Book review COVID-19

Viral by Alina Chan & Matt Ridley – Book review

Alina Chan's book with Matt Ridley on the Origins of COVID-19 is finally out. It is a very informative read!

The lab leak theory of COVID-19 origins is a conspiracy theory. Science has spoken, the virus jumped to humans from a frozen fish in the Huanan wet market, if we faithfully pray enough, the evidence for that will eventually manifest. DRASTIC sleuths are not entitled to find the evidence of gain-of-function experiments with bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) which they found without permission, so it must be disregarded. Alina Chan is, we are warned, an anti-Chinese bigot and anyway, just a little jumped-up foreign postdoc, how dares she contradict esteemed American professors.

This in the nutshell is the take by proper science journalists and prominent scientists on the book Viral by geneticist Alina Chan and journalist Matt Ridley which I review here.

I previously blogged about the Lab Leak Theory, and was of course tremendously curious to finally read this book. I was not disappointed, Viral was even better than I expected.

The book is chock-full with scientific evidence. Not for the lab leak as such, there is indeed no direct proof. But there is oodles of circumstantial evidence to treat the lab leak theory at least just as seriously as we treat the standard zoonotic theory, where the virus jumped to humans from bats without human intervention.

In this regard, it is important to stress that claims of SARS-CoV2 being a bioweapon are indeed a baseless conspiracy theory. But it is very different for the possibility that the pandemic coronavirus accidentally escaped a Wuhan lab in which it was studied. It may have been as simple as bats infecting WIV researchers who sampled them in Yunnan and then returned to Wuhan, carrying the virus in them. The sampled bat virus may also have been cultured in some BSL-3 or even BSL-2 labs in Wuhan (perfectly legal for coronaviruses), and a leakage from a BSL-2 lab is a piece of cake even for a much less infectious pathogen. Finally, SARS-CoV2 may have been engineered on the basis of the sampled bat virus, genetically optimised to target humans using a traceless modern gene editing technology, or via serial passaging in human cell lines and humanised mice (those expressing human ACE2 receptor). WIV most certainly had all the tools and experience for that, in fact they published all the relevant papers and even announced to do exactly that kind of experiments in an earlier grant proposal.

As the book most definitely proves without any doubt, just between 2013 and 2015 WIV found at least nine potentially dangerous SARS-like viruses in the bats of an abandoned mine in Mojiang in the Yunnan province, and brought these viruses to Wuhan. Those viruses are the closest known natural matches to SARS-CoV2, they or their relatives killed 3 out of 6 people who shovelled bat guano in that Mojiang mine in 2013, these are facts also. And WIV scientists eventually admitted these facts, and yet, and yet, the scientific community and science journalists would rather not talk about that. Anything, but Mojiang. The mine itself is off-limits for journalists.

The obvious scientific question is how one of these Mojiang bat viruses managed to mutate, reach Wuhan, and start there a global pandemic, killing millions and stalling the global economy and society. But instead, Chinese authorities and their loyal scientists and journalists in the West demand for the search for COVID-19 origins to continue everywhere BUT the Mojiang mine, preferably abroad, Laos, Thailand, or preferably a BSL-4 lab in USA. This is the intellectual level we are at.

We can safely assume that the precursors of SARS-CoV2 exist in Yunnan bats. But we don’t know where the virus adapted before it popped up in Wuhan. Fact is that no intermediate animal host, not even a convincing suspect, was found so far, despite all that search for almost 2 years, despite all the technology available, and despite all the past successes that same WIV previously had (without today’s technology!) in establishing in detail the bat origins of the 2003/2003 human pandemic pathogen SARS and the 2016/2017 pig disease SADS.

Lacking even a shred of evidence for that elusive animal transmission, including a total zilch for the entire Huanan seafood market which is still being pushed as the epicentre of the pandemic, all we have is bad science of wishful thinking in badly peer-reviewed papers in elite journals on a political mission to “defend science” and to please the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), each time religiously hailed by journalists as the breakthrough we all prayed for.

Like that wretched pangolin theory in Nature (Xiao et al 2020) and 3 other journals, which Alina Chan exposed to trace back to the same miserable tortured animals, instead of 4 independent samples (Chan & Zhan bioRxiv 2020). The same bag of dying pangolins in the Guangdong market, infected with a (distantly!) related coronavirus. In this regard, Viral reminds us that pangolins are actually not at all suitable hosts for respiratory pathogens like coronaviruses, by being solitary creatures who only ever meet to mate, thus the polar opposite of bats, humans and the animals humans keep on industrial farms. To propose a pangolin as a natural coronavirus reservoir goes against basic biology of these animals. The Guangdong pangolins in whom that infection was found and then published as “independent” quadruplicate, got most likely infected by other miserable victims of animal trafficking in that market.

Guess if those pangolin papers were retracted? Nope, the authors were instead invited to pull out more “evidence” out of their backsides because the world urgently relies on the zoonotic theory of COVID-19 origins. Chan’s preprint was rejected by all respectable journals, because they didn’t like Chan’s debunking of the dogma and her disrespectful behaviour on Twitter.

Let us also not forget that unlike the SARS virus, SARS-CoV2 was barely mutating in the first months of the pandemic, indicating that it was already perfectly adapted to humans, which was also discovered by Chan (Zhan et al 2020).

Since all our mighty science was so far unable to convincingly determine that intermediate host, where did the bat virus mutate and how did it reach Wuhan? Dictatorships and totalitarian religions love to test their subjects’ loyalty by serving them some particularly ridiculous and stupid dogma and expect them to believe it. This happened with the Popsicle Origins, as Alina Chan calls the official theory that SARS-CoV2, unbeknownst to anyone in the world, stealthily travelled from a secret place to Wuhan’s Huanan market on some frozen animal product (like fish) to explode into a pandemic. This troll theory namely become the only officially accepted alternative to the direct zoonotic transmission, science has spoken. Yet even the WHO-appointed scientist Peter Ben Embarek who himself postulated this Popsicle Origins during a press conference of his WHO-China commission on COVID-19 origins, eventually admitted it to be bullshit, merely put forward to please CCP.

Yes, this is the intellectual level we are at.

While science elites were busy publishing peer-reviewed papers in Nature and Lancet denouncing all talk of lab leak as “conspiracy theories”, blocking or attacking everyone on Twitter who disagreed, others did a great job finding evidence. Viral duly acknowledges the work of DRASTIC (Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19). Some of these sleuths are scientists, others are concerned citizens with IT skills, men and women, named and anonymous, several of them are introduced in the book with their real names for the first time, like The Seeker, real name Prasenjit “Jeet” Ray. Some DRASTIC sleuths may be less helpful than others, some misinterpret the evidence, but most do a great job finding evidence, and all of them are hated by the scientific community for finding things they were not allowed to find.

Thing is, no matter what you may think of DRASTIC and its individual members, the material they found speaks for itself. Nobody, even the worst critics of lab leak theory, ever suggested that the evidence DRASTIC found may be fake, mistranslated or misattributed. The argument being: the evidence must be disregarded because it was found and discussed by the wrong people.

Imagine the same thing happening in palaeontology. Imagine, say, hominid fossils being trashed because they were found by amateurs instead of professorial academicals certified with excavation permits and research grants. This is what currently is going on in the COVID-19 origins debate.

Take for example the story of the furin cleavage site (FCS), a special sequence at the SARS-CoV2 spike protein which allows it to infect human cells particularly efficiently. Sure, such sequence exists in distantly related coronaviruses. But not in this family of betacoronaviruses. And the COVID-19 virus uses the genetic codon CGG for the amino acid arginine in the FCS sequence, which is unusual under the circumstances, as the book explains in detail. While reminding that WIV scientists previously published papers on FCS genetic editing, and even announced in a grant proposal to Pentagon to manipulate bat coronaviruses by gene-engineering exactly such a FCS as part of gain-of-function research.

The gene-editing technology which leaves no traces of lab manipulation was well established at WIV for many years, from Shi’s collaboration with US virologist Ralph Baric (who later called for the lab leak theory of COVID-19 to be investigated, Bloom et al 2021). Viral dedicates a chapter discussing viral gene editing research and the political implications it had, a moratorium imposed, lifted, and how the newly imposed rules were being circumvented.

Sure, that specific grant proposal was not approved, but this is a non-argument. First of all, WIV had enough money even without that smallish grant they didn’t get, and second, it’s an open secret that scientists often misrepresent their already existing lab results as future research plans in grant proposals, so when it will be faster and easier for them to report success later on.

WIV became in the years before the pandemic the world’s top authority on the coronaviruses. After the SARS scare in 2002/2003, WHO assembled a sampling mission to be prepared when a bat virus jumps to humans again. The mission was led by Linfa Wang and Shi Zhengli, who got nicknamed Batman and Batwoman, respectively. The duo teamed up with Peter Daszak, the US-based zoologist working for a wildlife conservation charity which was founded by the late naturalist Gerald Durrell. Daszak eventually became the boss of the US branch and renamed it into EcoHealth Alliance.

The purpose of EcoHealth Alliance was basically to channel money from NIH and Pentagon (in 2018 $17 million a year) to collaborators like WIV for the studies of emerging pathogens. It paid off: Shi and her colleagues soon localised the bat reservoir in Yunnan harbouring the direct relatives of the 2002/2003 SARS coronavirus. But now, when Shi and her Chinese peers have a much more advanced technology to their disposal: nothing. The closest match to SARS-CoV2 is a virus they sampled in 2013 in the Mojiang mine and stored at WIV since. And we also have Daszak boasting in 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic began, about all the amazing gain-of-function experiments and genetic engineering they did at WIV with the many bat coronaviruses they sampled.

Finally, how strange is it that when Shi and her WIV team described their analysis of SARS-CoV2 in Nature on 3 February 2020 (Zhou et al Nature 2020), they talked about all possible features of that virus except about its most prominent feature, the furin cleavage site. Even the presentation of the spike protein sequence stops just short of the spot where the FCS code appears. As the book says, this FCS feature sticks out like a sore thumb.

How weird is that Shi not noticing it, despite the fact that FCS was her own research specialty, as certified by her earlier published research on MERS? It would be equivalent to a world-famous anthropologist reporting a new fossil find, describing all the animal bones, diligently recording all the species, while completely ignoring the intact hominid skull clearly visible in the photograph of the fund site.

And then you find out that anthropologist has been hiding unpublished hominid fossils in a cupboard which would revolutionise the prevailing model of human origins. Imagine all other anthropologists remaining silent, or claiming those fossils are rumours, and otherwise best to be destroyed as not to feed dangerous conspiracy theories. Crazy, but it could happen in a society ruled by religious orthodoxy.

There is another bit of information Shi forgot to mention in her 2020 Nature paper. She forgot to mention that the allegedly unpublished virus RaTG13 (which SARS-CoV2 proved to be 96% genetically identical to) is the same bat coronavirus she herself published about before (Ge et al 2016), but under a different name, BtCoV/4991. Dr Shi also completely forgot to mention in either of these papers where she had this virus from, namely the Mojiang mine where 3 people died of a mysterious pneumonia. It was apparently not important.

As DRASTIC sleuths uncovered, it was not just the RaTG13 virus, which WIV scientists brought back from Mojiang and which they sequenced and studied in the Wuhan labs. RaTG13 stands for horseshoe bat Rhinolophus affinis (Ra) virus found in Tongguan (TG) in Mojiang county in 2013 (13). 2012/2013 was when the 6 men sent to shovel bat guano in the Mojiang mine fell ill, 3 of them died from a mysterious pneumonia. We know about that incident from PhD theses from graduates in Wuhan, one of which was even supervised by Shi, and another by China’s CDC director George Gao (the Beijing-based CDC also has labs in Wuhan). You can imagine that WIV, which specialised on merging coronavirus pathogens, was sampling like crazy, and indeed, the DRASTIC sleuth found 8 more viruses hidden in WIV records, sampled between 2013 and 2015, all from Rhinolophus affinis, all likely from same Mojiang mine, and even Shi admitted to their existence in her online seminars.

How likely is it that WIV scientists did gain-of-function experiments with these (at least 9) bat coronaviruses they brought from the Mojiang area? It would be extremely unlikely if they they did not study those, an act of scientific self-sabotage even. WIV’s whole reason for existence is to study emerging pathogens, it specialises on coronaviruses since their successes tracing down the causes of SARS and SADS. To find a novel bat coronavirus which already killed humans in 2012, and then demonstrate its pandemic dangers via genetic experiments would be truly a groundbreaking paper in Nature, strike it, series of papers in Nature, followed by massive grant money showers from Chinese science foundations, military and from USA, and very possibly, even a Nobel Prize.

Noteworthy is that when these 8 virus reads were partially uploaded in November 2019, together with a bunch of other viral sequences, to accompany a paper by Shi and Daszak (Latinne et al 2020, submitted in October 2019 but published only in August 2020), the authors never bothered to discuss their obvious similarity to SARS-CoV2. They didn’t even mention those were SARS-like. A strange omission again.

Also, WIV had probably world’s biggest collection of wildlife virus pathogens. That is a fact. The corresponding online database, which had around 20k specimens and a section accessible only to WIV researchers, completely disappeared on 12 September 2019 and remains a state secret ever since, which is a fact also. Nobody has access to it, and those who do, refuse to say what’s inside. Shi’s long-term collaborator Daszak did however reassure the world that there was nothing interesting in this database, trust him, which is also why the WHO-China commission which he was part of never asked to see that database.

In my view, and I felt reassured by reading the evidence in Viral, it is perfectly possible that SARS-CoV2 was a bioengineered Nature paper which its authors lost control of.

Pathogens escape labs all the time when lab personnel makes mistakes or acts carelessly, infecting themselves or others by accident. It doesn’t matter how safe and secure WIV’s new BSL-4 lab is, because it is well known that coronavirus research is done in BSL-3 or even in BSL-2 labs, the latter virtually without any protection. A leak can stem from lab waste inappropriately disposed, or, a Chinese speciality apparently, lab animals sold to market vendors, some people make a lot of money this way the book mentioned.

SARS, which originally arose zoonotically by jumping from bats to civets which were poached or farmed for human consumption, and from there to civet butchers, later on escaped from the virology labs in China several times, as Viral reminds. The world was lucky back then, despite all the travels infected scientists unknowingly undertook, because the SARS virus only becomes infectious when its victims develop symptoms.

But the COVID-19 coronavirus is a particularly stealthy one. If it escaped from a lab, it would have spread undetected far and wide, infecting hundreds long before anyone noticed the first symptoms, which they probably would mistake for a cold anyway. The US secret services claim that three WIV employees fell ill in November 2019 with COVID-19 symptoms, allegedly even the wife of one of them died. Heck, in early 2020 a Beijing scientist infected himself with SARS-CoV2 which he was studying in the lab, this is a fact documented by US Right to Know. Oh, and in 2003 there was a hantavirus lab leak in Kunming, where some scientists caught the virus from rodents they experimented on. Why it’s important? The expert who investigated the affair and officially established a lab leak as the source of the hantavirus outbreak was Dr Shi Zhengli of WIV.

At all times, Shi has been belatedly revealing only what the DRASTIC team already discovered, and nothing else. An addendum was issued to her 2020 Nature paper, admitting the Mojiang mine accident and the existence of the 9 viruses, but even then the WIV authors falsely claimed to have found no traces of coronavirus infection in the patients’ samples. That cannot be true, two dissertations defended at WIV previously reported antibodies to SARS-like viruses in those same patients’ blood. So why are we to believe Shi et al that they “confirmed that these patients were not infected by SARS-CoV-2” if the WIV lab refuses to allow independent verification? In any case, of course these patients of 2012 were not infected by SARS-CoV2, technically speaking. The virus did not exist in this form yet.

WIV is not your pedestrian research lab. It even kept live bats, something DRASTIC sleuth were able to prove and what Daszak used to vehemently deny. The institute’s new BSL-4 facility was built in 2018 using French technology while keeping the French out. That was because WIV is a dual-use institute: its pathogen research serves both civilian and military purposes. Which must not necessarily mean WIV works on developing bioweapons (although they might!), but most certainly they work with military-grade pathogens for the purposes of national defence (just like their US counterparts do). A BSL-4 lab is needed to contain such most dangerous pathogens, which kill swiftly and lack cures, like Ebola, Lassa or Marburg viruses.

A potentially pandemic novel SARS-like virus is surely something of interest, both in civilian and military sense. Yet coronaviruses like SARS are handled in BSL-3 labs, and occasionally even in BSL-2. Now imagine a bat coronavirus from Mojiang mine, which killed people before, being upgraded in the lab with a furin cleavage site and passaged though human tissue cultures and humanised mice. It would have been extremely difficult to contain that monster and prevent it from escaping while you prepare all these many fancy experiments for you upcoming Nature paper.

Viral also briefly discusses the possibility if COVID-19 may have been a result of a botched vaccine experiments, as in happened in the case of Russian Flu of 1977. After all, the main argument behind all that gain-of-function research with SARS-like coronaviruses was to develop a universal vaccine for all emerging pathogens of this kind. But then again, it doesn’t seem that much vaccine research actually took place at WIV, and in any case, SARS-CoV 2 does not look genetically like an attenuated vaccine virus which reverted to its virulence.

Whistleblowers hold a prominent place in this book. Like the Chinese doctors who broke the Communist Party’s gag orders and informed their colleagues about the pneumonia cases flooding the Wuhan hospitals paid for this with their careers, health and even their lives. It is possible that sooner or later someone holding the information of what really went on at WIV and Wuhan’s CDC branch will blow the whistle also. For all we now, maybe they already did, but no scientific peer or journalist was prepared to listen to those conspiracy theories, and then Chinese authorities, maybe even alarmed by those the whistleblower tried to contact, swiftly arrived to plug the leak in their own special way.

Did our focus on the zoonotic origin of COVID-19 achieve anything? Surely the Chinese government at least finally did ban the wildlife trade, that’s a great step both to prevent future pandemics and to protect the wildlife, right? Well, as Viral explains, not even that. Because the wildlife trade for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is exempt, and TCM, promoted politically from the very top by Xi Jinping, is actually the main reason why animals like pangolins are being hunted to extinction all over the world. Also Chan and Ridley are confused why China protects its gigantic TCM wildlife trade if they are so convinced the pandemic virus emerged from exactly same animals trafficked for TCM.

It is very likely that all those top virologists, epidemiologists and other experts who publicly reject a lab leak as unlikely or even as a conspiracy theory know very well that this theory is in fact at least as probable as a zoonotic origin. They are surely themselves shocked by the massive cover-up in China. Some of them are protecting their friends and close collaborators in Wuhan. Others are afraid of a moratorium and of losing funding for gain-of-function research, a worst-case nightmare scenario in academic ivory tower, much worse than a theoretical danger of yet another lab-generated pandemic.

But truth always comes out, and the longer science covers it up, the bigger the loss of trust and angrier the public will be when it does come out.

What next? Maybe we need to wait for the end of the pandemic and for things to clam down before finding out where it came from. There is hope. Viral mentions that a 1889-1890 flu pandemic may have been actually caused by a coronavirus which eventually mutated into a harmless common cold strain termed OC43. Let’s wait for this SARS-CoV2 to finish mutating.

Until then, it’s important to read Viral. The book collects the evidence for both the zoonotic origins and the Lab Leak Theory case, even sums it up at the end in a court-room fashion. We don’t know a lot, but what we know already is definitely more than enough to ask questions of the Chinese researchers and their collaborators and sponsors in USA and elsewhere, and to demand a proper investigation instead of the WHO-China Popsicle Origins farce in early 2021.

Disclaimer: As usual, I received no payment or incentive to write this review, but I did receive the books gratis from the publisher upon contacting the authors


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20 comments on “Viral by Alina Chan & Matt Ridley – Book review

  1. Jean-François Brunet

    It might be time to reclaim the reviled term of “conspiracy theory”. The lab leak theory does involve the hypothesis of a conspiracy, for which there is now plenty of evidence: a conspiracy of silence.


    • China, as an authoritative state, is paranoiac and act to cover up even if there is nothing to cover up. Hence, we don’t even need to invoke a conspiracy. If you were a Chinese Wuhan virologist, would you feel at ease speaking? Knowing just taking pics of the city has lead journalists to prison.


      • Jean-François Brunet

        Agreed. But you can still say that the suppression of information from higher levels had to be organized (like the removal of a database from internet). Moreover, China is not the only culprit in that story, if I understand well. My point is that after all, there are such things as conspiracies, in the broad sense, and that many people in this story seem to have “conspired” to withold information after the disaster.


  2. NMH, the failed scientist and incel

    “…. it is perfectly possible that SARS-CoV2 was a bioengineered Nature paper which its authors lost control of.”


    Chinese culture has been described as copy-cat by some authors (eg, “China in ten words”). As I recall, a paper that recreated the pathogenicity of the 1918 flu virus by gain-of-function research from some European lab got into some kind of big shot journal (Science, Nature ?). The Chinese research culture may have seen that as inspiration.

    Most scientists will abandon morals and common science when the possibility of grant money and fame is there. I think it is possible that Fauci may have been beyond that, but his trust of the scientific method and collaboration made him naive about a Chinese collaboration. If anything good comes out of this, it will hopefully be that there is no public funding support for gain of function research. Although I don’t think the Chinese will ever let that one go…or hypersonic ballistic missles. I think the end of humanity is near, and watch scientists leading the way.


  3. Radric Davis

    I have followed Chan’s work for quite some time and find many of the arguments she has collated/advanced compelling. However, when this book was announced I found myself unable to get past the inclusion of Matt Ridley as a co-author. I do try to separate the argument and its quality from the speaker as much as possible. But I must say if I wanted to make the case that lab-leak should be considered separate from the politics that have poisoned its early discussion, I probably wouldn’t write a book with a member of the British House of Lords who has spent the last two decades promoting and arguing politically motivated climate denial. Bizarre choice. I can think of few people who I would suspect more of having ulterior motives.


    • The problem that all the caviar communists among science writers hate Alina and wouldn’t mind her to disappear in a Chinese prison. I am not exaggerating.
      You will have noticed that it’s only the right-wing media which covers lab leak, while the Guardian prints articles by Daszak.
      Btw, I only got a review copy of that book after I wrote to Ridley. Until then, the publisher ignored all my emails. If it wasn’t for him, you wouldn’t be reading my book review.


  4. I don’t have access to all but it seems Carl Zimmer treats the lab leak as a real possibility and at least cover the dangerous sars experiments

    His style of writing is more “between the lines”


    • “Some scientists have argued that it’s possible SARS-CoV-2 was the result of genetic engineering experiments or simply escaped from a lab in an accident. But direct evidence for those theories has yet to emerge. Others have deemed those scenarios unlikely, pointing instead to many lines of evidence suggesting that people acquired the coronavirus in a natural spillover from bats or an intermediate mammal host.”
      The article ends with:
      “The analysis, Dr. Tabak wrote in his letter, “confirms that the bat coronaviruses studied under the EcoHealth Alliance grant could not have been the source of SARS-CoV-2 and the Covid-19 pandemic.””

      To me it reads like Carl Zimmer debunks that conspiracy theory once again, but leaves a tiny backdoor just in case. This is professional science journalism 😉


  5. A priori rejection of a such a large body of evidence would be against all that science stands for. Whether or not one believes in the lab leak theory at this point, it’s quite obvious that China has consistently blocked access to information. Even worse, it turns out that lot of scientist in high positions have taken a one sided view at the whole thing. It’s about damn time to sit down and re-examine the evidence without bias.


    • Most so called skeptic are lazy idiots who believe everything until they have proof of the opposite. For them, that China is an authoritarian state committing right now a genocide is not a reason to doubt them. As I have been told there is no scientific proof China is lying. Perfectly trustable partner by default.


  6. Why don’t you do science a real favor and review Dr. Fleming’s (Dr. who?) book. /s


  7. We are injecting billions of people with some rushed up never tested in animals thing incorrectly called “vaccine” and you are still wondering if this was deliberate? Come on!


  8. Zimmer is a smart guy, I am pretty sure he understands very well the controversy. His wording I find incredible accurate, so that it will be impossible to say he spread misinformation. I am not being ironic, I think it takes great skill.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: 'The lab leak is slightly more probable': New book traces the origins of COVID-19 - The Hub

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