Original artwork by Pete Jeffswww.peterjeffsart.com

Original artwork by Pete Jeffswww.peterjeffsart.com

Yesterday, I sat outside our local watering hole with my friend, Woodchuck, and had a beer. Okay, three beers. We didn't wear masks and we didn't socially distance, because… we didn't have to! It's true – fully vaccinated folks (like Woodchuck and me) no longer have to wear masks in public here. And the day before, Ms. Mole and I went to the supermarket where the sign says, ‘Fully vaccinated people are not required to wear masks,’ (I assumed that this also applied to vaccinated insectivores, so off went the mask). It felt, um, very strange. But so good strange. And yes, as always, I asked my friend how much wood can a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood? And as always (he is very patient with me) the answer was, “more than you think.” But we weren't wearing masks!

Woodchuck and I talked of many things. Of shoes and ships and sealing wax. Of cabbages and kings. And why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings. No wait. That wasn't us, that was the Walrus and the Carpenter. And unlike the W and the C, we were not eating oysters, we were drinking beer (if you don't know what I'm talking about, really, you should stop reading this and read ‘Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There’; published in 1871 by the Oxford mathematician Charles Dodgson, writing as Lewis Carroll. Once, long ago, I had the privilege of seeing his original writings and sketches in Christ Church College, where you can also see the tree in which the Cheshire cat was thought to sit. Although this cat is not featured in Through the Looking Glass. Where was I? Oh, oysters. Yes, the W and the C ate them all. No, that wasn't it. Oysters, beer, having beers with Woodchuck. Right! What we were talking about. Sorry). Woodchuck brought up the investigation into the possibility that the Terrible Pandemic (TP) was engineered.

I mean, WTF? (This loosely translates to ‘what the freak?’ except freak isn't freak. It is a rude word, but despite that, WTF is not a rude expression, since it is a three-letter acronym, or TLA. And TLA was an OED ‘word of the year,’ as you'll recall. So, WTF is a perfectly acceptable TLA that can be used in polite company, such as we have here).

Here's the story. The bat β-coronavirus that is most similar to SARS-CoV2 is strain RaTG13 (CoV4991), which was isolated from a horseshoe bat found in the Tongguan mineshaft in Mojiang, Yunnan, China, in 2013. It turns out that the year before, in 2012, six miners in the same mineshaft fell ill with a severe pneumonia and three of them died. This pneumonia had features of COVID-19, including pulmonary embolisms and secondary infection, according to a master's thesis by Li Xu (which was in Chinese, which I do not read. Actually, I don't read any language except English, and I do that poorly. I am getting my information from a paper published in Frontiers in Public Health – you can find it pretty easily, online). Four out of six of the victims had high titer antibodies reacting to SARS (CoV1, not CoV2 – the thesis was published in 2013). The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) followed up and isolated a bunch of viruses from bats in the mine, including two β-coronaviruses, one of which was CoV4991. This was renamed RaTG13 as the closest genetic relative of SARS-CoV2.

All of this was published in English (thank you) in October, 2020, many months ago. But last night (after beers with Woodchuck), I coincidentally heard an interview in which the reporter breathlessly recounted the story as though this required a great deal of investigative journalism and concluded that it is therefore possible that SARS-CoV2 resulted from nefarious tinkering with RaTG13 in a lab in the WIV (which is a very good institution, by all accounts). “Why did they rename it,” she mused suspiciously, apparently unaware that nomenclature is something that changes. The journalist also suggested that the WIV is engaged in gain of function research on viruses, and did so with great gravitas, shared by the interviewer. So, WTF?

Wait, what? What is the story line being suggested here? I mean, let's think this through. Say you are a seriously twisted nutcase who wants to make a lethal pandemic-causing virus (I am not suggesting that anyone in the WIV is deranged – this is a hypothetical). So, you decide to engineer a β-coronavirus. And you pick one that you already suspect may have killed 50% of infected people from that mine. Okaaay. And then you engineer a huge number (around 2000) substitutions into this lethal virus (the estimated evolutionary distance between RaTG13 and SARS-CoV2 is about 30–75 years, based on one analysis, although there is an argument that many of the differences might be a consequence of RNA modification; but in any case, you would have to do a lot of engineering of RaTG13 to make it into SARS-CoV2). To do what? I mean, if you are this odious (fictitious) clown who is manipulating RaTG13, are you trying to make it less lethal? But that isn't gain-of-function, and we want to say ‘gain of function’ with a Dr. Evil laugh (Bwa-ha-ha; don't forget the little finger on your lips – sorry, you might not know who Dr. Evil is. Go watch the Austin Powers movies. Silly, gross fun that will take your mind off this stuff. But they are pretty gross; I generally don't like such movies, but these do crack me up. And this naturally leads to the next bit). And let's say now after years of secret, life-draining, boring work you finally have this awful virus, so, what is the plan? You should hold it ransom, and demand One Mill-i-on Dollars, right? But no, you accidentally infect a bunch of your colleagues and you don't tell anyone, because, well, you messed up. As near as I can tell, this is the scenario that we are supposed to seriously (very, very seriously) consider.

So, WTF?

Here's another scenario. If, indeed, the virus that had infected the miners in 2012 was RaTG13, and we do not know that it was (at all), this should tell us that some β-coronaviruses in bats have the potential to infect people. And these viruses have been circulating in bat populations for decades (at least). One of these was SARS-CoV2, which jumped to people in 2019 and caused a devastating worldwide pandemic. It probably evolved from a virus that was the common ancestor of RaTG13. And it makes sense that the outbreak in Wuhan was identified by a world class institute of virology in that province. I'm just saying. Sure, we should investigate this. Yes, China should be as transparent as possible, and let the WIV share all of its information on this. That would be great. (And it would be great if pigs do have wings. I'm not saying that this will or will not happen, but it would be great).

And while we are fixated on whether, or not, the virus spontaneously jumped to humans or was tragically leaked from a virus lab, we are missing the whole UFO thing. Really, we are now getting 20 years of hazy videos that show stuff flying around in the atmosphere, really fast. (These stories are not described in the same interview I discussed above, but in the same newscast). Nobody seems to know what they are, except, of course, all the people who were abducted by aliens who probed them in awful ways. Soon, we will put the pieces together: Alien bats unleashed the virus. No, wait. Dr. Evil gave the bats to the aliens, and they made the virus. Or Dr. Evil made a bad bat virus in order to kill the aliens and it got out of hand. It deserves some serious consideration. No, really, it doesn't.

Here's what I think is really going on here. In the past year, and especially in the past few months, science and scientists have gotten rock star status. We identified the virus in record time, developed tests really fast (like as fast as those UFOs) and got them out there, and made several sensational vaccines that really work. In a little over a year. It's pretty amazing. Rock stars! Tony Fauci and Mick Jagger are about the same age, but Tony is getting way more screen time, right? But, and here's the thing: There are a lot of people who are more than a little uncomfortable with this elevation of science, because, you know, Dr. Evil is a scientist, and he's really evil. So is Dr. Horrible. (If you have never seen Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, you have missed something wonderful – look it up, you can see it for free. It is one of my favorite things. But right, mistrust of science – ‘Focus, Mole.’ Sorry). Regardless of whether they lean (or lean hard) right or left, conservative or progressive, a lot of people are at least a little afraid of science. And if all of this is due to something that happened in a lab, intentionally or unintentionally, rock star status will crumble more quickly than happened to M.C. Hammer (look him up also, you have to see a video of ‘Hammertime.’ It is worth the effort just to see his pants).

So, it is good that we are investigating the origin of the pandemic, but when we conclude that it arose naturally, do not expect everyone, or even most people to believe it. If we can fix a pandemic, we can cause one, the thinking goes, because science is scary. Patiently explaining all the reasons why this is not the case is like trying to explain why you should be vaccinated if you distrust vaccines (I've tried, believe me, and I'm still trying. I hope you are, too). So, every day we have to work to earn public trust, and that isn't going to stop with the end of the TP.

How do we do that? Here's one way: communicate. Explain what it is you do, and why. Why science is a good thing, and why scientists are generally very good people. We are passionate about what we do, responsible and (for the most part) caring, and we want to make the world a better place. Not everything we do is geared to the goal of curing a disease, or impacting on global problems, but all of what we do is about the human need to understand. So help others understand, too. Every chance you get.

Science is scary for a great many people, and not ‘fun scary,’ like an Austin Powers movie (okay, these aren't scary, but you know what I mean). People are a little scared of us, and we have to take the time and effort to make science less scary. If people believe (and too many do) that science caused the TP, the fact that science also solved it won't matter. And for many of us, like me, the public is paying for our research. I'm just saying. The last thing we want the public to say is “WTF, scientists, WTF?” I don't think they will have a reason to, but we'll see.

Meanwhile, I'm going to watch Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog again. It always makes me laugh.