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.
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.
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).
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?
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.
I promised to tell you about my dad’s tangle with COVID, and here it is.
It was not as fun as I thought it would be. Turns out I had a lot of misconceptions about COVID.
It wasn’t a holiday.
I figured if my parents got COVID, it would be an instant two-week holiday. Our liquor cabinet is stocked. Even by my standards it can cover two weeks of all-out hedonism. But I didn’t account for how shitty COVID makes you feel. My fellow inebriates, my dad went dry while he was sick. He didn’t have so much as a beer.
So why did my dad bother getting COVID if it his quarantine wasn’t going to be a big party?
Turns out my dad didn’t mean to get COVID. In fact, he thought he was being super-careful. He wore a mask everywhere, including at work, except while sitting down at his desk. If he got up to grab a coffee or use the photocopier, he’d mask up again. He was in a large space with high ceilings and no one worked close by. When my mum asked, “Shouldn’t you wear a mask all day?” he’d pull out a piece of paper and draw her a little diagram of where everybody sat and how safe it all was.
To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to this. Bears are teeming with microbes and viruses that could probably shit-kick the coronavirus to kingdom come. I wasn’t worried about my dad because he was so sure things were safe at work. But he had forgotten to mention colleagues who were in the habit of making mask-less visits to his desk.
Who was patient zero?
Before I knew about those people, I would have put money on Miss V. After months of online learning, she had returned to in-person school and was trying to sort out whether she hated it as much or more than virtual instruction. COVID-19 notices had started coming home on a weekly basis, but we hadn’t yet been warned of an in-class exposure. But it seemed inevitable.
But V actually liked keeping her mask on 100% of the day. As soon as the recess bell rang, she would beat it outside and read a book in whatever human-free zone she could find. (She got called out on this once—one of the higher-ranking admin types actually accosted her and told her to stop reading and play dodgeball instead. More on this in another post.)
Anyway, my bet was on school as the scene of transmission, not my dad’s work. So it was a big surprise when nearly everyone there got ill.
Helping the sick
My first impulse was to offer Dad a glass of Jameson Caskmates Stout Edition. His throat was in pain and I reckoned it would help. Stout Edition is finished in Irish craft beer barrels, which adds to Jameson’s already lovely oaky, orchard-fruit complexity and long caramel finish. I was willing to drink from the same glass with him—it would be medicinal for both of us, Dad with his spike proteins and me with my raging bear germs. But he declined.
His sore throat was accompanied by a slamming headache and drenching fever that persisted for more than 14 days. When he finally called the doctor, he was diagnosed with pneumonia and prescribed antibiotics. We didn’t think he was going to die, but he sure looked like hell. He didn’t just abstain from booze; he stopped eating and lost almost 20 pounds.
Meanwhile, the other humans at LBHQ got themselves tested, several times. On the second try, J (formerly Miss P) scored a positive. Fortunately for her teenage self, COVID didn’t alter J’s life or behaviour in any respect. Clearly J had got COVID from hanging out with Dad.
Mum and V began to make a habit of doing drive-through COVID tests, each time negative. Because they didn’t have COVID, the entire family’s isolation period was extended to encompass not just the time Dad and J were sick, but also the window of infectious potential for Mum and V.
We were grateful for the kindness of family and neighbours. Mum’s sister and brother-in-law drove out from Vancouver and braved Langley Superstore to do a big shop. My friend Scarybear was impressed with this, as he had been wondering how we would get more Miss Vickie’s chips. But I was even more impressed by our friends, who dropped off a bag of groceries and a cooler full of random beers. That’s how quarantine should be!
Final thoughts on COVID
COVID seems to come in as many flavours as there are people. You don’t know which one you’re going to get. My dad had a shit time with it, but ultimately he was lucky.
Public health people continue to insist there is no transmission in schools, but V’s school has been sending home exposure alerts almost every single day.
Bonnie Henry, please be more emphatic in telling people not to socialize. Don’t ask them to use their own judgment. That’s like asking someone how much income tax they want to pay. Make them isolate so this so-called circuit break actually stands a chance of working.
People, wear a mask. Masks are far more comfortable in April than they are in July. If we get our vaccines and keep to ourselves just a little bit longer, maybe we won’t have to wear them in July.
Get a test as soon as you feel symptoms. COVID starts with the tiniest little throat tickle. It’s so minor that many of my dad’s workmates didn’t bother going for a test—despite discussing the tickle. Then one person went for a test and set off a cascade as they realized the whole office was infected.
Finally, don’t drink hand sanitizer. (Sorry, that one was for me—sometimes I need a reminder.)