Monday, June 7, 2021

COVID-19: animal origin or lab leak? Which is true? Does it matter?

There is one thing we all agree on: COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, a major industrial city in China, and spread from there around the world. What is still being hotly debated is whether the virus causing COVID-19 crossed over to humans from bats, probably via an intermediate host such as the pangolin, or whether it originated in a Chinese virology lab and accidentally escaped.

What do we know with reasonable certainty?

1. Previous coronaviruses, including those responsible for SARS and MERS, followed the animal-to-human route.

2. The Wuhan Institute of Virology has done extensive research on bat viruses, including coronaviruses and could have created this variant.

3. The World Health Organization (WHO) expert panel that concluded that the animal-to-human model was most likely did not have full access to all the data they requested.

So: lab leak or animal to human transmission? On-going studies of the virus’ genome may push the evidence one way or the other but will almost certainly not be 100% conclusive.

I contend that while it will give China a huge black eye if the lab-leak hypothesis seems most likely, because they have stone walled the investigation, in the end it really does not matter all that much. How can I say that when the media are so obsessed with the issue?

A. In either scenario, most experts agree that the safety protocols at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were not adequate, and this may be true at other labs around the world that study dangerous infectious agents. Going forward, an independent body should be empowered to inspect all labs in all countries that are studying infectious agents. Do you want a biohazard lab in your city that does not meet the highest safety standards?

B. Even if this particular virus did escape from a lab, we know there are literally thousands of nasty viruses in animal hosts around the world that have the potential to cause the next pandemic at any moment.

The lessons we should take from the COVID-19 pandemic are that we must prepare NOW for the next one, whatever its origin. The WHO must be empowered to go to all countries without limits or preconditions like those imposed by China.

The U.S. must take immediate steps to insulate public health from politics. There is no “Democratic” or “Republican” science, only valid science or bad science. Just as the Chair of the Federal Reserve has the independence to take the long view of the economy, the heads of the NIH and FDA must be able to offer advice based on science rather than political pressure.

Since it is not a question of if we will have another pandemic but when, we should start now to prepare by stockpiling necessary supplies and building up a more robust and nationally coordinated public health system. Whether it comes from a bat or a lab, it is out there and we must be ready.

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1 comment:

  1. You put things wonderfully in perspective. You should also be interviewed on national cable or broadcast TV, not just the same experts repeatedly. Thank you.