Why the COVID origins debate is missing the mark

🌐 A key assumption is left unchallenged.

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Tensions have been brewing.

You may not see many headlines about it right now, but for several weeks earlier this summer, there was a lot being discussed about the origins of this coronavirus. And it remains an open question.

Much of the debate focused on a clash between the United States and China. This is unsurprising—clashes between the two tend to get a lot of airtime. 

In this instance, the US had called for a probe into the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 had accidentally escaped from a lab in the city of Wuhan. That call was bolstered by additional calls from the WHO and other countries for a new independent scientific investigation about the origins of the virus. Predictably, both were rejected by China. (Guardian + FT + Al Jazeera + Axios + BBC + SCMP + NYT + WaPo)

US-China duels aside, these calls were fuelled by two developments.

One, China’s alleged refusal to hand over crucial evidence to scientists who visited the country during the first investigation by the WHO in the first weeks of this year.

Two, the re-emergence of the lab-leak theory as a credible possibility. As we saw in late May, this followed an open letter by prominent biologists calling for an investigation, and a US intelligence report that referred to instances of COVID-like illness among staff at China's Wuhan Institute of Virology before the local outbreak was declared.

Despite China’s protestations, the US continues to follow that line of inquiry—intelligence officials are on the case (Axios + CNN + AP + NYT + NYT). The possibility of a lab leak is much debated in the media and among scientists too (NYT + Nature + WaPo + Economist + WaPo + Slate + MIT Tech Review + New Yorker).

I won’t get into that debate, except to point to an interesting viewpoint in this piece by Adam Taylor in the Washington Post, who argues that the lab-leak theory has gained more prominence not because of new evidence, but because of the absence of compelling evidence for or against it.

What I do what to get into, is this:

Does this all matter—really?

The entire conversation is predicated on an assumption that being able to prepare for a future pandemic depends on knowing where and how this one came about.

In an otherwise excellent summary of how the origins debate evolved, the subhead of this Economist piece asks: “How can the world prepare for a future pandemic when it does not know for sure where the current one came from?”

The question is treated as a rhetorical one—the article doesn’t broach it. It’s assumed that knowing is essential for preparedness.

But as far as I see, no one has looked at whether that is actually true. And it’s an assumption worth challenging.

My first frame of reference is the ‘swine flu’ pandemic just over a decade ago. I followed it closely at the time, while managing coverage as a news editor. I remember the alarm—and the very early mornings at the office—when the virus first emerged. I also remember how it fizzled out in much of the world within months, leaving behind a sense that reports of mass death were greatly exaggerated.

Did the recent memory of that mild pandemic incident actually contribute to the somewhat relaxed early response to Covid-19? And what would that say about the value of basing future preparedness on an incident that already occurred?

You know the saying (attributed to physics Nobel laureate Niels Bohr):

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future.”

My second frame of reference is the range of activities that make up preparedness. Pinpointing high-risk activities is just one—and even then, that could be about research on potentially dangerous pathogens but it could also be about how humans disturb nature with deforestation, or it could be about animal farming. Another is the capacity to monitor for signs of trouble in areas of high-risk activity. Add to that the capacity to decide if what’s detected is actually worrisome, and to give early warning to whoever might be affected. Coordination—between specialties, regions, countries—is also an important link in the chain. Having the capability to assess risk, and making decisions in the face of uncertainty, matter for preparedness too.

Think of it as a chain, from the point where a virus is in a position to jump the species barrier—and that could be in any number of places—to the point where it’s still possible to contain spread. Each link is an opportunity to detect the signal and intervene.

Zeynep Tufecki is the one commentator I’ve seen who is alive to this in her discussion of the lab-leak debates:

“The obligatory note here is the reminder that with pandemic potential pathogens, the one unlucky chain of incidents of course could be something that did not involve the lab at all, whatever the cover-up that came after it.”

The point is, there’s much more to preparedness than the exact origins of a pathogen we have seen already. This isn’t to say that where this coronavirus came from, or the conditions of risky lab research, should be left unexamined (they certainly won’t be). But undue focus on the origins question leaves the wider field of preparedness without due serious attention. I question whether the majority of our investigative energy should be spent in that direction.

Preparedness and response are systemic capabilities. Focusing on a single aspect that’s politically juicy, or on what happened in the past, won’t help us put in place a robust system for a future event that could look very different.

The answer, I would argue, is in working on developing agile systems for preparedness and response. It's in being able to operate in uncertainty, not chasing certainty. It’s highly unlikely that two pandemics will ever be the same.

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TREND TO WATCH 

Multiple reports of floods, fires and famine from around the world are intensifying conversations about the climate emergency. This is also tied up with news that parts of the Amazon have flipped from being a carbon sink to a carbon emitter. Expect to see shifts in the global discourse as models and priorities get re-examined.

More in the last two Briefings, July 20 and July 27.

UNDER THE RADAR

We’ve known for some time that exposure to lead during childhood has long-lasting impacts. But further risks have now come to light, the Economist reports: stunting of social development and an association with “undesirable personality traits”.

KEY HEADLINES AT A GLANCE

Covid-19

  • Long COVID has more than 200 symptoms - Guardian

  • COVID is especially risky for people with HIV, large study finds - NYT

  • COVID vaccines have higher approval in less-affluent countries - Nature

  • The Lambda variant has been found in 29 countries, but how dangerous it is remains unclear - Conversation

Development

  • How Covid-19 undermines democracy in Africa - AllAfrica

  • South Africa’s riots are a warning to the world - WaPo

Climate

  • Africa’s green superpower: why Gabon wants markets to help tackle climate change - FT

  • In addition to carbon credits, Colombia's largest project might be selling hot air - OjoPublico

Health

  • Childhood diseases like measles and polio are on the rise due to pandemic-induced slowdowns - Devex + Reuters + WHO

  • First-ever Zika outbreak in Kerala as pandemic disrupts mosquito control programme - Telegraph

Gender

🎥 VISUAL | Mountain of Salt: a COVID commentary from found images - Guardian


From the week’s global soundtrack 🌐


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