[Doyle McManus] New look at the origins of COVID-19
It wasn’t so much what he did – order US intelligence agencies to take a fresh look at the origins of COVID-19, including whether the coronavirus that causes the disease accidentally escaped from a lab in China – that it was the state of mind that motivated its action.
For more than a year, the debate over the origins of the virus has been deeply political, with former President Donald Trump and many of his supporters embracing the laboratory leak hypothesis, while many of his critics have scoffed at it. ‘idea.
Biden has taken a different and refreshing approach: he keeps an open mind to both possibilities and asks for more information to get closer to the truth.
When COVID-19 first appeared in the central city of Wuhan in China in late 2019, most scientists’ first guess was that it was from animal-to-human transfer, as this has been a frequent route of the spread of virus.
Chinese officials said the source of the pandemic appeared to be a “wet market” that sold live animals. Wuhan is home to a government-run research center that specializes in studying coronaviruses, but officials said the strain found in humans was nothing they were working on.
Some scientists have said the possibility of a lab leak should not be ruled out, and Chinese Hawks led by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, said the theory deserves more attention.
Trump initially ignored the question and even praised the Chinese government for its “transparency.” But in the spring of 2020, as the pandemic spread uncontrollably across the United States, he began to blame Beijing for what he called the “Chinese plague.”
He told reporters he saw secret intelligence suggesting the virus came from a lab. “I think they made a horrible mistake and they didn’t want to admit it,” he said.
Trump’s political motive was transparent. He was under fire for his administration’s chaotic response to the pandemic and he needed someone to blame. “It’s China’s fault,” he said.
And after years of wacky lies by the president, it was hard for Trump’s critics to believe him, especially in the absence of any publicly available evidence.
What has often been lost, however, is that there was little direct evidence to support the laboratory leak or wet market hypothesis. The origin of the virus has remained stubbornly undetermined – a fact frustrating for those who longed for a clear and uncluttered narrative.
Over time, paradoxically, this lack of new evidence has shifted the scientific debate. Researchers spent months trying to determine which species had spread the coronavirus to humans and came back empty-handed; maybe the lab leak theory wasn’t so improbable after all.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government has remained uncooperative with outside investigations. An international team sent by the United Nations World Health Organization had limited access to the Wuhan Institute and its databases. The WHO chief said the results of the visit were inconclusive, “All hypotheses remain open and require further study.” This prompted several groups of scientists, including some skeptics of a lab leak, to write open letters urging a fresh look at all possibilities.
In Washington, the U.S. intelligence community had previously told Biden – and Congress – that it was divided: two agencies still lean towards animal-to-human transmission, one favored the idea of a lab leak, but none was certain.
So the president asked them to look again and report back in 90 days.
It didn’t translate into a major policy change – only an admission that after more than a year we don’t know much more than when the pandemic started. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, repeated his unchanged diagnosis last week: “It is highly likely that this virus appeared naturally, but we cannot rule out the possibility of some sort of laboratory accident. “
This new investigation may well end with more uncertainty. And even if a scientist or spy finds conclusive evidence that the virus was born, it won’t change the course of the pandemic, or what governments are doing to combat it.
But it could have consequences in other ways. If the virus comes from a lab, there will be a global demand for stricter safety standards, not only in China but also in all other countries that research viruses. There will be a new debate on the wisdom of “gain-of-function” experiments – research that deliberately makes viruses more powerful as a step toward designing defenses. And the authoritarian Chinese government, which has claimed to handle the pandemic better than democratic countries, will suffer a serious loss of influence and prestige.
In the meantime, there are lessons here for the rest of us. In scientific conflicts, resist the temptation to choose a side according to the politics of the day; wait for the evidence to arrive. And get used to the ambiguity. There is no guarantee that a 90-day study will produce clear answers. Some mysteries are destined to go unresolved.
Hearing about the new investigation, Trump, unsurprisingly, saw a very different, but characteristic lesson, it was both self-referential and erroneous:
“Now everyone agrees that I was right.”
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. – Ed.
(The Los Angeles Times / Tribune Content Agency)