the reading. It could be that his brain cells outnumber mine (I have just two). I started glazing over.

When I finished, I took some more lashings of armageddon via Sam Harris’s podcast: Rob Reid’s guest spot titled Engineering the Apocalypse. And while Scary said he already knew about and had contemplated everything Sam and Rob talked about, it scared the shit out of me.

In particular, gain-of-function research.

A gain-of-function (GOF) experiment is one in which virologists work with existing viruses to make them mutate into stronger, more pathogenic, more transmissible versions by placing selective evolutionary pressure on them.

Why the hell would we do that?

The argument goes that if we can build a virus up to be its most bad-ass incarnation, we can understand it better and be ready to counter it in the event that it appears in nature.

OMG! Are we actually doing this?

You gotta know it. For example, in 2012, some scientists wanted to know whether avian flu (H5N1) could ever transmit to mammals. The only way to know for sure was to try and make it happen. So they took some ferrets and, using a technique called serial passage, they iterated and mutated the virus until—ta da!—it jumped species. Thus the bird virus “gained the function” of mammalian transmissibility.

Would bird flu have jumped to mammals on its own? Maybe. This experiment confirmed not that it would, but that it could—by actually making it happen.

Understandably, this freaked the scientific community out, and there was some debate about it, followed by a small moratorium and some beefing up of biosecurity precautions. (Grab a beer or maybe an Ativan—more on biosafety levels later!)

Virologists went on to reinvent the Spanish flu several times. Scientists mixed H5N1 with H1N1. Finally in 2014 the Obama administration imposed a moratorium (which would be overturned by Trump in 2017).

But these are experts

Years ago when Scarybear first started catastrophizing about GOF experiments, I told him to chill. After all, they were taking place in secure labs (duh!) and being conducted by geniuses with PhDs and great reasons for doing them.

But consider this: Lab leaks are not so uncommon.

Smallpox redux

In the 1970s smallpox got its ass kicked. It was a triumph for humanity. The last known natural case occurred in 1977.

But in 1978, a British lab leaked smallpox, leading to a curtain call for the disease in the form of an outbreak that took at least one life. That prompted the destruction of all but two live-virus samples, held in high-security labs in the US and Russia. (Of course, smallpox samples turn up occasionally when someone cleans out an old lab, and in 2017 Canadian scientists even figured out how to make it out of horsepox virus, should we wish to reconstitute it.)

In 2014 the CDC reported that 75 federal employees had been exposed to live anthrax instead of the deactivated samples they were supposed to be handling (oops).

And SARS has escaped from a lab on six separate occasions.

Biosafety

The very worst pathogens are stored and handled in biosafety level BSL-4 conditions.

In a BSL-4 lab you’re wearing a moonsuit. You’re being surveilled. You get a chemical shower when you exit, followed by a shower shower (Scary would hate that). And you can’t be a dumbass working in BSL-4. This is the world of Ebola, Marburg, and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever.

BSL-4 allows scientists to work with the most deadly microbes. These are unequivocally deadly pathogens.

But in the more hypothetically deadly world of gain-of-function research, BSL-4 isn’t required; the work is usually done in BSL-3 or even BSL-2 conditions. As Wade describes it, “virologists worldwide don’t like working in BSL4 conditions.” Everything takes twice as long, and so there is a strong motivation to relax those rules, for the sake of getting the work done. Wade compares the biosafety level of the lab in Wuhan where coronavirus gain-of-function research was being done to that of “a standard US dentist’s office.”

What does this have to do with Moosehead beer?

Forgive me, my fellow inebriates, I know you’ve been wondering that. Moosehead beer has to do with Occam’s Razor—i.e., the principle of parsimony. The principle is basically this: THE MOST OBVIOUS ANSWER IS PROBABLY THE CORRECT ANSWER.

I had a lot of choices of different beers. You see, when my dad got COVID in March, our friends dropped off a cooler filled with random beers that they had acquired over the years for guests. Having been unable to have guests in 2020, these beers had languished in their spare fridge, and when my dad got sick, our friends figured those beers would make a good care package. (Amen!)

After my dad recovered, we wanted to reciprocate, so we bought our friends a case of their favourite beer, Moosehead.

However, our friends said they had stopped drinking Moosehead, so we ended up keeping the case.

So, when my head started hurting today after doing all this reading about lab outbreaks and infecting ferrets with bird virus, I decided a beer would help. But what beer? My two brain cells were tuckered out. All the exotic beers our friends had gifted us were … unknowns. And there were 15 cans of Moosehead. I chose Moosehead because it was the most OBVIOUS example of a refreshing Canadian beer that would remind me of watching hockey games and getting stupid outside on our deck. And it was CORRECT. I loved that can of Moosehead. I even poured it into a glass.

Often the most obvious answer is the correct one. I wonder about this as I rake through lab data and Wuhan subway maps and all kinds of stuff I barely understand. For example:

I’m not the only one who barely understands it. We all trust scientists to parse and translate this stuff for us. But I wonder—did scientists let us down when they shrank from Donald Trump’s assertion that SARS-CoV-2 came from a lab? Was that ideological—wanting to get as many miles away from him as possible? Maybe they could have distanced themselves from Trump without distancing themselves from … data?

If scientists are working on existing viruses all the time, making them tougher, faster, stronger, meaner …

And if history shows us multiple examples of lab breaches and screw-ups … couldn’t SARS-CoV-2 have been one of them? Is it that unlikely?

Final weigh-in

COVID-19 was cooked up in a lab.

It looks just a plausible as the wet-market story. But what do I know? I have only two brain cells.

Dear Vaccine

My fellow inebriates,

I’m submitting a poem to “Dear Vaccine” (globalvaccinepoem.com). It is a global community poem that I just learned about today when listening to CBC Radio, inviting people to share their voices to promote COVID-19 vaccination through poetry.

So, I’m poised to enter my poem. I’ve loaded it into the field and am about to hit “enter.” Will they accept it? I’m very nervous… So just in case they don’t (for the multiple reasons they might reject it), here’s my poem:

We liked the day the traffic stopped,

The banging pots and pans.

The way we wanted to protect

Our granddads and our grans.

~

And suddenly we all were home,

with Zoom-enabled work.

With four of us and gerbils too,

We quickly went berserk.

~

At first they said: Don’t bother with

A face-shield or a mask.

“You’ll just spread germs! You’ll wear it wrong!”

They didn’t make the ask.

~

And that was dumb, but so was when

They said: “Go back to school!”

Why not share air with 30 kids?

Why wouldn’t that be cool?

~

And even dumber was the time

They said to stay in our “safe six.”

That only works if you can trust

Your six aren’t total dicks.

~

And while the numbers climbed and climbed,

Yet assholes still did frolic,

The government’s response was just

Chaotic and shambolic.

~

To mask or not? To get a test?

To bubble with your neighbour?

To get the CERB (or pay it back)?

To safely sell your labour?

~

And frontline workers, nurses, docs—

You get the biggest callout.

While douchebags rallied without masks,

You suffered through the fallout.

~

For those of us who work from home,

We should know we are lucky.

The fridge is here, and all the snacks.

It’s really not so sucky.

~

When you are home all night and day,

The liquor bottles beckon.

Why not pour Bailey’s in my tea?

It just seems fair, I reckon.

~

And on that note, why not partake

Of Cuervo with my brunch?

Why wait with jitters and the sweats

For noon-time liquid lunch?

~

And BC Liquor Stores, you jewel!

You made our booze essential.

Who cares if productivity

Has not been exponential?

~

So it’s been good, but it’s been bad.

For kids it has been rough.

A year without their grandparents

Is way, way, way too tough.

~

And now we have not just one shot,

But two or three or four,

To make those fucking protein spikes

Torment us nevermore.

~

“So which one should I get?” you ask,

When there’s a veritable menu.

Not only can you choose your jab;

You get your choice of venue.

~

But government, you’ve let us down.

You’ve vacillated once again.

You say the best shot is the one

That’s offered, while NACI maintains

It’s Pfizer you should get at once,

Not AZ if you have a choice.

Moderna, too, can beat those spikes,

And Pfizer’s good for girls and boys.

~

If you are stuck with AZ, then

Be glad that it’s not Sputnik.

The odds are astronomically against

A nasty platelet uptick.

~

It’s okay if you have some fears…

The needle stick, the achy arm.

The big thing is you understand

How vaccines can prevent much harm.

~

So anti-vaxers, hear me now:

You shut your mouths and take your shot!

It’s easy—all you’re gonna feel

Is soreness, and you will not clot.

~

The very best thing that our world

Has done is make vaccines.

When we’re all jabbed, we can feel safe.

Just think what that would mean.

It’s like a hangover

My fellow inebriates,

The day after the COVID-19 vaccine is kind of like a hangover. You feel kind of tired, a bit icky and sort of prickly. Your throat feels a tad rough—and did someone punch you in the arm?

You’ve been through worse (especially if you’re in the habit of following my advice).

You can do it! Go get your shot.