COVID-19 and science: Some hard questions

Aditya Gaonkar
10 min readMay 20, 2021

(Disclaimer at the end of the post)

Science can simultaneously be a constructive and destructive force, as we all know. Nobody better to put the point across than Harold Finch in a conversation with his creation, “The Machine” in the show Person of Interest as he discusses freon, a chemical which revolutionised refrigeration and also had a catastrophic side effect:

(Tiny diversion here, Person of Interest is one of the most underrated shows out there. If you’re bored in this time and want something to watch, give this show a shot. If you need a reason to watch this, it was created by Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan’s brother who wrote movies like Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Interstellar)

Recently, I came across two separate articles discussing (one which already has happened and one potential) scientific debacles intimately connected to COVID-19. While we will furiously debate holding politicians to account for governmental responses to COVID across the globe, in my opinion the scientific community needs to face some hard questions, when looking deeply into these two stories. Without further ado, let’s go into them.

A furious debate, institutions crippled by existing dogma and a Himalayan blunder:

Ideally, scientists are supposed to be open to every logical possibility. Yet, them being human sometimes might cause them to not question basic assumptions in their field and retain some dogma. The above linked article discusses one such blunder by people who are supposed to give us proper guidelines to face situations like this. What’s alarming is not that some of the existing ideas of COVID spread were wrong, but that it wasn’t accepted as easily when pointed out in the early days of the pandemic and only this year it was accepted (albeit, quietly). What is the cost we’ve paid for this reluctance to aggressively question long held ideas and answer them quickly? We don’t know and we probably will never know.

The article details the debate about the mechanism of the spread of viruses in general, especially applicable to the virus causing COVID-19. The conventional wisdom in the medical community was that disease causing pathogens less than 5 microns (a micron is a millionth of a metre) in size would be “aerosols”, i.e. hang around in the air travel some distance (say a few metres) and pathogens bigger than 5 microns would be “droplets”, i.e. not hang around in air for long but will quickly fall to a surface. Some scientists, mostly those working in researching aerosols and air pollution in general warned WHO that their research suggested it was a blunder to stick to that definition. Not just that, some even began questioning the rationale of keeping a distance of 6 feet, which became part of the “social distancing” recommended heavily by authorities worldwide.

Turns out the 5 micron metric was adapted in the middle of the 20th century with flawed science at the heart of it (the article discusses this in detail). However, this supposedly wasn’t enough to convince the epidemiological community to fully start questioning the very basic ideas of how such viruses could spread! The dissenters were arguing that depending on conditions like temperature and humidity, the virus could aerosolize easily unless there are measures like ventilation of indoor gatherings done, just keeping a distance of 6 feet was not going to cut it. Even when this was being pointed out in the middle of 2020, WHO and other epidemiologists were supposedly reluctant to accept or at the very least further investigate such claims. Only by the end of 2020 was this finally changing, with mask wearing even when “social distancing” was being adhered to was recommended. Yet, this should have been big news, but it wasn’t (as far as I can remember).

The article notes at by the end of April 2021 WHO and by early May 2021, WHO and US CDC quietly added aerosols as a mechanism for COVID spread on their websites. This gain should have been a very big deal, but it didn’t gain much traction, notwithstanding the fact that WHO et al weren’t exactly going to call press conferences themselves to say “folks, we f***ed up massively. Our guidelines to limit the spread of COVID-19 were flawed”.

What particularly alarmed me here was that one of the protagonists of this article, Prof. Lindsey Marr of Virginia Tech had attempted publishing results about her research into this precise stuff way back in the late 2000s and early 2010s, but was rejected by major medical journals, in the end that work getting published in a niche journal from whence it didn’t seem to have gained much traction. In hindsight, it’s such a major missed opportunity!

This entire episode is a massive egg on the face of the epidemiology community, let’s not mince words. The cost of what easily is the definitive “Himalayan blunder” from the scientific community in this crisis will probably never be known.

The most controversial question about COVID-19: it’s origins + potential implications of scientists playing god

To state that this section will be controversial is an understatement. I must note that there will be two layers here. The first one talks a bit about the origins of COVID-19, but the second layer is what concerns me the most — the kind of research intimately connected with one proposed theory of origin of COVID-19 and it’s implications. I’m not endorsing either theory of COVID-19 origins, because we don’t have conclusive proof for either.

Linked at the beginning of this section is an excellent article by Nicholas Wade (who’s been a science correspondent for publications like Nature, NYT) which discusses the origins of COVID-19, focusing on the molecular biology of viruses and what we know about SARS-CoV-2 (the virus causing COVID-19) from the molecular biology angle. Nick discusses in great detail this stuff, noting the implications of the molecular biology of SARS-CoV-2 on the competing theories of the origin of this disaster — that it jumped naturally from species to species being one theory and the other theory being that it was under study (at a specific place) and it somehow escaped/leaked from there.

Nick details how scientists wrote in publications to assure the general public that this disease is of natural origin even when there wasn’t a full picture of natural origin (like the intermediate species, the mutations it underwent etc) available to us regarding this. This stands in contrast with crises like SARS of 2002, MERS of 2011 whose natural origins were completely figured out within months of the emergence of these epidemics. With no clear origin of the precise timeline and other details to support natural origins of COVID-19, Nick argues that it was more of a political exercise than a scientific exercise by scientists to declare publicly that this crisis was of natural origin. I’m inclined to agree with this assertion, considering the fact that even after more than an year of this crisis consuming our world, scientists have been unable to provide conclusive evidence to support the natural emergence theory of COVID-19.

The meat of Nick’s article is about the research undertaken into coronaviruses, especially at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), to mutate them into more dangerous versions and study their behavior. I’ll leave the molecular biology part out and focus on other aspects here. What’s alarming is that the research at WIV was done in BSL2 and BSL3 labs, which are nowhere close to the level of safety required for handling dangerous stuff like coronaviruses. Apparently, WIV did have a BSL4 lab (the level required for this research, but which imposes inconveniences on researchers) which was blasted by US State Department for not being up to mark in 2018. It’s mind boggling that such potentially dangerous research was being conducted in patently unsafe conditions.

Nick Wade does state in the end where his thoughts lean on the source of the pandemic, spoiler — lab mishap is his lean. He concedes that the evidence is far from being conclusive but argues that what we know so far fits better with lab leakage than with natural origins.

What’s actually funny is that the research at WIV was sponsored by the US Federal government! Through NIAID, an agency of NIH (ironically headed by the venerated Dr. Anthony Fauci) which gave funds to a US non-profit EcoHealth Alliance, WIV got funds to conduct this exact research. God forbid, if the lab leak story gets proven beyond doubt, we will have a circular firing squad of assigning blame. The geopolitical implications of lab leak could be unpredictable, which can add a layer of complication to this line of inquiry.

So what is the rationale for doing this research? It has/had been advocated as a way to prevent scenarios like what we are facing currently (boy, did that work out well, the origin of COVID-19 be damned). So do the costs outweigh the potential benefits? Let’s examine it. I’ll bring in another hazardous field of research here — nuclear physics. The levels of safety demanded in nuclear research and nuclear power plants is insane and justified. Incidents like Chernobyl, Fukushima are etched into our minds and even now the necessity nuclear power is a very polarizing topic. However, we should keep in mind that potentially catastrophic nuclear accidents can be contained to a relatively small area when action is taken fast (HBO’s masterpiece Chernobyl illustrates this point). Virology research like this can cause disasters far worse than nuclear fallouts if there’s an even slightest safety mishap, compounded by our globalized world where we can travel to the other end of the world in a day or two and interactions with multiple people is common (or used to be, who knows how the world post this whole mess will look like).

So, let’s accept that COVID-19 was of natural origin. The research being done at WIV was supposed to be helpful in outright preventing or at the very least in mitigating this. Yet, to me this research doesn’t seem to have helped at all. And let’s face it, the risks of an accidental leakage or god forbid, malign entities weaponizing such research always exist. This needs to be looked into in great detail and the hard questions must be faced, the way we treat nuclear power and research. Letting this go on unfettered isn’t an option, when it seems that the risks outweigh the benefits as per the status quo of this research when it’s possible to recreate viruses of old pandemics, like the one which caused the 1918 Influenza pandemic and play around with viruses to create deadlier strains artifically.

So what will happen about this? I’m not so sure. The scientific community involved in this research might be reluctant to shake up stuff, fearing constraints on research and funding (hopefully they will do some soul searching). Another complication here is the utterly polarized nature of US politics and media, where this topic will not be pursued with any shred of objectivity. Considering how WHO believed China in the initial stages of this pandemic, I’m not sure about their objectivity in this matter either (to be honest, I think China’s government has some explaining to do regarding their initial response to this). I hope against hope that we will get a full picture of the origins of COVID-19 and ALSO rethink the entire realm of manipulating viruses in labs in the name of studying them and preventing outbreaks.

Conclusion

So what do we take away from this? Here’s what I think:

  1. Scientists need to keep a fully open mind in questioning the very basics of their fields. I’m reminded of how Albert Einstein shattered our perception of the behaviour of space and time when he proposed his theories of relativity, stuff which was set in stone since the times of Galileo. Einstein was open minded enough in asking if that is even right. We might not all have his intellect, but we should try to inculcate his approach.
  2. We need to rethink the costs vs benefits of potentially dangerous research like recreating old viruses and playing with viruses to create more dangerous strains. I’m not at all confident in the status quo of this research, whatever the origins of COVID-19 be.

The scientific community need to fix up this stuff, because some of the precipitous crises we’re facing like climate change need full confidence of policy makers and the general public in facing them. Stuff like this isn’t good in earning and keeping the trust of important stakeholders.

Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu (Let the entire world be happy).

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are mine and mine only, expressed in my personal capacity. They aren’t linked to or endorsed by any institutions or entities I am/was affiliated with in any capacity. In the section regarding the origin of COVID-19, I haven’t concluded anything as such, I will note)

Edit on May 22 2021:

Since writing this story, a few more things came to light for me:

  1. Donald McNeill Jr., who was New York Times’ lead scientific reporter on COVID-19 wrote a Medium post recently, commenting on the reporting on the origins of the pandemic and what he thinks of this entire mess:

2. Turns out the intelligence chiefs of the Biden administration aren’t ruling out the lab leak hypothesis, which is interesting:

3. Earlier in February, the Biden White House was less than happy with the WHO report on COVID-19 origins (which was inconclusive anyway):

More alarming are two paragraphs in the above report:

China refused to give raw data on early COVID-19 cases to the WHO-led team probing the origins of the pandemic, according to one of the team’s investigators, potentially complicating efforts to understand how the outbreak began.

The team had requested raw patient data on 174 cases that China had identified from the early phase of the outbreak in the city of Wuhan in December 2019, as well as other cases, but were only provided with a summary, Dominic Dwyer, an Australian infectious diseases expert and member of the WHO team, told Reuters.

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Aditya Gaonkar

IC Design Engineer. Retired FC Barcelona fan. Interested in physics, mathematics, philosophy, memes, epic fantasy. IIT Madras and Columbia University alum.