Monday, October 25, 2021

How Did COVID-19 Start?


Nearly two years after the initial fatalities that would turn out to be caused by the COVID-19 virus, we still do not know the answer to that question.  But last week, the U. S. National Institutes of Health revealed that it was funding "gain-of-function" research on bat coronaviruses in Wuhan during 2018 and 2019, in direct contradiction to Dr. Anthony Fauci's testimony before Congress that no such research was being supported by NIH there. 


In times past, plagues were regarded as simply acts of God, and while people tried to avoid transmitting infections by means of quarantines and travel restrictions, it was rarely possible to pinpoint the exact time and place where a given pandemic began.  But with advances in genetics and biochemistry, infectious agents can often be tracked down and successfully traced to their source, as was done with a localized outbreak of what came to be known as Legionnaires' disease, when it was traced to bacteria harbored in an air-conditioning water system.


By all measures, the COVID-19 pandemic has been the worst plague in modern times in terms of economic and social disruptions, casualties, and deaths.  According to the website, COVID-19 has been responsible for about 4.9 million deaths worldwide so far.  If for no other reason than to learn from our mistakes, it should be an urgent global priority to discover how the pandemic started, and whether it was by accidental transfer from an animal species such as bats to humans, or by means of deliberate creation of more aggressive viruses than occur in nature and accidental spread from the laboratory that created them.


Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic started in a country that has systematically suppressed the information that would help in deciding this question.  But the following facts are known.


Shi Zhengli, a viral researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, has worked for years with viruses taken from wild bats, as bats have the peculiar ability to host a wide variety of viruses that can be harmful to other species without themselves becoming ill.  To perform this research, she and her colleagues traveled far and wide to collect samples from bats in remote caves in other parts of China.  She has continued to perform research connected with COVID-19 in China after the pandemic began, and denies that there has ever been an accident in her institute resulting in infection of staff or students. 


Wuhan is by all accounts the city where COVID-19 first claimed its victims.  It is the largest city in central China with a population of about 11 million.


As we now know, the NIH funded so-called "gain-of-function" research through an organization called EcoHealth Alliance, headed by researcher Peter Daszak, which was conducted in association with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.  Gain-of-function is a bland phrase that means an infectious agent has been enhanced in its ability to infect a host.  While some argument can be made that concocting such viruses is the only way to figure out a defense against them, it is obviously an extremely dangerous thing to do.  Dr. Zhengli admits that prior to COVID-19, much of her viral research was done in lab conditions that were less safe (so-called "BSL-2" and "BSL-3") than the highest-security BSL-4 labs.


Let's imagine a different scenario and ask some questions about it.  Suppose nuclear weapons had not yet been invented, but researchers were hot on the track of cracking the secret of nuclear energy.  Suppose also in this contrafactual fantasy world that the U. S. funded some of this research at a center in Sao Paolo, Brazil.  Suddenly one day, a huge explosion happens in Sao Paolo, wiping it off the map and sending radiation into the air that eventually kills a total of 4.9 million people worldwide.  Despite the fact that most of the relevant data to determine the exact cause was vaporized in the explosion, wouldn't it be wise at least to do our very best to figure out what happened, with or without the cooperation of the Brazilian government?


In a sense, we already know what to do.  Whether SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, actually originated in a lab accident in Wuhan or in an exotic-food market there, we now know that early detection and faster responses to highly contagious new diseases might make the difference between another world-crippling pandemic and a minor contained outbreak. 


In the case of COVID-19, the Chinese government delayed for weeks before even publicly acknowledging the magnitude of the problem, and criticized brave medical workers who tried to publicize the seriousness of the nascent epidemic.  In retrospect, this was exactly the wrong thing to do, but it is the natural response of most governments to minimize something that is not yet so obviously awful that denials will look silly. 


One hopes that if a similar outbreak happened in, say, Chattanooga, state and federal officials would be more forthcoming than their Chinese counterparts in telling the rest of us about what was going on.  As to the measures that would have stopped the epidemic in its tracks, it seems that only a city-wide 100% quarantine with extreme measures taken to enforce it would have worked, and maybe not even then.  Any government will be reluctant to impose such a draconian measure unless there are very good reasons to do so. 


But as things stand, there are still unanswered questions about what other activities EcoHealth Alliance was doing in China that they were supposed to report on but didn't.  Unless the Chinese government suddenly becomes more forthcoming about what really happened in Wuhan, we may never know how COVID-19 really began.  But we certainly know how it spread.


In investigations of engineering disasters, future accidents of a similar nature can't reliably be forestalled until the exact mechanism of the one under investigation is understood.  We have part of the picture of COVID-19's origins, but not the whole story.  The best we can do now is to be much more aware of rapidly spreading fatal diseases in the future, and willing to take what may look like extreme measures locally to prevent another global pandemic. 


Sources:  National Review carried on its website the article "The Wuhan Lab Coverup" at  I also referred to the NIH letter at and the Wikipedia article on Shi Zhengli. 

No comments:

Post a Comment