As a blogger of all things COVID over the last three years it would seem incomplete of me not to share thoughts on the latest news on the never-ending ‘debate’ on the origin of the pandemic. The reports from the FBI and the US Department of Energy (DOE) join a long list of others and have been widely reported as finding a Lab-Leak more likely than spillover, albeit with far less well publicised and major uncertainties.
Same evidence – different conclusions
For balance, four other US government agencies favour the spillover and two are undecided. The DOE and FBI reports had no new evidence to examine so their findings were tempered the DOE’s ‘low’ level of confidence, and the FBI’s ‘moderate’ level.
How they come to these differing conclusions faced with the same evidence is not clear. In other words, both are far from certain and the reports mean we will have to live with uncertainty.
Pick your theory
Given all this, which of the competing theories one chooses to believe has from the outset been heavily biased by feelings and perspectives on the creaking politics of the modern world and suspicions regarding science. People like certainty, but given that US opinion is divided even on something as certain as how long humanity has existed, consensus on this will clearly never exist. How the pandemic came about will remain another polarising issue, driven as ever by dishonest politics.
Trump famously crossed out “Corona” and put in its place “China” setting a dangerous precedent for sensationalism, and encouraging hatred.
Any bias against science would lean the observer towards a lab leak. Nationalism loves an enemy and to be patriotic you need a sense of superiority. Blame the Chinese. Those with conspiratorial tendencies make the greater leap to the intentional creation of the virus as a bioweapon. Or blame the bottomless pit of Bill Gates philanthropy with vaccine research. Or blame Big Pharma for using the whole thing to make vaccines. And the pinnacle of fear-mongering, a conspiracy to kill large portions of the population with deadly and expensive vaccines. Blame, amplify, magnify, and do it again, Mercola style.
Is there anything new?
No. Lots of time and money has been spent by different agencies investigating the same evidence, none of which is new and yet coming to different conclusions. Most of the reports and many eminent scientists continue to feel that spread from our under pressure, ailing wildlife, like so many diseases and pandemics before it, is far more likely. After all, it is certain that SARS1 came from a horseshoe bat, then modified by wild mammals to become a human virus. I continue to feel that the coronavirus riddled bats still not only hold the key, but are out there still, under pressure, with their viral populations evolving all the while.
So, despite these reports and their subsequent spread and manipulation, it seems that very little has changed. There remains no definitive ‘smoking gun’ and no new information, just another re-hash of what is already known. It seems now certain that certainty will never be arrived at we can conclude now that the probability is while a lab leak is far from impossible, natural sources remain more likely. I’m not sure if anything will happen to change this one sentence summary of where we are right now.
I do wonder if it’s a co-incidence that these reports are being published just after the Chinese visit to Russia. Their efforts at exploring at least some sort of end game in the Ukrainian war are accompanied by growing fears regarding their potentially disastrous military support of Russia.
If ever there was a need for diplomacy and care it should be in the efforts to avoid World War 3. We are seeing the opposite and the headlines resulting from the FBI and DOE really do little to help and much to hinder.
Indeed, the Wuhan lab had at least fostered co-operation between scientists from the US, Europe and their Chinese counterparts; for me, that it was part funded by the US was a good thing. Collaborations are vital if we have any chance of fighting global issues like climate change or habitat destruction or managing endless conflict based on borders which natural disasters ignore. Vaccine diplomacy has achieved much, sometimes overcoming political differences and conflict; this approach would be so helpful now.
The Chinese have not totally open about day to day operations in the lab, but the door to explore this further is now completely shut. Would the US show Chinese virologists around their labs if the tables were turned? I think not. Nor do we produce a newsletter called “What new in Porton Down!” Secrecy is universal and there is no way of compelling the Chinese to open up – practically speaking, our politicians have done the opposite, so in reality, that is that.
The problems are clear. Right now there is currently little agreement on standards in the worlds 60 BSL-4 laboratories, including poor definitions of what BSL labs even are and what they do. The international collaboration required for this to happen has been weakened. Coupled with that is secrecy about ‘Gain of Function’ experiments which even themselves are poorly defined and whose benefits and risks are poorly understood. Secrecy breeds conspiratorial fantasies when public discourse might shed light on what is useful and what is not.
It would be sensible of course to look forward to solutions rather than backwards for blame. It is well argued that futile efforts to find certainly have hampered the urgent need for action. Perhaps it would be most sensible to improve biosecurity and be ready for more inevitable spillovers.
Happily moves are being made in this direction with the Draft Findings & Recommendations of Two National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity Working Groups. That is really good news, even if it did not make many headlines.
Virologists are clear on the vital role of their research and have much to offer in terms of regulation and safety. We are now seeing movements in the right direction which should be something we can all agree on.
It would be useful something along the lines of the International regulator of nuclear power (IAEA) were established for Biosecure Labs.
Paradoxically, lab leak Republicans, forever the experts in manipulating blame and outrage, seem the least likely of all to move forward with global governance, oversight and regulation, preferring instead populist sabre rattling which is leading to further tensions, less co-operations and no real outcome other that yet more angst.
The international collaboration of scientists and politicians we need right now to prepare for the next pandemic has been shaken; the industrial breeding grounds for viral evolution still churn out processed meat and simultaneously risk the evolution of a more deadly influenza strain which already are decimating wildlife bird populations. The labs quietly continue their work. The bats do their best to survive. This is not rocket science, all angles need covering.
How clever are we?
Understanding of plagues past in the public mind were driven by religious delusions and imagination. Imagine the horrors of the many pandemics we have lived through amplified by not having any idea what was behind them. Even in 1918, viruses had not been discovered. With no knowledge of how pandemics came about, the usual suspect of human sin were invoked. The Gods must be angry at something! It is hard to imagine what that have been like, yet is unsettling to see the current level of debate in this modern age.
We not only know the causes of infections, we understand them right down to the molecular structure and the DNA which codes for it all. We can test for them, track them, treat them and prevent them. Despite the ready availability of incredible amounts of data and previously unimaginable processing power we have so much farther to go in terms of managing the global problems we are creating. Pandemics are just one of the greater threats lying around the corner. We seem to be going backwards.
The last word….
The scientific debate it seems, will always be bogged down by misinformation and mendacious politics. Anger, outrage and blame are continually stoked and divert attention away from the less sensational (in terms of headlines) improvements in practical outcomes which are now being explored.
Addressing biosecurity and our redefining our response to the next spillover would save lives and reduce suffering for the next inevitable pandemic. While we have moved on from medieval perspective on pandemics, but some thinking is still rooted in belief rather than reason.
For what it’s worth, my money is still on the natural evolution and spillover of this virus. It has happened many times in the past and the opinions of the leading virologists favour it.
“Spiked” the recently published and highly readable book by Jeremy Farrar and Anjana Ahuja describe how scientists changed their opinion in the face of knowledge and understanding as well as the subsequent tardy pandemic politics.
The feeling of many of the world most able virologists way back as the pandemic gathered its frightening early pace was largely in favour of a lab leak. Through collaboration and discussion this shifted to a spillover as the pandemics cause and resulted in an early and urgent publication of their findings.
Indeed, even is the lab leak theory is true – (it’s almost impossible to prove something didn’t happen) the motive for that research lay in the problematical viruses spilling over from corrupted nature in any case. The proximate cause remains our abuse of nature.
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