Where did Omicron come from?
Introducing the Second Lab Leak Theory, a game of narrative reality.
You haven’t seen me posting about covid-19 in the 10-Year Horizon newsletter. Issues that won’t matter in 10 years don’t belong here, and that includes a significant amount of the covid-related discussion. But there are aspects of the pandemic that will stay with us for at least that long. One of them is the shift toward narrative reality.
It’s not just that narratives are a useful lens for perceiving what’s going on. (They are.)
It’s not just that narratives have become the battleground of public opinion. (They have.)
It’s that narratives have become the rules of the game.
Markets are no longer moved by events, let alone data. They are moved by narratives.
Politicians are not elected for merit or skill. They are elected for narratives.
We could go on, but let’s not make this a long introduction. Let’s play a game.
Our prop is the pandemic of the 2020’s; our protagonist a certain Omicron; our stage (as always) the inner self, our beliefs and predilections.
Fact 1: Omicron took an evolutionary path that’s very different from the previous dominant variants.
For a year and a half, it’s been accumulating mutations in perfect isolation from the human viral pool of Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta. Omicron in red:
Many conflicting narratives appeared to fill this puzzling gap.
“Omicron evolved in an HIV patient.”
“Omicron evolved in an isolated tribe on the African continent.”
“Omicron evolved in another host species before jumping back to humans.”
Most of these theories were abandoned and we still don’t have a satisfactory explanation of Omicron’s origin.1
Let’s consider a new narrative. For the record, I am making it up right now.
Let’s call it the Second Lab Leak Theory:
“Omicron was created in a lab. It evolved over the past year and a half in a closed laboratory setting with a certain purpose and was released in Nov 2021.”
How would someone create a highly contagious variant in a lab? Perhaps by infecting mice in an environment that favors the most transmissible mutations. That would be the tried and tested approach to biological research.
Well—that’s what we are seeing.
Fact 2: A group of researchers in Beijing found evidence that Omicron evolved in mice after examining the molecular range of mutations from a wide range of host mammals.
If it sounds unlikely that Omicron might have come from a lab, let’s just consider how many facilities are able to do such research. To study coronaviruses, a lab needs a BSL-3 safety level. There are over 2,000 such labs worldwide, as well as 59 BSL-4 labs. Both the virus and humanized mice are readily available to them as research material. This is simply business-as-usual.
Fact 3: There are thousands of labs around the world that can research covid in mice.
(There’s also Fact 4 about Syrian hamsters. But it’s one too many, so I won’t go there unless someone asks in the comments!)
Now, let’s play.
Level 1: What was your immediate reaction to the Second Lab Leak Theory? Did you reject it straight away as a conspiracy theory? Did you immediately think “I knew it?”
Either way, that’s preconceptions at work. A leak of context. There is currently no data available to prove the Second Lab Leak Theory right or wrong. It’s simply a narrative that fits the facts. This doesn’t make it true. And there’s hardly any way to prove it false.
Level 2: What do you think about the motives of a potential Omicron lab leak?
Does it sound like a malicious act by a state actor, big pharma or whoever runs the world, releasing another variant to keep the pandemic going?
👉 Those bastards!
Or you are thinking about a group of rogue heroes, who took destiny into their own hands to save the world? Did they intentionally breed a mutation that’s more contagious and less lethal in order to drive the pandemic to its end?
👉 God bless them!
Or would you rather expect that a lab leak happens by human error?
👉 Let’s not speculate about motives!
Either way, we have a narrative that fits the facts. Nothing less, nothing more. Defer judgement.2
Level 3: In the next days, as this theory comes back to bug you, watch.
Are you able to refrain from true/false judgements and simply hold the narrative at arm’s length? That’s the point of this game. It has little to do with Omicron and everything to do with #narratives.3 Rather than persuade you about an Omicron narrative, it’s meant to make you doubt all narratives equally. In 10 years, Omicron will be in the dust. But our ability to discern, evaluate and control narratives will matter like our lives depend on it—because they will.
This is to be expected. We don’t know where the original virus came from either. Heck, we can’t even say for certain what started WWI. Common knowledge is a lot less common and a lot less knowledge than we tend to expect.
We can think of Omicron origin theories as making predictions about the past. That is, we can only talk about such narratives (all of them) in terms of probabilities.
And data storytelling.