Day: 8 June 2021

COVID-19 Virus has a Genetic Feature Never Found in Nature that Lab Scientists Use to Track Engineered Viruses

Medical doctor Steven Quay and Emeritus Professor Richard Muller have written an article in the Wall Street Journal in which they set out what they believe to be “the most compelling reason to favour the lab leak hypothesis”. It is the fact that SARS-CoV-2 has a genetic feature that has never been observed in natural SARS-like coronaviruses, but which is the preferred feature for scientists when engineering viruses in the lab. It’s preferred because it is simpler and more familiar for lab workers, and also because it can then be used as a tell-tale marker of the engineered virus when tracking it in the lab.

The genome of SARS-CoV-2 includes as part of its genetic coding of the spike protein a sequence known as “double CGG” (CGG-CGG) that codes for two “arginine” amino acids in a row. Quay and Muller explain that there are 35 other possibilities that could occur in this location, known as the “furin cleavage site”, which would not disadvantage the virus in any way so are equally likely to be selected for by natural fitness. Furthermore, viruses often evolve by picking up genetic code from other viruses (known as recombination), but since double CGG doesn’t exist in nature for SARS-like viruses (or didn’t before SARS-CoV-2) this common route of picking it up is not available, making its appearance in a new coronavirus even less likely.

On the other hand, double CGG is the most commonly used sequence for lab workers when engineering the furin cleavage site in gain-of-function research, because it is readily available and familiar and can then be used to track the engineered virus.

There is also evidence the Wuhan scientists tried to conceal this genetic smoking gun. When the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s “bat woman” Dr Shi Zhengli and colleagues published a paper in February 2020 with the virus’s partial genome, the double-CGG furin cleavage site section was in the part of the genome omitted (though could be seen in the accompanying data).

The double-CGG furin cleavage site is often used in gain-of-function engineering to make a virus more infectious or virulent. “Humanised” mice are typically then repeatedly exposed to the engineered virus in order to accelerate the process of adaptation to humans. If the virus did originate through this kind of research it would therefore explain why there is no evidence of this adaptation occurring in nature for SARS-CoV-2, unlike with SARS-1.

A further point of interest is that the U.S. National Security Council, after reading an April 2020 paper in which Chinese military researchers studied SARS-CoV-2 using humanised mice, deduced that the mice involved must have been engineered some time during summer 2019, prior to the pandemic, raising questions about the reasons they had been engineered and what they were being used for at the time SARS-CoV-2 emerged in the autumn of 2019.

The evidence for a lab leak origin during gain-of-function research is looking more compelling by the day.

Scottish Children Will Be Vaccinated “as Quickly as Possible”, Says Nicola Sturgeon

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is expected to tell U.K. leaders this month that the vaccination of children against Covid is a “political” decision, without offering a firm recommendation either way. If the use of the Pfizer vaccine in 12-16 year-olds is approved by the body, Nicola Sturgeon says Scottish children will be vaccinated “as quickly as possible”. The Telegraph reports that planning on a vaccine roll-out scheme for children aged 12 and over has started already.

In a statement at Holyrood, [the First Minister] acknowledged that giving children Covid jabs could provide them with greater protection and minimise any further disruption to schooling.

However, she refused to guarantee that any rollout would be completed by the start of the new school year in August, noting that vaccine supplies “are not limitless”.

Ms Sturgeon also pointed out that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the U.K.’s medicines regulator, has so far only approved the Pfizer vaccine for use among 12 to 15 year-olds.

Pfizer said its trials had shown 100% efficacy and a strong immune response in children between 12 and 15, and also suggested that the vaccine was safe with no unusual side effects.

Its use among children in the U.K. was approved by the MHRA last Friday, with the regulator saying it had carried out a “rigorous review” which showed the vaccine was safe and effective in adolescents.

The JCVI must now advise governments on whether this age group should be vaccinated as part of the U.K. roll-out.

Ms Sturgeon told MSPs: “Vaccination may well be an important way of giving children greater protection, minimising any further disruption to schooling and further reducing community transmission of the virus.

“And so I can confirm that if the JCVI recommends the use of the vaccine for children aged 12 and over, we will move as quickly as possible to implement the advice.”

She later said: “In anticipation of the JCVI giving the go-ahead to vaccination of over-12s, we’ve already started that planning.”

Ms Sturgeon said children with underlying health conditions may be vaccinated first but she could not yet provide a timescale for when pupils would get their jabs. However, she emphasised that the focus remained on vaccinating the adult population.

The First Minister’s announcement came as she refused to reduce Covid restrictions in any part of Scotland, blaming a 50% rise in cases over the past week due to the Indian variant.

School leaders in England have also called on Boris Johnson to vaccinate schoolchildren against Covid before the start of the summer holidays, citing concerns over the Indian Delta Covid vaccine. 

The Telegraph report is worth reading in full.

Stop Press: The U.K. Medical Freedom Alliance has raised “grave concerns” about the emergency authorisation of the Pfizer vaccine for children in an urgent open letter to the MHRA.

Given that these vaccines will have virtually no benefit to the children themselves, it is profoundly unethical and indefensible to vaccinate children, especially with an experimental vaccine using novel technology, in what appears to be a misguided attempt to protect adults and achieve herd immunity. We call on the MHRA to exercise caution and immediately reverse their decision.

The letter is worth reading in full.

The Kitsch Covid Aesthetic

We’re publishing an original piece today by Dr Sinéad Murphy, an Associate Researcher in Philosophy at Newcastle University, about why the empirical and moral arguments against lockdown have failed to cut through. She believes, following Professor David McGrogan, that this is because most people experience lockdowns as they would other aesthetic experiences – as a source of collective pleasure that they’re loth to interrupt. Here is an extract:

If the Covid experience is indeed an aesthetic experience, the impotence of our counter arguments, our practical concerns and our personal pains is certainly explained very well. Those we wish to convince to change their minds are not using their minds; those we wish to share our concerns do not have concerns; those we wish to feel our distress cannot see us or our distress: they are caught up in a kind of satisfaction – occasioned by the concerted responses of governments and populations to an invisible global attack – that is comprised of a heady sense of profound community, of fellow feeling on a universal scale. We cannot touch this experience with our facts and our projects and our pains. At the very most, we can only threaten to puncture its ecstasy; insofar as we do that, we are batted away as an inconvenient distraction.

An immoral distraction too – which is why the batting away can get so ugly. An aesthetic experience, Kant advised, is not in itself a moral experience. Appeals to moral content and respect for the moral law detract from the disinterest necessary for the aesthetic mode. A fourth neighbour, with concerns about the morality of sipping wine under a midsummer’s sky while nearby children suffer from neglect has made a category error too. But not because morality is irrelevant to aesthetic experience, but because particular moral content is irrelevant to it. In fact, an aesthetic experience, because it is premised upon the setting aside of conceptual analysis, worldly projects and personal preferences, is excellent preparation for the moral and a good sign of a moral disposition; it only excludes particular moral issues. This explains the most curious feature of the Covid consensus: its combination of intense righteousness and ethical indifference; its simultaneous heady capture of the moral high ground and calm disregard for moral fallout all around.

Worth reading in full.

“Minimise Travel” Advice Extended to Cover Millions More Brits

All people living in Greater Manchester and Lancashire are now advised to “minimise travel” due to fears over the Indian Delta Covid variant, though Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has told people not to cancel trips because of the new guidelines. The Government hopes to tackle the Delta strain with a “strengthened package of support”, focusing particularly on additional Covid testing. The Mirror has the story.

The Government’s Covid advice was updated today, to expand the areas advised to only travel in and out of the area if necessary.

At the end of May, the Government faced criticism after it updated guidance for people in Bedford, Blackburn and Darwen, Bolton, Burnley, Kirklees, Leicester, Hounslow, and North Tyneside, where the India variant had started to surge.

The information was posted in an online update at Gov.uk on May 21st but it was not accompanied by an official announcement. 

Today, the areas covered by the guidance were updated to include the Greater Manchester Combined Authority… and Lancashire County Council…

Asked about the change, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “The Health Secretary has talked about that in the House. 

“He wants to provide the package of support that has been effective in Bolton to a wider area, so that’s Greater Manchester and all of Lancashire County Council, to tackle the cases of the Delta variant.”

After the advice was updated, Health Secretary Matt Hancock told MPs: “I can tell the House that today working with local authorities, we are providing a strengthened package of support based on what’s working in Bolton, to help Greater Manchester and Lancashire tackle the rise in the Delta variant that we’re seeing there.

“This includes rapid response teams, putting in extra testing, military support and supervised in-school testing. I want to encourage everyone in Manchester and Lancashire to get the tests on offer.”…

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham told locals not to cancel trips because of the new guidance. 

“It’s very important to keep a sense of proportion,” he told a press conference today. 

“This is guidance… it is not a lockdown, it is not a ban.”

Worth reading in full.

“Texas Is Open 100%” – Texan Businesses Banned from Requiring Vaccine Passports

All government entities and private businesses in Texas are now banned from requiring proof of vaccination as a condition for service or entry, with Governor Greg Abbott declaring that the state is “open 100%”. The Epoch Times has the story.

“Texas is open 100%, and we want to make sure you have the freedom to go where you want without limits,” the Republican Governor announced in a video post on Twitter.

The Lone Star state in March ended its statewide mask mandate and allowed all businesses to open at full capacity after having implemented mandates and restrictions due to the pandemic.

Abbott announced on Monday with the signing of the legislation that “no business or government entity can require a person to provide a vaccine passport or any other vaccine information as a condition of receiving any service or entering any place”.

The new law SB 968 covers many aspects of the public health disaster and public health emergency preparedness and response. It was approved unanimously in April and was passed by a vote of 146-2 by the state House in May.

Effective immediately, Texas businesses “may not require a customer to provide any documentation certifying the customer’s Covid vaccination or post-transmission recovery on entry to, to gain access to, or to receive service from the business”, the legislation states. State agencies in charge of different business sectors can require that businesses comply with the new law as a condition to be authorised to conduct business in Texas.

Furthermore, businesses that don’t comply with the law will not be able to enter any state contracts and will be ineligible to receive a grant.

Businesses can still implement their own Covid infection control protocols “in accordance with state and federal law to protect public health”.

Abbott had signed an executive order in April that banned government entities from requiring vaccine passports as a condition to receive services or gain entry to premises. The order included any private businesses that receive public funding. But the executive order did not apply to entirely private businesses, which the new law covers with regard to vaccine passports.

Worth reading in full.

Lockdown Could Be Extended by “Between Two Weeks and a Month” Following “Grim” Briefing to Ministers by Whitty and Vallance

On Monday, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said (and not for the first time): “[It] still remains that there is nothing in the data currently to suggest step four [of the lockdown roadmap] can’t go ahead at the earliest date.” Unfortunately, reports today are far more pessimistic about a June 21st unlock. This is largely due to a “fairly grim” briefing given to ministers by the Government’s two most senior scientific advisers on Monday. The Times has the story.

Britain’s roadmap for easing lockdown could be delayed by a fortnight with cabinet ministers increasingly pessimistic after a “downbeat” briefing from Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance.

The delay would enable all over-50s to be fully vaccinated and leave sufficient time for jabs to take effect before restrictions are lifted.

Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, and Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser, yesterday gave a briefing to ministers on the latest data that was described as “fairly grim”.

They emphasised concerns about the rate of transmission of new strains of coronavirus, such as the Indian variant, and that vaccinations did not provide 100% protection. Millions of Britons remain unvaccinated.

One cabinet source said they expected a delay of “between two weeks and a month” but suggested that the political fallout was likely to be limited as long as the full reopening took place before the start of the school summer holidays late next month. Another said that a delay made more sense than a partial lifting of lockdown restrictions to avoid any “confusion” in messaging…

Johnson is expected to make a formal announcement on Monday, when the Government’s social distancing review will be published…

Another cabinet source described the mood in Whitehall as “downbeat”. “We always said it was June 21st at the earliest. We may need another few weeks to let the effects of vaccination take hold. Doing a partial reopening would create confusion. People have planned on the basis of a full reopening. It’s important that the messaging is consistent.”

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: James Melville is unimpressed by the suggestion of an extension to lockdown. “Hospitalisations are still low. One death [on Monday]. We have a vaccine. After June 21st, we can’t do this anymore. We are done.”

Stop Press 2: Matt Hancock has told four million people in Greater Manchester and Lancashire to “minimise travel”, get tested and only meet outdoors in a further sign that the unlocking will be delayed. MailOnline has more.

Stop Press 3: Rishi Sunak is willing to accept a delay of up to four weeks to the final stage of England’s reopening roadmap, according to the Guardian.

Sunak, the Chancellor, has in the past been regarded as more keen to lift lockdown constraints than some cabinet colleagues. But a Whitehall source said he was not fixated on the June 21st date and was more concerned that when restrictions are lifted, the move can be permanent. “The Treasury’s main thing is that freedoms are irreversible and businesses have clarity,” the source said.

Worth reading in full.

We Should Welcome the Lab Leak Theory, Argues Biologist

At the start of the pandemic, many of us were puzzled as to why the lab leak hypothesis was considered “racist” but the wet market hypothesis was not. Both theories said the pandemic began in China, and both implied that some Chinese people had acted carelessly. (In reality, of course, neither theory is “racist”.)

The most likely reason why the lab leak theory came to be seen as “racist” is that this was convenient for several key organisations, who wanted to avoid any suggestion that they might have helped to cause the pandemic. These organisations include the Chinese Communist Party, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the National Institutes of Health, and EcoHealth Alliance. 

The fact that President Trump endorsed the lab leak theory also played a role, of course. Left-wing media outlets in the US have a habit of assuming that, if Trump says something, then it must – almost by definition – be racist.

In a recent article for UnHerd, the biologist Bret Weinstein argues that we should actually welcome the lab leak theory. This is because, if it turns out to be true, we know how to prevent future pandemics of this kind. Simple: ban the research until we can figure out how to do it safely. (Or at the very least: ramp up lab security.)

However, if the zoonotic spillover theory is correct, then “it’s only a matter of time before something like this happens again. And again. And again.” As Weinstein notes, “The straightforward lesson of the pandemic would be to simply face up to the clear risk of studying dangerous, novel infectious agents in the lab.”

He goes on to argue that, if the virus did escape from a lab, then one of the pandemic’s ultimate causes is the distorted incentives that led scientists to undertake such dangerous research in the first place. According to Weinstein:

… the scientific method has been hijacked by a competition over who can tell the most beguiling stories. Scientists have become salesmen, pitching serious problems that they and their research just so happen to be perfectly positioned to solve. The fittest in this game are not the most accurate, but the most stirring. And what could be more stirring than a story in which bat caves are ticking pandemic time-bombs from which only the boldest and brightest gene experts can save us?

Weinstein’s article contains a lot of interesting details, and is worth reading in full.

News Round-Up

Matt Hancock Reveals Hospitalisation Rate of Indian Variant is Just 1% – Half that of the British Variant

Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed some statistics in the Commons yesterday about the Delta (Indian) variant: out of 12,383 Delta variant positive tests in the U.K. up to June 3rd, 464 went to emergency care and 126 were admitted to hospital. Of those admitted to hospital, 83 were unvaccinated, 28 had had one jab and three had had both doses.

Keen-eyed readers will spot that 83+28+3 is not 126 – there are 12 hospital admissions unaccounted for. A Department of Health source told the Financial Times‘s Sebastian Payne that nine of these “don’t match to a vaccine status at present” while three were within 21 days of their first dose so didn’t count in any category.

Can we use these figures to make some crude calculations of the severity of the Delta variant?

126 hospital admissions out of 12,383 positive tests gives a 1% hospitalisation rate, or 99% not needing hospital. How does this compare to the Alpha (British) variant?

Last week Public Health England (PHE) released a study claiming the Delta variant had around double the risk of serious disease or hospitalisation compared with the Alpha variant. However, according to the ONS, during the winter peak when the Alpha variant was dominant, around 2% of the population of England was infected with COVID-19 and around 0.04% of the population was being admitted to hospital with the virus each week, giving around 2% of British variant infections leading to hospital admission. This is double the rate for the Indian variant on Hancock’s figures – and furthermore, Hancock’s figures use positive cases, not an ONS population infection estimate, which would reduce the hospitalisation rate for the Indian variant further.

However, what we don’t know, because these are just statistics delivered verbally in Parliament not a proper report (more science-by-press-release), is how many of the 12,383 positive cases are too recent to have led yet to hospital admission. We also don’t know how elderly or vulnerable those in the sample of 12,383 are, or what impact the vaccines are making on the hospitalisation rate.

The figures are of limited use as well in estimating the effectiveness of the vaccines against hospital admission with the Delta variant. That’s because we don’t know what proportion of the 12,383 infected were vaccinated, so we can’t control for that key factor. Having said that, the three versus 83 hospital admissions for fully vaccinated versus unvaccinated seems encouraging.

Overall, this data is very limited. Nonetheless, the fact that the hospitalisation rate even among positive cases is so much lower with the Delta variant now than with the Alpha variant in winter is further evidence that the latest scariant is nothing to fear.