In unadulterated New York, host Vincent Racaniello invariably starts with: “The podcast about viruses – the kind that make you sick”. In TWiV, a panel of experts (usually from Racaniello’s circle of friends) discusses recent scientific literature. It starts lightly with small talk, sometimes to the point of dating. Then it quickly goes into the deep, sometimes nerdy speakbut born teacher Racaniello ensures that it remains to be followed.
The most interesting episodes are those with a special guest. In episode 876 it was Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona. Worobey talked about two high-profile preprints that he is the initiator of, which deal with the origins of the pandemic. It provides strong evidence, he said, that the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic started with infected animals in Wuhan’s Huanan indoor market. With that, the scenario that the virus escaped from a lab could be thrown into the trash. Worobey previously had doubts: “I also thought: it looks strange that this outbreak started in a city where there is a lab where they study these bat viruses.”
He can tell about his reconstruction extensively and almost undisturbed. Only after an hour comes Racaniello’s burning critical question: is the proof now final? Everything points to the market as a source, Worobey says, but we will probably never be able to determine which animals were the intermediate hosts that infect humans, because all farms of raccoon dogs and other animals will be culled by early 2020.
In the discussion without Worobey, Racaniello and his friends unanimously conclude that they are now “convinced” of an animal origin. Crazy without hard evidence.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad of 26 March 2022
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of March 26, 2022