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tv   Alina Chan and Matt Ridley Viral  CSPAN  February 12, 2022 11:15pm-12:01am EST

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john walters president ceo of hudson institute. i'm very very happy to be joined today by the authors of this new book viral the search for the origin of covid-19 if you are interested as i think we all have suffered through this topic in where this pathogen came from, i believe this is the best book that has been written to date is thorough it is explains
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the science and it it tells you something about the the actors that have been a part of the of the search for the origin and also gives you a chance to think about what the factors are that would would help us understand that origin more thoroughly. we are very pleased and and happy to be joined by the authors. i want to say something briefly about them elena chan is a postdoctoral researcher at the broad institute of mit and harvard university. i'm going to ask the authors a little bit to come tell us a little about how this started but let me first introduce matt ridley who is a author businessman a biologist and a member of the house of lords of the united kingdom. so but that's that's i think that's as close to a renaissance man as you get in this day and age, so i want to thank him for joining us and my colleague david asher who's a senior fellow here at hudson who some of the people who've seen our broadcast before and read the newspaper know was involved in the trump administration at the end in the state department.
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it's a contractor looking at the question of origins and has testified before congress. i'm going to ask him at the end to make some comments about the author's presentation. so thank you all for joining us. thank you all for the work you've done on this important issue. i'm going to cut right to the substance of this i guess to begin i'd ask briefly. start with the origins of this book viral, um on why did why did the two of you undertake this investigation? and did you become co-authors? shall i kick that off because i was writing for the wall street journal on this topic a couple of times and i came across the work of alina chan. found it to be very insightful and her own comments to be increasingly penetrating about this topic. and so i had the cheek to ask her to join me in writing a book because i felt that, you know, a
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book length project was necessary and while i've written books about genomics before i thought it was important to have someone who could you know be a true expert on this topic and was you know way ahead of me on understanding some of the issues and i think we both felt that it needed booklet length treatment the number of different strands of evidence and argument that were developing needed to be properly examined at length, but we didn't know where the story would end. and and let me how did you start writing about this? they mean the preprint of the book. well about the topic and then and then how did you decide to join in a book length effort? so for me it started with this
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striking observation that starts to look pretty well adapted for human transmission by the time i was detected in december 2019 in wuhan and over the next half of your ish after i put out my first preprint in may 2020. i started to look into a lot of these. mysterious findings related to stars to like viruses being worked with that the ukhanensity virology. and so when madridshot to me at the end of 2020 i had actually been speaking with him and many other investigators like a self-nominated investigators of the origin of covid for several months, and i realized that social media and the news are quite fickle. so even if you tweet like 10,000 times all of those would be washed away with time and so i i knew that was imperative for a book to be written on this topic that would stand the test of time and it's important that this book would be written by both very talented and amazing science writer as well as a scientist who understands all these techniques and and what's
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been written in papers. well, thank you. okay, i want to make sure you get time to describe and explain the basis for your conclusions. you are very careful and you set forth the arguments for alternative explanations and you discuss the weight of them and you discuss what you call burden tennis or the movement of the burden of proof among different patterns of analysis and and and conclusions. let me just ask you what are the possible origin scenarios for covid-19. and where do you think the evident evidence currently points? well, shall i again jump in on that and please elena jump in before me if i'm talking too much, but the i think we can rule out a number of scenarios. you know that it came from outer space or that it probably that it came from frozen food from a different continent and indeed we can probably rule out we
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reckon that it's a deliberate bio weapon. we think there's very little evidence for that none at all. in fact, so that leaves us with two strong theories and in our view that that equally plausible a priori if you see what i mean, you know, there's no reason to decide that one is definitely more likely than than the other one is that it was developed when it came we know it came from a bat. it's a bat virus naturally how it got from bats to humans is the question and there's two possible routes one is through the food chain through the catching of wildlife. to serve in markets to customers or possibly through a farmed animal and the other possibility is through research through the extensive research program that was happening in china focused on the wuhan institute of virology, but working mainly in southern china and collecting viruses from bats and bringing
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them to wuhan for study. so these are the two obvious routes that need looking at now your reference to burden tennis. it's a wonderful phrase that that came from dan dennett the philosopher and you know, he says people often argue, you know that the burden of proof is in on your side of the net and somebody says no, it's on your side of the net and we found that in this case an awful lot of people assumed and still assume that the default assumption must be that it's a market event because that's what's happened before in the case of sars. unless we find evidence that it's a lab of it. we don't think that's fair. we think both are possible and plausible and should be treated equally in terms of a setting the evidence for them. alina and the folks on the natural origin side of the story know that the burden is on their side now because they've spent at least a year and a half searching for an animal source
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of this virus and they found nothing. so according to chinese authorities. they went through tens of thousands of animal samples. they track lots of people and now they're tracking banked blood samples in hunt prior to december 2019, and they have yet to find any sign of an earlier circulation of this virus or an original animal source furthermore there have been many i'd say surprising leaks and and foyer freedom information act obtained documents showing that there was really quite extensive coronavirus collecting and manipulation at the equivalent one institute of biology and and analogy. i'd like to use is that we in one document the proposed putting a horn on a horse in early 2018 and at the end of 2019 a unicorn appears in that city. so on i'd say that the burden is on the natural origin side to show that these activities this really collection of thousands of tens of thousands of high-risk pathogen samples from
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animals and humans across eight countries collecting into wuhan city and doing this experiments when marvel genetic modifications modifications are made of these viruses that that did not lead to the emergence of sars covid2. i guess one way to to follow that is to ask does the search for the origin of covid-19 require? a scientific or forensic investigation that is is it a scientific analysis or is this more like what we think about in terms of the way detectives of investigate activities or i don't want to say a crime, but i mean, we're more familiar with that kind of investigative technique. i mean, what would an ideal investigation look like who should play a leading role in the investigation? what would a pandemic treaty look like to ensure open cooperation on this in the future? do you want to take that first
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alina? yeah, i think i'll take this one first. so i think that at the beginning of this pandemic everyone assumed that it was a purely scientific question. so we knew that there was a cover-up going on because information about human to human transmission whether the virus could spread before symptoms appeared. that was very delayed. even the genomic sequence what the delayed so we know now that the chinese authorities already had the full genome sequence of south covid2 on 27 december 2019 the rest of the world only got it two weeks later on january 10 or 11. so that was two weeks that we could have been making diagnostics learning more about this virus making vaccines. so the problem is that in early 2020 a lot of scientists rushed to say that this was a natural virus so they condemned a lamp origin as a conspiracy theory and everyone ran with that. so we are very delayed. we've lost a lot of time but it's too possible to find this and to do so we need a real investigation not what the health organization then earlier this year and i would add that.
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you're absolutely right to draw a distinction. i think between forensic investigation and scientific investigation and there has been some very interesting forensic investigation in the broader sense of the term, which we do describe in the book for example the piecing together of which samples were collected from which sites at which times mainly done by a brilliant open source analyst called francisco rivera, but at the same time we're in the unusual situation here where there is a genome of a virus and there are genomes of other related viruses and comparing those is a scientific enterprise with from which you can read surprising things. you know when when you think about it at genome is a is a piece of digital linear information just like finding an enemy code or a code book or something. and so there are things that can
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be learned from the genomes of this virus and related bat viruses in a scientific analysis that are additional to the forensic work of who did what where how and when um what do you think the experience of covid-19 should teach us about the future regarding research research oversight regarding international protocols for potential pandemic diseases? the i was waiting for alina to jump in on that, but maybe take it. all right. i mean it's that's a lot of shortcomings and in flaws that can be exploited in both the research community and the publishing community. so including journalism, so we've seen that there is a very i'd say tight-knit community of people who control the type of
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news that comes out even scientific news that comes out. so there's a lot of gatekeeping and censorship not just within you know, like the new york times of other places where i've heard that editors were telling writers that they couldn't touch the lamp leak idea but even within scientific journals the top journals, there was a lot of pushback against anyone suggesting a lamb origin so we have to fix those shortcomings before the next pandemic happens, and it's not a guarantee that each pandemic will take a century to emerge because we're here at this point where there's a lot of increasing natural. and there's also a lot of increasing lab risk because the proliferation of labs around the world and engaging in this type of virus hunting and manipulation work so it could happen in the next two years. we don't know. i was going to ask you about about in that regard. it seems to me that what you're partly saying is if our institutions behaved as they claim their they they intend to behave both being scientific
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ones the journalistic even the institutions of government. we would have had a much less dangerous situation arise and we would have had much less confusion that it's not so much a gap as a failure to to act as as people have committed themselves to act in these various segments. is that fair? yes, i think that is fair the the various actors have. let down the public who are relying on them. so for a start the chinese authorities as a leaner said effectively covered up and delayed the release of vital information particularly about human transmission and so on but then the world health organization mounted an investigation along with the chinese. that was took a very long time to organize was frankly rather
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superficial and produced really rather poor results in terms of investigating the outcomes which had prevent but its existence had prevented other organizations mounting their own inquiries, and then the us government has not been as forthcoming with information that it must have because it had funded relevant research in this space. and as elena says the institutions of scientific publishing have not been as transparent as they should be publishing documents, which were claimed to have no conflicts of interest which in fact turned out to have blatant conflicts of interest and which were prematurely ruling out one hypothesis on the basis of what seems to have been a political preference and then journalism as elena says the meat the mainstream media has shown surprisingly little curiosity about this and has even and
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forbidden conversations about one of the more obvious hypotheses facebook made it impossible for anybody to discuss laboratory leaks at all. whereas twitter behave better in that respect. so on all sorts of levels, there has been us surprising lack of transparency and lack of accountability and you know just to to the heart of the matter there exists in wuhan a database of 22,000 samples most of which are from bats samples and specimens and sequences and that database went offline just before the pandemic. it's never been brought on back online. we've we don't have any idea what's in it. it could tell us a lot of information about the viruses they were working on in that institution. after 2016 about which we know nothing it may be irrelevant. it may prove that there's
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nothing there of any use but it is quite extraordinary to develop a large database as part of an effort to prevent pandemics and they're not release it when a pandemic comes along. yeah, i guess one of the things that struck me in reading some of the other accounts, but your book really brought home to me is the failure of established institutions designed to promote inquiry protection the sharing of critical information the failure of those institutions, but the but the resiliency of individuals who communicated privately at that considerable risk in some cases as you note and and and yet and so overcame this i mean in a certain way the institutional failure is in contrast to the individual heroism and dedication including yourself frankly to put your own reputations because we all could remember when some of the things that you investigated and said
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were a source of ridicule and professional attack. so i'm struck by i don't know. i don't know it's hard to think when you have multiple institutions fail how to reform that because it's it's not one thing. it's not creating just something new. it's you have to do what you say you're going to do which is a moral is more than a than a institutional issue, but also it seems to me that the the challenge is to allow allow individual questioning and and in some ways the the individual contact social media and electronic media allowed them allowed you and them to do that in ways. that wouldn't have been possible before with with less open connectivity even in the in the environment we faced if we go if to go there one last question to you you rightly pointed out there are not only additional pathogens here, but that as as
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you knowed and others have noted david as well. um synthetic biology is is growing very rapidly and the in the possibility of both. they're being more naturally occurring pathogens that are discovered but also the modification and creation of pathogens the the danger here is increasing. um, given what happened here and given where we are now and you know more about this than than i do. how could we do how could what should what are the first steps we should do to better detect and prepare for these dangers in the future and and and not failure to learn not fail to learn from this experience. it's been so terrible. can can i jump in i suspect elena's very well placed to answer that question because she's been thinking very hard about how we do develop a pandemic treaty and move forward to open up research and make it better. but i do just want to emphasize
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a point in your preamble to that question, which is the importance of courageous individuals here. i'm towards the end of my career. i'm self employed. i don't worry about what people think of me, but it's very very brave of someone like alina towards the start of a scientific career in these large institutions to devote a lot of time to what is a an uncomfortable story for a lot of established science and we did rely and come to depend heavily on and the whole story has come to depend heavily on a few extraordinarily brave and persistent individuals open source analysts who look into sources of information that are hidden not they're not secret but they're hard to find and piece together information of of great value, and this does feel to me like a quite an interesting case of citizen science of where you know, the
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big well-funded institutions did not devote much effort to finding out the answer to this question. whereas these individuals in their spare time did and i just think that's an important aspect of it. but a leader is perhaps best place to talk about where we go from to improve these aspects. yes, so i want to talk about the pandemic treaty. but first i think it's important to acknowledge that this search for the origin was corrupted pretty early in 2020. it was cast as a racist thing to ask it was caused as an anti-sign thing to us and the put a lot of burden on on the citizen journalists and scientists because they had to push back against all of these. accusations of racism and being anti-scientific even as a scientist for me. i it was just non-stop even other scientists were calling me. antiscientific. oh racist or race trader and so i was just a scientific problem
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became corrupted so being unable to ask this question being unable to to gather evidence and discuss your analysis. just in the face of all this abuse that that anyone who questions whether a virus could have leaked from a lab in asia must be racist. so we have to learn from that and and not jump to these conclusions the next time like we can possibly have a future where only lab outbreaks and white people country are can be investigated. whereas anything that comes from, you know parts of asia or africa or south america cannot be investigated because it would be racist or anti-scientific that that's crazy. so that has to be solved, but that's also these global problems of just a complete lack of preparation for what happens when the outbreak occurs is that they're not whistleblower channels. there's no way you can just go into the country and find out for yourself. so when when covid-19 occurred
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it was only true lead messages that when viral on on social media on a private message during app in china that the rest of the world fallen out. so it wasn't that the chinese authorities told us it was truly messages and the following that all these critical information about transmission about whether could spread without symptoms that also had to be leaked. so this cannot be in the future that has to be a pandemic training where each country can nominate on day zero the moment. they hear about the outbreak they get to pick a new person and that person goes straight into gather evidence because the stakes are extremely high here and we are seeing something like an estimated 15 or 16 million deaths and hundreds of millions of infections. so there's no there's no space for a country to say, this is a private matter and that you can only hear what we want to tell you at the time that we want to tell you. well, thank you. i'm going to let david asher's say a few things about what
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you've said about the book and and any other observations you want to make on this david. thank you, john, and i just can't thank alina and mattel a sufficiently for what they've done because it really reads to me like an indictment, but it's not indictment of the government of china. it's a government. it's it's a global sort of indictment how we have. erased evidence we've a cover it up amazing amounts of information from public disclosure. it's almost inexplicable to me as a person who served in the government fiber, i guess six times in my life and then worked in the financial community. you know to make money, but i i can't as a capitalist. i can't understand the the sort of degree of avarice for
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understanding of a situation that is literally the biggest disaster to befall our country and the world since world war two and you know really the great depression combined if you look at the economic impact of covid-19 and just the fiscal stimulus alone. we've done work at hudson on us. it's about 20% of gdp. i mean that's like more than we lost in an entire great depression nearly. so the question is really what what is going on with our community of interest and you know our national health authorities. why are they? acting like this and what happened on february 1st of last year when there were serious email exchanges which are now becoming public and will become i think very public soon. we train dr. fauci and you know who i have great respect for i met him and he's not a he did a great work that you know on
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earth the aids epidemic and what it was causing it, but what's going on it at the national instance health and allergy diseases. i really don't know. i mean, they've become a sort of cryptography and so we've got a situation where we have inadequate disclosure. we have a sort of cover up mentality and we're dealing with a basically a global disaster that is a to me needs to be confronted squarely and we shouldn't just blame, you know that certainly sent the people of china. we need to be we need to blame ourselves to a great extent for understood for failure to understand what's going on, uh failure to act and now we need to, you know, have some sort of truth telling because we've got a better but we can't allow the staff again because in the age of synthetic biology john as you mentioned these things are emily feasible, you can create a bio
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weapon whether this is a bioweapon. i've never contended it is but there you can you could it very easily. um, and you could cause you know global disaster. so i i thank you for your book. it's it's really important people need to read it and i'll stop there. can i pick up on what you? of david, can i pick up on what you said about first of february because i think it's it's a really interesting story of this it became apparent to us partly through a book by jeremy farrah of the welcome trust that the senior virologists looking at this at the end of january 2020. and strongly suspected that this virus showed signs of having been genetically manipulated. and they shared concerns about this on email over several days.
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and then a phone call was organized. transatlantically patrick valence the chief scientist in the uk and jeremy farrah linked linking up with tony fauci, but also a number of senior virologists many in the us and what they decided at that meeting must have dramatically changed their minds because within a few days they were drafting the letter for the lancet and the paper for nature medicine which ruled out not just genetic manipulation. of the virus, but any lab-based scenario and we're very very confident in doing so although they put forward. very tenuous arguments as to why they were so confident. so something. something changed these people's minds to the point where they felt they could rule something out as a conspiracy theory, which they had thought was
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really quite likely a few days before. yeah, we would like to know what happened at that meeting. we would like a full transcript of it. we would also like to see the emails that they exchanged before and after the meeting. freedom information requests requests for those emails have resulted in them being published with almost total reduction on both sides of the atlantic. these emails are basically dear fred. lots of blank lines yours sincerely bill, you know, whatever it might be and this is just isn't good enough. when as you say we have millions dead and a blow to the world economy like we haven't seen in a century or so. it's quite extraordinary to us that vital insights into what people think might have happened at an early stage are not being properly shared with the public. i want to add to that so this
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really speaks to the problem of public trust and science and how that can be jeopardized when scientists are found repeatedly to be withholding information or deciding what's best for the public to know. so, i think that scientists should not be hiding information or telling people the wrong information to persuade them to act in a particular way because when people find out that you've been telling them that mask don't work so that they don't go and buy mask, it's it just how can they believe you if anything else when you tell people that it's not airborne that the virus is just spread through the surfaces. how do people protect themselves so similarly with the origins. i believe that there was some scientists who were fearful of talking about a lamp origin because they they were worried that the public would panic and that that would be racism and all these things like yes these terrible things happen, but think of what happens when the public finds out that you've lied to them or that you've considered information and the long term effects of that. so think it was just a mistake
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for some scientists to do that and we're starting to see all these emails now being released because they have been litigated to the freedom of information act and it's been very discouraging to see all these top scientists top virologists speculating some even saying that it's more likely that it came from a lab than from the market. yeah, i wanted i wanted to make one two points here. the first is i i we you do we've done a great job and you've done a great job kind of summarizing the book, but i want to emphasize to the people who watch this how important it is and how careful this book is in going through each and every one of the the bits of evidence how they how they were related. sometimes how they were distorted and how how critical ports were missing and we've talked in we've talked in more general terms here because of the the the circumstance of of a conversation like this, but i want to emphasize to everybody if you if you want to understand
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what just happened to you in in some sophisticated detail. this is the book to read you can read it you can read it electronically. it's available as a kindle book and and it's also available as an audiobook and i'm not i'm not part of the the publisher. but i just want to say i do think that that the story you tell is is about the need for an informed public that that we that the whole part of this was to tell the public. uh, just do what we tell you. just listen to what we say. don't ask a question and you give people a to the tools in fact in more detail than most people are going to be be able to kind of sort out you sort out for them what really happened and you sort out a lot of malfeasance. i mean, i know you're you and i'm not trying to damage anyone's career further than the risk you've already taken but but multiple institutions that you've touched on only
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scientific ones, but but scientific publishing as well as as journalists, i'm really joined the join the chorus of shut up and sit down. i mean, you know, there's a there's an old saying in in washington and maybe other places now, it's not the crime. it's the cover up. i really think that that you know, you're careful about this was not a bio weapon that was released intentionally. okay, i i you you make a strong case that the evidence isn't there for that but the real problem is okay, but but why is there this massive cover-up? right? i mean why i mean from the from from scientists some whom were not even necessarily connected with this but someone who are connected with it and the institutions in the united states and in china, i mean the the real outrage i think here is is the is the harm that's happening and the unwillingness to come forward and be frank and to help providing and not just
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blaming but information that would help save lives and save lives sooner and contain spread and help us prepare for variations and other things some of that evidence still isn't out as you point out and um, that's a that's something that we should we should insist on being more demanding about in the future. kind of shocking now the the kind of low in looking for origins that the the yearbook shows is so important and i know there's efforts and david's been involved in them to create a commission to do that in the united states. that is not partisan and not a a subject to distortion itself, but it's really a global issue and and the unwillingness of countries to come forward. i like the convention idea. mike only question is who's gonna be honest this time, you know, it's kind of like once once everybody takes responsibility and fails then it's like, okay. well, how do we know we're gonna to get people who are going to keep their word and carry out
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their responsibilities. i guess that's always a problem with human beings. but do you have any thoughts about what should happen next? what can i come in on a couple of points there? and the first is just you were kind enough to say some nice things about the book. we hope this book sells a huge number of copies. that's not because we're trying to make a fortune. in fact, we've already agreed that we'll give away half the proceeds to charity in both our cases. but the reason we've gone for a commercial publisher rather than academic one is because we want as many people as possible to engage in this conversation. we want we want we want this story widely. no we want to open it up as you say and it's been it's been frustrating to us that so much of this debate has not been allowed to happen and it badly needs to happen. and there's a parallel. i like to draw with what the airline industry has done in the last few decades, which is to
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make sure that we learn lessons from every crash. that we don't you know, it's not. much about blame is about learning lessons. and in that way what you get out of a black box and the fact that every play must have a black box and every piece of information from that blocks is shared with everybody so that everyone designing and operating airplanes can can make sure they they learn as many lessons from what happens anywhere in the world. that should be the same. in this case whether it's a market spillover or a laboratory leak we want to be able to pin down the lessons that the world has to learn and share them as widely as possible because you know, there are wildlife markets selling animals all over southeast asia and africa. and there are laboratories doing research on highly dangerous
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animal viruses all over asia africa europe north america and so on so, you know, we were we're playing russian roulette with something here. we don't know which of those two but something to to be learned. elena george anything else really disturbs me is that there was some collaborators of the uhan institute of virology who if they had checked their records and their emails went south. korea was first detected in one they would have realized that the quantitative institute of virology was working with several of the closest viruses related to south korea too at the time that they were synthesizing completely new south viruses putting in the type of unique genetic modifications that we see in south korea too and had been collecting thousands of samples from not just china, but even 7 southeast asian countries, including laos where another very close relative of size 2 has been found and concentrating all of these animal and human
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samples from the wildlife trade in wuhan city. so we are only finding that out in like fall of 2021 almost two years since like this virus emerged in wuhan so the lack of transparency in lack of forthcomingness just leads people to this perception that scientists are hiding things and this reflects badly on the entire. of the community even though it's just a handful of individuals who made these decisions either of negligence or self-preservation, so i think that moving forward that many ways we can introduce structural changes to ensure that the research is more transparent and that has to do with journal editors as well. and as well as database managers, so having policies where you stay no, i'm not gonna publish anything where i see that you sent on pathogen sequences for more than two years or no. i'm not gonna publish your papers because we've seen time and again that you are publishing data that doesn't exist and those problems had to be solved before the next pandemic happens and we can't keep making the same mistakes
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again. and again, they're very costly. yeah, they certainly are. well, i want to thank both of you both again the book at the in the courage you've had and i want to thank david for the work. he's done for our government and continues to do with our congress and i want to say to our audience one last time. look it's the holiday season, you know, get out your copy of dickens christmas carol and enjoy the memories watch it's a wonderful life, but for the sake of being a better citizen next year by this book and read it because in addition to questioning among institutions. we need people who are good citizens who this is something you need to be informed about and you don't know enough about to be an informed citizen to ask your own and support your own government officials. who do the right thing because at the end of the day our democracies are based on the strength of the people who are the members of the democracy and this is also a book that allows you to be a better citizen. and so thank you both for
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joining us. thank you for your work and and my thanks to david for joining us as well in the work. he's doing of my colleagues here at hudson. i hope the book is a is a great great bestseller, and i hope you have a follow-on to help us structure some of the institutions and and reform
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