Matt Ridley is a former member of the House of Lords, and the author of ten books, including most recently, with Alina Chan, of Viral: The Search For the Origin of Covid-19. In this episode, he discusses why the pandemic may have been caused by a lab leak in Wuhan, China’s efforts to suppress information, how “open-source analysts” helped expose the origins of the virus, vaccine development, and why Covid may eventually “become the common cold.”
Robert Bryce 0:04
Hi, and welcome to the power hungry Podcast. I’m Robert rice. On this podcast we talk about energy, power, innovation and politics. And we’re going to talk a lot about politics and innovation today with my guest, a return guest on the power hungry podcast, Matt Ridley Matthew, welcome back to the power hungry podcast.
Matt Ridley 0:20
Robert, it’s great to see you and Happy New Year to you. Thanks.
Robert Bryce 0:23
Thanks. Thanks. Thanks very much. So I, you’ve been on the show before, but you know, I have guests introduce themselves, I need to tease it. You’re the co author. The reason why we’re you’re on today, the co author with Alina Chan, have the book viral the search for the origin of COVID-19. But if you don’t mind, introduce yourself to the audience.
Matt Ridley 0:43
Yeah, well, I’m a science writer. I was a biologist. Many years ago, I then became a journalist and ended up writing books about evolution, genetics, molecular biology, as well as economics, and environmental subjects. And when this topic came along this pandemic, I got more and more intrigued by its origins, I discovered that the story was getting more confused, not less. And, you know, whereas he looked like it was going to be a simple question like SARS, of finding a connection with a market, that then became more and more obscure, and difficult to pin down. And eventually, I decided to approach a brilliant young scientist by the name of Alina chan at Harvard and MIT, who was uncovering interesting facts about the virus and its origins, and suggest we joined forces to write a book, because although I know a lot of molecular biology, I don’t consider myself, you know, at the latest frontiers of the topic. And she’s working in vector Genomics at Harvard and MIT. So you didn’t get much better than that.
Robert Bryce 1:56
And this is your ninth book, if I count correctly, is that right?
Matt Ridley 1:59
Now you don’t can’t correct.
Robert Bryce 2:05
That so what number is Yes,
Matt Ridley 2:08
it’s my 10th. Book. 10. Thank you. The very, very first book was an account of US presidential politics by a journalist on the campaign trail a me in 1989, which luckily, nobody reads now.
Robert Bryce 2:24
Well, so let me say thank you. So Tim, this is your 10th book. So it came out November 16. And there was a lot to talk about. But what is what has developed since you finished the manuscript? What are the Omicron being the obvious one, but what what is it this has been such a fast moving story all along, and you captured a lot of the story from December and early, late 2019, up to mid 2021, where you had to submit the manuscript or late and you know, fall of 2021, what’s happened since the book came since you stopped writing. And since the book came out?
Matt Ridley 3:01
Well, we drove our publishers mad by demanding the opportunity to make additions and corrections, right up to the middle of September, just two months before publication, which was a, you know, an unusual thing to be able to do. And but still, of course, as you say, we missed stuff. And one of the biggest stories that broke just after we’d finished adjusting the book was the discovery of a virus in Laos, in the country of Laos. That is slightly more closely related to SARS, cov to the virus, the cause of the pandemic, than the previous most closely related one, it’s 96.8% instead of 96.2%, basically, at the genetic level. And that’s very interesting, because it seems to exonerate the one that the previous one which had been found in the freezer of the Wuhan Institute of virology.
Robert Bryce 3:53
And this is this is another bat virus.
Matt Ridley 3:55
This is another bat virus was found in a bat in a cave in Laos. But the interesting feature of that story is that Lina and I and various other people immediately pointed out that the scientists had been searching for SARS like but viruses had been working in Laos, as well as China, and had been sending those viruses to the wilderness due to virology, the Eco Health Alliance, which is the US foundation that works with these Chinese scientists was very explicit about the fact that if it found viruses in Laos, to analyze it would like to send them to its partner in China to analyze even though the Chinese weren’t, you know, it wasn’t a Chinese project at all. And when I pointed this out on in an article after the book came out, he co author lion spokesman on Twitter said, Oh, no, we never did that. We applied to do it, but we never did. So I replied, Well, okay, how do you explain the fact that there are quite a lot of entries in viral gene netic databases showing viruses collected in Laos by the eHealth. Alliance and deposited at the Wuhan Institute of virology. You know, here’s one, I give an example from database, deathly silence ever since from the spokesman. And I’ve prodded him about once every two weeks since then saying, Look, Please, could I have an answer? Because you’re claiming that this couldn’t have happened, here’s evidence it did happen. Which, in evidence is important, because it says, if they if the closest relative was in Los not in China, there’s still a connection to Wuhan. Right there. It’s still the one city on planet Earth to which viruses were being taken from bat caves, and deposited in, in, in, in sample collection,
Robert Bryce 5:46
and where some of the earliest human infections were detected, was in Wuhan. And it’s
Matt Ridley 5:50
of course, where the where the pandemic began. Exactly.
Robert Bryce 5:54
Well, so I mean, what’s remarkable about your book, I mean, I gotta tell you, it look, it’s so complicated. I mean, you, you’re talking about so many different strains, and so many different genomes and the different parts of it. I mean, it’s really a detective story with a cast of characters that is quite large. But I want to come back to that, because you mentioned a Lena Chen and I don’t know, I’ve very seldom co authored things, but I mean, for you to approach her and how did that work? I mean, I wanted to start there, because I just a remarkable collaboration, where, in fact, we you were here in Austin, in October, late October, and you said you had never met her and you met her in, in mid November for the first time face to face, right. I mean, it’s a very unusual
Matt Ridley 6:34
dress week after I saw you. Yeah, right. It was very moving for both of us, you know, we we met in an outdoor cafe, and in in Boston, and Cambridge. And, you know, I saw across the street and approached her and waved and, and we unpacked a book pack of the books, which had just reached us, we hadn’t seen the books at that point. And so you know, that that’s that remarkable thing to do to write a book with someone you never meet them. And then you do meet up when the book is finished. And how did it work? Well, as I say, I approached her, I was thrilled and delighted that she said, Yes, I’d already had enough correspondence with her to know that she was an extraordinarily intelligent, thoughtful person. And she had taken to Twitter to social media, in particular, to start a conversation with other scientists and other, you know, amateur detectives, about what we could learn about the origin of this virus. And she thought it was a very important topic. And on Twitter, she rapidly developed a reputation as the most thoughtful, but also the most careful person speculating about this topic. And she’d had to interrupt her own career, her own experiments, because lockdown prevented her going into the lab. And that’s what got her started on on this story. Her the head of her lab, but government was very sympathetic and thought she was doing a great job. And so she’s, I mean, she’s now you know, testifying before the House of Commons in London before Congress. She’s, she’s the kind of leader in this world. But she’s 33. And I’m 63. So an old British science writer teamed up with a young American scientist to produce a book. I mean, you could say, I’m the writer, she’s the scientists, the factor has the Burroughs is mine. But it’s not quite that simple. You know, she writes pretty well, too. And I have my opinion about various facts and what they mean and how they should be interpreted. But we, I wrote the first draft, she completely rewrote it, I then started rewriting, a rewrite, and so on, we did that several times. And then we did a lot of updating and so on. And actually, it worked really well that the time difference was helpful, interestingly, because I would, you know, finish a rewrite of a chunk of text, evening time mine and dump it across the Atlantic for her to have a go at in her data.
Robert Bryce 9:08
Well, I’m just curious, have you working in word, a word document with track changes? I mean, I’m just curious about that mechanics of that was that you’re just exchanging it. Are you working on Google Docs? Or how did that what was the what was the format there? Because you’re, the intricacy of all the data was the part that I thought, Man, how did they keep it all straight?
Matt Ridley 9:27
Yeah, well, the, the the working document was the book itself, obviously, you know, various chapters and so on. And it was we, you know, we had to go, we had to have immense security to make sure that no one else was eavesdropping on what we were doing, right. But we did, we did use at times, we were sending word documents at other times we were sending. We were working on a giant Google document. I see. I’m trying to read Actually, it’s good. It’s a good question. But we were communicating via secure email. And by secure phone calls. We really didn’t want anybody listening in, or reading, enter the Enter. And almost nobody saw the manuscript until it was published. And we didn’t share it with. You know, normally when you write a book, because you know, you send it out to people for pre review and comments, you know, blurb quotes for the cover and things, we didn’t do any of that we wanted to keep our powder dry until the world saw it.
Robert Bryce 10:36
So well, there are a lot of things I want to talk about. But since you mentioned meeting, effectively meeting or being introduced to Alina Chen on Twitter, one of the things that was remarkable about the book and your reporting on it was the role that individuals and non scientists had in helping a crack the whole story, you you cite Charles small, who I think is a Brit, or an American, I can’t recall. But he’s a business consultant who advises corporations on different you know, travel and different conditions in other countries. And then the remarkable story about Francisco de Ribera, who’s a Spaniard who lost his job, and then delved into data, but he was a database whiz, who was able to publish then on Twitter, the tree, the, the, the genomic tree of the viruses, which was incredibly important, but he was just I’m not saying a regular guy, but he wasn’t with some fancy university or wasn’t didn’t have a big background in this. So I guess the question I had is, is this the question I wrote down after I wrote all this, is this the part of the way that science is now being done that in more an open source environment?
Matt Ridley 11:42
Well, it should be? It’s very important that we all use open source, to crowdsource solutions to problems to draw on expertise wherever you can find it. And there is a long and noble tradition of citizen science of people gathering data, just amateurs gathering data, for example, in this country, and I think in the US to birdwatchers have been enlisted into, you know, systematically recording data, so you can detect population trends, and so on. So, citizen science is not new, but the Internet enables it to happen in new ways. And if you take Francisco, it’s a really good example. He was fantastic source for us, and are both very, very helpful to us. As you say, he’s a an IT consultant, a tech consultant, really in Madrid, and he lost his job. He got interested in this stuff, he had the experience that when you audit a company’s accounts, one of the things you look for is missing serial numbers of invoices, right. So if the, if there’s a series of invoices, and there’s two missing, you asked to see those two missing invoices, and they turn out to be the ones that show corruption, or whatever. Well, he said, I want to find the serial numbers of every virus they found, because they were actually quite systematic at that with Wuhan as to to virology at naming viruses with a number. When they found a new virus in a bat sample from a cave in your nan, usually, you’re not. And they started a new series of numbers with a different beginning number for each collection trip. So they’d go to the Shittu cave, and they collect 35 types of viruses or something. And they’d start them with the number seven, and then they’d go to the Mojang cave, and they start them with the number four or whatever it might be. And from and they would then deposit some of the details in genetic databases. They would mention others in published papers or in grant proposals. And from all that information, Francisco was able to work out which viruses came from which caves, which order they were collected, in, which ones were missing. quite importantly,
Robert Bryce 14:05
it’s important that they had changed and they had changed some of the nomenclature on how they were tracking the viruses as well, which he also figured out, which was another remarkable part of the puzzle. No,
Matt Ridley 14:14
yeah, well, one of the the, you know, the one virus whose name they changed sometime between 2019 and early 2020, because we know they were still referring to it by the old name in 2019. But by by the February of 2020, they’re calling it by a completely different name is the one now known as our ATG 13, which was the closest relative to SARS. cov, two, now they say, Oh, well, we change the convention of how we name these things. So of course, it got renamed. Well, what a coincidence that you renamed the one virus that is closely related to this pandemic, and whose origins you obscure in the paper where you publish it. You say, we found it and you’re not. You don’t say what When you don’t say where you don’t say that you’ve published anything about it before, you don’t say that it was associated with the death of three people and illness of three others in a outbreak of viral pneumonia that scared the bejesus out of scientists at the time in 2013 2012. Sorry. So it is, you know, these were, these were important details, and it took people these sleuths like Francisco, the seeker a guy in India, a guy named Bob elephant in France, Charles small, as you say, he’s the guy who worked out that it was on the 12th of September 2019, that the Wuhan Institute of virology, his virus database went offline, right to the morning. Now, that might not be a significant moment, that might not be it doesn’t sound like when the pandemic could have started, it sounds much too early to me. But it may indicate that there was something going on like a re housing of the samples, you know, they might have been moving them from the old site of the wareness of virology to the new one, which there was happening around that time, you know, something happened around then that could have led to a chain of events that could have led to a leak to an accident. If this was a Western lab, we’d be all over it, we’d be asking the scientists look sorry, we want your logbooks, we want to see exactly what happened. That’s the best way for you to prove your innocence. But, you know, if there’s, if this didn’t come from an accident in your lab, then you’ve got every reason to share the database. And that database has stayed offline. It’s got hundreds of 1000s of entries of sorry, Sunday forgotten the number, but it’s got, it’s got a very large number of viruses, right. And any one of them could be relevant to this pandemic. We keep being told they’re not well then show it to us. Why don’t you and the point of cumulating all these viruses was to be ready for the next pandemic. Well, which pandemic are they waiting for?
Robert Bryce 17:11
Right. Well, so let’s, I want to back up because that was one of the things in the book that I thought was, I mean, a lot of intriguing things. But just that the crowdsourcing, the citizen science, as you say, ended up being a crucial part of understanding the origins of the virus and forcing, in many cases, the Chinese to be more transparent. Now. They haven’t been transparent, right. They’ve been minimally transparent, then the transparency has been, in many cases forced upon them when confronted as you in the same with eco Health Alliance. But let me come back to those issues. But I wanted to start with because you really start the book at Mojang. The Mojang mine, why is that mind so important? You mentioned it earlier in 2012. That was where a lot of these early viruses were, were discovered. Why? Why is that mind important in the story of COVID?
Matt Ridley 18:00
Well, the the virus most closely related to SARS cov. Two was found in a freezer in the World Institute of virology at the start of the pandemic. It had been collected from a mineshaft in your nan caught a place called Maggio. The reason the scientists from Wuhan were in Madhya, which is 1800 kilometers by road from Wuhan. It’s not next door. It’s a very, very, you know, to London, New York to Orlando. It’s that kind of business. And the reason they were there was because the year before in 2012. Some people have been shoveling bat guano out of the horizontal Chamber of a an old copper mine. Probably to sell about guano possibly to sell the background possibly to reopen the copper. Mine is a copper mine. We’re not sure we don’t know the details of that. And six of them had fallen very sick. And they’d been fallen so sick that they had not been treated in local hospitals. They’d been taken all the way to Kunming six hours drives drive away, which is the capital of your net. And there they’d been reported on by the most senior virologists in China, not just from the Wuhan instead of virology. But the guy who really sort of was the hero of the original SARS epidemic 10 years before because everyone was convinced that what had happened was they’d caught a bat virus. And if they had, it would be the first occasion ever when one of these SARS like viruses had been caught directly from a bat, because in the case of SARS, it looked like it had been caught by palm civets, which are then given it to people. So people weren’t catching it mostly directly from bats. But here was a case where it looked like it had spilled over directly in a manmade cave. And it wasn’t the same virus. It wasn’t SARS. It looked like it might be closely related. So it’s very interesting that they found a SARS like virus in that game, but it wasn’t quite the same one. So you’d have thought, you know, this is exactly what you’re looking for if you if you’ve got a whole research program about forecasting the next pandemic based on sampling viruses in in wild bat populations to try and identify viruses that might threaten a future pandemic, this is exactly the kind of case you’d be very interested in. So it’s unlikely that that sample, festered in a, in a, you know, remained neglected in a freezer for all these years, it’s more likely that they took it out and studied it. And we later did, we later found out again, thanks to Francisco Ribera, that they found eight other viruses. Two years later, in the same mineshaft that were also very closely related to what we know called SARS, cov. Two. And they admitted that six months later, after Francisco had worked this out.
So there’s, you’ve got the nine most closely related viruses in the world, to one that’s causing a global pandemic, in your lab, which you collected from a place where six people got sick. It’s quite relevant all that information. And you’d like to know what you know what’s been going on with these viruses in the lab ever since. Now, in the case of the first one. They implied in their paper that they had not touched it for six years, but had simply brought it out when the pandemic started, sequenced it and said, Oh, look, it’s the same, or it’s very similar. It’s 96%, the same as the as the pandemic virus. In fact, we now know that they had deposited parts of its genome sequence in international databases in 2018, and 2017. Right? So no, it hadn’t been lying neglected in a freezer, as Peter desert kept saying it. It had been studied over this time. Now, if you’re studying it, if you’re bringing it out and sequencing it, then you’re handling it in the lab. And it’s, you know, there is a risk that you’re going to infect people in that process. Now, it’s not science, Coby to get this straight, you know, this is 96%, the same, it’s not 99%, say, which is what we need to find. But if they’re handling lots of viruses from that site, all of which are quite closely related to SARS, cov. Two, maybe there’s another one in there, maybe there’s one they didn’t detect, maybe this one isn’t actually a real virus, it’s just a combination of two different parts of a virus. And if you put them together in a different way, you get one that is 99%, the same, etc. So you know, maybe they recombine in the lab. So all of that is highly relevant to ruling out or ruling in the possibility that SARS cov. Two was in a lab and was being experimented on, maybe unwittingly, in the months leading up to the beginning of the pandemic.
Robert Bryce 23:13
So, I want to talk about Desertec as well. But throughout the book, you make this point over and over you and your co author Alina Chan, that when there was a choice for transparency, the Chinese officials chose not transparency they chose to obscure. So the question is why wait, you’ve thought about this a lot, I’m sure over the last year what is this an embarrassment for China? What Why are they why are they have they been? So? I think the word is dishonest about the whole whole event. What lies at the root of this? I mean, you can only only conjecture here but what’s what’s your guess?
Matt Ridley 23:54
Yeah, well, I Lena and I are both a bit reluctant to do too much conjecture, because that can get you into trouble. And we try and stick too close to the facts. But I think in this case, what you need to take into account is that under a authoritarian regime, like the Chinese one, people are told very clearly what they can and can’t do. And if I need it comes down from on high, which he did right at the start of the pandemic, nobody can share any information about this new virus in January 2020. On social media, or public published in the scientific literature or in other media without permission of senior party officials, right? You could just You just can’t. In that case, people are going to be cautious about what they say. But what they reveal, they’re going to earn on the side of caution because if say you publish something saying look, by the way, this is the same virus as we found back in we’ve called it something else but we changed its name and six people died and it was in a mineshaft and they were shoveling bat guano. If you add all that into the paper, and your boss comes down the corridor and says the, the party is unhappy with you having done that, it’s quite serious, you know,
Robert Bryce 25:10
career career ending in or maybe freedom ending event.
Matt Ridley 25:15
Yeah. And we include a little story in there, which is a little whimsical about a leak that did happen in 2020. It’s a leak of leopards. Okay, so a farmer in the middle of China, in May 2020 is in his field, and suddenly he sees a leopard. Leopards don’t live around him. Yeah. And everyone says you must have been drinking. And he says, No, I saw a leopard. And then another farmer sees a leopard. And then you know, and then it gets the local paper picks it up and says people are seeing leopards in the middle of China. We don’t have leopards around here. What’s going on? So they call the local zoo and they say have you lost any of your leopards? And the local zoo? Say no, no, not a chance. Well, three weeks later, the local zoo has to come clean admit Yes. Actually, we did lose some leopards. They’ve gone missing. Now. If you can
Robert Bryce 26:12
try? Not like losing your iPhone or something or my ballpoint pen? Oh, yes. Some leopards certainly do not
Matt Ridley 26:20
cover up the loss of leopards. Think how much easier it is to to to fall into the habit of not being transparent about the loss of a virus and probably the unconscious lots you know that. The other point you need to bear in mind, of course here is that when SARS infected lab workers, which it did on at least four occasions twice in Beijing once in Taiwan once in Singapore, on three of those occasions, we don’t know how it happened. All we know is that someone working on SARS in a lab got infected, there wasn’t a drop test tube or a you know, punctured protection suit or something like that.
Robert Bryce 27:00
One or the other? Well, so we talked about the complexity of the end your exchanges with Elena and the your, your need for security and so on. Who are the we’ve talked a little bit about Francisco de Ribera. And Charles small. Who are the heroes of this story?
Matt Ridley 27:16
Well, we say that the reset at the end of the book, the people we think other heroes are partly those internet sleuths, those guys who with no official backing at all just found out really important information about the origin of the virus. The citizen scientists, the open source analysts, I think is a good, good word to use for them. But also partly the Chinese workers who blew the whistle early on the ophthalmologist who published something on social media saying, Look, guys in our hospital, there are cases of infectious viral pneumonia. It looks like SARS. It’s very scary. Please take care. And let us know if you know if you know anything more. And for that he was punished. He was he was given the most terrifying when you read it document to sign saying that he was an evil and disgraceful person who should never be seen in society again, you know, and he lost his career. And within a month, he’s dead of SARS. Sorry, southgobi to have COVID. And, you know, so he and the other scientists in those hospitals in the early days who realized that they were dealing with something, they are also the heroes. And some Western scientists are heroic, too. You know, they’ve people like Richard Ebright. David Relman have consistently said, Sorry, we can’t rule out a lab leak. We need to know what’s going on here. And they’ve come under immense pressure from the scientific colleagues to toe the line and the line was, No, we can rule that out as a conspiracy theory. Remember, we’re not saying in the book, that that’s definitely the answer. We’re saying a market, a wildlife market. Origin is still possible, a lab leak is still possible. We can’t at the moment find definitive evidence to distinguish between them. But the circumstantial evidence leans strongly towards the lovely.
Robert Bryce 29:29
And I was remarkable in the book, how restrained you were and you you made those points over and over, but you still, you still didn’t say no, this is definitely the case, because we You still can’t know. But what other parts of the story that are truly remarkable, and one of them that struck me early on was you point out that when that was within a day or so, only a matter of hours after the full genome was published on it was January 12 of 2020. No Where once that was published Madonna has I modeled or designed a vaccine on mRNA vaccine within a day or so. I mean, it’s truly stunning about the ability of the company with the technology to bring to bear what was potentially a vaccine within such a short amount of time is, am I am I the only one that was slack jawed by that I mean, just how rapid it was.
Matt Ridley 30:25
I agree. And Greg Zuckerman has written a very good book about the, the viral, sorry, the vaccine race, as it were Derner and bio Entech and AstraZeneca and Oxford in in the UK. And the UK, the degree to which Maderna was a incredibly ambitious entrepreneurial company with a brand new biotech technology that it couldn’t quite make work couldn’t quite make safe, wasn’t quite sure what the applications were was thinking about cancer, but was beginning to think infectious disease, vaccines might be a better way to go. And through its ambitious CEO, Stephen bud cell, latches onto this new outbreak and says, This is our opportunity to try and prove that this technology works and could produce a quick vaccine, effective vaccine and a safe vaccine. And by they were right, I mean, I had Maderna for my booster for my third job about a month ago, and it sent me to bed for a day with severe chills, I just couldn’t get warm in bed, my first two vaccines have been fine. But for some reason, I had a bad reaction to that one. And those are exactly the symptoms that they kept getting when they tried injecting messenger RNA molecules into people that couldn’t get the dose rate either. And they wouldn’t get enough of immune response, or they would get these severe sort of reaction. And, and, you know, it’s it’s still an experimental technology, and they just trying to get it just right. But boy, are we lucky to live in an age when that technology has come along, because it enabled us to get vaccines within a year, which is remarkable.
Robert Bryce 32:14
And the ability and the ability to scale the production as well, as is miraculous as well, I mean, just that you can make a go, not just make, you’re not making a few 1000, you’re making hundreds of millions of them.
Matt Ridley 32:25
Exactly. And you couldn’t do that with the old technology of making vaccines, which is to grow whole viruses and attenuate. That takes much more long, much longer time. But if you if you’re just generating messenger and synthesizing messenger RNA molecules, then in theory, you can do it much quicker
Robert Bryce 32:42
is this I was reading some something else, someone else talking about RNA and that technology, and the potential for that how this is something that just occurs to me as you’re talking about it. But how promising is that field of RNA in terms of therapeutics and vaccines? And how far along are we in that in that field?
Matt Ridley 33:02
I’m not sure. I mean, I think it could go either way, it’s possible that this will prove to be a quick and dirty way of getting a vaccine that half works against a horrible new threat, but doesn’t produce the sort of long lasting immunity that you really need to if you’re going to defeat a chronic disease or something like that, which
Robert Bryce 33:23
means we may have to keep getting boosters for years to come back.
Matt Ridley 33:27
Unless we move to a different design of vaccine that gives you longer lasting immunity, you know, etc. So it’s possible this thing, you know, it helps get antibodies, but it doesn’t get the T cells going, you know, or whatever, you know, so it may be in some senses or semi disappointing technology. But on the other hand, if you look at vaccine development before the pandemic, it was stagnating, it had moved nowhere since the 50s or 60s. Not quite true. But you know, there are regular complaints in the literature from 2019 as late as 2019, and people saying, why can’t we speed up vaccine production? Why doesn’t it get enough investment? Why is it the sort of Cinderella of the pharmaceutical industry? You know, isn’t it shocking that it takes a decade to produce a vaccine against AIDS or malaria or whatever? Ebola, you know, they got a couple of promising vaccine candidates and then the epidemic petered out. So it wasn’t possible to really test them, etc. So it is a real, it’s not easy to produce vaccines.
Robert Bryce 34:37
We wrote and we talked about that. The last time you’re on the podcast and your book on innovation, you profile the two women who pioneered Oh, now Gosh, I’m forgetting what the vaccine for whooping cough, whooping cough. Yes. Thank you. And that was in the 40s. And they worked at it for decades. Yeah, yeah. In the 30s. They worked at it for a decade and they were considered quacks are more than a decade. Wasn’t it remind me of that? No, actually,
Matt Ridley 34:58
they did it in four years? Oh, okay. That was that was pretty that mean, that was fast for then it was fast for today actually. And nobody believed them. Grace eldering and suddenly forgotten the other ones name. But anyway, too much Christmas.
Robert Bryce 35:20
I couldn’t remember what the vaccine was for, or the 40s or 30s. But that’s okay. But But yeah, I mean from from designing a vaccine, and in a day, compared to four years, I mean, that’s still remarkably short time for, you know, compared comparatively to what has happened in the last 170 80 years, then, well,
Matt Ridley 35:39
and of course, it just goes to show how incredibly portable genetic information is. That is to say, you don’t need to send a sample from Wuhan to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where moderner is based, you send a string of digital letters, you send a genome, which then 30,000 characters, and that 10,000 Word document as it were, in three letter words. That’s all you need to splash around the world for people to start working on the problem, because you can then from that you can synthesize a genome straightaway. That’s the extraordinary thing. You know, we’ve made biology at that level into a digital science.
Robert Bryce 36:22
Well, it seems like you were perfectly you were perfectly prepared for this book. I mean, it seemed like all of the books that I mean, are about your career, but I just find one thing in my career leads to the next it seemed like this was you were in the perfect place to write this book, given your work on the genome and innovation and all these other things. It seemed like your your expertise came in just perfect in the perfect timing here.
Matt Ridley 36:45
You’re right, it. That was one of the considerations that came into my mind is that, you know, I’d written a book called genome, I’d written a book about nature nurture, I’d written a biography of Francis Crick. You know, I knew genomics, I was fascinated by it, I loved it. I wasn’t as up to up to date on it as I could be, because it’s so fast moving. But I felt that I could understand elements of this story. Also, there’s a lot of natural history in here. Like you, I’m a bird watcher, but I also very interested in all forms of Natural History and so that the whole subject of you know, the bats behind the pandemic, which was an article I wrote for The Wall Street Journal was fascinating to me, you know, that it’s not just any bats. These are horseshoe bats. You know, there is one specific Janice Reiner loafers of bats that carry the size like viruses. No others, as far as we know, they don’t live in the Americas, by the way, they ended up in the old world. They’re very diverse. There’s about 100 species. They overlap enormously in species diversity in southern China, in particular, you get up to 10, or even 20 species, sometimes sharing the same cave. They’re very interesting little animals. They’re the most, in some ways, the most sophisticated bats, they’ve got very high end echolocation systems, they can navigate through dense vegetation at night on short, fast wings using sonar, obviously. So you know, that the natural history side side of it attracted me to and, you know, it is a really, it’s an important story, but it’s also a very fascinating story, you know, why are why do viruses jumped species? Why did this one arrive in the human species? When did it do so? We’re obviously dry tinder for its in the sense that it found immense numbers and tendency to travel a lot. Very helpful to its spread. It was beautifully designed to cause a pandemic because it could infect it could cause very serious infections. But you could also transmit it pre symptomatically for several days. So it was a fiendishly clever device devised. Well, mostly by mother nature, you know, this is a natural virus, there’s no question about it. It has the same set of genes as any other size, like viruses, there are basically 14 of them. You know, it’s not as if someone’s designed it from scratch, but somewhere along the line, it’s become adapted infecting human beings. And it did so pretty well before the pandemic started. That’s the spooky thing about it. So ours wasn’t like that. SARS had been infecting bats and then civet, cats and other animals in markets, and then started infecting human beings and to start with, it’s really not doing a very good job. It’s it’s not very infectious. It’s not very easy to catch it from other people. And in the end, we were able to control it with non pharmaceutical interventions to although it was made Dangerous, it wasn’t particularly infectious. Whereas this one arrived in the human species saying, right, this is where I meant to be. I’m well adapted to this species, I’m better, I’m better at fitting the ace to receptors on human cells than I am on bat cells than I am on mouse cells. Where did it acquire that characteristic? Now, one possibility is that it’s been in a lab where it’s been infecting human airway epithelial cells, which are cells taken from human lungs, that are used to grow viruses in the Wuhan Institute of virology. Or it’s been infecting humanized mice, which are mice with human h2 receptor genes in them, which have been used for in vivo experiments with SARS, like coronaviruses, in the Wuhan Institute of virology, among other places. So if this, you know, several generations of these mice have been infected with a with a virus, it’s gonna get good at unlocking human locks on cells.
Robert Bryce 41:06
Well, let’s follow up on that because you just put something today’s January 4, and we’re going to post this this episode today. But I think it was yesterday the day it was two days ago, you put on Twitter, you a notice on a new paper that was talking about OMA cron, there’s evidence that it was that was mutated through mice that there is the history apparently, I’m remembering this correctly, that that Alma cron had some history in in in generation in mice species is Am I remembering correctly?
Matt Ridley 41:35
Right? Yeah. Now this is a new paper that’s just been formally published. It was out as a preprint, a couple of months ago, but it’s now been peer reviewed and published from a Chinese team. Interestingly, analyzing Omicron, this new variant of SARS, cov. Two, and what they conclude is that it’s descended from a relatively early variant of SARS, cov, two from a mid 2020 variant. It’s not descended from 2021 variant, if you see what I mean, it’s it’s it’s common ancestor with the Delta variant, for example, is in the middle of 2020, not in 2021. So it’s not a recent outgrowth, it’s been somewhere for a year and a bit. Okay. Now, where’s it be, because in that time, it’s a quite an enormous number of mutations rather more than you’d expect. Most of them are nonsynonymous. That is to say, they actually do change the, the protein as well as the gene. And what the paper concludes is that the pattern of mutations that has appeared in that virus in the Omicron variant does not particularly represent the pattern you’d expect if it had spent that time in a human being, or a dog or a cat or a bat or whatever. But it does reflect the pattern you’d expect if it had spent time in a mouse. And this is because you know, these are the mutations you’d need to make to fit the G the receptors on cells in mice. So it looks like this virus was a reverse zoonosis and say we gave it to mice in 2020. And it gave mice gave it back to us in 2021. That looks like what may have happened. Now previously, we had thought and the leaner and I thought this was the most likely hypothesis that it had been in immunocompromised human individuals, which there are many have in southern Africa, in particular, because of all the people who have HIV and have not such well functioning immune systems. And that might be where it’d hang on and evolved. And that might still, you know, that’s not ruled out as a hypothesis. But this new hypothesis says that actually, it might be mice. Now, it could be house mice, it could be that in southern Africa, hosts mice have picked up the virus from us and then changed it and then given it back to us in 2021, in some pair of incidents separated by a year, or it could be that these are laboratory mice that you know, and remember, mice are used in the barter experiments all the time. And it’s not difficult to find experiments that have been going on in South African universities over the last year with mice and SARS go v2. So
Robert Bryce 44:46
we need sorry to interrupt but then there could have been potentially I’m saying that two different lab leaks that one was with originally with SARS, cov two and then it goes to Africa and then latches on to mice and then comes back out again. And I mean that there was, am I am I miss apprehending what you’re saying here? No, that’s
Matt Ridley 45:05
possible. Look, we need more information. Because, you know, I don’t want to be out there saying, Oh, this might have been a second lab leak. And then along comes very definitive evidence that that wasn’t the case. And people say, Oh, he reaches for a lab leak theory at the drop of a hat. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m just saying this, let’s look at all possibility. Oh, and don’t forget that there was a case of a lab leak in Taiwan a few weeks ago of SARS, cov. Two from an experiment in a lab to a human being. Now, the reason that, you know, in Taiwan, there isn’t very much COVID. And so it’s quite easy to detect these things. But a scientist working on the on the virus in a lab picked it up. You know, that’s not surprising, and lots of scientists are working on COVID in labs all over the world, they’re bound to be picking it up. But it reminds us that even in high this was a very high security lab. Even in high security labs, it’s not not easy to prevent this virus infecting people. I mentioned before SARS infected people in labs at least four times.
Robert Bryce 46:13
So let’s talk about the Eco Health Alliance, because Peter desertic makes many appearances in your book. I just looked again, at the transcript of the interview he gave to Leslie Stalin’s 60 minutes, in March of I guess that episode was published in March of last year. And that was focused on the World Health Organization investigation in China and, and desert says, Well, you know, effectively to stall about, well, we just have to trust the Chinese. But why is desert such a critical figure here? And what And has he been completely forthcoming?
Matt Ridley 46:47
Yeah, well, PETA, Zach is an entrepreneurial figure he, he’s a scientist parasitologist, originally, but he followed his wife to the US in the 1990s, and got a job running a project for a wildlife charity called the Wildlife Trust. And the job was essentially getting hold of money to look at viruses in wildlife, and distributing that money to partners in countries where you might find these kinds of viruses, particularly in Asia, but also in Africa. And he built that program up. So he became the main conduit between the American taxpayer funded research budgets, and the work going on with Chinese and other laboratories elsewhere in the world. And one of his biggest collaborators, one of his biggest recipients of the funding that he was distributing was the Wuhan Institute of virology. And she Jane Lee in particular. And she became a close friend of his, you know, we’ve got lots of tweets of them talking about karaoke sessions, wishing each other well, and you know, which is fine, nothing wrong with that. But, you know, clearly, he is a major funder of collaborator with expedition leader with the scientists at the Wuhan Institute of virology. That’s a conflict of interest, right. And yet, when he drafted, although he disguised his role in drafting a letter to the Lancet in February 2020, saying, we can rule out any possibility this leaked from the laboratory as a conspiracy theory. When he did that, he also put out a statement saying I declare no conflicts of interest. Now, the editor of The Lancet was asked about that in the House of Commons in London, just the other day. And he said, Well, we realized that statement was wrong immediately, but it took us 18 months to persuade Peter desertic, that we should change that statement. Well, I don’t think it takes 18 months to persuade someone that I feel the
Robert Bryce 49:08
need or need his permission to his permission to make a correction. Exactly.
Matt Ridley 49:15
So now, has he been forthcoming? Well, I’ve tried to communicate with him numerous times. He has never once responded. He blocked me on Twitter. He has given interviews as you say, but only under circumstances where he thinks the interview will be friendly. He obviously doesn’t think I will be friendly anymore. But you know, there are incredibly important questions one would like to put to it. And just to go back to this business of the eight extra viruses that Francisco Ribera found when he found that he said to Peter Does like I found these in the data attached to a paper that has your name on it. You’re the senior author on, which was a summary of virus genome, which was submitted before the pandemic, which is perhaps why it’s. And it looks to me like these eight viruses are very similar to SARS, cov. Two, and we’re probably found at Morgiana, can you confirm that? And instead of replying to Francisco, he blocked him on Twitter. Now, you know, this isn’t the way scientists should be behaving in any circumstances, let alone in the middle of a pandemic, which is killing many millions of people. I’m sorry, but we need total transparency here. What were you doing with these viruses in
Robert Bryce 50:46
particular, if you’re getting federal funding, then you should be making extra effort to be transparent. And instead, it’s been the opposite?
Matt Ridley 50:53
Well, that’s right. For example, in just as we were going to press with the book, a document dropped through a leak, which was a grant proposal from Peter does Ik was the name on the grant proposal to DARPA at the Pentagon asking for $14 million was a lot of money to investigate the role of these viruses. And it included that they would do this in China with SARS like viruses. And they would if necessary, manipulate these viruses to put in, I think all the fearing cleavage site, which makes the virus slightly more infectious and easier to grow in the laboratory. Now, that’s very interesting, because this virus has a spearing cleavage site in it, and none of its wild relatives do. So if we know that there was a receipt tech team of researchers that was planning to or doing the insertion of a fearing cleavage site into a run into a similar virus, then we would like to know that PETA does x name had been on that document since February 2018. He knew that they were planning that experiments, he had never once volunteer that information until it emerged in September 2021. This is not good enough. You know, for someone in receipt, as you say, a federal funding. Oh, and by the way, all the viruses collected under the ICA Health Alliance projects ought to be available to the US taxpayer to inspect, you know, if you’ve if you’ve had US taxpayer funding to find these viruses, then why aren’t they available? Well, a big chunk of them are in the Wuhan instant virology database and are not available to us funding authorities on behalf of the US taxpayer. Again, that seems to us extraordinary.
Robert Bryce 52:37
Well, it’s just as you say all this and you’re repeating it and I read them read your book, but it’s just it’s a scandal. Why? I mean, why hasn’t he been forced to testify before Congress under oath, right. Why is he not in the dock being questioned by by by Congress? I mean, what is the next step here to get some accountability from this man?
Matt Ridley 53:00
Yeah, well, when Elena and I and Richard Horton appeared before the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee in December, they invited Peter does act to testify, he didn’t. The US Congress could subpoena him. The Democrats who control the committee’s on the whole at the moment are reluctant to do so they still see this subject as a partisan one that Republicans are more interested in the Democrats. I think that’s the only explanation I can think of. But it does feel to me that the time must surely come when information is well when testifying under oath is forced to happen by some of these people. And it should they should want to, you know, disclosure. Yeah. So you should get out there and tell us why you think it didn’t come out of a lab instead of letting us find these information drip by drip,
Robert Bryce 53:59
or blocking on twitter or just being it making a conscious effort to to obscure but I mean, it gets the you know, the other part in reading the book and thinking about it, since, you know, you agreed to come on the podcast, I was thinking this has been the most consequential public health crisis in my lifetime. And you’re 63 I’m 61. And yet, we still are, as you mentioned, the partisan divide over this and that it’s been incredibly divisive. And in terms of, you know, the vaxxers, the anti vaxxers, the masks the lockdowns, they’re you know, there’s a very political divide between the Republic between the let’s say, the, the Conservatives and the Liberals to the left, right divide over trusting science and so on. That just seems like it is amidst all the other divisions in society. Now this is only compounded them, and lead. It was a good piece in The Wall Street Journal today about this distrust of authority figures in science, it seems like this is only going to serve to make that distrust even greater Because of the lack of common accepted facts, does that run without you’re seeing some of this? Because it just seems like it’s made the divisions in society much worse?
Matt Ridley 55:11
Well, I, I think that in the current world, and I can’t help but think it has got a lot to do with social media, everything gets polarized. I think that’s been happening for most of the last decade, you know, for me that the moment when I first noticed it was the Scottish referendum in 2014, when I suddenly noticed that, you know, my Scottish friends were divided into people who hated each other, you know, in a way that I hadn’t seen happen before in political arguments, you know, that it was very, very partisan. And then two years later, you’ve got Trump, you got Brexit in my country, you’ve got lots of other issues. Suddenly, everything became tremendously bipolar. You know, you’re you’re on one side or the other every argument. And I can’t help thinking this is because social media is a place where moderate opinions don’t get repeated. And extreme ones do. It’s that simple.
Robert Bryce 56:10
And there’s no cats out of the bag, I guess, are the horses left the barn on this? There’s no, there’s no changing that. But is well, let me ask about that. Because one of the most polarizing figures in a lot of this has been Anthony Fauci, what’s your view of him? He’s been attacked? By the left by the right, you know, I, you know, I don’t necessarily have an opinion, I think he’s, it seems to me, he’s trying to do the right thing. But how do you view him?
Matt Ridley 56:36
Well, I view him from abroad, which gives me some distance, but it’s also gives me some caution. You know, I don’t have skin in the game of Anthony Fauci his reputation, as it sure is a way that Americans would. I think he’s a brilliant scientist, I think he’s a very good communicator, I think his distinguished record in particularly the HIV research is is something that should be respected. And I think as a public health official, he’s been very impressive. But I think on this issue, where he, his Institute, did a lot of the funding of relevant research. And he is trying to define what gain of function is in sort of legalistic semantic terms, rather than simply come on, did they make a virus that was more infectious or more virulent? Yes. And we know they did in many cases, including in Wuhan. Which is, after all, the only thing that matters, I think, on that it’s a pity that he’s become so defensive. And, you know, but for me, it’s a it’s a bit of a bit worried that America is going to end up having a huge Rao about whether Anthony Fauci calls the pandemic. Well, he didn’t. It didn’t start in America, it started in China. Let’s not just because we can’t have this. You know, Rand Paul can’t question she Jane Lee. Right. So she has to go, he has to go after. After Fauci. Do you see what I mean? So sure, so to some extent, I’m ducking the question by saying, don’t let’s get distracted. Let me just turn this into a US political wrap. Because, you know, we have Anthony Fauci fingers over here in the equivalent over here in the in the UK is called Chris witty, and a lot of people are furious with him. And a lot of people think he’s God, what He’s neither he’s a fallible human being who’s a very good scientist.
Robert Bryce 58:38
Let’s follow up on because that was one of the questions I had for you as well. You mentioned gain of function. What is that? What is gain of function big for people who haven’t read the book? Don’t haven’t followed up on this. What is it?
Matt Ridley 58:50
Gaining function became very controversial in around 2014 15, when a series of experiments were done under very careful conditions, to see whether you could make an avian flu virus transmissible through the air by from mammal to mammal. And the question was, how close are these flu viruses to causing human pandemics? How easy would it be for them to evolve into ones that could infect human beings? And the, you know, one side of the argument said, we need to do this research to find out the other side was saying you’re looking for a gas leak with a lighted match here, you’re actually you’re going to cause the very thing that you don’t want to do. But the point is, can we in the lab deliberately make a virus deliberately or accidentally make a virus that’s more dangerous, that either more infectious or more harmful and that’s in the end what gain of function means now there was a moratorium on funding kind of functional expense
Robert Bryce 59:55
and they did they found they and it was they did create a virus is much more was
Matt Ridley 1:00:00
Absolutely. In the case of SARS, like viruses in Wuhan, we now know from data which wasn’t available at the beginning, but has now become available, that in some cases, they made viruses that were 10,000 times more infectious, and three times more lethal to the mice, by changing their genes, they weren’t necessarily trying to do it, what they were trying to do was work out how dangerous is this spike gene, if put into this virus right now, and so was, in some cases a lot, right? Dangerous. Now, that’s gain of function by any reasonable definition of it. But did it fall foul of the particular moratorium on funding such research, which was only supposed to apply to viruses that might infect humans, these ones on the whole were thought not to, you know, etc, you can have an argument about whether it’s legally again, a function, which is different, whether it’s scientifically going to function.
Robert Bryce 1:00:52
But the but the mean, isn’t this one of the key questions because there was a piece in The Wall Street Journal was December 31. And it quoted Dr. Kevin s, vaulted at MIT. And he was talking about eco health. And I’m going to quote it because, well, the title of the piece was how this pandemic has left us less prepared for the next one. And SBL said eco health eco Health Alliance should stop kick characterizing pathogens to determine if they are capable of causing a pandemic and human in humans, once they look at each individual virus and characterize it to see if it’s pandemic capable. They create a security risk where previously there was not one, it’s but it’s following up on your point about this idea about, you know, looking for a gasoline with a lighted match. They’re creating a danger by trying to predict which of these are creating once you say, well, this, could this cause a pandemic? Well, it sure looks, you know, there’s a very real possibility that that’s what in fact, is at the root of all of this.
Matt Ridley 1:01:46
Well, I do think that whether this virus came from this, that happening or not, we need a root and branch reinvestigation of whether or not this is sensible research. Because, you know, going out into the wild, going to bat caves, and saying, We found a bat in here, we’ve handled it, we’ve swabbed its anus and its nose, we took our mask off halfway through the process, because it was too hot, which quite often happens. We then went, took the sample back to a city of 11 million people, and took it into a lab. And we did experiments on it at biosecurity level two, which means we were burying gloves, not much more. This is not a sensible thing to be doing with viruses that you think might be capable of causing a pandemic. Now, when there was an argument in Nature magazine between a bunch of virologists and another bunch of urges on exactly this topic in 2018, and one of them One side said, this is the way to predict the next pandemic. And it’s very important that we do this research and the other side said, No, this is not the way to prevent the next pandemic, we should be looking at developing better vaccines and things like that, you’re not going to predict or prevent the next pandemic. By doing this. There’s millions of viruses out there, you don’t know which ones capable of causing a pandemic, even after you’ve studied hundreds of them in the lab. And that’s what happened. Remember, they studied hundreds, if not 1000s, of viruses in laboratories to try and predict the next pandemic? Did they predict this one? No. So at the very least, that research program failed in its own terms, but the worst it might have actually caused the pandemic.
Robert Bryce 1:03:38
And that’s the part that I thought, you know, as I wrote it down, it’s better to pardon the pun quit monkeying around like this, that this seems like this is incredibly dangerous. And in fact, you know, could explain some of what we’re what we’re what we’re facing now,
Matt Ridley 1:03:55
putting it in a very long term con, con context. Because human beings have been going into caves really long time, the term caveman, you know, tells you something. And they’ve therefore been encountering bats for 10s of 1000s of years. If just the simple act of going into a cave is going to give you a chance of picking up a pandemic, then we’d have harvested every possible pandemic by now. And therefore, the suggestion that in some sense, modern human beings are running greater risks because of encroachments of human society on nature, is just nonsense. When you think about it, I mean, most of us live in cities now, particularly in China, right? People aren’t out in the countryside. They aren’t relying on bat guano as fertilizer anymore. They don’t need game meat from the forest in the way they did. So actually, the encroachment is getting less not more despite the ground Both in human population with one exception. And that is in the last 15 years in particular, there has been a huge amount of encroachment by scientists on wild bat populations in caves to try and study their viruses. You know, that’s encroachment.
Robert Bryce 1:05:19
And that’s an interesting way to think about it. Yeah, that the the encroachment is going the other way. So is the is the virus here to stay? Is this gonna be with us forever? I mean, because, you know, the, I mean, like, you’re, I mean, everyone has been has been affected by this weather, it’s canceled family vacations. You know, Christmas is just ending our family plans blew up because of this, and you know, different reasons. But is this gonna stick around? Or is this just gonna be mutating Omicron? Or Delta? Or how long is this gonna last? Are we is there a reason to believe we can see the end of this? Well, I’m please say, yes.
Matt Ridley 1:05:59
I think it’s gonna be around. But I think we see the end of the the chronic phases, I mean, the acute phase of the pandemic. In other words, we can’t go on taking these drastic actions against it, we’re gonna have to live with it.
Robert Bryce 1:06:12
And you’re thinking about the lock downs that we just kept thinking about? Yeah,
Matt Ridley 1:06:15
I don’t think we can go on doing them again and again, and I think it will become milder. No, that’s that’s a relatively unfashionable thing to say. And it was a big push back when people said Omicron is milder. Well, actually turns out it is mother. There are 200 kinds of viruses that cause the common cold, most of them are rhinoviruses, now, no viruses, some of them are coronaviruses. Not one of them kills people. I mean, it occasionally can kill a very old person or very sick person, but But basically, they are non lethal. That’s no accident. respiratory viruses spread by sneezes want you to know, I want you as the wrong word, evolve towards ensuring that you are not so sick. They keep their symptoms to relatively mild things that don’t stop your socializing, because that way they spread better. And I’m convinced that this thing is going to turn into a common cold. Where did the other four coronaviruses that we catch which cause common colds come from? Well, one of them jumped into our species around 140 years ago, around 1890 and 30 years ago, and that’s when there was a very bad pandemic called the Russian flu. We don’t know that it was flu, it might well have been as Coronavirus. It started in Central Asia and spread around the world. It killed a million people. It’s now a common cold. It’s called OC 43. You’ve probably caught it. I’ve probably caught it in the last few years. It’s a very it’s the communist of the of the Coronavirus is that cause a common cold. And I think that’s the fate of COVID. I think COVID is going to become just another common cold. I worry that lockdowns prevented that evolution, because they meant that the mild cases stayed at home while the severe cases went to hospital and caused new waves of infection. That’s my worry is that we’ve actually been we’ve put in place a process that prevents the evolution of the virus.
Robert Bryce 1:08:24
Would that be fought for stalling herd immunity, then would that be the way to think about it?
Matt Ridley 1:08:28
No, it’s for stalling the duction in the severity of the virus. Okay. All right.
Robert Bryce 1:08:35
Because it’s not going to be immunity, we’re not going to be immune to it. We’re just going to be less, it’s going to be less lethal or less. What’s the right word there? I don’t know. There you Thank you. Well, so let’s just a couple more questions. And my guest is as Matt Ridley his he’s the co author of the new book viral, the search for the origin of COVID-19. What is this gonna mean? Do you think in your man of the world, you’ve been around for a while? What does this mean long term for the US China relationships or China’s role in the world? Because it seems is I’ve thought about this, and I’ve written a piece recently about rare earth elements in China. And, you know, COVID is one of the issues of friction is the South China Sea, the future of Taiwan, you know, Shin Jang, and the Uighur Muslims. There’s a lot in the news about the friction between the US and China. What, how does this play into this? And what do you see the future further? How China’s role in the world evolves?
Matt Ridley 1:09:35
Well, I think there’s no doubt that my view of China has changed enormously in the last five or six years. And as as most people, the scales began to draw from my eyes when I visited Japan in 2018, and and Japanese people said to me, you don’t understand Xi Jinping is not like who Jintao you know, these are, this is a much more aggressive regime. It’s, it’s not the free trade thing is not going to work with it. Forever, etc, etc. So I do think that that we are in a much more confrontational phase between China and the West. And that that will continue whether Donald Trump is in power or Joe Biden’s Empire or someone else. I think the economic dependence of the west on China is, I don’t see any end to it soon. Although I think the Chinese economic engine will sputter. And I say that because I make the case in how innovation works, that you the China’s economic strength has been freedom. Ironically, you don’t think of it as a free country. It’s not free politically, but economically, it has been very free, it’s had many fewer of the petty rules and regulations that slow down entrepreneurs in the West. And I think that’s ending, I think economic freedom is disappearing under Xi Jingping, as well. I think this pandemic will play into that relationship as just another friction alongside weekers, in Hong Kong and Taiwan, etc. For me, it’s a big one. But for other people, it doesn’t seem to be so big. And I’d like to think that it might contribute to a shift from an aggressive to a less aggressive regime in China. But I can’t see how that would happen. My parallel here, of course, is with John noble in the Soviet Union, you know, that they did play a part, that debacle in bringing down a very nasty regime and replacing it with a somewhat chaotic, but less cruel regime.
Robert Bryce 1:11:49
And then perhaps less a less? Well, I don’t know, I don’t even think I was gonna say less aggressive. But lately, Putin has not
Matt Ridley 1:11:57
been for a while anyway, though. Yeah, you’re right. No longer. So so much. You know, it. It does feel like if definitive evidence of a laboratory leak, and the cover up thereof, does eventually emerge into the world. It, it must in some sense, we can changing things position. And there may come a point where in China, people say this man is more of a liability than a benefit. But that’s, you know, a lot can go wrong in that. And no, there are a lot of people who say to me, we shouldn’t try and find out the answer, because it might lead to friction with China.
Robert Bryce 1:12:47
Incredible argument doesn’t even stand up on any kind of wait, wait a minute, no, this is the most consequential health crisis of the era. We don’t care about how it started. I mean, what it seems good even though there’s not a defendable position, in my view. Well, so do you have another book in the works? Matt? Matt, we starting on something else? Not that I’m not pressuring you here? I mean, I get that same question. Hey, Robert, I’ve just finished a book. Well, I know you, well, you and you, you produced it in what, like nine or 10 months? I mean, it was a remarkably fast turnaround. I mean, I’m not again, I’m not badgering you here. But is that is this leading something to something?
Matt Ridley 1:13:28
I think it’s much more likely that I will embark with a leaners agreement on a significant rewrites of parts of the book for a paperback edition or something. Huh, gotcha. I should I shouldn’t say that. My publishers will crucify me. They’ll say no, no, please go and buy that.
Robert Bryce 1:13:48
It’s available at all find booksellers. The book, again, is viral the search for the origin of COVID-19 that we’ve been talking for more than an hour, so I don’t want to keep you much longer. And I know you’ve been working really hard and traveling a lot promoting the book and you’ve just been back from Kenya with what’s what are you reading? Now? You taking a little break with? What’s on your nightstand? What do you what books do you have at hand?
Matt Ridley 1:14:08
I’m ashamed to say that while in Kenya, I read books about African birds.
Robert Bryce 1:14:14
There’s nothing no shame in that I should see the number of bird books that I have in my library here. It’s I collect them all, I think, Oh, this is cool. And I go to the the used bookstore and I buy some more and so yeah, no, reading bird books is very honorable. Don’t get me. No, no qualm was about that.
Matt Ridley 1:14:33
I was given a book as a Christmas present by a friend in Kenya, which he recommended called I think it’s called peacocks and pick authorities. And it’s about the the the unusual birds that live in Africa. And it’s really interesting. It’s just a no it’s a it’s written by an ornithologist and it’s just, you know, weird birds. And you know, I mean, did you know that the ground hornbill has 15 vertebrae in its neck and other hornbills have 14?
Robert Bryce 1:14:59
No Oh, I didn’t and why the extra vertebrae? There just wasn’t a good one the sweepstakes to get an extra bone in the neck. What was the Was there a reason for this?
Matt Ridley 1:15:09
No, nobody knows the significance it might imply that this is now only distantly related to the other hornbills you know something like that.
Robert Bryce 1:15:16
Well, so I asked you before we started recording so you you said in Kenya, you just saw a remarkable number of how many eagles how many Raptors Did you see how many different species do you did you keep a list?
Matt Ridley 1:15:26
Robert Bryce 1:15:29
I’m a terrible list keeper. I’m awful. List. I’m
Matt Ridley 1:15:32
not normally a twitcher, but a Twitter what does that mean? That’s a British term for birdwatcher who’s obsessed with with elder. So just leafing through the, you know, the fish eagle, the black shouldered Kai the white back vulture, the lappet faced vulture the black chested snake eagle, the Marshall Eagle, huge one
Robert Bryce 1:15:55
mistake sneaking on. Wow.
Matt Ridley 1:15:57
The battler the Walburg No, we didn’t say Wahlberg’s eagle, the African Harrier Hawk, the pale chanting Goshawk the Augur buzzer the Tony eagle, the Steppe eagle, the various eagle, the African Hawk, eagle, the long crested eagle, the crowned Eagle,
Robert Bryce 1:16:11
you saw all of these all of those folks, I’m gonna have to go to Kenya now I didn’t
Matt Ridley 1:16:15
know you have to go. There’s one on every bush. You can get within 10 yards of most of them. So very
Robert Bryce 1:16:22
costly episode I’m recording here that suddenly. So what you’ve looked at this issue and then on the on the pandemic, in my last question, Matt. As I read the book, I thought, Man, this is exasperating the, you know, the cover up and the lack of transparency and the and the horrific toll that it has taken on people all over the world over the last few years. I mean, you know, the loss of life, the loss of income, economic slowdowns, you know, shut ins lock downs, what gives you hope? Sorry, a dog is just a dog is a good thing to give you hope. That’s it, that’s definitely
Matt Ridley 1:17:01
a well, he’s one of the things that gives me hope. The this pandemic started because of something that went wrong in southern China, either a market that was selling animals, it shouldn’t have been selling, you know, wild animals, or laboratory experiments that shouldn’t have happened. Both of those are very easily preventable. And when people say, oh my god, we’re living in an age when pandemics are going to become common. They’re usually talking about the fact that, you know, there’s climate change, deforestation and things like that. Dogs, will you be quiet? And I’m saying no, actually something man made an exceptional, like, the market trade or the laboratory experiments has got to happen to trigger one of these pandemics. That should give us encouragement, because it suggests that if we don’t do those things will be okay.
Robert Bryce 1:18:00
Then if we’re more careful that this is preventable, Sagan, that if we’re more careful that this is these kinds of things are preventable. That’s right. Well, I like that. That’s that’s definitely a hopeful note. Well, Matt, thanks for your time. My guest again, has been Matt Ridley, Viscount Matt Ridley, the co author with Elena chan of viral the search for the origins of COVID-19. I urge you to go out and buy it. It’s quite a remarkable detective story. One unlike I’ve any any that I’ve ever seen before. So, Matt, thanks again for being on the power hungry podcast.
Matt Ridley 1:18:33
Robert, thank you for having me. It’s really enjoyable talking to you and great to see you and come and see us in the UK. Please.
Robert Bryce 1:18:39
I will do that. And to all of you in podcast land. Thanks for tuning in. Tune in for the next episode of the power hungry podcast. Until then, see ya.