Wuhan Lab Leak: It’s Not a “Theory”

Wuhan Institute of Virology. Photo by Ureem2805. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
Wuhan Institute of Virology. Photo by Ureem2805. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Was SARS-COV-2 — the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic — created (or at least weaponized by being made transmissible to and between humans) in a Chinese research lab? Was it then leaked, accidentally or intentionally, from that lab into the human population? It’s impossible to overstate the explosive potential of a provable “yes” answer to those two questions.

Seventeen months into the news cycle surrounding those questions (they were first publicly hinted at in a tweet on January 5, 2020), they’re still putting off lots of heat and very little light. And that’s likely to remain the case, because the “Wuhan Lab Leak theory” is not a theory.

A theory has to be objectively testable such that if it’s false it can be PROVEN false. Otherwise, it’s just a hypothesis.

If my car keys go missing, I can hypothesize that little green faeries (who have the power to fool security cameras) took them in the middle of the night, then forgot to put them back after taking my car out for a joyride, filling the gas tank back up, parking it back where they found it, and rolling back the odometer.

My hypothesis “explains” the missing car keys. But it can’t be falsified. If I find the keys in my jacket pocket, well, the faeries obviously put them there, dummy!

Many “conspiracy theories” are just hypotheses which continuously change to accommodate any evidence that might disprove them.

No, I’m not saying the “Wuhan Lab Leak” hypothesis is a wild-eyed “conspiracy theory.” But it’s also not likely testable or falsifiable.

For one thing, the Chinese regime, while notable for many things, is not notable for its likely willingness to let western investigators poke around Wuhan at will, actively assisting those investigators in determining whether it accidentally or intentionally killed  millions of human beings and cratered the global economy.

For another, the regimes urging such an investigation have a long record of lying about pretty much everything (does “Saddam has WMD” ring any bells? How about “the NSA doesn’t spy on Americans?”), and have already spent a good deal of time setting  China up as their latest  “adversary.” It’s hard to imagine any situation in which those who WANT to believe in — or stand to gain political power from selling — the “Wuhan Lab Leak” hypothesis would concede that they were mistaken.

It’s a hypothesis, not a theory, and it’s likely to stay that way. When dealing with hypotheses, our best analytical tool is Occam’s Razor. Simple version: The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is the likeliest.

Which explanation requires fewer assumptions?

That, like most human infectious diseases (60% according to the US Centers for Disease Control), SARS-COV-2 jumped from animals to humans via random mutation?

Or that, unlike (almost — the 2001 anthrax attacks may be an exception) any other past disease, SARS-COV-2 was weaponized in a lab and released into the human population?

Occam tells us to choose Door Number One. And good sense tells us to stop obsessing over questions we cannot hope to provably answer.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.


After COVID-19 Fiasco, a Sign of Internal Reform at FDA?

Photo by US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Photo by US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

On June 7, the US Food and Drug Administration granted “accelerated approval” to Biogen’s new Alzheimer’s medication, aducanumab, two years after the company halted its first set of Phase 3 clinical trials over “disappointing” results. Accelerated approval is based not on the usual required finding that a drug is proven “effective,” but instead on a finding that it is “reasonably likely to predict a clinical benefit.”

The decision comes with some  controversy. FDA advisor Dr. Caleb Alexander is “surprised and disappointed” by the decision, saying he thinks the FDA “gave the product a pass” despite lacking good evidence for its efficacy.  Dr. Patrizia Cavazzoni, director of FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research acknowledges “residual uncertainties,”  but holds that “the data supports patients and caregivers having the choice” to try aducanumab.

In a free society, FDA would have no authority to come between doctors, patients, and medical treatment choices in the first place.

Private certification mechanisms,  like those provided by Underwriters Laboratories for electrical equipment, would almost certainly do a better and cheaper job of ensuring the safety and efficacy of medications and treatments. Doctors, insurers, and most patients would likely heed the findings of such mechanisms.

As for those who choose “alternative medicine,” home remedies, and even potentially dangerous black market drugs, they already make those choices now, regardless of what FDA says, and they would likely continue to do so.

Nonetheless, “accelerated approval” of  aducanumab is a good sign and hopefully the beginning of a trend.

FDA foot-dragging has likely killed tens of thousands of patients every year for decades. It takes far too long and costs far too much to get government approval of life-saving medications. From beta blockers to human body glue, Americans have paid for FDA’s skewed incentives and bureaucratic delays with their lives.

That continuous but largely unnoticed cost became, tragically, much higher and much more obvious last year. More than 300,000 Americans — including my mother — died in the six-month interregnum between Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine  establishing its basic safety and FDA finally granting an emergency use authorization.

We’ll never know how many departed friends and loved ones might still be with us if FDA had applied a “reasonably likely to predict a clinical benefit” standard to medications we count on today but had to wait years for.

Can FDA make itself more useful and less deadly? Only time will tell. Here’s hoping the answer is yes.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.


The Amazon is Not Enough to Hold James Bond

A James Bond filming location in Phang Nga Bay, Thailand. Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas.

“Even James Bond Needs Protection” warned John Logan, whose pen helped create the fictional spy’s most recent cinematic adventures, in a New York Times guest essay on June 2. Is Bond menaced by Vladimir Putin’s Russia reviving the KGB, or perhaps a betrayal by his American sidekick Felix Leiter under orders from the CIA? Or is he finally taking precautions against contracting an STD?

The three-letter words in the new threat are instead “WWW,” “dot” and “com.” To be sure, Amazon.com, Inc. may not have the lairs in the Amazon river basin and outer space of Bond movie villain Hugo Drax. But its mastery of international distribution chains and communications satellite networks has given it the power to reduce Bond’s formerly regal home studio, MGM, to just another sideshow under its big tent of products.

Drax eventually conceded to his nemesis: “Mr. Bond, you defy all my attempts to plan an amusing death for you.” Logan instead fears that Amazon’s “lawyers and accountants and e-commerce mass marketing pollsters” will be the end of Bond creatively.

MGM was always more commercial than the “art for art’s sake” of its motto, but it granted Eon Productions the breathing room to lavish time and money on efforts that could eventually recoup their budgets and plenty more — and to find their own ways of incorporating trends that seemed to be supplanting Bond in popular culture. The filmmakers could take an extra year or three to fine-tune Bond’s next big-budget blockbuster, and neither MGM nor Nintendo rushed video game developer Rare out of taking two years past GoldenEye‘s premiere to get its version right.

Eon has also avoided the temptation to dilute Bond with the “endless anemic variations” Logan worries that “corporate and commercial pressures” will make inevitable.  Bond creator Ian Fleming was so incensed by The Harvard Lampoon‘s “J*mes B*nd” parody Alligator that he demanded his estate never give its authors permission to officially use the character. MGM faced a raft of copycats and a couple of non-Eon Bond movies exploiting legal loopholes, but limited authorized variants to James Bond Jr., who Times reporter Caryn James found “amusing for five minutes” on Cartoon Network in 1995.

Yet it is worth noting that the same market forces which built Amazon can hold it to account far more firmly than any antitrust lawsuit. Science fiction writer Thomas M. Disch saw the “forty feet of shelf space devoted to Star Trek books” at his local Barnes & Noble as proof that “an age of franchises” was crowding out an audience for original genre novels in 1998, the year Harry Potter would cross the Atlantic to become the most popular British hero in the USA since Bond.

The World Wide Web may not be enough for Amazon, but without a charter to squelch or subsidies to outcompete alternatives, there will always be room outside the company’s tributaries for those who have had enough of it.

New Yorker Joel Schlosberg is a contributing editor at The William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism.