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Was the coronavirus transmitted from wild animals to humans, or was it accidentally leaked from a lab? Whatever the answer, the spirited debate over the origins of the disease is a dangerous distraction from the serious discussion we need to have: how to prevent repeats of the Covid-19 pandemic.
For most of the last year, the lab-leak hypothesis often seemed little more than yet another attack on China by the Trump administration. Most scientists continued to believe that the virus probably jumped to humans from an animal, as was the case with other coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS. In recent weeks, however, new and vigorous claims about the pandemic’s origins have emerged, with lab-leak proponents taking the offensive.
The controversy burst onto the front pages following the Wall Street Journal’s May 23rd report that in November 2019, a few weeks before the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in China was reported to the world, several scientists at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough from a respiratory ailment to seek hospital care. This suggested that the lab might have been the initial source of the virus. Democrats responded defensively. Within a week of the Journal’s report, President Biden felt compelled to ask the intelligence community to present a full report on the claims within ninety days.
But there was actually nothing very new in the Journal’s report. The Journal claimed to be drawing on “a previously undisclosed” U.S. intelligence report., but the article added only a few details to a State Department report which had, in fact, been published four months earlier. The report, of uncertain reliability, indicated that scientists in Wuhan had developed symptoms “consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illness.”
This information would be relevant to understanding the origins of the Covid-19 virus only if the lab scientists had clearly become ill before other cases of Covid-19 emerged in the community, and were known to have had Covid-19, not the flu. In fact, Covid-19 was first reported by the Chinese on December 31, 2019, weeks after the scientists supposedly became ill. But it has subsequently been widely reported that isolated cases of Covid-19 may have appeared in China in November or even October, and some evidence suggests that Covid-19 may have been circulating in China as early as late summer or early fall and may have even spread as far as Italy by early fall.
The Journal presented no other new evidence for a lab-leak origin. However, lab-leak advocates such as science writer Nicholas Wade hastened to point out that an animal source for the virus also remained nothing more than “a conjecture which, however plausible to begin with, had gained not a shred of supporting evidence in over a year.” By comparison, Wade added, “the intermediary host species of SARS1 was identified within four months of the epidemic’s outbreak, and the host of MERS within nine months.”
Definitively identifying an animal source would rule out a lab-leak as a source, but the lack of a confirmed animal source is not evidence for human error. Lacking new evidence such as an unlikely Chinese confession that the Wuhan lab was at fault, the renewed lab-leak debate contributes nothing to our knowledge of the disease’s origins.
Several commentators have condemned the media’s gullibility in accepting the animal- origins hypothesis over the last year, despite the lack of conclusive evidence for it. Yet what Wade and other lab-leak proponents ignore is that investigating the animal reservoir of a newly emerged infectious disease can take years. For instance, we still do not know the animal source of the Ebola epidemic or of the other four coronaviruses that infect humans.
Other commentators argue that the origins debate is important for what it might reveal about lab safety. Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson writes, “If a careless error by researchers on viruses at a single lab could end up killing potentially 7 million people… [w]e would urgently need to figure out what had gone wrong so we could prevent future labs from accidentally killing millions.”
Wired senior editor Daniel Engber, writing in The Atlantic, echoed the concern. “Instead of calling for a new and better inquiry into origins, let’s stipulate that pandemics can result from natural spillovers or from laboratory accidents—and then let’s move along to implications.” In particular, Engber targeted “gain of function” research, in which a disease-causing organism is altered to enhance transmissibility or virulence so that we can better identify potentially dangerous diseases and develop vaccines and therapeutics. Should it be permitted—or is it too dangerous?
A close examination of what the New York Times’s Ross Douthat calls “the risks of scientific hubris and cutting-edge research” is certainly warranted. But this is not a new debate and it does not depend on our understanding the origins of Covid-19. In 2014, the United States initiated a moratorium and funding pause on gain of function due to potential safety and security risks. Three years later, the moratorium was lifted because such research was deemed “important in helping us identify, understand, and develop strategies and effective countermeasures against rapidly evolving pathogens that pose a threat to public health.”
However, concern about lab safety and research ethics is not what is driving the current debate. For starters, the debate resonates with the needs of many Americans. Even though the pandemic shows signs of coming to an end in the United States, the nation is still traumatized. Psychologically, the debate responds to the need for an explanation of the disaster.
But ideological fervor also plays a key role. In Spring 2020, the belief that the pandemic must have been the result of Chinese malfeasance was pushed by Donald Trump and his supporters to activate nationalist voters and divert attention from the Administration’s dismal failure to deal with the threat to Americans’ lives and economic security. The new debate is equally ideological and has been repurposed for Biden-bashing.
Many of the same people who called Covid-19 “the Chinese virus” now condemn scientists who fail to acknowledge that the Wuhan lab leaked the virus and condemn journalists and outlets that fail to highlight this possibility. For example, Trump’s Food and Drug Administration Director Scott Gottlieb, now at The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative thinktank, has been widely cited in right wing media for his insistence that circumstantial evidence supports a lab leak. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo agrees: “It was outrageous to see scientists, even government, U.S. government scientists who were denying this when they surely must have seen the same information that I had seen. That includes certainly Dr. Fauci as well.” Fox News’s Liz Peek charges that this failure reveals “Biden’s China problem,” and that the White House doesn’t “dare confront Beijing over COVID origins.”
For conservatives, the debate could shift attention away from an administration that chose to pretend that Covid-19 did not require a vigorous and concerted response. A foreign villain makes a perfect scapegoat: The Times’ Ross Douthat gleefully notes that, if it could be shown that the virus did originate in a lab leak, it would show that the whole pandemic “was basically [the Chinese’] Chernobyl except their incompetence and cover-up sickened not just one of their own cities but also the entire globe.”
So does the debate matter? Having this debate at all creates a false expectation that resolving the origins of Covid-19 is relevant to preventing future pandemics. Even liberal outlets are spreading this nonsense. “We really need to know how and why this virus came to be, so we can stop it from happening again,” writes CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh. The Editorial Board of the Financial Times concurs: “It is vital to understand the origin [of the pandemic] if we are to prevent similar outbreaks in the future.” Some experts repeat this mantra. “There’s going to be covid-26 and covid-32 unless we fully understand the origins of Covid-19,” says Peter Hotez, Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology & Microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine.
Walsh, the Financial Times, and Hotez are all wrong. We don’t need to know the origins of Covid-19 to know how pandemics start. Outbreaks of infectious disease that could become widescale epidemics are common. Save for endemic diseases such as cholera and meningitis, almost all are transmitted to humans from animals, or from human to human by way of animal vectors. Outbreaks of infectious disease have quadrupled over the last forty years, and thirty of these outbreaks killed more than 1000 people each. About half of the latter outbreaks were of endemic diseases. Fifteen jumped from animals to people or were carried by animals. HIV/AIDs came from chimpanzees, MERS from dromedary camels, SARS from palm civets. Exactly one of the thirty outbreaks, the 1977 “Russian flu” epidemic, began with a lab leak.
Addressing deficiencies in lab safety is a worthy goal, but it will not prevent pandemic disease. This is what will: rebuilding our underfunded public health apparatus; strengthening our social safety net (e.g., paid medical leave, financial support for those impacted by shutdowns); strengthening disease surveillance and early detection of disease outbreaks; creating international norms requiring prompt and transparent communication about outbreaks of infectious disease; strengthening the World Health Organization so that it can more effectively coordinate international responses; stockpiling medical equipment and supplies; launching a massive campaign to develop broad-spectrum antibiotics, antivirals, antifungals, and antiparasitic drugs; and other, similar measures.
Equally urgently, we need a robust public conversation about the underlying reasons for the accelerating rate of infectious disease outbreaks. Changes in land use, global warming, and increased consumption of wild animals as food all lead to increased contact between humans and disease-carrying wild animals. Diseases that pass from animals to humans also spread more easily due to increased global mobility. “The earth is trying to get our attention,” wrote historian Nell Irvin Painter.
Whatever China did or did not do, reveal or keep secret, these are systemic failures, not the fault of individual scientists or governments. Any other debate about the origins of Covid-19 is an enormous distraction from that urgent business.
John Ehrenreich is Professor Emeritus, SUNY-Old Westbury, and the author of Third Wave Capitalism (ILR/Cornell University Press, 2016). He thanks Duncan Foley, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Ben Ehrenreich for their inputs into this article.