Last week, the White House announced there is no consensus in the Biden administration about whether COVID-19 sprang from a leak in a virus laboratory in China or was the result of a leap from another species to humans.
The announcement was prompted by a Wall Street Journal report that the Department of Energy, one of several federal entities in the intelligence community that has weighed in on the origins of the virus, had “low confidence” that the pandemic started when a novel coronavirus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Some trumpeted this as proof the virus was a Chinese leak. But other parts of the intelligence community disagree.
There are, however, areas of consensus among the agencies investigating COVID’s origins, according to a declassified 2021 assessment by the director of national intelligence: The first cluster of COVID-19 cases emerged out of Wuhan, China, at the end of 2019. The virus was not developed as a biological weapon, and it probably wasn’t genetically engineered.
Was a lab worker in a highly secure setting inadvertently infected while collecting unknown animal specimens? Or is it more likely that an infection occurred among the many human beings who have frequent, natural contact with animals — hunters, farmers, merchants?
Bottom line: We may never have a definitive answer to the virus’s origins. Beijing has refused (mostly) to cooperate with the world scientific community. It has resisted sharing information and has blamed other countries for the outbreak, including the United States.
As a regular old civilian, I can live with the uncertainty. We know that lab accidents will occur from time to time because human beings and their safety systems are fallible. We also know that diseases can leap between animals and human beings — plague, rabies, Lyme disease, West Nile virus, to name a few.
Experts warned for years that the world was overdue for another pandemic. In 2019, the “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community” included this admonishment: “The United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability.”
Instead of a coordinated response, confusion and conflicting proscriptions reigned, abetted by an American president who took too long to admit the obvious, shot from the hip and seemed to view the pandemic as a personal foe to vanquish using blustery, nonsensical pronouncements. Donald Trump exploited scientific uncertainty about the new virus and, out of fear of being seen as failing, gagged the government’s top scientists, then tried to make them into scapegoats.
Did some health officials overreact? In hindsight yes, but not out of incompetence or malice.
Continuing — and ridiculous — debates over masking are just another symptom of our political dysfunction. People with no background in science or medicine decided that they were experts on whether masks and mask mandates were effective.
Of course masks are effective in preventing disease transmission. Would you opt for surgery in an operating room full of bare-faced doctors and nurses?
One thing we can all agree on (I pray) is that vaccines are more effective than masks in preventing serious disease and death. But I daresay there is a large, Venn-diagram overlap of people who refuse to don masks and those who refuse to be vaccinated.
For the latter, especially if they’ve had COVID, at least a part of their skepticism was recently reinforced by research. A meta study, published in the Lancet, found that natural immunity after COVID-19 infection can be as protective as vaccines. Early on, experts downplayed natural immunity because there was no solid evidence for it. Now there is.
I am always going to put more faith in health experts, vaccine developers and doctors than in politicians and right-wing cable TV hosts. When it comes to COVID’s prevention and treatment, we didn’t know very much at first, and now we know a lot. That’s how science works, folks.
Robin Abcarian is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.