Coronavirus origins: A trout in the milk

Contrary to the fair idea most people have, circumstantial evidence alone is sufficient to convict, both in civil and criminal cases, even in the absence of direct evidence

Published: 19th June 2021 12:09 AM  |   Last Updated: 19th June 2021 12:17 AM   |  A+A-


Indeed, several labs at the WIV and also at the Wuhan Centre for Disease Prevention and Control operated at BSL-2 and BSL-3 levels (Express Illustrations | Amit Bandre)

“Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Least Developed Countries]? I can think of three reasons.” Those reasons are: health-impairing costs of pollution are lower in such countries, costs of pollution are non-linear, and demand for a clean environment is higher when income increases. Public memory is short and current controversies metamorphose into future forgetfulness. Few people will recognise that quote now. It was a memo written by Lawrence Summers, then chief economist of the World Bank, in 1991. At that time, there was a controversy and Lant Prichett (who wrote it, Summers only signed it) argued the memo was meant to be sarcastic.

Why does pharmaceutical research, such as clinical trials, increasingly occur in developing countries? One can give it a positive spin, highlighting educational improvements in such countries, strengths in R&D, pools of scientists, improved infrastructure, lower costs and availability of a diversified patient pool. Nonetheless, it will be naïve to brush aside the enticement of Mammon and fewer regulatory safeguards in these countries. Such safeguards that exist will rarely be enforced and likelihood of judicial punitive damages will be remote. The Summers memo may, or may not, have been sarcasm. But those three reasons have been imbibed by pharmaceutical research.

That proposition is exacerbated for bacteriology and virology. Both have helped the cause of medical science and human development. But when the gene of a bacterium or virus is modified in a lab, the resultant genie may not always remain in the bottle. Although that was a different age and a different setting, one is reminded of Mary Shelley. “It was very different when the masters of science sought immortality and power; such views, although futile, were grand: but now the scene was changed.” During Covid and lockdown, most of us must have watched movies where a virus threatens human survival. Contagion, Virus, Outbreak, Train to Busan, 12 Monkeys, The Omega Man, Operation Delta Force, Deadly Outbreak, Mission Impossible II, Code Name Trixie, Winds of Terror—there are quite a few. Before you correct me, these are about biological threats, not necessarily viruses. Notice that when it is a virus, we prefer to blame alien origins (The Andromeda Strain), pigs and bats (Contagion), monkeys (Outbreak), terrorists (12 Monkeys). The villain is generally someone other than the virologist. The finger isn’t pointed at the Frankenstein who has messed around in the lab. Even when a virus is leaked from a lab, we tend to blame a non-human villain like a rat (The Missing are Deadly).

This is the stuff of fantasy and fiction. But fiction has inched closer to reality. In any event, in the name of advancement of medical research, virologists have been exceedingly non-transparent about the genetic manipulations that they do, euphemistically termed gain-of-function research. Thanks to investigative work by Monali Rahalkar, Rahul Bahulikar, The Seeker, DRASTIC and others I don’t know about, we know the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) was working on modifying the bat coronavirus. The lab leakage proposition is dismissed as circumstantial. Most people have a fair idea that circumstantial evidence isn’t direct proof or testimony and given the requirement that guilt must be proved beyond reasonable doubt, circumstantial evidence isn’t enough for conviction. That’s based on watching too many simplified law-related series and films, or perhaps reading Sherlock Holmes. I have in mind Holmes in The Boscombe Valley Mystery. “Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing,” answered Holmes, thoughtfully. “It may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different.”

Perhaps. But contrary to the fair idea most people have, circumstantial evidence alone is sufficient to convict, both in civil and criminal cases, even in the absence of direct evidence. There are any number of court cases to establish this. Try the book by Mel Harmon, titled, A Trout in the Milk. The title is explained by Henry David Thoreau’s quote, “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.” Let’s be clear. There is nothing circumstantial about the WIV working on modifying the bat coronavirus. That’s direct evidence. Can pathogens be accidentally leaked from labs? There is a long list of such biosecurity incidents, more common than we are ready to admit. They have occurred in a range of countries, including China. That’s direct evidence too. There are gradations of bio-safety levels (BSLs), from the lowest of BSL-1 to the highest of BSL-4. For deadly viruses, nothing less than BSL-4 should suffice and even then, there is a possibility of leakage. A lot has been made about a facility in WIV obtaining BSL-4 status in 2015, the first one in China to do so. Logicians talk about fallacies of defective induction or false generalisation. One facility achieving BSL-4 does not mean all did. Indeed, several labs at the WIV and also at the Wuhan Centre for Disease Prevention and Control operated at BSL-2 and BSL-3 levels. That’s also direct evidence, not circumstantial.

But for the Wuhan virus, the average person might not have known that virologists were engaged in gain-of-function research; WIV was working on modifying the bat coronavirus; this research was funded by the West; bio-safety levels fell short of BSL-4. We now know what virologists, especially funders, knew all along. This knowledge isn’t circumstantial.

Bibek Debroy
Chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM
(Views are personal) (Tweets @bibekdebroy)

India Matters


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