Alina Chan is a molecular biologist, scientific advisor at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and the co-author of Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19. In this episode, Chan says that more than three years after the start of the pandemic, there still has been “no credible investigation” of the origins of Covid, the continuing resistance among some scientists for a full investigation, the key role that Twitter has played in the investigation, and her views on the wet market, lockdowns, masks, and Anthony Fauci, and why she’s still pushing for a full investigation. (Recorded April 3, 2023.)
Robert Bryce 0:04
Hi, everyone, welcome to the power hungry Podcast. I’m Robert Bryce. On this podcast we talk about energy, power, innovation and politics. And I’m pleased to welcome Alina Chen she is the co author with Matt Ridley of the new book, a recent book rather viral the search for the origin of COVID-19. Alina, welcome to the power hungry podcast.
Alina Chan 0:21
Thanks for having me on the show.
Robert Bryce 0:23
So I warned you that guests on the show introduce themselves, you have an impressive resume. But you imagine you’ve arrived somewhere you don’t know anyone you have about a minute to introduce yourself, please, by all means Introduce yourself.
Alina Chan 0:38
So I work at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, I engineer vectors for gene therapy. I have a background in biomedicine, in genetic engineering, synthetic biology. And so this, this whole question of how the pandemic starts, I really only got into it when the pandemic started. So in 2020, I was extremely interested in how this virus might have emerged in Wuhan city. And from there, I kind of caught fame. And since then, people have been coming to me nonstop for last three years trying to talk to me about original COVID-19. And what the evidence actually tells us.
Robert Bryce 1:12
So if you don’t mind, so just back up for a moment because you said you develop gene, you have a doctorate in, in genetics as your I saw you were doing a postdoc at the Broad Institute. Is that still the case? You’re on a postdoctoral fellowship there?
Alina Chan 1:27
Well, I know I’ve gotten promoted. So now my scientific adviser.
Robert Bryce 1:30
Okay. And so but your your doctorate is in genetics, or what? I’m just curious what that specific. doctorate was, where and where did you get it?
Alina Chan 1:39
Yes, I got my doctorate in Canada, at the University of British Columbia, and medical genetics and biochemistry. And so after that, I went to Harvard Medical School to do a postdoc on engineering, human artificial chromosomes. And afterwards, I went to the Brode, where I now work on AAVs adeno associated viruses, which can be engineered to efficiently deliver gene therapies to patients.
Robert Bryce 2:02
And this is an incredibly promising area of medicine. Right? I mean, the the ability to, and you and your, your, your co author, Matt Ridley, have written about this very effectively about, you know, this is an incredibly promising area of medic medicine. Was that what attracted you to? And I’m just curious, you know, I want to talk about COVID and the origins of COVID-19, of course, but what made you become interested in this field of, of medicine?
Alina Chan 2:27
Well, I think it was very much drawn to the idea of being able to reengineer life, and I don’t mean that from a point of view of playing God, but say, you take an adeno associated virus or you take a chromosome from a human, and you see how can I make this something that’s useful for treating disease and people? And so if we’ve seen in recent years, especially then a lot of these AAV mediated gene therapies have have been given approval to treat patients and
Robert Bryce 2:56
give me that acronym again, AAV. What is that again? I’m sorry, you know, I want make sure we’re bringing people along and they understand what that means.
Alina Chan 3:04
Oh, yeah, it’s adeno associated virus. adeno associated. Yes, so these are non pathogenic, so they don’t cause illnesses and people, and you actually find them in most of us, most of us have been exposed to ABS without us ever knowing that happened, even from a young age, ah, and so some bottlenecks in this in this area, being able to deliver gene therapy with these ABS is, it’s overcoming that immune response that normal normal people have. And so because most of us have been exposed to abs, this makes it difficult to deliver the therapy, because when you send the non pathogenic virus in the person’s immune system response, and makes it much less efficient, so we’re looking at ways to change to modify this vector, this non pathogenic mark to again, just emphasize that, there’s no way that you can cause an outbreak with with AAV gene therapy, we’re gonna change this, we engineer it so that they can more efficiently send the gene therapy to parts of your body that needed.
Robert Bryce 4:03
Gotcha. And was this I’m just curious to one more just on the personal side of this, was this something as a kid you thought about? Or was this something that just was there a moment where you decide, ah, well, I want to be a genetic geneticist and look at genetic therapy in medicine? Was there a moment where you realize this is what I want to do?
Alina Chan 4:23
Well, I mean, I think I’m a very easygoing person. So I’m not the kind of person who like at five years old, I’m going to become an astronaut. And then, and then, like, 30 years later mastering Law No, I don’t think so. So I always just follow my curiosity. So the thing that’s most interesting to me is where I go and sometimes that gets me to trouble like this origin of COVID-19 whole topic, because I’m not thinking too long term. But is this good for me or not? I just, it’s this question interesting to me right now. And, and if so, I will assume it
Robert Bryce 4:51
will and you have and it’s gotten you a lot of controversy, but also, it seems to be that the Now I may be Miss reading your Your read on this from the beginning. And now we’re three years after almost exactly three years after the where we started the lock downs. And and from the beginning you were saying this looks curious this looks not this looks suspicious that you had a hunch. Now I’m jumping ahead here that you had a hunch that this was a lab leak early on. So there are two areas that I want to discuss today, if you don’t mind that. What caused it? And then was the government action reaction, the right reaction, right, because that’s been another big focus not just the origins of COVID. But was the the government’s response. Were the policy responses, the right ones? And I think there are two equally important questions to ask and ones that have not gotten enough attention. I think both. But but let’s talk about the first one. And you said just recently in a piece in the spectator, I want to read this, if you don’t mind and said it, it just is disheartening that people that that people, that putting people over politics and science, over conspiracy has come to mean such different things to members of each party. On the Republican side, there is an undeniable keenness to hold accountable and scientific to hold accountable scientific and public health leaders who acted in ways that suppressed the lab leak theory. On the Democratic side, their concerns that an inquiry into these leaders will not be even handed and this will encourage conspiracy theories and deepen the distrust in science, public health and vaccines. I think that’s exactly the right read that there’s been I don’t consider myself a partisan. I’m not a Republican. I’m not a Democrat. I’m disgusted. Right. But the this but this political divide over this has been very worrisome, and in some ways, exacerbated the inquiry into the origins of COVID. Do you think that this partisan design divide that
Alina Chan 6:41
suddenly suddenly, I mean, this is why? I mean, it’s been three years, and there has not yet been a credible investigation? So recently,
Robert Bryce 6:48
right. I mean, you said Say that again, because three years and no credible investigation? There hasn’t been I guess you’re right. There hasn’t been a government committee. There’s no Warren Commission, right, which was the investigation to the Kennedy assassination. There’s no credible investigation from any government around the world.
Alina Chan 7:05
As far as I know, there’s been none. I mean, what we have seen is the World Health Organization got to send about 10 experts into Wuhan City at the beginning of 2021. But that team was completely regulated by the Chinese hosts. So they were shown only what the Chinese authorities wanted them to see. So for example, they went to the Wuhan lab, but only to the pump biosafety that the BSL four lab, they weren’t shown, the lower biosafety labs were actually the SARS like viruses had been worked with. So you know, things like that. It’s just like they they had no ability to go in and investigate. They called it the World Health Organization called it’s something like the collaborative journey of discovery or something like that. It was not an inquiry at all. And then we’ve seen in 2021, later, that President Biden instructed the intelligence agencies to provide an assessment on what they thought was more likely a natural, completely natural, let’s say wildlife trading origin, or something that came through research activities. So they also classified a field work scientists getting infected by handling battle animals as a lab origin. So all of the above eight agencies looked at this. And today, four of them rule that it’s natural with low confidence. One is the FBI that says that it’s more likely a lab leak with moderate confidence. The other is the DoD department of energy that says, lab, more likely lab have low confidence, and two, which include the CIA say they don’t know.
Robert Bryce 8:35
Well, in the DoD report is among the latest right, which is an interesting one, that it would be coming from that agency of all the agencies in the world, right, that this is the Energy Department and Energy Agency paying attention to this, but they have great computational capabilities as well. And I guess, from my understanding, they were one of the first to map the genome, it was a DOD project, or I may have my history on that incorrect. But how would you describe it since? I know we didn’t I don’t want to get too far into this. But you, you you addressed the politics of this in your spectator piece. How do you describe your politics?
Alina Chan 9:10
I mean, so my politics that I’m not easy to describe, because I grew up in Singapore, as a child and in my early teens, and then I moved back to Canada, where I’m where I was born. So
Robert Bryce 9:23
just to be so you’re born in Canada, your folks moved to Singapore, and then they moved back to Canada. And then did you grow up and you went to British school in British Columbia? Is that where are you from British Columbia, then?
Alina Chan 9:32
Yeah, yeah. So I mean, I don’t think it’d be easy to I’m not like it’s I’m not Democrat or Republican, I don’t get to vote. But certainly, most of my values are actually extremely liberal. So I’m very pro science. And I’m of Asian descent. So I mean, a lot of these labels that are being that were being thrown around since early 2020 to describe people who asked for an investigation to elaborate things like right wing racist conspiracy theorists like anti science, none of them stuck on to me because it just, I’m not from that subpopulation,
Robert Bryce 10:06
you don’t fit an easy description here, right about where you lie in terms of the political spectrum. And you have this credibility as a scientist, a PhD with two very prestigious institutions. So, but you also, I mean, in looking at your, you know, how this has evolved. From 2021, I saw that you were, you had you had been told you posted on Twitter that you were planning to change your name you wrote, I’m going to read this, I’ve been warned by friends and family that I’ve ended my career and or can’t travel safely under my real name anymore. And then you wrote that some people that even suggested you get a gun permit. I mean, this I mean, I’m just reading from your Twitter, your own Twitter account, which by the way, is at a y j. Chan a YJ. Chen. I guess I had this question for later. But I want to I want to put it to you now, since we brought it up. But how has this changed you because you’ve gone from considered I don’t want to overestimate it. Maybe I’m overstating it, but someone who is viewed as part of the fringe or you know, not credible to now suddenly, where you started is where a lot of people are coming to rest is that? So let me ask that quit. How has it changed you?
Alina Chan 11:18
The whole process, I mean, it’s been a really unpredictable ride with lots of highs and lows, extreme highs and extreme lows. I mean, that’s that’s been scary stuff. But also moments of great like encouragement, just seeing a lot of courageous people, scientists, journalists, sluice internet detectives, like people who who find the courage to say, I’m gonna dig into this, I’m gonna see what evidence is available. And then I’m gonna share it so. So people do this at great risk to do their careers, especially the scientists, to the safety like everyone is, of course, like, if you look into lab origin, you can very plausibly become a target of the Chinese government. And now that this issue has also become politicized, that they’re really high stakes at hand. So I’d say that it’s been, it’s been incredible. I mean, when I when I started this in elite 2020, I had no idea that, you know, that in the background, at that time, there had been top scientific leaders discussing how to shut down a lab origin of COVID-19, discussing behind closed doors and private calls, how can we best tell the public that there’s no way this came from a lab? So
Robert Bryce 12:37
I use the Twitter files, and some of this is other other investigations. Now the house investigations, other other sources of information that’s dribbling out? Well, so you mentioned, you know, the possibility of retribution from the Chinese government or someone else. But has that eased now that your early hypothesis become more mainstream?
Alina Chan 12:59
No, I don’t think so. If anything, I think it might have gotten worse. So even though now almost everybody acknowledges that lab origin is on the table, and should be investigated that the backlash and the criticism of those people like like me, who first proposed looking into lab origin has gotten worse and worse. So the name calling has gotten worse. The threats are terrible. I mean, they haven’t no one that’s turned around and said, Oh, I’m so sorry for treating you like that. In 2020. I’ve just dug in deeper.
Robert Bryce 13:28
And what do you what do you how do you attribute that? I mean, is this it seems an almost you when you’re saying this, I’m thinking you’re you’re talking about virology and origin of COVID. But some of this echoes what, you know, the debate over climate change, right, that some scientists that they’re taking a counter position, that it’s a risk of their career kind of move. And because of there’s a lot of groupthink. There’s a lot of groupthink in general in society. But I have to ask the question about, you know, particularly for people who are in the American government, US government that a lab leak, if that was the case, that would be very unfortunate for them, because it’s clear that the US was helping fund some of the research in the Wuhan Institute of virology, right. So was this An Inconvenient Truth to use an old name or old phrase or old title? Was this an inconvenient truth for people like Anthony Fauci and others who are in the, in the the, the powers that be in the genetics and virology world? Was this an inconvenient truth that the lab leak could be a real possibility?
Alina Chan 14:34
Yes, I think this is precisely right. So I mean, this this virology Institute, and Wuhan was especially collaborative, so they had many partnerships, not just with the US, but all over the world, including in other parts of Asia and Europe. So for all these collaborators who had worked with the scientists on SARS, like viruses and given the money had encouraged them, had, you know, been very friendly with them at conferences and things like that, to suddenly think that Maybe they were responsible, directly or indirectly, for an outbreak that’s killing millions of people. It’s, it’s, it’s unbelievable. So what what do you do in that situation, you know that you might be really fearful that if if this is true people will be out for you like that you might be harassed, or you might be intimidated. So I think, for them, they, they seem to have the gut reaction of just telling the wall, there’s a conspiracy theory. So don’t even look into
Robert Bryce 15:31
the lab leak was a conspiracy theory and don’t pay attention to any of those people. And in particular, Alena Jan, or, or other people who were active on Twitter in particular, right, that were saying, no, wait a minute, that. And Matt and I talked about some of the other people who were on Twitter that were active and bringing these issues forward. So that that retribution or that fear of having you’re being smeared, being threatened, that that’s been ongoing now for more than three years.
Alina Chan 15:59
Yes, it has been. So I mean, I wish that
Robert Bryce 16:02
they had, how do you deal with it? Well, I
Alina Chan 16:04
wish that they had been more responsible back then. Because that wouldn’t have actually protected them and protected science. So if they had just come out and said, okay, it might have been an accident, let’s investigate, like, even even the best scientists have accidents. And let’s, let’s try and get the data out as much as possible, try and get connected to all collaborators in Wuhan. destigmatizing say that it’s not, it’s not China’s fault, even if it came from a lab because all the scientists around the world are doing similar types of research. That would have been escalated the tension a lot, preventing this whole thing from being spun as a racist political conspiracy theory. But but here we are three years later, and the stakes for this group of scientists, collaborators of the Wuhan Institute of virology have just gotten higher and higher, because they put their whole reputation and even the personal safety on this issue.
Robert Bryce 16:52
So they can’t, had they been more humble at the beginning, it might have been a better course of action for them. But now they have to double down, triple down, quadruple down because of what they’ve already said. And the possibility that will I mean, I’d be pissed if I found out that the federal US Dollars American dollars were helping fund the research that ends up with a lab leak for a virus that kills has killed now 20 million people and what has been the death toll so far?
Alina Chan 17:21
Yeah, it’s estimated 21 excess deaths, but I think in actual confirmed COVID deaths, things closer to about six or 7,000,006 or
Robert Bryce 17:30
7 million. Yeah, yeah. But in the US alone, it’s been something like a million excess deaths is
Alina Chan 17:35
more than a million confirmed COVID deaths in the US.
Robert Bryce 17:40
And I listened to the interview that you did with Matt Ridley, just recently on the MacDonald Laurier Institute. And Matt made a good point. He said, If there’s a if a an airplane goes down, if there’s an airplane accident, of course, we’re going to investigate this. But he made the point when I had him on the podcast previously, and he made the point again, in that recent podcast in which both of you appeared, He said, the idea that we wouldn’t investigate the airplane crash, you know, no one will ever say that. But now there’s an attitude of, oh, well, let’s not pay attention to the COVID. You know, we don’t import origin of COVID isn’t important anymore. We don’t need to care about that. And that there’s a again, a partisan divide over this, that the left, I’m going to say generally the left the Democrats are saying, you know, not a big deal, right. And the in the in the the powers that be in this community saying, you know, in the virology, not a big deal, but I thought Matt’s point about, you know, if you have an airplane action, of course, everyone wants to know what happened, was it the engine failed and where the shutdown is, assuming you’re in agreement with that kind of like, we have to know what happened. Is that fair?
Alina Chan 18:46
Yeah, exactly. So those who oppose a lamb origin of COVID-19, there’s never a good time to investigate, according to them. So the beginning of the pandemic, they say, it’s not important to where to get right now, because we need to respond to pandemic, so let’s not investigate. And then when the pandemic is close to over or dying down there, like it’s not important anymore, so there’s no need to go into this anymore. So there’s never a time to investigate. And I think that has I mean, that that reveals the inner dialogue on your inner like, ways of shutting down a lab origin. I mean, in the beginning, they shut it down as a conspiracy theory, and now they’re telling us it’s not important, and we’ll never find it.
Robert Bryce 19:26
Well, so let’s talk about that. Because you also said during that same podcast, you said that the lab leak hypothesis, as I’m quoting you, I think directly here is completely reasonable and non sensationalist. And more recently, you pointed out that there were there are these these recent news articles, including one in the Atlantic, pointing to raccoon dogs and the wet market. And you said that there’s no evidence that viruses were in the market and that the and it was also clear that the Wuhan Institute of virology I’m quoting you almost directly lab the lab was engaging in research in low with low Oh, biosafety levels. And that was the I mean, of all the things that I’ve heard so far, and maybe I read viral A while ago, so I’m not exactly remembering every detail. But so the Wuhan Institute of virology, where a lot of this very dangerous research was happening was actually happening in labs with with low biosafety levels.
Alina Chan 20:20
Yes, it was, and you can see this, and that’s just
Robert Bryce 20:23
crazy that sorry, I don’t want to get technical. That’s crazy town. It’s just, it’s like, what are you doing what you’re you’re gonna play with gasoline and matches, and you’re not going to wear a fireproof suit or something? I mean, is that the Is that Is that a reasonable way to think about it gasoline and matches that something like this could blow up?
Alina Chan 20:41
So I mean, a lot of this is informed based on hindsight and right, so we only the way that we see the research before the pandemic, is based on damage done by COVID-19. But if you rewind the clock to early 2019, let’s say, back then there was no evidence that a bet Coronavirus, Assad’s like virus could jump from a better human and cause outbreak, there was no evidence that these viruses that were collecting from the wall could spark off a human outbreak. So for them to have to do this work and high biosafety, which would have cost a lot more money, a lot more personnel would just slow them down. So for the scientists, they would often find other ways to try and the risk, make that make the experiment safer. And some of this included working with strains of SARS, like viruses that are very different from the one that cost 2003 SARS epidemic. So I believe that the scientists were not trying to be reckless with human life, I think that they were trying to do their best in terms of seeing what the risk level was for them. And unfortunately, they miss estimated the risk of some of their work.
Robert Bryce 21:47
And therefore, they were working in labs that were not as safe as they should have been.
Alina Chan 21:51
Yes. So that biosafety could not have contained a virus like SARS, cov, to the pandemic virus for for a long time.
Robert Bryce 21:57
So in, let me read back, what I hear you saying is, so are you. If I asked you for a percentage, and you believe that this is in fact, was a lab leak? Are you 90%? Confident if you if I asked you in that is there a percentage that you would care to care to put out there that makes you that your confidence level on this?
Alina Chan 22:18
No, but this question keeps getting asked by journalists and interviewers, and I and I totally understand that you want to have an estimate. But but the reality is that there’s so little evidence available, there hasn’t even been a proper investigation to collect all the pieces of evidence pertaining to the origins. So we’ve sold to evidence, it’s really hard to call percentages, because tomorrow, someone could do an investigation and find like, email records between the Wuhan scientists and the US collaborators saying yes, we did the experiment, then all those people was that it was 99% from the market. That doesn’t mean you know what, what they’re going to say?
Robert Bryce 22:54
Okay, well, fair enough. So I’m glad I’m I’m asking the most obvious questions. Every journalist as well. Okay. Well, but But I take your point. But that goes back to your other statement that there has not been a really credible full investigation here. Which leads to the obvious question, why hasn’t the Chinese government been more? And I know, we’re in an environment where China bashing, not a China basher, China’s is going to take care of China, every country is going to look out over there after their own best interest, right? That’s just a rule. Right? Everyone has what’s in their own best interest. Why isn’t the Chinese government been more forthcoming?
Alina Chan 23:30
Well, I mean, I’d say that the things they’ve been doing, have been all over the map since the beginning of the outbreak. So I mean, until this day, we have no idea who the earliest cases is. And I don’t think that there’s any one reasonable who believes that all of the early case data has been shared internationally. I don’t think so. We know that in January 2020, the Chinese CDC director told the whole world that this virus likely came from illegally sold wildlife at market and for a while that was what everyone believed there was this whole pangolin frenzy where someone had found a related virus and pangolins. And then the whole world just blew up saying that it must have come from the pangolins. But over time, the available genetic and public health data didn’t suggest didn’t show that this came from an animal it looked like the market had been a super spreader event. And it’s really difficult to trace because since then, the Chinese authorities have have decided on anywhere but China policy. So they don’t even want to take responsibility if it came from the market. They don’t want to lab they don’t want to market origin they want it from outside of China origin so they’ve been encouraging people to look in Europe to look in Southeast Asia for for the true origin of the virus
Robert Bryce 24:41
as well as at the University of North Carolina as well right this was the other one one place where there was work on viruses that was occurring and so that’s something else I’ve seen and I I am not by any means an expert and haven’t you know honestly followed this that closely aside from reading your book and by the way, the book is remarkable and Just a quick station break. My guest is Alina Chan. She’s a scientific adviser at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. She is a virologist. Or do you call yourself a viral
Alina Chan 25:09
now? I’m not an old school virologist. Even though I do work with viruses,
Robert Bryce 25:15
a genetic scientist, would that be? Or how do you decide what title? Do you call myself a reporter? What do you call yourself?
Alina Chan 25:21
I mean, I’m a scientist. But nowadays, the best science is always interdisciplinary. So it’s difficult to put a label on somebody, okay.
Robert Bryce 25:30
A science generalist, as Matt release, he is the co author with Matt Ridley have an excellent book on this called viral. The search for the origin of COVID-19, which came out of the paperback came out last year, and I had Matt Ridley on the podcast last year to talk about that. Let’s talk about Ridley a little bit, because I know we both admire him in his work. He’s tells a remarkable story about how the two of you met and I could recount it here. But if you don’t mind, how did you come to write a book with someone you’d never met?
Alina Chan 26:05
So in May 2020, I put out a preprint, remarking on how well adapted this virus seemed for the human pandemic. And so today, that point is not being disputed by anyone at all that this any scientists, at least well known scientists, both on the lab and market origin side, agree that the virus was adapted enough to start a human pandemic, from from day one, the sequence that we saw there was pandemic ready. So I put that preprint out in May 2020. And Matt really reached out to my author and I to ask questions about the origin at the time, he was still sold on the market origin. But as we as time went on, and more evidence came out, it became clear that you couldn’t decide you couldn’t determine which was more likely or which was, which was true, the lamb or the market origin. And so Matt, and I kept chatting. And then at the end of 2020, I think he reached out to me saying that he was going to write a book on this topic, and would I join him as a co author, so he would bring the skills of extremely proficient science writer, and I would bring the skills, the technical skills as a scientist. I debated for many months on whether to do that. But by my May 2021, we agreed to do it. And that’s when we announced that we were going to do viral the search for the origin of COVID-19. But we only met in person close to when the book was launched. So I think it was if I’m not wrong, around September 2021, was the first time we met in person.
Robert Bryce 27:32
Right? I remember we talked about that. So what was that like after you’d work together closely for months on a very technical, very personal project that came with some risk, some reward? But then to meet I’ve heard Matt tell the story, but what’s it like to finally meet him? You know, he’s a big tall guy and impressive resume and someone you’d never met and you work closely for months with him? What was it like to finally meet in person?
Alina Chan 28:03
He was so much taller than I than I expected. I mean, I think he was like, almost double my height. He was hovering over me. Yeah, it was, it was really good. And just meant is one of the nicest, like most modest people I’ve ever met, despite his station, and he’s just a really good person. I knew that just working with him as well. I mean, the way that we worked was very intense, like, because of our time differences, it would usually be the way that after work here, I would write nonstop until about two or 4am in the night, in Boston, send it back to Matt, where it wasn’t what morning, his time he would write like crazy. Send it back to me. So that cycle would go on and on for for several months until we put the book out in November 2021.
Robert Bryce 28:47
So you wrote it in you wrote the book in less than six months? Yes. Well, I’ve done that only once in my career was the Enron book, my first book, and I’m not bragging saying that to brag, but it’s an incredible amount of effort. And so you’re working seven days a week, then?
Alina Chan 29:02
Yeah, yeah. You’re just working like crazy. I think I got so little sleep, because I was still working at the Brode. So I had to do it outside of my work time. So I mean, that was a huge, like marathon slash sprint, just like working around the clock to put everything together. But I think at that point, I had been tweeting about this for about a year already. So I had most of the facts like and citations and my fingertips. So it was really just about getting the writing done. And and Matt was incredible and writing the book. I mean, he has so much more expertise and experience than I do. So he guided the writing a lot.
Robert Bryce 29:40
But it’s one thing to tweet it’s another thing to write a whole chapter or put it together in a book. How important was Twitter I know now I’m testing my memory here I needed to I should have looked back at my notes with the when I interviewed Matt but there was a was it bad bar the elephant or there were other people on the on Twitter that Let me ask the question directly. How important was Twitter as a platform to for people like you who are saying, Okay, what the hell is going on here? How important was Twitter in the in the early efforts and even today to find the origins of COVID?
Alina Chan 30:16
I think if Twitter didn’t exist, all of these internet detectives, scientists and journalists wouldn’t have found each other and wouldn’t have collaborated on looking into evidence related to origins COVID-19. So without all of that, I think it’s possible that even till today, the market origin would have remained the narrative remained the public consensus on how this pandemic started. So I think
Robert Bryce 30:39
we should, which is not the full story. So to put it another way, is that Twitter provided a forum where there was an alternative alternative views were allowed, and not and not suppressed, although it became involved in suppression of other things later, but but it also was the place where you met Ridley right, which was so as a place where you’re finding original research and things of consequence occur that in terms of furthering debate, then is it fair to say that Twitter has been become an indispensable part of this public debate?
Alina Chan 31:10
Yes, it has been. So I mean, that’s that’s much less censorship on Twitter than there is in other forms of media and social networking. So I mean, even amongst scientists, I think there has been a lot of censorship, not just self censorship, but a lot of gatekeeping amongst the journals to prevent things that prevent opinions, prevent reviews, analysis, pointing to a possible lot more original COVID-19.
Robert Bryce 31:35
So are you surprised because I was a little surprised about this latest story about the raccoon dog as a possible origin. Now, three years after the pangolin, we have another animal candidate come forward? And I you know, again, I’m not. I’m using the shorthand here, because I don’t under fully understand all the science. But was it surprising for you to see yet another animal origin hypothesis come out? I’m not gonna say left field. But unexpectedly, it seems to me to now three years later, that’s Oh, here’s another possibility is that? Were you surprised to see that? And what did you immediately dismiss it?
Alina Chan 32:08
No, no, I was not surprised because it has been a single group, a small group of biologists and friends who have been throwing all these balls at the wall every few months. So I mean, it has been same group of scientists who met in February 2020 2020, freaking out about possible lamb origin, but to the proximal origins, a seminal letter in Nature Medicine that shut down all that base scenarios. And since then, every year or every few months, they’ll be trying out a new hypothesis, saying that there’s no way this came from a lab and must have come from the market. So I mean, for example, in 2021, they were telling us that the virus jumped from animals to people at multiple markets. But today, they’re telling us no, it was that one raccoon dog stall where it jumped multiple times and two people. So I mean, they just kind of make up your minds.
Robert Bryce 32:56
When when you pointed out it was on Twitter in the last couple of days that something like 16% of all the samples that were taken in the wet market came from one raccoon dog stole, which I mean, as an interesting kind of number just by itself, right? Well, why would they take so many samples from just one spot? I mean, it would seem like you, you could do with a few fewer samples from one place. Right. Do you want to spread out the samples? Was that why did you feel the need to underscore that that that I mean, because I mean, you’re talking about so many different data points, right, and trying to investigate all this. And why was that important to you to point out, well, why are they making so many samples from this one place?
Alina Chan 33:37
Well, I mean, I think that the let me rephrase that. So the trainee, CDC heard about these early cases, a few, only a handful of other cases that were linked to the market. And so back in 2019, December 2019, they they were fairly convinced that this was SARS. 2003 happening again. So they ran to the market. And they took samples aggressively from stores that sold wildlife, including this one store that one route, virologist had taken a photo of a raccoon dog and in 2014. So out of the 1300 Plus samples that he took at the market, one, about one and six was taken from this stall or its warehouse, because they truly thought that they were on the search for an intermediate host and and the more that that caused a pandemic again. So I don’t think that anyone can really fault them for that. It’s only on hindsight that we think you should have taken, you know, an even number of samples across all 678 stalls in the market, but putting yourself in their shoes back in December 2019. You’re on the hunt to find the source of this virus and to stamp it out, so it doesn’t keep causing more outbreaks. So would you take only 10 samples per store? Or would you actually take hundreds of samples from the wildlife store that you thought was suspicious, which clearly they did?
Robert Bryce 34:57
And so that was the hypothesis at the moment that they that oh, well, that’s probably from here. So let’s really focus some of our, our lot of our effort here. So well, let me ask this shift a little bit, because we’ve talked about, you know, I said two broad areas of, of questions. I wanted to talk about what caused it? And then was the government reaction correct? And responsible. And now we’re finding a lot of effort from the Twitter files. And in fact, there was a lot of suppression of information about efficacy of masks, vaccines, etc. I was I’ve been vaccinated three times, where did you get vaccinated? Oh, yeah. And boosted and boosted and but then I knew, you know, people who didn’t, and still, you know, some high profile people like, you know, athletes, right, so this was, were you surprised Matt and I talked about this about how quickly the US was able to develop a vaccine and effective vaccine, which I’m, again, I’m testing my or showing my scientific ignorance, but was developed with mRNA and came out within I mean, just really hours or days of once they figured out what the what the what the genetic makeup of the virus was. Were you surprised? You’re this is your field right of anti Dino a D in Oh, I just looked at an anti Dino viruses. Do I have this right? Did I get it right?
Alina Chan 36:18
And then no associated virus.
Robert Bryce 36:20
adeno associated viruses forgive me, I didn’t know associated ad in AD II didn’t know associated viruses. Were you surprised how quickly that the US and other these big pharma companies were able to come up with an effective vaccine?
Alina Chan 36:32
I’m not surprised because as time passes, you expect technology to get better. And that includes bio technologies. So in the past, it would take months just to sequence one genome of a Coronavirus. So in 2003, for example, it took at least two months to put together the genome of that sauce virus. But today, you can do it in like five hours. In the same way, vaccine technologies have improved. So now you don’t need to make, you know, take months to make an inactivated virus vaccine, you can just make a mRNA vaccine within weeks. So actually, within possibly days, using the available technology, so
Robert Bryce 37:09
wasn’t it? I mean, it was it within like 48 hours or 72 hours. I mean, it was just a very I’m testing my memory here. But it was very short. I mean, less than a week, as I recall. I
Alina Chan 37:18
think that taken like some days to design the vaccine, but to to produce, it probably takes days, two weeks. Okay. I’m not I’m not the vaccine producers, you probably have to ask them. No, but yeah, but But yes, it they respond very quickly. And so this this old mentality of we need to go out there and hunt various viruses to find all the viruses in the wild and to make a vaccine for all of those. I think that that has been outpaced by current vaccine technologies, because now surveillance is clearly the answer. So you just want to be testing human populations, like airports, areas, new labs, public areas, where you expect a lot of disease spread. And the moment you find a new virus or pathogen spreading amongst people, that’s when you quickly launch your UX in production. I don’t, I don’t think the old way of trying to make a vaccine for the 1000s of viruses you found in nature is the way anymore.
Robert Bryce 38:11
So it’s going to be well, now we’ve identified it, and we’re going to we’re going to make a custom vaccine for this new pathogen, because we can do it quickly. Right. So why haven’t the Chinese vaccines been effective?
Alina Chan 38:24
Well, let’s not venture into that. I have not looked at the data for the Chinese vaccines. So I don’t think I am in a position to to judge them. Yeah.
Robert Bryce 38:34
Fair enough. So you grew up in Singapore, but I’m assuming you speak Chinese. Is that Is that am I making the correct assumption?
Alina Chan 38:42
Yes. It’s it’s my second language, actually. Yeah.
Robert Bryce 38:45
Your second language after English? Yes. So was that I mean, by being able to speak Chinese was was that did that how did that help you I guess would be the most how did that help you in becoming sleuthing out these these issues? How was was that in your experience in Singapore? You mentioned being raised in Singapore and the Singaporean government is famously restrictive, I guess, would be were very active monitoring of their population. How did that affect you that though your both your language capability and being from Singapore, how did that? How did that prepare you to investigate this?
Alina Chan 39:23
Let’s say that most of the news reporting and documents related to origins COVID-19, written in Chinese, or their videos that are interviews in Chinese. So if you don’t speak or read Chinese, I’d say that there’s a massive barrier to understanding whether the translations are accurate or whether the people who are giving you the translations know what they’re saying. So, so being able to read and then to speak Chinese helped me a lot. I think holistically, I haven’t let any of that really interfere with my, my analysis of the available evidence because I just look at what is there scientifically, so I don’t Try to see like, this means that I can trust this government, that kind of thing. I just see what what is the available data? What’s missing?
Robert Bryce 40:10
Well, this is an obvious question too. And so that I’ll ask it, because he’s been vilified by a lot of people. What do you think of Anthony? This is part of this follow up on this was the government’s reaction. Correct? Right. And I think pushing for vaccination that made sense to me masking Well, maybe not so much. I was in Japan a few weeks ago, and the Japanese were still wearing masks outside. And I was like, What are you doing? Make no sense to me on any kind of level. But the Japanese are very, you know, they’re very culturally attuned. They’re very homogeneous. They’re very much you know, concerned about other other people. The short question is, what do you think of Anthony Fauci? Was he has he been is he has his reaction and public announcements on this been aligned with how you think he should have talked about these issues?
Alina Chan 40:57
Well, I think that he is in a really difficult situation, because he directed the NIH ID, which provided funding that made its way to the Wuhan Institute of virology. So for him in early 2020, to realize that maybe some of the money from his agency had funded research that caused the pandemic, that was a terrifying situation to be in. So we know that he was part of a private phone call involving many top scientists around the world, mostly based in the US or in Europe, who had advocated for for risky virus research to advocate for research where you could potentially enhance human pathogens or animal viruses in the lab. And so in this situation, they were saying, how likely is it that this came from that lab, and one person, the director of the Wellcome Trust in the UK said, it’s the wild west that in China, so they have no idea what they could have done, they might have, they might have enhanced the virus, they might have put it through serial passage causing it to adapt for human spreading. So for them, this was a real problem. And fast forward to today, you see that Dr. Fauci is telling journalists that he has a very open mind that he has never ruled out the lab origin. So for me, I think, I think let’s investigate, let’s let’s pull out all the stops. Let’s investigate everything here outside of China, that is possible to investigate and see what we can find about the research that was ongoing in Wuhan before the pandemic. And whether that leads us to Eelam origin.
Robert Bryce 42:24
So that’s your bottom line that we need to investigate and no matter where that where it leads that this is what you’ve been saying for now, three years. Is that Is that a fair? Is that a fair assessment of your your take on all this?
Alina Chan 42:38
But you’re still thinking it’s unfair to go ahead? Well, I think it’s unfair to both sides unless we do an investigation. So let’s, let’s find all the evidence we can find first. And then afterwards, we can say was was the way that you behaved in early 2020? The appropriate way?
Robert Bryce 42:55
So a couple of quick questions, because I know you’ve got to run and you’ve got that full, full life that goes beyond my podcast. No, no problem. Were the lockdowns necessary.
Alina Chan 43:07
In China, in you know,
Robert Bryce 43:08
the lock downs in response to the virus, were they appropriate, where the lock downs were? Or where they were? Were they necessary?
Alina Chan 43:17
I think this is honestly very difficult question, because even the airborne transmission of the virus was not acknowledged to quite late in the pandemic. So we we only slowly accepted by we, I mean, public health people, experts only slowly accepted the fact that this virus was spreading through the air, that you just had to be in the same room as someone to catch it that you didn’t need to be standing face to face with them, and talking and breathing on each other. So in that situation, if we had acknowledged that sooner, there could have been many ways to mitigate the spread of this virus without long rounds. But the problem is that we didn’t even acknowledge airborne transmission. So in that case, the a lot of experts recommended lock downs.
Robert Bryce 43:57
And so we’ll have the way you’re saying that then then there was some reason for masking that masking did din then is it fair to say that if that was the case, that that masks were, in some cases justified?
Alina Chan 44:10
Yeah, not just mask. But I mean, if you work in the hospital or in the service, like people facing position, there’s so many ways to prevent spreading, airborne spreading, and one is ventilation. And that has been a big message by the people who who gather the evidence for airborne transmission is that if you improve the ventilation and any space that prevents the spreading dramatically, so having windows open within a school, having fans having making sure that ventilation is not causing all the wires to be concentrated in spaces, that dramatically reduces the rate of transmission.
Robert Bryce 44:42
Just one thing that reaction is that flight attendants even had a lower rate of transmission or lower rate of infection than the general public and they’re in small confined spaces, but there’s good ventilation on jetliner. So that was, I mean, just one of the indicators. So I know you have to go so I’m just going to make sure I make ask these questions of you because I Ask them of all my guests so well, before I get to those, so what are you working on another book? Now? Do you have another project that’s on the table now with Matt or someone else?
Alina Chan 45:08
No, no. So I mean, in 2021, when we publish publish the book, I really thought that a real investigation was going to start immediately, but it didn’t. So it kind of dragged out till today, where we’re finally there’s a congressional inquiry that’s being launched. But I also have no idea where that will go, and whether it will look into the most productive sources or information. So for me, I have no plans to update the book, but but perhaps of the origin is found, then we will, of course, write an update.
Robert Bryce 45:37
Are you pleased with how viral has sold? Or how many? Do you know how many copies it’s sold? Not?
Alina Chan 45:41
I haven’t been tracking them. I mean, I think that the the publishers have been great. And our agent has been great. They’ve been sending me a report, but haven’t had time to look at them.
Robert Bryce 45:50
Gotcha. So my last two questions, and again, my guest is Alena Chan. You can find her on Twitter at a y j Chan. What are you reading these days? I know you have other obligations between work and family, what, what’s on your bookshelf, or what’s on the top of your list these days?
Alina Chan 46:05
I mean, I’m so busy at work that I’ve mainly just been reading the scientific literature. So I haven’t had much time to read non scientific literature.
Robert Bryce 46:15
Fair enough. So no, no, Tom, Clancy novels that I guess. So you’ve gone through a lot. And you’ve made that clear about your own personal, like a sacrifice, right, and your own concerns for your own personal safety and, you know, threats and things that have come your way. You’ve been through a lot over the last three years. What gives you hope?
Alina Chan 46:38
Well, I mean, I don’t know if I have to have that much time to pause and think about hope. But I think I’ve certainly been encouraged by other scientists and journalists and internet detectives that continue to look at the evidence. So I think that there are people who are really determined, and they’re not going to be stopped.
Robert Bryce 46:55
And so that hope is from the scientific inquiry will continue. I mean, I don’t want to paraphrase what you’re saying here, or maybe I do, but what that that hope is that the truth will out.
Alina Chan 47:06
Yes, yes. There’s a hope. Yep.
Robert Bryce 47:09
Okay, well, that’s a good place to stop then. So my guest has been Alena Chen. She’s the co author with Matt Ridley of the very good book called viral the search for the origin of COVID-19. She is a scientific advisor at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and you can find her on Twitter at a YJ Chen. Alina thanks a million for being on the power hungry podcast. Thanks, Robert. And thanks to all of you for listening in, tune into the next episode of the power hungry podcast. Until then, see you