Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.
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Matt Ridley's latest book Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, co-authored with scientist Alina Chan from Harvard and MIT's Broad Institute, is now available in the United States, in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.
My article for the Telegraph:
Here we go again, fighting the last war. Because governments are perceived to have moved too slowly to ban flights when the delta variant arose in India, we jumped into action this time, punishing the poor South Africans for their molecular vigilance. But nothing was going to stop the delta going global, and the latest set of government measures to stop the spread of the new omicron variant are about as likely to succeed as the Maginot line was to stop General Guderian’s tanks. The cat is already out of the bag. Just because we can take action does not make it the right thing to do.
This pandemic has mocked public-health experts. They told us to wash our hands and then realised it was spreading through the air. They told us masks were useless and then made them mandatory. They sent Covid cases to ordinary hospitals where they infected patients.
If you don't subscribe to the new newsletter or follow me on Facebook and Twitter, you may not have heard: My new book Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, co-authored with the young and brilliant scientist Alina Chan, published this day last week and is now available to purchase.
Less than a week before that, Alina and I met in person for the first time, which you can watch on my YouTube channel.
We explore both natural spillover and lab leak possibilities in depth—and share which we determined, over the course of writing it, to be more likely.It was a challenging, frustrating, intriguing journey.
It is almost exactly two years since the pandemic began. According to an official document seen by the South China Morning Post, the first retrospectively diagnosed case of Covid in Wuhan was on November 17 2019, while genetic analysis points to a similar date, November 18. (The so-called “patient zero” discussed in the media this week has been known about for months and is very unlikely to be the first case even according to the World Health Organisation.)
In the case of Sars, 19 years ago, and Mers, nine years ago, the first known cases were followed within a couple of months by unambiguous clues as to how the virus jumped from an animal source into people. Both viruses live naturally in bats, which had somehow infected intermediate animal hosts such as palm civets and camels before transmitting into people.
My article for Spectator:Two years in, there is no doubt the Covid pandemic began in the Chinese city of Wuhan. But there is also little doubt that the bat carrying the progenitor of the virus lived somewhere else.
Central to the mystery of Covid’s origin is how a virus normally found in horseshoe bats in caves in the far south of China or south-east Asia turned up in a city a thousand miles north. New evidence suggests that part of the answer might lie in Laos.
My article for Spectator:
China’s President Xi Jinping has apparently not yet decided whether to travel to Glasgow next month for the big climate conference known as COP26. That is no doubt partly because he’s heard about the weather in Glasgow in November, and partly because he knows the whole thing will be a waste of his time. After all, the fact that it is the 26th such meeting and none of the previous 25 solved the problem they set out to solve suggests the odds are that the event will be the flop on the Clyde.
But another reason he is hesitating was stated pretty explicitly by his Foreign Minister, Wang Yi: ‘Climate cooperation cannot be separated from the general environment of China-US relations.’ Roughly translated, this reads: we will go along with your climate posturing if you stop talking about the possibility that Covid-19 started in a Wuhan laboratory, about our lack of cooperation investigating that origin, or about what we are doing to Hong Kong or the Uighur people.
With a laboratory leak in Wuhan looking more and more likely as the source of the pandemic, the Chinese authorities are not the only ones dismayed. Western environmentalists had been hoping to turn the pandemic into a fable about humankind’s brutal rape of Gaia. Even if ‘wet’ wildlife markets and smuggled pangolins were exonerated in this case, they argued, and the outbreak came from some direct contact with bats, the moral lesson was ecological. Deforestation and climate change had left infected bats stressed and with nowhere to go but towns. Or it had driven desperate people into bat-infested caves in search of food or profit.
Green grandees were in no doubt of this moral lesson. ‘Nature is sending us a message. We have pushed nature into a corner, encroached on ecosystems,’ said Inger Andersen, head of the United Nations Environment Programme. The pandemic was ‘a reminder of the intimate and delicate relationship between people and planet,’ said the director-general of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. ‘God always forgives, we forgive sometimes, but nature never forgives,’ added Pope Francis, enigmatically. ‘Climate change is a threat multiplier for pandemic diseases, and zoonotic diseases,’ said John Kerry. Covid-19 was ‘the product of an imbalance in man’s relationship with the natural world,’ said Boris Johnson. ‘Mother Nature… gave us fire and floods, she tried to warn us but in the end she took back control,’ tweeted Sarah, Duchess of York.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, the head of the Wellcome Trust, writes that ‘the last year has been an eye-opener for me. I thought, probably like most people, that the world works through official or formal channels, but much of it operates through private phone calls or messaging apps’. Hence his book, written with the journalist Anjana Ahuja, is a gossipy, sometimes angry, fast-paced tale, which quotes frequently from his own messages sent to other important people. No holds are barred or formal channels kept to.It is therefore a fascinating and valuable account from somebody who was close to the action, as a member of the famous Sage, and one who played a key role in several important initiatives, including, for example, kicking off the successful Recovery trial of anti-Covid treatments after a chance meeting on a bus. Many of his observations are acute, and some of his suggestions are well made, not least his passionate call for Britain to set an example by sending vaccines to the rest of the world rather than vaccinating the relatively invulnerable young.Farrar is full of praise for some people, such as fellow Sage members and Dominic Cummings, and full of contempt for others, including Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and any lockdown sceptic. He may or may not be right, but after a while the reader begins to feel a little uneasy at a certain double standard. ‘Intermittent lockdowns’ are the answer in chapter 5, but reopening after the first lockdown is a disastrous mistake in chapter 6. Johnson is criticised for not paying attention to the crisis in February 2020 a few pages after Farrar describes his own skiing holiday in... February.
My interview with Tunku Varadarajan in the Wall Street Journal:
“Science” has become a political catchword. “I believe in science,” Joe Biden tweeted six days before he was elected president. “Donald Trump doesn’t. It’s that simple, folks.”
But what does it mean to believe in science? The British science writer Matt Ridley draws a pointed distinction between “science as a philosophy” and “science as an institution.” The former grows out of the Enlightenment, which Mr. Ridley defines as “the primacy of rational and objective reasoning.” The latter, like all human institutions, is erratic, prone to falling well short of its stated principles. Mr. Ridley says the Covid pandemic has “thrown into sharp relief the disconnect between science as a philosophy and science as an institution.”
From the "Lords Diary" feature at PoliticsHome:I wandered the ghostly corridors of Westminster hoping to spot a few colleagues and got lost in a one-way system. This hybrid Parliament seems to have made the government’s job more time-consuming, as we all drone on from home, but less challenging, as the cut-and-thrust of debate atrophies: the worst of both worlds.On the day I came to London I had finished writing a new book: always a moment of relief mixed with anxiety about whether it could be better. This time it was especially difficult to sign off the last edits because the topic is a moving target – the origin of the virus that caused the pandemic. New information keeps breaking.Also for the first time I am co-authoring, with Alina Chan, a brilliant young scientist at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. I was warned that co-authors often fall out, and we have never actually met in person, but we only really disagreed over one word. I refuse ever to use the word “blueprint” as a metaphor for a genome. It’s inaccurate, because it implies that each bit of a genome maps onto each bit of a creature’s body; and it’s unfamiliar. Who even knows what a blueprint is these days? I prefer “recipe”.As I argued in the Lords the next day, whether the virus jumped species in a wildlife market or a laboratory is an urgent question requiring a full and independent investigation – because, if we don’t find the answer, we risk a repeat. Both kinds of jump have happened in the past, and viruses of precisely this kind were being collected, brought uniquely to Wuhan (more than 1,000 miles away) and experimented on by scientists, so it was wrong of some scientists and the World Health Organization to try to dismiss the possibility of a lab leak prematurely.A laboratory accident is by definition not a “conspiracy theory” and science needs to demonstrate it can investigate itself or its enemies will do so instead. Fortunately, the mood has changed in the last two months, partly sparked by an open letter in the journal Science, calling for a full investigation, signed by 18 scientists and initiated by my co-author.Later I supported Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville’s amendment to the environment bill on the topic of fly tipping. About once a week a new load of rubbish appears overnight in one of the gateways on my farm. Cameras in favoured spots would help, but you have to put up signs saying they are there. My other bugbear is birthday balloons. They are the only form of litter on remote moorland in the Pennines. We should insist that each one carries a manufacturer’s address so you can return to sender.Gareth Southgate’s redemption since his penalty miss in 1996 is a wonderful story. A faster reversal of reputation came to my newly and deservedly en-damed friend Kate Bingham. I asked how it felt like to be widely admired now after being denounced and vilified last year with the help of bad mouthing from her enemies. Memories are fading of how much of the media were determined to bring her down.I told her of a call from a journalist who asked me to comment on the fact that a) Bingham had hired as a PR consultant b) a woman who is married to c) a man who has sat on the board of a small charity with d) the father of e) the wife of f) Dominic Cummings. My answer was to laugh, but Kate reminded me the Financial Times actually ran that story as if it implied corruption. The more we find out about the negotiation she did to acquire vaccines, and the contrast with how other countries did it, the more remarkable the story becomes.
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In March last year, it was widely agreed by everybody sensible, me included, that talk of the pandemic originating in a laboratory was pseudoscientific nonsense almost on a par with UFOs and the Loch Ness monster. My own reasoning was that Mother Nature is a better genetic engineer than we will ever be, so something as accomplished at infection and spread could not possibly have been put together in a lab.
Today, the mood has changed. Even Dr Anthony Fauci, the US President’s chief medical advisor, now says he is ‘not convinced’ the virus emerged naturally. This month a letter in Science magazine from 18 senior virologists and other experts — including a close collaborator of the Wuhan lab at the centre of the debate, Ralph Baric — demanded that such a hypothesis be taken seriously. Suddenly, too, journalists have woken up and begun writing articles admitting they might have been hasty in dismissing a lab leak as a Trumpian conspiracy theory last year. CNN reported this week that the Biden administration shut down the State Department’s investigation into this.
My article for The Telegraph:
It is a year ago last week since the World Health Organisation conceded, belatedly, that a pandemic was under way. The organisation’s decisions in early 2020 were undoubtedly influenced by the Chinese government. On 14 January, to widespread surprise, the WHO was still echoing China’s assurance that there was no evidence of person-to-person spread: “it is very clear right now that we have no sustained human-to-human transmission,” said an official that day. Within days even China conceded this was wrong.
Later that month the WHO director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said his admiration for China’s speed in detecting the virus and sharing information was “beyond words”, adding “so is China's commitment to transparency and to supporting other countries”. At the time China’s government was punishing whistleblowers, taking down databases, censoring scientists and ordering samples destroyed.
This is a more detailed version of the article co-written with Alina Chan on the origin of the virus causing the Covid pandemic which was published in the Telegraph on 6 February.
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My article for the Wall Street Journal, with Dr. Chan:
In the first week of January, scientists representing the World Health Organization (WHO) were due to arrive in China to trace the origins of Covid-19. The team membership and terms of reference were preapproved by the Chinese government, yet at the last minute Beijing denied entry to the investigators. This prompted WHO to take the rare step of criticizing China, which relented and allowed the group to enter the country this week.
The brief standoff highlights a more serious problem: the inadequacy of WHO’s current investigative framework for exploring all plausible origins of Covid-19. The world needs an inquiry that considers not just natural origins but the possibility that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, escaped from a laboratory. The WHO team, however, plans to build on reports by Chinese scientists rather than mount an independent investigation. Given that Chinese authorities have been slow to release information, penalized scientists and doctors who shared clinical and genomic details of the novel coronavirus, and have since demonstrated a keen interest in controlling the narrative of how the virus emerged, this is not a promising foundation for WHO’s investigation.
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