The brutalist architecture of government buildings sometimes hints at a brutal reality. The global COVID pandemic can surely be counted among those correspondences. And, as with most corners of reality, the consensus on this major disruption is largely missing. The disagreements don’t even seem to have a half-life.
There are, even at this late date, the denialists. Arrayed against them are the true-believers. And then everybody else. Most corrosive are the intense disagreements as to the source and origins of this respiratory illness. Let’s recount the explanations:
The wet market theory (which is supported by the many respiratory diseases emerging from these self-same facilities). The bioweapon theory (why not? Conspiracy theories are all the rage and it’s an infallible mindset). Or the latest one to gain some traction — the lab leak theory. Which, I suppose, lies somewhere at the mid-point.
The told-you-so’s are already out there taking the lab leak theory to its most nefarious conclusion. Bioweapon. It’s gotta be a bioweapon. Ok, could be. But let me share two contrarian thoughts here:
One, despite all the self-congratulatory puffery, there is still no consensus regarding the pandemic’s origins (although all U.S. agencies reject the bioweapon thesis). Four of the eight U.S. intelligence agencies lean toward a natural origin for the virus, with “low confidence,” while two of them — the DOE and the Federal Bureau of Investigation — support a lab origin, with the latter having “moderate confidence” about its conclusion. (The moderate assessment obtains from the “inherently risky nature of work on coronaviruses.”)
“Low confidence” means “the information used in the analysis is scant, questionable, fragmented, or that solid analytical conclusions cannot be inferred from the information.”U.S. Department of Energy
Two, there’s what the professional virologists say . They generally agree that there is “very convincing” data and “overwhelming evidence” pointing to an animal — as opposed to lab — origin for the COVID outbreak . Given the recalcitrance of the Chinese government, we may never know. That is, we may never know the true breakthrough origins of COVID without additional evidence.
What Actually Matters
Let me start with my foundational bias: I’m going to go with the science. Which can be frustratingly slow and deliberative, especially to folks who favor the drive-thru, “Do you want fries with that?,” approach to reality. I’ll take science any day over polemics, overheated rhetoric and ideological posturing. Sure, everyone has an axe to grind, but some grinders are duller than others.
That said, there’s something else that should be up for discussion. That is, how do we take measures to minimize, if not eliminate, such outbreaks in the future? In saying this, I will point out (as have others) that the lab-leak debate — even if it’s resolved to your liking — does nothing to protect us from additional pandemics.
And here’s the rub: if you think the origin of the COVID outbreak is a lab, you — you! — should be making the loudest cries for change. I’m sorry — I can’t hear you…
A Less Brutal Perspective
There are, in fact, the beginnings of serious remediation discussions across the scientific community. They start with a dependable global accounting of all the BSL-4 labs (BioSecurity Level-4 labs, which is the highest level of security for facilities handling dangerous or exotic organisms). At the moment, we lack a reliable accounting.
As of May 2021, there were 59 BSL-4 labs operating or under construction globally. As of this year (2023) that number has grown to 69 . That is a doubling of labs since 2010. One of the most “reliable” resources for counting them is… Wikipedia. That’s brutal.
There are, moreover, multiple proposals for tracking and governing these facilities more closely. One is known as the Biosecurity Oversight Framework. The American Society for Microbiology has made similar calls. As has the Pathogens Project from the Bulletin of American Scientists.
I’ve been around long enough to know most folks will blithely proceed with their lives and pay these initiatives no mind. Others, the professional complainers, will continue to express their shrill outrage. And nothing more. They are pseudo-Cassandra’s, without solutions. They’ll never be satisfied.
The brutal reality is, we don’t need them.
 According to the Journal of Virology, the zoonosis hypothesis has the strongest supporting evidence at present. Zoonosis involves transmission of the virus as a consequence of close proximity between humans and wild animals, a scenario that has occurred repeatedly over time, leading to the emergence of many viruses, including Ebola virus, other coronaviruses, influenza A virus, mpox virus, and others.
 We’ve Been Talking About the Lab-Leak Hypothesis All Wrong, David Wallace-Wells, New York Times, Feb. 28, 2023. (If you can’t access this story, please check the other links above. They’re not all from NYT.)
UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal has also written about the latest COVID finding. Although they skirt too close to accepting the lab leak theory as “truth,” they do not subscribe to the bioweapon theory.
In fact, the WSJ flatly refuted that entire line of speculation, noting: “the update reaffirmed an existing consensus … that Covid-19 wasn’t the result of a Chinese biological-weapons program, the people who have read the classified report said.”
Copyright Leland E. Hale (2023). All rights reserved.
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