Bret Weinstein: Why COVID-19 May Have Leaked from a Lab


4 years ago



Bret Weinstein

9 appearances

Dr. Bret Weinstein is an evolutionary biologist, podcaster, and author. He co-wrote "A Hunter-Gatherer's Guide to the 21st Century: Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life" with his wife, Dr. Heather Heying, who is also a biologist. They both host the podcast "The DarkHorse Podcast."


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You want to talk about COVID? I do. What are your thoughts on the lockdown? Yeah. Well, let's put it this way. I'm not speaking in a vacuum here. I've heard a certain amount of your take. And my take is a bit different. I am very concerned about SARS-CoV-2. I am not concerned about it because it is as lethal as we feared it might be. It isn't as lethal as we feared it might be. But I'm afraid of it for other reasons. One, it is brand new to us evolutionarily. It just showed up in human beings. And so, in my opinion, we screwed up the lockdown badly because we went halfway. That a very short, very intense lockdown could have ended it and that that would have been the smart thing to do. And unfortunately, the political will was not there. But if you're... I am looking at New Zealand with utter envy. Can you imagine at this moment being free of SARS-CoV-2? Yeah, they nailed it. But they also have so few people. Oh, they definitely had it easier. But the point is they did prove it was possible. Yes. So, in my opinion, we should have locked down severely for six weeks or something along those lines and we should have driven it to extinction. And the problem is that that runs afoul of all kinds of things, including civil liberties concerns, which I also hold. I hate the idea of a government crackdown in which they're dictating with whom you associate and all of the rest. I hate it as much as anyone. But we are dealing with a brand new landscape when it comes to a global pandemic. And what's more, we are dealing with a virus that I think is not what we have been told it is. How so? So, I have... Initially, I thought that this was a bat-borne virus that had been transmitted to people from the wild, probably through the bush meat trade, probably through the seafood market in Wuhan. In fact, Heather and I were in the Amazon where we had no connectivity to anything for a couple weeks. And when we came out, what was then called novel coronavirus was just beginning to be discussed. And so, we became aware of it as we came out of the Amazon. I was like, what the heck is that? And I looked into it and immediately I saw the story adds up. It's a coronavirus of a kind that's known to circulate in bats. There's a seafood market. And I thought, okay, I know what the story is. And I tweeted, I don't know enough about the story yet, but looks to me like the Wuhan on seafood market is the source that the virus comes from bats and we have to talk about the bush meat trade, which has always been a terrible idea. And immediately people tweeted back at me, so you think it's just a coincidence that there's a biosafety lab level four in Wuhan where this started? And I thought, what? That's a heck of a coincidence. And so, I started to look into it. I retracted the tweet and I said, maybe I don't know enough about the story yet. And I started to look into it. And I went down the rabbit hole because as much as we have been assured by a huge range of experts that this has to have been a bat-borne coronavirus transmitted to people, possibly through pangolins, maybe through some intermediate host that we don't yet know, that story looks less and less likely. And the story that is looking more and more likely, what I would call the lab leak hypothesis, is looking ever stronger. And anyway, I've been in contact with other people who have reached that conclusion. We have faced all kinds of pushback. But in a sense, again, we still don't know. It is possible that this came from the wild without human meddling. But the virus itself has several components that suggest that it is actually the result of manipulation in the lab and that it escaped probably from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. But there's another lab in Wuhan. It may well have escaped. And we may be dealing with consequences of the fact that it was manipulated in the lab. So one of the techniques that labs who study viruses like this use is something, so the research is called gain of function research. Gain of function research means you are taking a virus and you are adding a capacity to it in order to study how it works. And then one of the things that is done to study how it works is something called passaging, where a virus is infected, a creature is infected with the virus, and then the virus is allowed to pass between individuals of that species. It can also be done in tissues, in cellular tissues, where tissues are infected and the virus is allowed to spread from one cell to the next. And what happens is evolution. So there is a strong possibility that this virus was under study, that it was enhanced in the laboratory, and that we are dealing with consequences that are the result of that enhancement that make it more dangerous than it would otherwise be. And what do you believe those enhancements are? Well, so one of the enhancements, there is something called a furin site, a furin site in the genome of this virus. Furin sites are not known, it doesn't mean they don't exist, but they are not known from other beta coronaviruses. And this furin site is conspicuous. It's conspicuous in that it is in the genome as an insert rather than mutations of nucleotides that were there. It's like somebody spliced it in. That's one thing, which could happen naturally, but it may well not have. And it has a flanking sequence, which has, this is probably going to be hard for people to follow, but nucleotides, that is DNA, code for proteins, which are made out of amino acids. There is an amino acid called arginine, and there are two arginines coded for in the genome of this virus. But because there are so many possible codes, triplet codes, and only 20 or so amino acids, there's redundancy. And so which code is used to trigger the production of an, or the inclusion of an arginine is variable. And the two arginines are coded for in a way that is not seen in nature in this way very frequently. Let's just say there are elements of the genome that are conspicuous and suggest possible laboratory manipulation. The fur insight that I referred to that has been inserted either by a natural process or by a laboratory process greatly increases the transmissibility of this virus, which means various things. It could be the explanation for why this virus is infecting so many different tissues in people who get sick. The list of symptoms is huge here. And that's a very troubling thing from the point of view of treating it medically, is all of the things that can go wrong with the body once you're infected. It also means that the virus is very good at jumping between people. And that high transmissibility is obviously one of the things that makes COVID-19 such a difficult pandemic to control. It's hopping between people so readily that it just runs away. So in any case, and then there's a third question that I have, which is maybe that there's something about the fact. I don't want to say fact as if it is a fact. But if this was an escape from the laboratory, then the virus, I mean, just as maybe we'll end up talking about the telomere problem in mice, which you spoke to Eric about when he was on your podcast last. But evolution to the lab, evolution in the lab takes place. And changes that the people in charge want to happen occur, and then things they're not even thinking about occur. There's adaptation to the laboratory environment that people who work in labs are unaware of. And so one of the questions I have is, this virus is highly transmissible, unless you're outdoors. Then it seems almost not transmissible. That's very conspicuous. I mean, for one thing, bats live outdoors, right? So is it possible that this virus has adapted to the laboratory environment, an indoor environment, and that it has forgotten how to get transmitted outdoors? And if we are casual about the outdoor environment, that actually it could relearn that trick, that we should take it, A, we need to be outdoors for various reasons. It appears that vitamin D is very protective in the case of COVID-19, prevents the transmission, and you end up way less sick if you have proper vitamin D. So in the northern hemisphere here, while the sun is shining, we should be outdoors. We should not be locking down those environments at all. We should also be very careful outdoors, right? Because any time we allow it to be transmitted outdoors, that is going to, it creates an evolutionary signal, a selective signal, that's going to retrain the virus to be transmitted outdoors, which is not something we want. At the moment, this might be an advantage that we have. And we're going to lose it if we're not careful, which is why I'm very careful and why I wear this thing around so that I can pull it up at a moment's notice if I'm going to talk to somebody. Because even though I think the virus is very difficult to transmit outdoors, which is something we've seen in the data of South Korea, for example, it could learn that trick. Why is it easier for it to turn, do we know? We don't know. Why indoors? We don't know. So we don't know the mechanism? And there's no good reason that we don't know. We should know. Because it could be that it's UV light. UV light is very powerful, destructive stuff. But if it's UV light, then that suggests it's difficult to transmit outdoors during the day and it should be easier to transmit outdoors at night. If it's not UV light, then that's not likely to be it. So there is something weird going on with viral load. Maybe it's not weird, but it's weird for those of us who learned how viruses work from the usual textbook diagrams where a virus gets into a cell and triggers an infection. But here, it seems like if you talk to someone briefly, your chances of picking it up from them even if they're sick is pretty low. But if you talk to somebody for an extended period of time where you're constantly breathing air that they're exhaling, then your chances go up, up, up, and up. So there's a possibility that just the exposure to UV light, even if they're outside talking for the same amount of time, just the fact that these particles are going through the air in the sunlight, that it kills the virus's ability to transmit? It's possible. I don't know that that's what's going on. What I would say is first of all, I do think, I am very much in favor still of driving this thing to extinction by being properly sober about it briefly. Can I pause and address this one issue that seems to be- Sure. When, it seems to be an issue when someone says that it might have come out of a lab, this is a right wing, left wing thing. For whatever reason, you get labeled a right wing conspiracy theorist if you think it came out of a lab. Right. And people on the left, they're so willing to dismiss that without any real evidence. We've been poisoned by these ideologies when it comes to conspiracy or whether or not something is actually true, but we've been fed the wrong information. That stuff is, if you don't believe the official narrative that's being discussed on CNN, you must be some sort of a right wing nut. Right. Have you faced that? Of course I've faced it. It's hard to escape it, right? I've tried to be very careful. I've described it as a hypothesis, which is what it is. I have tried to show that there are different probabilities for the different origin hypotheses. Even China now admits that it wasn't from the seafood market. Do they? What do they say it's from? Well, don't they say it's from us? I have not heard that. I have. But they, let's put it this way. One of the things that is, in my opinion, the strongest piece of evidence that the lab leak hypothesis may be correct is that there is a missing phase in the evolution of this virus. When a virus jumps from one species to another, it is not well positioned. It is typically very poor at its job because it doesn't have any evolutionary experience with that host. So it's not good at leaping between that host cells, which means that it's always in very small numbers, and it's not good at leaping from one individual to the next. That's the key question. When something leaps into a new species and then it becomes a pandemic, it's because it has solved that second problem. It has figured out how to infect that creature in such a way that the creature spreads it to others of its kind. There is no evidence in the case of this virus that that happened. It showed up in Wuhan and spread immediately. It became pandemic. It already had experience. Now how it got that experience, we don't know. There are evolutionary ways this could have happened. It could be that we have not found the initial population that it circulated in, or it could be that it circulated in a creature that we haven't found either. But the fact that there is no evidence, that it shows up in Wuhan and immediately spreads, tells us that this virus was well adapted to ourselves and well adapted to transmit between individuals. That is conspicuous. One way you could get there is if somebody A, had added components to a virus in order to make it transmissible to humans. The research in question would be research that was interested in discovering what a pandemic in humans of a bat-borne coronavirus would be like so that we could do something about it. Maybe we could prevent it. Maybe we could create a vaccine ahead of time. If you're creating a virus that has enhanced capacity to infect humans in order to study what will happen if a virus ever escapes into the human population, then you are running the risk that the virus you are studying will escape. Would they have added something like a fern site? Absolutely. It is established in the literature that the addition of a fern site makes the virus much more transmissible in human tissue. So if you were going to study it, this would be high in your list of things to do. You could also passage it through human tissue in order to effectively train it on the infectious pathway inside of people, which again, we might be suffering the downstream consequences of that if it escaped the Wuhan Institute of Virology. These things have an amazing impact. I hear a lot that what does it matter? It's with us now. We just have to deal with it, which is nonsense because A, we need to have it never happen again. B, there may be things that we could understand about what its nature is that would help us fight it. But C, we have a really serious problem now because all but a few of the world's leading virologists, the experts in coronaviruses in particular, have sworn that this must have come from nature and couldn't have come from the lab, which is nonsense. Why do you think they did that? Unfortunately, this goes back to our earlier discussion. Our scientific system is broken. We need our scientists to be empowered to tell us what we need to know, and we need them therefore to be freed from a system where they are fighting for grant money in order to continue their work. This entire group of people is now in jeopardy because if this turns out to have been a leak from the lab, then we are all suddenly going to become aware that gain of function research puts humanity in jeopardy, that one accident in gain of function research can cause the evaporation of who knows how many trillion dollars it could cause. And this is one of the other things I wanted to say to you about the danger of letting this virus run its course. If we don't stamp it out, we A, don't know that people who have been infected are not going to continue to have outbreaks. We don't know that yet. We don't know whether or not people who've had it are going to be immune to it in the future. That's probable, but it's not certain. And we don't know that it's not going to become a permanent fellow traveler of humanity the way flu is. And even if this thing evolved to become flu-like, if it became as unserious as the flu, the flu is very serious. And the cost that humanity pays for having flu circulate every year is immense. So even if the only thing that has happened in the long term, if we let it go and it evolved into another flu-like pathogen, then we have increased the number of flu-like pathogens that we have to deal with annually, substantially. And that would be a major loss to humans. So my sense that we should be much more aggressive about dealing with this is really about the fact that I think we have a short time horizon in which to deal with it, that it will learn new tricks and it will become harder to defeat the longer that we play around with it. And so an aggressive short-term move, it's really, you know, it's the lesson of pulling off the band-aid. We're not doing ourselves any favors by pulling it off slowly. So what do you think we should do right now? Well I would say, I mean, the problem is it's a much harder argument to make now than it was at the beginning because we're all so frickin' sick of lockdown. I mean Portland is still under full lockdown. But not when it comes to protests. Well of course not. That's the other problem, right? There's a massive hypocrisy in the way we're treating businesses versus treating protests. Oh, it's an epidemic of hypocrisy. Not only that, de Blasio in New York City won't allow people, when they're asking people that have tested positive for COVID-19, you're not allowed to ask them whether or not they've been in a protest. So they're doing contact tracing without valuable data because they want to be progressive. That's insane. Oh he's insane. Yes. So you asked me what I would do. I would, and again I don't want to be in this position months in here, I want to be in this position months ago of saying the right thing to do is a six week lockdown that will be unbearably painful but hopefully it'll be short and then intense contact tracing. But we've done a lockdown with essential businesses open. Well we've done- So that's not a real lockdown. We've done a half-assed lockdown and the thing that we've done that I find the most troubling is that we have not bootstrapped a mechanism for high quality ubiquitous testing. Because if you want to do, if you did a six week lockdown, a real lockdown, right? Hold your breath and get through it. And then you open back up with testing that's so high quality and so universal that you can spot anything that happens and you can treat it locally, right? You don't come into work if you don't pass this test and if your work puts you in contact with other people we're going to test you regularly, right? If you did that, we could have driven it to very low levels and then we could have dealt with the flare ups. But what we're doing now is we're just gambling and it's insane, right? We're gambling and there is no, that I can detect, there is no movement that says open back up and be very aggressive about things like masks. My feelings if you're pushing open back up, you ought to be pushing things that would make opening back up as safe as possible.