Just like that, we’re back to arguing about the coronavirus’s origins.
Last week, Newsweek explored the idea that a
group of virus-hunting researchers went out looking for coronaviruses in China
(to monitor and study), found one, and unwittingly spread it to the rest of the
world. In a clip released Friday from a longer interview aired later in the weekend,
the former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told
CNN he believes the coronavirus could not have developed rapid
human-to-human transmission that quickly in nature and therefore must have escaped
from a research facility. Researchers interviewed by Undark magazine in a long piece
published earlier this month also thought the lab-leak
theory deserved a second look. On Monday, the AP reported that the World
Health Organization and Chinese health officials’ joint study, not yet
formally released, will dismiss lab-leak theories and again affirm that animal-mediated transmission (for example: bats to humans) is the most likely culprit. In a 60 Minutes segment on Sunday, two opposing experts admitted that
while each side—lab leak versus zoonotic transmission—had good reasons to believe its respective theory, everyone lacked direct, irrefutable evidence for how SARS-CoV-2 originated.It’s natural for both the public and
researchers to wonder how the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 came to be.
Plotting the source and trajectory of any disaster—be it a pandemic, train
derailment, rocket explosion, reactor meltdown, or terror attack—is fundamental
to preventing its repetition. “If we fail to fully and courageously examine the
origins of this pandemic, we risk being unprepared for a potentially worse
pandemic in the future,” an international group of scientists wrote this month. But the return to fixating
on the virus’s origin story, as many did early in the pandemic, also feels like
a distinct stage in Covid grief—an attempt to finally cope with the collective
trauma of the past year and, hopefully, put it to bed.“People have a hard time tolerating uncertainty, and that’s all
we’ve had for over a year now,” said Dr. Mary Alvord, a Maryland-based psychologist who focuses on mental
resilience. “We like to understand
things. Knowledge is power, and knowledge is soothing.”A year ago, she pointed out, we were all panic-buying
disinfectant wipes and anxiously tallying the number of times we touched
our faces hourly. When scientists
clarified that the coronavirus wasn’t spreading on surfaces, we could slightly expand
the circumference of our shrunken safety bubbles. Similarly, she said, recent
progress has given us more space to regain comfort and confidence. Looking to
the future, knowing the origins of this pandemic provides a mental prophylactic against
the looming uncertainty of the unavoidable next one. In the United States, almost half of people 65 and over (who are
especially susceptible to dying of Covid-19) are fully vaccinated. Overall, more than one in three adults has received at least one vaccine dose. The daily
death toll has also dropped to a third of its staggering wintertime peak, when thousands
were dying of Covid-19 daily. With every passing day, normalcy feels closer
than it has in the past 12 months. The current debate over SARS-CoV-2’s
emergence can seem like a logical final chapter—returning to the beginning to
make sense of the end. But the structural vulnerabilities that allowed
SARS-CoV-2 to infect at least 127 million people worldwide and claim almost three million lives remain the same, regardless of where the coronavirus originated
and how it initially spread. We have known for years that resource extraction and
human expansion into wildlife habitats could lead to emergent zoonotic diseases.
We have known that inadequate health coverage and sick leave policies could
spread illness; countless reports and studies in recent years have chronicled
the draining of public health resources, the erosion of science and public trust in it (anti-masking falls into this
category), and the failures of the U.S. health care system to equitably provide affordable medical care to all. “It’s natural to want to know the origin
of an outbreak, especially a pandemic, so I don’t think that particular
interest is uncommon or unexpected,” said University of Arizona epidemiologist Saskia
Popescu in an email. But plotting the course of a virus in reverse is
time-consuming with an unclear payoff: Notably, several decades of research
has still not yielded an answer to the question of which bat species serves as
Ebola’s natural reservoir. Even if, in 2020, we have the technical capability to
sequence the virus hundreds of thousands of times over, without more access to
the much-debated labs in China, some experts say we may never answer lingering
questions about Covid-19’s beginnings. Outsize attention to various origin
theories, Popescu said, “frankly distracts from the realities that we were
entirely ill-prepared for a pandemic and that we continue to struggle with
basic public health interventions.”Origin story fixation can also lead to a
false sense of security—a belief that we are far enough from danger to make a
complete assessment of it. Last week, for example, CNN packaged a slate of
interviews by Dr. Sanjay Gupta with six of the country’s leading health
officials as an “autopsy” of the pandemic. But the pandemic is not even on its
deathbed yet. Several countries in Europe have reinstated lockdowns to try and control rising case numbers.
In the U.S., more transmissible versions of the virus continue to spread across the country. Vaccine hoarding by
richer countries could allow the virus to circulate unchecked in poorer
countries, which could lead to the development of new variants that existing
vaccines are worse at protecting against. And even America’s daily death count from
Covid-19 is still hovering around an unacceptably high toll of 1,000 lives lost each day.Why are we so eager to conduct an autopsy
on a body that’s still blinking and wiggling its fingers, threatening to sit
back up?On Monday, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky
became emotional during a White House Covid-19 briefing, ditching her prepared
remarks and telling the public that a recent uptick in cases and
hospitalizations has left her with a sense of “impending doom.” “I so badly
want to be done,” she said. “I know you all
so badly want to be done.  We are just almost there but not quite yet.”Why are we so eager to conduct an autopsy
on a body that’s still blinking and wiggling its fingers, threatening to sit
back up? And what makes us think that knowing how that body was born will tell
us something useful?Early on, pinpointing the source of an outbreak can guide the
immediate efforts to contain it,
Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and
Harvard, told me. If you identify the site where a pathogen originated and multiplied
(whether that’s a wet market or a research facility), you can close it down,
contact trace and extensively test and quarantine any potential human vectors,
she said. For Covid-19, that time has come and gone, of course. Instead,
uncertainty about SARS-CoV-2—where it came from, what it does to the human body, and how to combat it—has plagued us from the beginning.Some fact-finding, clearly, is warranted.
“In the wake of the Covid-19 disaster—the greatest disaster the world has faced
since since World War II—an investigation of the causes of the disaster and
policy changes to reduce the risk and impact of similar future disasters are
urgently needed,” said Rutgers University microbiologist Richard Ebrighs over email.
“However, no such investigation has occurred.” A productive investigation doesn’t need to resolve the lab-versus-nature debate. Even in the absence
of a conclusive Covid-19 origin story, it is still possible to prepare better
for the next pandemic.Failures of public health messaging,
systemic inequity in access to medicine, and overall lack of pandemic
preparedness—from equipment distribution to testing infrastructure to contact
tracing—are all human-made and potentially human-solvable issues, regardless of
whether we ultimately pin the origins of SARS-CoV-2 on a bat, pig, pangolin, or unwitting
virus hunter. “This research is important,” Popescu said, “but it shouldn’t be
seen as a scapegoat for failure to respond to infectious diseases at a national
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