Viral buttknuckles

Slapping Rand Paul around would probably be a satisfying but useless endeavor.  You can’t beat stupid out of someone like him because I think he’s doing it on purpose.  Even if I were given the opportunity to try to calmly and patiently explain the biology behind the inane assertion that Chinese researchers created the COVID-19 coronavirus, it wouldn’t help.  Most congresspeople, regardless of party, were the kinds of college students who were willing to take a C in their required science courses just to get out of them.  Math and Science are poison to them.  Unfortunately for us, math = logic and biological sciences are based on the application of tested principles. There are several majors in college that are the refugia for the illogical and unprincipled, and very often they go into politics. Rand Paul should know better; he’s supposedly a doctor.

The COVID virus was not made by researchers or even modified by them.  This can be easily argued based solely on principles of evolutionary biology. I’ll start with an analogy.

Let’s take the national anthem of Russia.  I’m going to insert a couple of random words into it and step back and say, “There!  I improved it!”  No, let’s be real. I’m going to take the anthem, in Russian, which I do not speak or read.  Then, I’ll take the Cyrillic alphabet, which has some parallels with the English alphabet, and I’m going to add some letters to the anthem.  THEN, I’m going to step back and say, “There!  I improved it!”  Response? Not a chance in hell.  Random changes to an anthem, or a Shakespearean sonnet, or a great work of art does not improve it. Ever.

But viruses aren’t great works of art, you say?  You are so wrong. Nature does not produce perfection because perfection is an illusion. Nature does, however, produce complexity beyond human understanding. As researchers understand and describe genetic and biochemical processes more and more, it’s like listening to someone describe art. That such complexity and efficiency could arise by natural processes is difficult to comprehend.  And viruses are the simplest of productions because they aren’t even alive. And we still don’t understand them.

We’ve been studying the HIV genome for 38 years.  It has 9 genes that we understand pretty well. We’ve studied Influenza A extensively and we know a bit about coronaviruses. But in general, what we know about viral genetics is only from those we’ve studied, and in total it’s pretty bare.  So, we’re still figuring out how they infect, how they integrate into the host genome, how prions are assembled, and so on.  We’re stumbling along.  We know it’s basically mechanical, but absurdly complicated at the same time.

Along comes COVID-19. Nature has produced some 600 known coronaviruses and this is just one and almost certainly from a bat. The idea that we collected this virus and then subjected it to a modification scheme in the lab, even by those devilishly clever Chinese researchers, is absurd.  We barely speak the language.  We are linear thinkers.  We are in a plug-and-play mode in the lab.  But for some reason, buttknuckles like Rand Paul want to argue that we are capable of adding selected letters or words to Shakespeare and improving his sonnets. (Or that we paid the Chinese to beat us to it.)

But it could have been an accident, you say?  That’s even worse!  Adding not selected words, but random words to Shakespeare?  Viola!  A masterpiece made better! DaVinci look out!

And then what? China inoculated bats and sent them out to spread the virus? China allowed researchers to leave the lab and wander through the marketplace with their work clothes on?  The researchers were asymptomatic carriers who then spread the virus when they stopped to grab some produce at the market?  If the virus did escape the lab, it was by infected researchers, not because some clever humans have unlocked the secret code of virulence.

Oh, and if we added selected to words to Shakespeare, what words? As viral geneticists, we only know the meaning of a few words.  If we used those words to modify COVID-19, our fingerprints would be all over the resulting virus.  We would have used genes from other viruses because we have no clue, zero, zip, zilch, how to write a gene for improved viral function.  We would have to borrow one from a different virus and it would be immediately obvious. It would be analogous to my undergraduate students plagiarizing some scientific text, but changing a few words in hopes that I wouldn’t notice. They don’t know the difference between affect and effect, but they think I won’t notice when they use the phrase “transgenerational phenotypic plasticity” correctly and in context.

How can conspiracy theorists think scientists are the most brilliant (and evil) people on the planet, yet also believe that everything they say is just unproven “opinion?”  How do you argue with such a deep-seated lack of appreciation of what science is and the rules it operates by? How do you convince someone who is incapable of forming rational mental constructs that their argument on a subject they know nothing about is shit?  I’m open to suggestions. 

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