Sunday, December 5

The US report on the origins of Covid is of little use to prevent another pandemic | Laura spinney

ORS intelligence services have just briefed the president, Joe Biden, on the results of his 90-day investigation into the origins of Covid-19. They were asked to test two hypotheses: that it had a “natural” origin or that it had escaped from a laboratory. Preliminary reports suggest their findings are inconclusive.

Few scientists will be surprised by this, and yet the research has been the subject of intense, and intensely divisive, political and media interest for the past three months. The White House has promised more details, which could be illuminating, especially if it reveals the genetic sequences of viruses related to the one that causes Covid-19, Sars-CoV-2, that were being studied in laboratories in Wuhan in 2019. But that is It won’t change the fact that two investigations later, we still don’t know how this pandemic started.

Biden ordered the latest investigation in part because of widespread dissatisfaction with one established by the World Health Organization (WHO), which reported in March that a laboratory origin was “extremely unlikely.” Many saw the WHO’s efforts compromised because China used its influence within the organization to establish restrictive terms of reference. It’s hard to see why the new investigation, from a single nation locked in a trade war with China and from the intelligence services to begin with, not a source often lauded for its transparency, should be given more credibility. It should have been run by a coalition of national science academies. They may not have come to any firm conclusions yet, but they would have had a better chance of being seen as independent.

The WHO promises new research and there may be others. Whether they will add anything is again questionable, but it is important that scientists continue to try to get to the truth, and that we all recognize that it could take years to do so. It is difficult to trace the origin of a pandemic. This is just one example of the challenges.

Much has been made of the finding that some Italians may have been that carries antibodies against Sars-CoV-2 as early as September 2019, several months before the first cases of Covid-19 were reported in China. (No one is suggesting that the pandemic started in Italy, only that it could have left China earlier than previously thought.) But if those antibodies really were against Sars-CoV-2, which some researchers doubt, it is strange that the wave of Covid-19 infection they indicate was not followed by a wave of hospitalizations and deaths, as happened later in China. What’s more, those antibody carriers didn’t go to the doctor with Covid symptoms, they went for other reasons. If the first Chinese cases were also mild or asymptomatic, how will researchers find them?

To be clear, the only reason this research is valuable is scientific, because the knowledge it provides could help prevent something similar from happening again. Even if it could be demonstrated to the satisfaction of many people that a laboratory accident triggered the pandemic, it is unlikely that any punishment can be imposed or compensation can be demanded. As Thomas Bollyky and Yanzhong Huang of the US Council on Foreign Relations have said. written, a laboratory accident is not a violation of any international law, and even if it were, establishing causation would be difficult. As they note, from the perspective of the United States: “Many nations faced similar challenges in this pandemic and did not suffer from the poor health outcomes of the United States.”

The ongoing debate about the origins of Covid has had good and bad results. A good result is that it has highlighted the fact that, like biosecurity experts Filippa Lentzos and Gregory Koblentz reported In May, laboratories licensed to treat the most dangerous pathogens have proliferated in an almost complete vacuum of regulation or supervision. One component of supervision that should now be established is independent international inspection teams. A model for these already exists, in the WHO protocol to monitor the two laboratories, one Russian and one American, which contain the last stocks of the variola virus, which causes smallpox, a disease now eradicated.

A bad result is that at least part of the scientific community – supposedly the bulwark that protects us from propaganda – has bought into the false dichotomy of two “rival” hypotheses about the origins of Covid. It’s like they’re looking at one of those ambiguous imagesand see a duck or a rabbit when both are in the picture. It’s not really about natural origins versus lab leaks; it is long-term human activity versus short-term human activity. The natural ceases to mean much in this context.

In fact, given that the evidence is now overwhelmingly that long-term human activity is throttle the emergence of new pathogens and the increased risk of pandemics, the question researchers really should be asking is: did a recent and unique event, such as a laboratory accident, exacerbate the already high and growing risk of spreading a virus with potential pandemic caused? for a decades-long shift to industrialized agriculture and the wildlife trade?

Through their reliance on antibiotics, livestock monocultures, and overcrowding, industrial-scale farms are increasing the virulence of animal pathogens that the wildlife trade, and one of their showcases, wet markets, is putting on contact with potential host species that they would not. I find another way, including us. This is not news. As journalist Felicity Lawrence wrote in 2009 during the swine flu pandemic: “The new human disease is the toxic debt of today’s factory farming.”

Here’s something worth pondering: In recent decades, the majority of highly pathogenic avian influenza spread events, still considered the disease most likely to cause a future pandemic, occurred in countries with good biosecurity in general but a lot of intensive poultry farming. The reason many of them did not plant sprouts is that they were nipped in the bud through good disease surveillance, the United States being the only one. Leader in this. If high-security labs are enjoying a boom, the cachet and deterrence of biological warfare may play a role, but it’s also because dangerous pathogens are on the rise.

The false dichotomy that has been established about the origins of Covid is difficult to challenge. Until a year ago, scientists who collaborated across national and disciplinary boundaries were applauded. Now they are accused conflicts of interest, which means that many of the people who know the most about what happened, or who are best qualified to find out, have been silenced. Meanwhile, the giant that is the global livestock industry deals with its toxic business without any real scrutiny bothering it. This week, Marco Marani from the University of Padova in Italy and his colleagues reported that the probability that an individual will experience a Covid-like pandemic in their lifetime, currently around 38%, could double in a few decades. Unless scientists step back and look at the big picture, it won’t stop there.

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