I stumbled upon Interesting Twitter thread on Wednesday morning. It was a discussion on the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, by Jeremy Konyndyk, a foreign aid expert with a history in disaster response and was the executive director of the COVID-19 task force for. the United States Agency for International Development. In this series, Konyndyk explains why he still clings to the common ground of how the world has caught the flu.
He believes that SARS-CoV-2 may have jumped from other animals to humans naturally and caused the outbreak in Wuhan’s famous wet market without the involvement of a suspected coronavirus research center. But he admits that the case is not well-founded, and the way he presents the argument is instructive in itself.
Konyndyk begins by admitting, “There is no real evidence of the lab’s origin, but because of China’s anger, it cannot be denied. So it becomes a kind of Rorschach test that depends on your priorities. ” (I noticed that this assertion goes hand in hand with something a brilliant columnist wrote for the National Post in August!)
The Chinese government was initially concerned about disputing the idea of laboratory involvement in the COVID outbreak, but quickly shifted to being equally unwilling to accept another major theory of zoonotic spillover fueled by China’s unhealthy cooking habits.
A search inside China for zoonotic evidence that would exonerate the lab — if that evidence exists — is crushed like an ant. This, of course, is something that China would do if it knew that the lab was guilty of negligence and that the zoonotic SARS-CoV-2 wild animal investigation was pointless.
Konyndyk is not a scientist himself, but he is a communicator. And if you didn’t know this, you could tell by his use of the word “former.” This, to a mathematician or scientist, is Bayesian talk – but to Bayesians, “priors” are not something you “set aside”; they are something you combine with new evidence to reach a conclusion.
Konyndyk wants you, for his argument, not to spend your political priorities on communist technical disasters; it’s as if he’s saying, “Let’s talk about this story as if Chernobyl were just another city in Ukraine.”
But he also wants you to ignore the geographical confluence of the Wuhan wet market next to the type of state supermarket that is most infected with coronaviruses: although it is serious, that fact is “not evidence,” but “some speculation,” according to Konyndyk. A Bayesian, or any ordinary user of the English language, will be forced to ask why certain evidence cannot count as evidence. (It is what it is.)
Virologists are unlikely to be of much help in deciding this debate, as Konyndyk admits, because a lab leak is likely to be a lab leak of a naturally occurring virus; only evidence of SARS-CoV-2 circulating in nature before the Wuhan outbreak could help resolve the question of origin.
So what is the relevant “evidence” for the natural, unassisted origin of SARS-CoV-2? It turns out that it is very telling: “Natural zoonotic crossovers are how most epidemics in history started.”
This is certainly true — but, again, whether you are a scientist or not, you may be able to see that this knowledge is part of the category, originally banned by Konyndyk, of knowledge “before” inconclusive scientific evidence.
The whole thing, in other words, is an appeal to students to ignore other important things and only use those that are relevant to Konyndyk’s argument. I’m willing to believe that the COVID-19 pandemic may have had a natural origin, and that this is still the best bet, but this poor guy may have swayed me in the other direction.
The National Post
This column was originally published in the NP Platform newsletter. Register here.
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