I’ve been quoted in two news articles yesterday and today. I’m reasonably pleased with both of them.
Zachary Cohen called me with not enough information on this reported leak. The odd thing about it was that France had notified the United States, and high-level US meetings were reported. So: secretive country, nuclear leak. Hard for me, even, not to feel resonances with Chernobyl. My early guess from the information we had was that it was a broken fuel element, and that’s what it turned out to be. The reason France contacted the US had to do with sharing nuclear information. When a country gets nuclear technology from the US, restrictions are attached about sharing it.
Justin Ling covers the major claims about a laboratory escape being the route of the SARS-CoV-2 virus into humans and finds them wanting; further, that a natural pathway from animals to humans is more likely. Long article and may have a paywall. This one should become the standard reference for refuting the lab leak bros.
What can we expect from the summit meeting between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin?
That is the expectation that Biden is setting. There will be no grand pronouncements, no reset, maybe not even a perfunctory statement of agreement on a minor point. That is part of the reason that Biden plans to hold a press conference by himself. The other part, of course, is in contrast with Donald Trump’s disastrous showing at Helsinki.
But the meeting is necessary and important. Russia is a major country, with a nuclear arsenal equivalent to America’s. Russia is adjacent to our allies in Europe and supplies energy to many of them. It has a long land border across which untoward things can happen. Those are reason enough for the leaders to meet.Read More
The story of the alleged laboratory escape (“lab leak”) from the Wuhan Institute of Virology has been shopped by the Trumpies, mostly Mike Pompeo, since early in the pandemic. Its form has varied, sometimes a bioweapon, sometimes not, but there has been a concerted effort to get the story into the media. Thanks to the useful idiot bros, Pompeo and his minions, using Bannon’s tactics, may have finally succeeded.
On Twitter, John Culver (@JohnCulver689), whose bio says he is a retired intelligence officer, pointed out a Daily Beast article from June 2020, debunking a report by a Pentagon contractor. When I read it, I vaguely recalled the claims of changing car traffic around the Institute indicating that a leak had occurred. The claim was ridiculous enough that I didn’t pay much attention to it.
Peter Jacobs (@past_is_future), whose bio says he is a climate researcher, offered a longer set of analyses. He points out four attempts to shop the story this year.
That whole thread is worth reading. It covers some of the material I’ve covered recently and points out that it’s Murdoch media in the US and Australia that have helped launder the story. He also mentions David Asher, who turns up in Christopher Ford’s open letter (also here) and the Vanity Fair article that depends on him and other unreliable sources.Read More
Scientific opinion on how the SARS-CoV-2 virus got into human beings has not changed much over the past year. The greatest probability is that a human caught it from an animal; a long ways down in probability is that the virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Nonexistent probability is that it is a biological weapon.
Most human diseases have come to us from animals. We know the origins of some of them. Studies of this kind take years and even decades. We have known about SARS-CoV-2 for a year and a half. Many similar viruses are known to exist in bats.
Those studies now can call on genome analysis. A number of virologists and epidemiologists make this their career. A professional who spends all their time on this has a wealth of knowledge that is never published – their last conversation with a colleague, the ways that ideas have gone wrong in the past, and much else that goes into their judgments. A professional in a given field also has a sense of how to evaluate new developments. Without this background, it’s easy to cherrypick data and publications, even without realizing it.Read More
Covering government is boring, until it isn’t. Trouble is, you need to know something about the boring parts to see when it isn’t. I’ve seen two of those – potentially big stories – today.
Trump’s Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Non-Proliferation Spills The Beans
Chris Ford has been in government a long time in positions relating to arms control and nonproliferation. I don’t agree with his policy positions, but I was relieved when Trump appointed someone who actually knew about the field to this position. He is a quiet and professional man.
He published a tell-all open letter on Medium today. My jaw is still dropped.
There’s a lot to the letter, and I don’t have time to go into it in detail, but basically a couple of Trumpian bozos in one of his bureaus were ginning up a conspiracy theory about China and the coronavirus. And they did everything they could to keep it from him! This is the backstory to every “lab leak” story out there, oh useful idiots like Nate Silver, Jonathan Chait, Matt Yglesias, and others.
Los Alamos Can’t Make 80 Pits A Year
Dan Leone covers the nuclear weapons bureaucracy for EM Publications. He tweets Congressional hearings, which is a great service to people like me who usually don’t listen to the whole thing. The House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Strategic Forces held a hearing today on the FY22 budget request. Charles Verdon, the nominated Administrator for the NNSA, the part of the Department of Energy that is responsible for nuclear weapons, testified. The nuclear arsenal is getting old, and there has been a plan to remake the plutonium cores (pits) for some nuclear weapons. That would be done at the Los Alamos Plutonium Facility, PF-4, and at a repurposed plant at Savannah River, Georgia.
Verdon said that the Savanna River plant won’t be ready for several years and will cost a lot more than has been projected. He also said that PF-4 won’t ever be able to produce 80 pits a year. Here’s Leone’s summary of a long thread:
This is the first time that the NNSA administrator has admitted that the big talk about pit production is just that – talk. It’s significant that the Biden administration is saying this; it may pave the way for a different sort of talks between the US and Russia. And maybe China, if they ever become willing to talk.
I find both of these stories amazing. I’ll be interested to see which news media pick them up. You read them here first.
The rotifer world has exciting news!
A rotifer that was frozen in the permafrost for 24,000 years has been thawed out, and it has reproduced asexually. It is of the commonest kind, a bdelloid rotifer. We have bdelloid rotifers around us everywhere, even in desert dust. They are hardy little guys and form spores, much as the cuddlier tardigrades do, but not quite as durable.
I “discovered” rotifers with my first microscope, when I put a handful of leaves in water and let the jar sit in a warm place for a few days. The little “mixmasters” on their heads intrigued me.
I didn’t know what they were and couldn’t find them in a book. My biology teacher was unhelpful. I’m not sure when I learned their name. Later, I met Professor Robert Lee Wallace, who is one of the world’s experts on rotifers. He told me this morning that the rotifer world is very excited. They knew the little beasts were durable, but this is more than they expected. They will compare the old ones’ genome with the genome of bdelloid rotifers found in the same area today.
Here’s the Reuters article. The embedded video is too sensationalistic for my taste.
In related freakouts, Margaret Sullivan looks at the attacks on Anthony Fauci.
In a right-wing culture so often opposed to verifiable reality, who better to target than a person who stands for science and facts?
Lindsay Beyerstein and Jeffrey Lewis simultaneously ask who uses the term “lab leak.” Turns out it’s not the scientists who are driving that freakout.
Cross-posted to Balloon Juice
There’s a lot of shouting right now about whether SARS-CoV-2 leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Some of the more partisan shouting is that Donald Trump and his minions were right last year to “consider” a lab leak. They were right last year in the sense that a stopped clock is right twice a day. Yes, they mentioned that possibility, embedded in claims that the virus was a bioweapon and the overwhelming motivation to blame China to take the focus off Trump’s inability to deal with the pandemic.
The virologists I follow have kept a lab leak as a possibility all along. I haven’t followed this story closely until now because
- The most important story has been dealing with the spread of the pandemic and
- We are not likely to know how the virus got into humans for a long time.
The probability that most scientists (including me) assigned to the possible origins was bioweapon 0%, once the genome was analyzed and showed no telltale signs of human-caused rearrangements; transmission from animals to humans, most likely because that’s how we’ve gotten most of our diseases; and lab leak possible but unlikely because accidents happen but people handling viruses take precautions against leaks.Read More