The trap of choosing a narrative over scientific facts

by Janice Nigro

I’m a science writer, a natural transition into a different field after years as a bench scientist mixing reagents in test tubes. Scientists are not drawn to bench science because they have a specific aptitude for writing, or the desire to write, but there is a large body of literature they need to create to stay in business.

They write scientific articles and reviews containing the results of their experiments for peer review. They write grants, theses, oral presentations, and year end summaries for funding agencies. And today there is even more pressure to provide literature digestible by a broad spectrum of scientists due to the multi-disciplinary nature of experiments today, business people, and the general public.

So my job is to help scientists with their mountain of writing projects. But of all these areas, the way biological facts get translated to the general public has most interested me.

In graduate school, I worked in a lab which had a story picked up by the corporate media. It was a subject I was an expert in and I thought at the time, the information was sensationalized in ways that didn’t make sense to me as a scientist. From then on, I began to be critical of most information presented by the corporate media because I wasn’t much of an expert in anything other than cancer biology.

Although I specialized in this one field, the most critical skill I gained in graduate school was how to develop and investigate important questions. So while I’m not a virologist, when the pandemic broke out, I did what I could to learn something about SARS-CoV-2 and to write about it.

After reading a few scientific articles describing the facts of the previous coronavirus scares, I began to have some questions about the origin of SARS-CoV-2. I had no reason to doubt the prevailing theory, that the virus jumped directly from some possibly exotic animal to humans, until I read about SARS-CoV-1 and MERS, two coronaviruses that didn’t spread far and quickly became extinct.

Both infected less than 10,000 people worldwide but killed a high percentage of those infected. SARS-CoV-2 went “viral” in comparison to SARS-CoV-1 and MERS. In just a few months, SARS-CoV-2 had circled the globe invading the USA largely from the east coast while striking down thousands. It was so communicable for a so-called emerging disease, that I began to consider the lab leak hypothesis as plausible for the origin of the pandemic.

Many rather arcane biological characteristics of the virus raised suspicion among scientists in the spring of 2020. Codon usage in a site not seen before in this type of coronavirus captured the attention of many scientists, as well as the virus’s rate of genetic change. The SARS-CoV-2 genome appeared to be more stable relative to the previous viruses, indicating SARS-CoV-2 might have seen human cells before.

Other simple facts didn’t add up. Many of the early affected patients had no known association with the wet market, the putative ground zero for the virus. Samples analyzed had been collected at the market after it had been sanitized and it wasn’t clear where they were taken from in the market.

My hesitancy to embrace the zoonotic transfer at the wet market as the mechanism of transmission didn’t garner much interest, other than a bit of skepticism. I never bought the wet market idea, but I did talk myself into the hypothesis that the disease was around longer than anyone knew, and it only became evident when a cluster of sick patients appeared in Wuhan.

Although my message ended up in the black hole of internet space, I’ve quietly cringed at the lack of understanding of some of the terminology tossed about in the corporate media fueling the national divide over the origin of the pandemic. Any bureaucrat or corporate media outlet can claim a natural origin for the virus and be right. There’s no question that the virus at some point in its history originated from nature. Bats are a reservoir for a multitude of coronaviruses, and the genome of SARS-CoV-2 is highly similar to another virus isolated from bats.

But that doesn’t mean that the transmission route for the current pandemic was from a bat to an animal then to humans, or directly to humans. It might have been originally isolated from the wild and then cultivated in the lab.

What goes on in a lab is another unknown the corporate media provides few details of. For instance, what is genetic engineering? Genetic engineering is the process of manipulating specific nucleotides in the virus with the intention of making it do something it doesn’t already do. With the technology of today, even single nucleotide changes can be introduced into a viral genome almost without a trace.

But scientists in the lab can also try to propagate a virus, as collected from the wild, in human cells in a petri dish or in animals configured to express the human version of the receptor protein. Through this process, the virus might evolve into a pathogen competent for human transmission.

Whether sequences are inserted into the viral genome or the viral genome evolves through growth in cells in a petri dish, this strategy is considered gain-of-function research. Under any circumstances, these are dangerous experiments to undertake, even for the viruses that we know of, especially in the middle of a highly populated urban area.

So somehow after over a year into the pandemic the question of the origin of the virus still lingers and is more fiercely debated than at any other time during the past year. What surprises me most is that the scientific community seemed to shield China rather than critically assess the biology. One article was even titled “Trump owes us an apology” a direct quote taken from the bat woman, the Chinese scientist at the center of the controversy leading coronavirus discovery at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

In the last month, free discussion about the origin has been allowed across all media venues. And at the center of the discussion is our very own NIAID director Anthony Fauci. At the beginning of the pandemic, I had complete confidence in Fauci. I thought he presented facts concerning viral transmission clearly and calmly.

But he lost me last summer when he refused to answer a question in Senate hearings about whether the BLM protests might contribute to the transmission of SARS-CoV-2. The country had closed outdoor venues, such as Disneyland, and even the beaches in California to curb the spreading of the virus, but Fauci refused to comment on the potential of the protests as superspreading events. This was not following the science.

It got worse for me as his face appeared on tabloid magazine covers, even in sunglasses next to a swimming pool, and his time was taken up by interviews with every outlet imaginable in the middle of a raging pandemic. His behavior was so uncharacteristic for any serious scientist, at least the ones I’ve known.

Maybe it’s no surprise then that it was the corporate media, Vanity Fair (and the Wall Street Journal), to give the lab leak theory legitimate traction in recent weeks. I gotta confess I’m embarrassed as a scientist and a writer that someone else got the story.

The Vanity Fair article brings up many uncomfortable issues for the man in charge. Yet, it still sensationalizes some facts that are non-issues for the average scientist. I’m not at all surprised that the US was funding research at the institute. International collaboration is a foundation upon which biological research moves forward today. Grant proposals are judged in part on the depth of international collaboration. Some countries are more competent in certain areas than others or have access to specific resources. China is where many of these viruses might come from. Furthermore, with US money funding some of their program, US investigators have a reason to be involved. But it didn’t seem to help if the institute is the origin of the outbreak.

Of course, if the money went with the intention to fund research banned in the USA, that’s another problem.

I’m also not surprised that the information to the public changed over the course of the last year. That’s the nature of science. Biology is unpredictable, but that’s also when breakthrough discoveries are often made.

The real story though is that scientists and science writers were driven by their politics during this pandemic and left their fundamental principles of curiosity behind. Scientists couldn’t even honestly write about the time line for the development of the vaccine because of their political leanings.

In the end, the origin of the virus will have little bearing on how patients are treated. However, the choice of narrative over sound investigative science might have.

Unfortunately, the arcane details of the virus don’t make for the same kind of headlines that the salacious bits between American politicians and so-called experts make. Or the ambiguous nature of the story of the origin of the virus. Science though did prevail, with the development of vaccines and therapeutics in record time.

The origin of SARS-CoV-2 remains unknown. But choosing a narrative while dismissing uncomfortable facts, especially in science, whether at your own lab bench or on the world stage, is a dangerous trap.

©Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com

Looking for a scientific editor or writer? Contact Janice Nigro at Janice Nigro Ink. I have published in Cell, Science, and Nature, and articles I have edited have appeared in Cancer Research, Clinical Cancer ResearchPLoSONE, the Journal of Surgical Oncology, and Oncotarget.

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