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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 234

Matt Ridley on the Search for the Origin of COVID-19

Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19 (book cover)

A new virus descended on the human species in 2019 wreaking unprecedented havoc. Finding out where it came from and how it first jumped into people is an urgent priority, but early expectations that this would prove an easy question to answer have been dashed. Nearly two years into the pandemic, the crucial mystery of the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is not only unresolved but has deepened.

In this conversation based on the uniquely insightful book, Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19, Matt Ridley reviews how he and his co-author Alina Chan have tried to get to the bottom of how a virus whose closest relations live in bats in subtropical southern China somehow managed to begin spreading among people more than 1,500 kilometers away in the city of Wuhan. They grapple with the baffling fact that the virus left none of the expected traces that such outbreaks usually create: no infected market animals or wildlife, no chains of early cases in travelers to the city, no smoldering epidemic in a rural area, no rapid adaptation of the virus to its new host — human beings.

To try to solve this pressing mystery, Ridley delves deep into the events of 2019 leading up to 2021, the details of what went on in animal markets and virology laboratories, the records and data hidden from sight within archived Chinese theses and websites, and the clues that can be coaxed from the very text of the virus’s own genetic code.

Dr. Matt Ridley is the author of books that have sold well over a million copies in 32 languages: The Red Queen, The Origins of Virtue, Genome, Nature via Nurture, Francis Crick, The Rational Optimist, The Evolution of Everything, and How Innovation Works. In his bestseller Genome and in his biography of Francis Crick, he showed an ability to translate the details of genomic discoveries into understandable and exciting stories. During the current pandemic, he has written essays for the Wall Street Journal and The Spectator about the origin and genomics of the virus. He is a member of the House of Lords in the UK.

Dr. Alina Chan is a postdoctoral researcher with a background in medical genetics, synthetic biology, and vector engineering. At the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Dr. Chan is currently creating next generation vectors for human gene therapy. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Chan began to investigate problems relevant to finding the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and in parallel spearheaded the development of the COVID-19 CoV Genetics browser for scientists worldwide to rapidly track virus lineages and mutations by locations and date ranges of interest.

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This episode is sponsored by Wondrium:

Wondrium (sponsor)

This episode was released on December 11, 2021.

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Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic) by Deanna and Skylar (High Tech High Media Arts, San Diego, CA)

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