That’s a pretty stunning header, I know. But it’s anything but crazy, or even click-baity – at least if you take seriously a long, very serious, and very carefully reported article published January 4 about the CCP Virus’ origins in New York magazine, which hasn’t exactly been an enthusiast for President Trump or science- or China-bashing.
For author Nicholson Baker makes clear not only that for years before the Trump era, America’s top public health officials (who epitomize “The Science” that all the adults in the nation’s room from President-elect Joe Biden on down have anointed as the only valid sources of U.S. and global virus policy advice) pushed measures certain to boost the odds that something like Covid 19 would be created, and somehow escape from, a laboratory someplace in the world – including China.
And notably, one of the main pushers was one Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, Director of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
It’s important to make clear here what Baker isn’t saying. He isn’t saying that the Chinese manufactured the virus as a bio-weapon. He isn’t saying that Beijing loosed this pandemic on the world on purpose. And he certainly isn’t accusing Fauci and the rest of the public health establishment of acting maliciously.
But what he is saying is awfully damning, and urgently needs to be examined by the incoming Biden administration, the entire U.S. political and policy communities, and of course the public. For Baker marshalls and summarizes voluminous evidence for the proposition that the most reasonable theory of the virus’ origin is not that in its highly infectious form it developed naturally in some mammal species (like a bat) and then jumped to humans (e.g., at a wet market) – the explanation offered at various times by the Chinese government and by many infectious disease specialists. Instead, the author supports the idea that it was produced by scientists from a naturally occuring mammalian virus, specifically by scientists at one of the three advanced virology facilities in and around the city of Wuhan.
And then, Baker – who is extremely careful to distinguish between facts and suppositions – speculates that “it eventually got out” by hazard. Release via “a lab accident — a dropped flask, a needle prick, a mouse bite, an illegibly labeled bottle,” he emphasizes, “isn’t a conspiracy theory. It’s just a theory.” But he rightly argues that “It merits attention…alongside other reasoned attempts to explain the source of our current catastrophe.”
But where do the roles of the U.S. and global public health establishments come in? During recent decades, as Baker reports, scientists have been conducting “’gain of function’ experiments — aimed to create new, more virulent, or more infectious strains of diseases in an effort to predict and therefore defend against threats that might conceivably arise in nature.” And many of these experiments were funded by the Fauci’s Institute at the NIH. (Similar work was being funded by the Defense Department, whose interest in bio-weapons and fighting them was reawakened by the increase in global terrorism in the 1990s and the prospect that germs like anthrax would be used to advance extremist goals. This threat, of course, materialized right after September 11 with letters containing the germs sent through the mail – in an immense irony – by a U.S. government bio-weapons researcher.)
As implied immediately above, Fauci and his colleagues had the best of intentions. But as Baker documents exhaustively, they ignored numerous warnings from fellow professionals that, in no less than two related ways, they might be creating a problem far worse than that they were trying to solve. First,in their determination to design in the lab super-dangerous bio threats that terrorists hypothetically might some day create and use, they lost sight of how their own experiments could unleash such actual threats in the here-and-now due to the real possibility of leaks (hardly unknown in the world of biological research).
In Baker’s words, “Why, out of a desire to prove that something extremely infectious could happen, would you make it happen? And why would the U.S. government feel compelled to pay for it to happen?” Echoing these worries were numerous scientists, such as Johns Hopkins biomedical engineer Steven Salzberg, who noted several years ago, “We have enough problems simply keeping up with the current flu outbreaks — and now with Ebola — without scientists creating incredibly deadly new viruses that might accidentally escape their labs.”
Second, no evidence has been found yet that any of the coronaviruses that are naturally occuring and that have infected humans (like the SARS “bird flu” – which actually came from mammals – of 2002-03) are remotely as contagious as their lab versions, or are found in animals that often come into contact with humans outside China and its wet markets. In fact, Baker quotes Rutgers University microbiologist Richard Ebright has describing Chinese virologists’ efforts to scour remote locations for animal sources of natural coronaviruses that can be supercharged in a lab as “looking for a gas leak with a lighted match.”
In addition, Fauci arguably magnified these dangers by channeling some of the U.S. government funding for “gain of function” research to the Wuhan virology labs. On the one hand, this decision made sense (as long as gain-of-function was being sought in the first place) because China has been the origin point of so many mammalian coronaviruses, and therefore the home of so many leading virus specialists. On the other hand, safety first hasn’t exactly been a national Chinese watchword.
So the implications for simply “following The Science” seem clear. And they go beyond what should be (but isn’t) the screamingly obvious point that, especially in a field as new and rapidly changing as this branch of virology, there is no “The Science.” Expert opinion almost inevitably will be mixed, and politicians and their journalist mouthpieces flocking to one side while completely ignoring the other is bound to end badly. Matters are bound to end even worse, of course, when the favored faction aggressively tries to stamp out and discredit as “conspiracy thinking” the other’s theories – as Baker shows indisputably was the case with public health authorities and experts (including Fauci) who continue to try absolving the Wuhan labs from any responsibility.
More important, this tale bears out what I and many others have written for months (e.g., here): The pandemic is a crisis with many dimensions – economic and social as well as medical. The public health establishment’s contributions are indispensible. But not only is its expertise limited. Like any other human grouping defined by common characteristics and experiences like fundamental interests and educational backgrounds and occupational environments, this establishment is influenced by its own distinctive unconscious biases and predispositions.
In this case, in Baker’s words, some of the most important are “scientific ambition, and the urge to take exciting risks and make new things.” All of which are perfectly fine and even praiseworthy – in their place.
Further, the medical dimension of the crisis is complex, too, as shown both by all the evidence of major public health costs generated by the lockdown and stay-at-home orders championed so singlemindedly by Fauci and his acolytes, and by the strong disagreements among the virologists and similar researchers laid out in such detail by Baker. So it’s the job of political leaders to take all these considerations into account, not to act as if only one cohort of advisers has a monopoly on wisdom in all relevant areas.
And let’s end on an O’Henry type note. I can’t resist pointing out that President Trump, too, has been one of those U.S. leaders whose administration has robustly funded this gain-of-function research – one of the few instances in which he’s, apparently with no objections, followed The Science.