Steve Bannon’s Useful Idiots – Addendum

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.

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Steve Bannon’s Useful Idiots

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.

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Two News Stories – Free To Reporters

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.

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice

Rolling The Credulous

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

  1. The most important story has been dealing with the spread of the pandemic and
  2. 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.

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Fact-Free Discourse – Vaccines

How many doses of the several available vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, the cause of covid, are available?

You would think that when people call for sending vaccines to India or to make them more available generally around the world, they would check that number. You would be wrong.

Searching brings up a number of references to “doses expected to be available,” but actual numbers from the production plants (and how many of those are there?) are not easy to find.

You would think that journalists would want to check these numbers before making statements like “America is awash in vaccines.” You would be wrong. I have not seen a single one quote numbers. Journalists are supposed to get facts like this to us.

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Russia’s Vaccine Missteps

Russia and China have been exporting their SARS-CoV-2 vaccine to build goodwill. At the same time, however, they have been taking steps that undermine that goodwill. Russia has built up its military forces as if to attack Ukraine and is now building them down; additionally, information has come out about earlier attacks on Czech and Bulgarian arms depots. China has been imprisoning Uyghurs in concentration (“reeducation”) camps and has been militarily active in the South China Sea.

Both vaccines, like the AstraZeneca vaccine, use an adenovirus to carry in parts of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to provoke an immune response. The method has been used successfully for an Ebola vaccine.

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American Aid To India

The covid situation in India is horrendous: 350,000 infections a day, 2500 deaths. After an apparent delay, the United States is sending help.

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I’m Vaccinated! What Comes Next?

I had my second dose of the Moderna m-RNA vaccine yesterday. What comes next?

It takes three weeks to build immunity, and I don’t plan to change what I’ve been doing until then. I have been isolating rather thoroughly. I haven’t been inside a store since last October. I’m taking piano lessons via Zoom. I wear double masks held tight with a clip that pulls the ear loops to the back of my neck. I haven’t seen friends in person since sometime late last summer. My family is at distances that make a year’s separation not extraordinary.

The CDC has promised guidelines on what to do after you’ve had your vaccine, but they haven’t published them yet. Guidelines are difficult to develop because there are so many variables.

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Covid Likely To Become Endemic

Nature magazine, one of the top two science journals in the world, did a survey of 100  immunologists, infectious-disease researchers and virologists working on the coronavirus, asking if they thought that the virus would become endemic in the human population. Ninety percent of them said they thought it would. From just the mathematics of it, and the fact that it’s everywhere in the world now, I agree with that. I don’t see how it can be otherwise.

But that doesn’t mean that our current situation continues. People will be vaccinated; some will acquire immunity by being infected (although current guidance is that they should be vaccinated anyway); and more will continue to die. As immunity spreads, we will be able to relax social precautions, probably this summer or later. We will, perhaps in a couple of years, be able to go back to something like normal.

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We’ve Got To Do Better

I received my first dose of the Moderna covid-19 vaccine yesterday. I’m incredibly grateful and find my free-floating anxiety much relieved. I have an appointment for the second dose. No more reaction than a sore arm so far.

But the method of getting it leaves much to be desired.

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