27 August 2021

Errare humanum est

"I am interested in the errors of human thinking" – biologist Alexander Panchin

Maria Ganiyants, Muscovite Mag

Biologist Alexander Panchin is also engaged in popularizing science and destroying myths. The scientist told Moskvich Mag about the successes in editing the human genome, about his confidence in the natural origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and about why prophetic dreams do not exist.


A number of influential Western virologists have repeatedly spoken out about the artificial appearance of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Do you consider its origin natural?

Indeed, there was a version of the Nobel laureate and virology specialist Luc Montagnier, who said that the coronavirus has inserts from the human immunodeficiency virus and it has a laboratory origin. But this is not the case, there are no HIV inserts in the SARS-CoV-2 genome. Sometimes even Nobel laureates believe in strange things, like Carey Mallis believed in astrology, and Linus Polling believed in the ability of ascorbic acid to cure cancer. (Montagnier himself, in his old age, believed in the "memory of water" – VM.) Even before that, there were statements that SARS-CoV-2 was a product of a combination of two specific coronaviruses from one scientific publication, which also turned out to be untrue. It was enough to compare these viruses with SARS-CoV-2. Then it was said that there was a suspicious furin site in the spike-shaped protein of the virus (a section of the protein that is recognized by the human enzyme furin), but a more detailed study revealed that similar sequences occurred repeatedly in a variety of coronaviruses, in some influenza viruses and not only.

In fact, there are no signs of artificiality in the SARS-CoV-2 genome, and the version of the evolutionary origin of the virus dominates among specialists, which is clearly visible in scientific publications on this topic.

The only argument in favor of a leak from the laboratory (not to be confused, by the way, with an artificial origin, because a natural virus can also escape) is the presence of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the supposed place of the beginning of the pandemic.

But Wuhan is the eighth largest city in China, and pandemics tend to start in large cities. And if the epidemic had started in Beijing or Shanghai, then there would also be similar laboratories there, which you could point your finger at and say that it was from there that the virus escaped.

But I think the artificial origin of the virus is unlikely for another reason. The fact is that of the hundreds of viruses that occur in human populations, none has a laboratory origin and not a single pandemic was caused by an artificial virus. At the same time, there are hundreds of thousands of viruses that exist in the animal world and that could potentially be transmitted to humans. People are constantly in contact with animals, over the past 50 years there have been more than 100 thousand cases of rabies infection in China. At the same time, there were only a few laboratory infections in China, and dozens around the world. According to modern estimates, there are hundreds of thousands of viruses in nature that can potentially be transmitted to humans from animals. There is no such thing in any laboratory.

In other words, the probability of infection from an animal is initially very high, so this is the default hypothesis.

The Nobel Prize-winning psychologist David Kanneman has a study that shows that people, when assessing the probability of an event, very easily forget the a priori (initial) probability of it. We can tell a person that there is a sample of a hundred people: 70 of them are engineers, and 30 are farmers. Or vice versa – 30 farmers and 70 engineers. And give him a description of a random person from the sample so that the subject estimates the probability that an engineer is in front of him. It is curious that the typical answers of people do not depend on information about the proportion of engineers in the population, and this is wrong.

In the case of a virus, the a priori probability is strongly biased towards natural origin, but if a person hears that the virus has escaped from the Wuhan laboratory, he immediately forgets about the a priori probability. This is a universal feature of human thinking. Conspiracy theories about the origin of other viruses, such as the human immunodeficiency virus, which allegedly escaped from a laboratory in the United States, are still alive. Why? Because an HIV epidemic has been discovered in the USA. Although in fact HIV came to us from Africa.

There is a wonderful book by Rob Brotherton, "Distrustful Minds. What attracts us to conspiracy theories", where he reveals the mechanisms of why people believe in conspiracy theories.

No pandemic has been caused by a virus of artificial origin.

I would like to add that although we do not see any arguments in favor of a laboratory leak of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, this does not mean that a natural virus could not escape from the laboratory. It will not be possible to distinguish this from the natural origin by the genome of the virus. I have claims rather to incorrect arguments, which are given as proof that the virus escaped from the laboratory. But as for its artificial origin, everything is simpler, the study of the genome of the virus so far suggests the opposite.

We all know about genetically modified vegetables, but is it possible to edit the human genome? And why do it?

There are two directions of editing the human genome. The first is a gene therapy approach when it comes to an already born person who needs to correct a genetic defect in part of the cells. For example, take a copy of a gene, put it in a vector that delivers the gene or part of it to cells of a certain type.

Let's say we have a patient with hemophilia. His blood clots badly, then a healthy copy of the gene that is responsible for the synthesis of one of the blood clotting factors is delivered to his liver cells. Such gene therapy is successfully used in humans, and so many hereditary diseases are treated today.

The second direction is the actual editing of the genome in the embryo, at the stage of a fertilized egg (zygote), when all the DNA is inside one cell. Then the right genetic construct is injected directly into the cell. This can be done, for example, by microinjection. There is a new technology for editing the genomes of higher organisms CRISPR/Cas9, a kind of molecular scissors that allow you to insert the necessary elements into the genome.

There are plenty of such experiments on animals. For scientific purposes, a large number of animals have been created with the help of genetic engineering, mainly to understand what a particular gene is responsible for and how they work.

There is only one such case in public today. Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced an experiment with the genetic modification of children. He claims to have created twins with DNA editing aimed at creating HIV resistance. As a result, he was sentenced to several years in prison for violating the rules of conducting such experiments. WHO has now released a document on the rules for conducting research on gene therapy and human genomic editing. According to this document, it is clear that new work with embryos will appear in the near future, already agreed with the ethics committees. However, in many countries of the world such studies are prohibited.

Is it possible to predict a child's genetic diseases even before the embryo appears?

Yes, if we analyze the genome of the parents. Using the method of artificial insemination and screening of embryos before they are planted by mothers, it is possible to guarantee the birth of children without serious genetic diseases and without any genetic engineering. From several embryos in a test tube, after a genetic test, the healthiest one is chosen.

What is the danger of editing the human genome? Are there any complications?

In the case of human gene therapy, this is a serious medical intervention. And in each case, there should be research and understanding of the possible range of side effects. However, safety and efficacy have been shown for a number of gene therapies. And with genomic editing of a human embryo, the main danger is that modern methods used on animals do not guarantee the absence of non-target mutations. In principle, about 50 new mutations occur in a person in each generation (the vast majority are neutral), but I would not like to see more of them in the case of genetic editing. Therefore, the methods are being refined and improved.

Are there useful mutations?

There are plenty of them, I'll give you a couple of funny examples. There are people who process ethyl alcohol very well, or tetrachromates, who are able to simultaneously perceive the visible range of the electromagnetic radiation spectrum by four different types of light receptors. And there are people who have developed resistance to covid or HIV due to a mutation.

To what extent in the future, of course, is it realistic to edit a person? For example, to get winged people or centaurs?

No, we don't know how to do it. Nothing supernatural will happen. But it is possible to prevent almost any genetic hereditary disease. And reproduce in a person any useful mutations found in other people.

Will such gene tuning be expensive?

It all depends on scalability. Here is the Sputnik vaccine, which I was vaccinated with, also delivers one gene to different cells using a vector. The vaccine is distributed free of charge. It's not difficult to scale. But most of the existing approaches are still expensive.

You wrote the book "Defense against the Dark Arts. A guide to the world of paranormal phenomena". What for?

I am interested in the errors of human thinking, I analyze them in detail in the book, those errors due to which people systematically come to false beliefs about the existence of supernatural abilities and phenomena.

In each generation, a person has about 50 new mutations, but I would not like to see more of them in the case of genetic editing.

The simplest example is the Barnum effect, according to which a person highly appreciates the accuracy of individual descriptions of their personality, but these descriptions are actually vague and generalized enough that they can be applied to many other people with the same success. It is the Barnum effect that explains the popularity of astrology. The scientist Bertram Forer discovered this effect. He invited students to take a personality test, and then based on it he gave an individual analysis to each. The vast majority of students noted that the result is quite accurate. In fact, everyone received the same piece of paper.

And what about prophetic dreams or clairvoyance?

There is such a phenomenon as false memory. American psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, who studies false memory, has shown that events in the present affect our memories.

Memory is an easily editable thing. Loftus' research has shown how to inject people with false memories of events that didn't happen.

And memories of dreams are especially unreliable. If you record a dream immediately after waking up, and then wait a couple of days, then the new memory will often differ from the recorded old version. People remember better those dreams that at least partially coincide with what is happening in the world around them. Plus, if people are worried about their loved ones, especially those who have poor health, then they may dream about the death of this person. And then, if he really dies, the dream will turn out to be prophetic.

Sometimes, when a person is faced with an event in his life, he may remember that he dreamed something like this (we see a lot of dreams, but almost forget everything), but the brain draws everything else, as if he had a prophetic dream.

What about clairvoyance? When people in reality foresee certain events of the future.

All scientific tests of such predictions have failed. Although there are people who are convinced that they have such a gift, but they are probably mistaken.

What can convince you of the existence of God or higher powers?

There are studies that have tried to test the effectiveness of prayers. People after heart surgery were divided into three groups. They prayed for one group and told the sick that they were being prayed for, they prayed for the second group and were told that they might be praying, they did not pray for the third group, but they were also told that there might be prayer. Then, after some time, the researchers compared the number of complications after operations, and it turned out that prayer had no effect. And for those who knew that they were being prayed for, the statistics were even worse. Now, if such an experiment worked in a different direction, then for me there would be an argument in favor of the existence of higher forces.

Or if I had encountered gospel miracles: with the help of prayer, someone revived the dead or regrown a lost limb. So far, there are more chances to grow organs from stem cells using a 3D printer. Because science works, but religious ideas don't.

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