Dr. Li-Meng Yan’s Claims Call for Skepticism but Not Dismissal

Workers in protective suits examine specimens inside a laboratory following an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, February 6, 2020. (China Daily/Reuters)

On the menu today: Trump’s former director of National Intelligence calls for a special commission to oversee the upcoming election to ensure everyone follows the laws; why the claim of Dr. Li-Meng Yan that the virus was engineered in a Chinese military lab warrants some skepticism, but not dismissal; and the Financial Times discovers a deeply underappreciated charm of Joe Biden.

Coats: The Election Should Be Overseen by Wise Old Hands . . . You Know, People Like Me

Dan Coats, the former senator from Indiana who served as the director of National Intelligence from 2017 to 2019, writes in the New York Times today:

I propose that Congress creates a new mechanism to help accomplish this purpose. It should create a supremely high-level bipartisan and nonpartisan commission to oversee the election. This commission would not circumvent existing electoral reporting systems or those that tabulate, evaluate or certify the results. But it would monitor those mechanisms and confirm for the public that the laws and regulations governing them have been scrupulously and expeditiously followed — or that violations have been exposed and dealt with — without political prejudice and without regard to political interests of either party.

Also, this commission would be responsible for monitoring those forces that seek to harm our electoral system through interference, fraud, disinformation or other distortions. These would be exposed to the American people in a timely manner and referred to appropriate law enforcement agencies and national security entities.

On paper, this is a fine idea. But I would note that we have a Federal Election Commission, whose job is to enforce campaign finance law. Every state government has an election security office. The Department of Homeland Security has an Election Security division. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s whole job is to help states and localities prepare and secure their elections. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Counterintelligence division has a Foreign Influence Task Force. We have a whole bunch of federal and state government entities who have these duties already.

Second, Coats offers some ideas of who should be on this national election oversight commission: “Commission members undertaking this high, historic responsibility should come from both parties and could include congressional leaders, current and former governors, ‘elder statespersons,’ former national security leaders, perhaps the former Supreme Court justices David Souter and Anthony Kennedy, and business leaders from social media companies.”

(I looked it up: David Souter turns 81 today; Anthony Kennedy is 84.)

Isn’t one of the concerns out there that “business leaders from social media companies” already have too much influence over the election?

When ‘Made in a Lab’ and ‘Naturally Occurring’ Don’t Necessarily Contradict

Yesterday on the Three Martini Lunch podcast, Greg and I discussed the claim of Dr. Li-Meng Yan that SARS-CoV-2 “comes from the lab — the lab in Wuhan and the lab is controlled by China’s government,” that “this virus is not from nature.” Yan says she got “her intelligence from the CDC in China, from the local doctors.” When the pandemic began, the immunologist was employed by the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong.

She “made the comments Friday during an interview on the British talk show ‘Loose Women.’”

She did an interview with Fox News in July, offering more details about how the Chinese government had mishandled the outbreak in the first weeks, but the contention that this was deliberately engineered in a Chinese military lab is a much bigger, much more explosive accusation.

My first thought is that if you have bombshell evidence that the virus is manmade, don’t go on a television program and promise that you’ll be unveiling the evidence soon. Just unveil the evidence. My second thought was that if you were going to go on television to make one of the biggest and most consequential accusations in the history of the world, the sort of thing that completely upends the geopolitical economic order . . . is a midday women’s chat show heavy on celebrity news and gossip really the best venue? This is a bit like Daniel Ellsburg unveiling the Pentagon Papers on The View. But Dr. Yan did do an interview on Tucker Carlson’s program as well.

The paper from Yan and other colleagues is now out, and it is less evidence than an assertion that the virus could not be naturally occurring based upon sequences in the genetic code. U.S. virologists are, so far, skeptical, arguing that the attributes that Yan contends must be man-made or engineered can indeed occur in nature.

In these conversations, there’s an imprecision to the labels that can be misleading and annoying. “Came from a lab” can mean it is a naturally occurring virus that jumped from bats to humans because of someone in the laboratory being careless. Secondly, labs can mimic the process of “natural” evolution and effectively speed it up: “Cells are inoculated into media and left to grow until the culture reaches a high population density. Instead of throwing out or using all of the resultant population, the experimental evolutionist transfers or dilutes the culture to allow continued growth and division. This cycle can be continued indefinitely, and as the generations accumulate, natural selection will drive the population to adapt to the laboratory environment.”

As a reader put it to me a few months back, “natural mutations are caused by just the right doses of toxins, stress, ultraviolent light, environmental extremes. One can throw the dice and expose a virus to any of those outside forces in a laboratory, carefully adjusting the doses so that 99.9 percent or so of the virus dies. What’s left might be unaffected, but some will almost certainly have some mutations. Some mutations will doom the virus. But some might be very useful, and they can then be moved to a nutrient medium and get coddled for a while to replicate. That is a very hit and miss procedure, but the time and cost is negligible.”

The scientist isn’t going in and changing the genes, he’s just hitting fast-forward on survival of the fittest. Does this represent being “made in a lab” or does this represent “naturally occurring”? Or both?

Most virologists around the world say they don’t see evidence of engineering or manipulation in the genetic code of SARS-CoV-2, and I trust their assessment. But it is worth noting that this doesn’t mean that a naturally occurring virus — say, found in a horseshoe bat — could not have been subjected to microbial experimental evolution in a laboratory. The end result of that experimentation would be a virus stronger and possibly more contagious than the original samples and not have any signs of genetic tampering or alterations.

This is one of those rare areas where I agree with the “this virus isn’t that bad” crowd; if SARS-CoV-2 represents a bioweapon, it is not a terribly effective one. But this doesn’t mean that any research on viruses in China was completely unrelated to interest in biological weapons; research on pathogens is pretty much the definition of “dual use.” The more you know about how to fight off a virus or bacteria, the more knowledge you have about how to effectively use it as a weapon on an unsuspecting population.

The scenario Dr. Li-Meng Yan describes could have happened, but the evidence to support the claim either isn’t in the genetic code or it isn’t clear and indisputable enough. But the fact that China has been so stubbornly resistant to outside investigations of the origins of the virus — they’re still negotiating with the World Health Organization about how the investigation will proceed! — certainly justifies suspicions that Beijing’s rulers have something they want to hide.

ADDENDUM: Have you noticed that to certain media voices, whatever traits the Democratic nominee has just happen to be what the country needs that year? In 2004, John Kerry’s military service was considered a great argument in favor of his election, but by 2008, John McCain’s service was nothing special. Remember how youth and being an outsider to Washington were considered really important when Barack Obama was running, but suddenly didn’t seem so important when Hillary Clinton was nominated — and they sure as heck aren’t seen as valuable traits now?

Janan Ganesh of the Financial Times makes an accurate but convenient point: No one is all that excited about Joe Biden, and that’s something of a relief after dealing with the Obama messiah cult and the worship of Trump by the MAGA-cap-wearing diehard fans. The headline? “The welcome lack of enthusiasm for Joe Biden.

“The US has had two consecutive presidents with messianic followings, and it is worse off for the 12-year surge of emotion,” Ganesh writes. “No democracy is riper for a period of tepid leadership.”

The thing is, it took a Republican president with an impassioned fanbase and a Democratic nominee who’s pretty boring and cookie-cutter to see any public defense of boring national leaders.

Still, I think it would make for a refreshingly honest slogan: “Joe Biden 2020: He’s pretty tepid as a leader.”