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They called it a conspiracy theory. But Alina Chan tweeted life into the idea that the virus came from a lab.

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They called it a conspiracy theory. But Alina Chan tweeted life into the idea that the virus came from a lab.


The obvious problem with the lab-leak theory, though, is that there remains no concrete evidence for it. Chan has no particular view about how exactly an accident might have happened—whether a student got sick in a bat cave, say, or secret research to infect mice with a novel virus went awry. After reading Chan’s posts, I noticed that many of her claims don’t even relate to direct evidence at all; more often, they revolve around its absence. She tends to point out things that Chinese researchers didn’t do or say, important facts they did not quickly reveal, the infected market animal they never found, or a database that’s no longer online. She’s plainly suggesting there is a cover-up—and, therefore, a plot to conceal the truth.

Pre-adapted

Last February, when leading scientists convened to analyze the virus genome, they ended up publishing two letters. One, in The Lancet, dismissed the lab-accident possibility outright as a “conspiracy theory” (its authors included a scientist who funded research at the Wuhan lab). The other was the “Proximal Origins” letter in Nature Medicine, coauthored by Kristian Andersen, an evolutionary biologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. Andersen and his coauthors looked at the genome of the virus and marshaled arguments for why it was very likely a natural occurrence—backed by evidence that it was similar to others found in nature.

The 30,000 genetic letters in that genome remain the most widely studied clue to the virus’s origin. Coronaviruses frequently swap parts—a phenomenon called recombination. Andersen found that all the components of the virus had been seen before in samples collected over the years from animals. Evolution could have produced it, he believed. The Wuhan Institute had been genetically engineering bat viruses for scientific experiments, but the SARS-CoV-2 genome did not match any of the favorite “chassis” viruses used in those experiments, and it did not contain any other obvious sign of engineering.                                                                                             

According to Clarivate, an analytics company, the Nature Medicine letter was the 55th most cited article of 2020, with over 1,300 citations in the journals tracked. Email records would later show that starting in January 2020, the letter had been the subject of urgent, high-level messages and conference calls between the letters’ authors, Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; top virologists; and the head of the Wellcome Trust, a major pharmaceutical research funding organization in the United Kingdom. Early on, the authors had worried that the virus looked suspicious before quickly coming together around a scientific analysis supporting a natural cause. Initially one of their aims was to quash rumors that the virus was a bioweapon or a result of engineering gone wrong, but they ended up going further, writing: “We do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”

Working from her home in Massachusetts, Chan soon found a way to revive the lab-accident theory by looking for differences with SARS, a similar virus that broke out in 2002 but caused only about 8,000 illnesses. With Shing Zhan, a bioinformatics specialist at the University of British Columbia, Chan looked at the early human cases of covid and saw that the new virus hadn’t mutated as fast as SARS had. If it were an animal virus from a market, she thought, its genome would show signs of adjusting more quickly to fit its brand-new human host. She prepared an analysis arguing that the virus was “pre-adapted” to humans and offered some theories as to why. Maybe it had been spreading undetected in people elsewhere in China. Or maybe, she thought, it had been growing in a lab somewhere, perhaps multiplying in human cells or in transgenic mice that had had human genes spliced into them.

The chance that a non-engineered virus could have “adapted to humans while being studied in a laboratory,” she wrote, “should be considered, regardless of how likely or unlikely.”

On May 2, 2020, Chan posted a preprint paper, coauthored with Deverman and Zhan, to the website bioRxiv, an online venue for quickly communicating results that haven’t yet been reviewed by other scientists. “Our observations suggest that by the time SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in late 2019, it was already pre-adapted to human transmission,” they wrote. The Broad Institute communications department also pointed Chan to examples of how to compose a “tweetorial,” a daisy chain of posts, with pictures, that present a compact scientific argument to a wider public. She posted her first tweetorial the following day.

For journalists suspicious about China’s handling of the virus, the thread—and those that followed—were dynamite. Here was an actual scientist at America’s biggest gene center who was explaining why the official story might be wrong. “Coronavirus did NOT come from animals in Wuhan market,” screamed a Daily Mail headline, in what became Chan’s first breakout into the public conversation.

While her report was a media success, what the Daily Mail described as Chan’s “landmark paper” has still never been formally accepted by a scientific journal. Chan says that’s because of censorship due to her raising the lab-origin possibility. Eisen of UC Davis, however, thinks Chan’s expectations for how the covid-19 virus should have behaved remain conjecture. He doesn’t think we’ve traced enough outbreaks in enough molecular detail to really know what’s normal. And, he notes, covid-19 has continued to change and adapt.

“My colleagues said, This is a conspiracy—don’t bother. I said, No, I am going to treat this like any other paper,” says Eisen, who took time to study the manuscript. “I think it’s interesting what she tried to do, but I am not convinced by the conclusion, and I think the inferences were wrong. I do commend her for posting it. Many of the people pushing the lab-origin theory are not making claims based on logic, but she presented her evidence. I don’t agree with it, but that is science.”

Wrong or right, though, the word Chan used—“pre-adapted”—sent shivers up the spine of people like author Nicholson Baker. “We were dealing with a disease that was exceptionally good, right out of the gate, at chewing up human airways,” says Baker, who got in touch with Chan to learn more. Several months later, in January of this year, Baker would publish a lengthy report in New York magazine saying he’d become convinced a laboratory accident was to blame. He cited a variety of sources, including Chan.

Pangolin problem

Chan wasn’t done knocking holes in the natural-origins narrative. She next took on four papers that had been rapidly published early in 2020, two of them in Nature, describing viruses in pangolins—endangered scale-covered mammals sometimes eaten as delicacies in China—that shared similarities to SARS-CoV-2. If researchers could find all the components of the pandemic virus, especially in wild animals illegally trafficked as food, they could cinch the case for a spillover from nature, given the way coronaviruses swap parts. The pangolin papers, published in quick succession in early 2020, were a promising start. To the authors of “Proximal Origins,” these similar viruses offered “strong” and “parsimonious” evidence for natural emergence.

Chan and Zhan noticed that all the papers described the same batch of animals—even though some failed to acknowledge the overlap. One even relabeled the data, which made it appear novel. To Chan, that wasn’t just sloppy work or scientific misconduct. There could, she believed, have been “coordination” between the overlapping authors of all these papers, some of whom had published together before. She created the hashtag #pangolinpapers—calling to mind the Panama Papers, documents that exposed secret offshore financial dealings.

Maybe, she thought, researchers were now laundering data to make it seem that nature was swimming with similar viruses.

Chan started emailing authors and journals to get the raw data she needed to more fully analyze what they had done. Making such data available is usually a condition of publication, but it can still be hard to obtain. After what she calls months of stonewalling, Chan finally lost her cool and blasted an accusation out from her browser. “I need the scientists + editors who are directly or indirectly covering up severe research integrity issues surrounding some of the key SARS-2-like viruses to stop and think for a bit,” she posted to Twitter. “If your actions obscure SARS2 origins, you’re playing a hand in the death of millions of people.”

Eddie Holmes, a prominent Australian virologist and coauthor of one of those papers (as well as “Proximal Origins”), called the tweet “one of most despicable things I read on the origins issue.” He felt accused, but he wondered what he was being accused of, since his paper had correctly accounted for its pangolin data sources. Holmes then circulated an intricate time line prepared by Chan of the publication dates and past connections between the authors. The chart’s dense web of arrows and connections bore an unmistakable resemblance to an obsessive’s cork board covered with red string and thumbtacks.



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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush


The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan


Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI


A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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