Does the origin of Covid-19 really matter?

It’s not that hard to find people who contend that the origin of Covid-19 doesn’t really matter. The people making this argument are fools and deserve every ounce of grief they get for putting out this gaslighting nonsense. If we want to make sure we never go through another deadly ordeal again, we have to know precisely how the Covid-19 pandemic started — even if the truth would make many American scientists uncomfortable and make the Chinese government a global pariah for a generation.

Why the Origin of Covid Matters

“Does it matter where Covid-19 comes from?” asks a recent headline at FiveThirtyEight.

Yes. Hell yes. Insert-bad-word-here yes.

Because if the virus has a zoonotic origin and the whole global pandemic started because some poacher, animal smuggler, or wet-market vendor caught the virus, then all the lab-safety improvements in the world aren’t going to do a darn thing to prevent another pandemic.

And if the pandemic really did start because some researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology wasn’t careful one day, then all the efforts to crack down on poachers and animal smugglers and to clean up wet markets aren’t going to do a darn thing to prevent another pandemic.

And if there’s some scenario in the middle, like some virologist went into caves to collect bats for research and caught the virus and started spreading it among Wuhan residents before returning to a laboratory, then neither lab-safety improvements nor cracking down on poachers and traffickers will prevent another pandemic.

Ideally, our efforts to mitigate future pandemics would pursue all potential vectors of infection. As I said back in 2021:

If this pandemic is ever definitively and irrefutably proven to be the result of a lab accident, that fact won’t retroactively make all of the wet markets safe and no longer a threat to launch another pandemic. Arrest and prosecute illegal animal smugglers, shut down the wet markets or implement changes to ensure they’re more sanitary. But the health risks of wet markets do not, by themselves, disprove the potential of lab accidents.

Should we attempt to crack down on illegal poaching and animal smuggling? Sure. For starters, it’s right there in the name — illegal! — and bad for animals, particularly when it involves endangered species. For a while, I wondered if we would find a group of animal smugglers who were sickened or died in autumn 2019 while shipping pangolins, and we would say, “Aha! One of these guys was likely patient zero.” But either Chinese authorities never found that, or never revealed that they found that, just as they either never found or never revealed that they found any bats infected with SARS-CoV-2.

Kind of weird that this super-contagious bat virus never shows up in any bats, huh? Yesterday, former CDC director Robert Redfield testified before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic. Redfield said he had expressed to Dr. Anthony Fauci, WHO chief scientist Jeremy Farrar, and WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus that, “As a clinical virologist, I felt it was not scientifically plausible that this virus went from a bat to humans and became one of the most infectious viruses that we have in humans.” Redfield also said that, “Based on my initial analysis of the data, I came to believe and I still believe today that it indicates that COVID-19 more likely was the result of an accidental lab leak than a result of a natural spillover event.”

For what it’s worth, Lo Yi-Chun, the deputy director general of Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control, said last year that his government had ruled out the Huanan Seafood Market as the source of the virus, and that it was likely a key location of where the virus spread to others.

The Chinese government sure isn’t acting like it’s worried about wet markets setting off another terrible pandemic. Yes, the Huanan Seafood Market closed the last day of 2019 and never reopened. But the vendors just moved to other wet markets; the other wet markets in Wuhan were reopened by April 2020. The Chinese government was reopening them as Dr. Fauci was saying, “I think we should shut down those things right away. . . . It boggles my mind how when we have so many diseases that emanate out of that unusual human-animal interface, that we don’t just shut it down. . . . I don’t know what else has to happen to get us to appreciate that.”

Either the Chinese government is spectacularly reckless (a possibility that shouldn’t be dismissed), or some figures within the Wuhan or national Chinese government felt strangely confident that Covid-19 hadn’t come from a wet market, and there was little risk of another virus that was highly contagious among humans emerging from the local wet markets.

If the Covid pandemic can be traced back to someone not being careful at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the ramifications are vast and long-term.

For starters, the official global death count from the Covid-19 pandemic is 6.8 million deaths; an ongoing calculation project of The Economist estimates that the true global death toll is between 16.5 million to 27.3 million. If that death toll can all be traced back to human action or human carelessness, then it ranks among the most horrific crimes in human history. The victims and their families deserve to know who is responsible.

While we’re talking about victims of the pandemic, let’s not forget those with long Covid, the kids who were kept out of school for a year or more, the elderly who were forced to spend a year in isolation, those whose businesses closed permanently because of the sweeping lockdowns and quarantines, those who delayed seeing a doctor and getting a serious condition diagnosed, those who succumbed to addiction, and every other bad consequence of this unprecedented global crisis. This virus effectively took away a year of our lives — birthdays, weddings, baptisms, funerals, vacations, parties, big gatherings — all the big and little pleasures that make life worth living. What’s baffling to me is how anyone could live through that and not hunger for answers about how it all started.

Irrefutable evidence of a lab leak would prove, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that the Chinese government is not a careful or responsible enough institution to perform research on highly contagious viruses. And it’s really not a careful or responsible enough entity to be entrusted with gain-of-function research, where existing natural viruses are taken and manipulated to make them more virulent and more contagious.

If gain-of-function research is not going to be banned, then it must be done under circumstances where not only are the safety measures extensive and always erring on the side of caution, but independent entities conduct oversight to ensure those safety measures are being followed. Those measures must be followed completely every single time, because you only have to screw up once to set off a pandemic. At minimum, it would make sense to globally ban conducting gain-of-function research in the middle of crowded cities.

A lot of biological research on viruses and bacteria is “dual use” — meaning it can be used for legitimate or beneficial purposes, or used to develop biological weapons. It is more than fair to wonder whether the Chinese government’s interest in developing viruses that were more virulent and contagious is part of a biological-weapons program. China signed the Biological Weapons Convention treaty in 1984, pledging to not develop, stockpile, acquire, retain, or produce biological agents and toxins “of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes.”

I know this is going to shock you, but there’s good evidence that those benevolent and gentle souls running the Chinese government did not keep their promises. In 1993, U.S. intelligence officials said they had found “evidence that China is pursuing biological research at two ostensibly civilian-run research centers that U.S. officials say are actually controlled by the Chinese military.” Back in 1999, the most senior defector from the Soviet Union’s biological-warfare program, Ken Alibek, published a book claiming that, “In northwestern China, satellite photos detected what appeared to be a large fermenting plant and a biocontainment lab close to a nuclear testing ground. Intelligence sources found evidence of two epidemics of hemorrhagic fever in this area in the late 1980s, where these diseases were previously unknown. Our analysts concluded that they were caused by an accident in a lab where Chinese scientists were weaponizing viral diseases.”

For many years, the U.S. State Department’s reports on arms-control treaties concluded that, “China maintains some elements of an offensive [biological weapons] capability in violation of its obligations.” And in 2021, the U.S. State Department declared that the U.S. government had “determined that the Wuhan Institute of Virology has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military. The WIV has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.”

None of this means that SARS-CoV-2 is a biological weapon or that its release was a deliberate biological attack; it spreads too easily and it inflicted too much harm upon China for that theory to make sense. But if SARS-CoV-2 did escape from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, it is reasonable to ask if it was part of a biological-weapons-research program.

If 7 million to 24 million people around the world died because of an accident related to a Chinese government effort to develop biological weapons, the regime in Beijing would rank among the most evil and destructive regimes in human history. Any further trade partnership or normal diplomatic relations with China would become impossible. It does not necessarily automatically follow that the rest of the world would get into a shooting war with China. But as long as Xi Jinping ran China, he and his acolytes would be known, and treated, as the reckless villains who unleashed a plague upon the world and then covered it up. I suspect a great many elites around the world, who have built fortunes upon the existing economic and geopolitical arrangements with the Chinese government, are terrified of this possibility, and will do just about anything to deny the possibility that it could be true.

It will probably not surprise you to hear that I don’t like the Chinese government very much, and never have. Consider Tiananmen Square, keeping the insane and cruel regime in North Korea going, its treatment of Uyghurs, etc.

It would have been nice if the economic liberalization that China pursued in the 1990s and 2000s had led to genuine political liberation, or at minimum, a softening of aggressive impulses. But it appears that economic liberalization traded in a poor, autocratic, and brutal regime for a wealthier, autocratic, and brutal regime. That’s not much of an improvement for us.

That headline at FiveThirtyEight reminds me of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s exclamation at a hearing about the attack in Benghazi: “What difference, at this point, does it make?” If you don’t understand how a problem started, you cannot prevent it from happening again.

A lot of Americans would prefer to ignore problems “over there.” But the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates that sometimes those problems “over there” can turn your life upside down for a year or more.

It is a harsh and undeniable truth that this world has big and powerful regimes ruled by madmen, or men who seem mad by our standards. Terrorists are dangerous. Cartels and international crime rings are dangerous. But regimes run by madmen are exceptionally dangerous.

It’s difficult to measure true public opinion in an autocratic state, but there is little indication that the average Russian was clamoring for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in the months leading up to February 2022. Russians and Ukrainians interacted, and intermarried, all the time, and the two countries had extensive trade ties. Polling indicated that Ukrainians had different attitudes toward the Russian government and the Russian people.

Last month, the Financial Times offered a spectacularly detailed report about Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, speaking with six longtime Putin confidants as well as people involved in Russia’s war effort. The Times reported that most of the senior officials in the Kremlin, Russia’s economic cabinet, and the country’s business elite did not believe that Russia would actually invade Ukraine until it happened. They believed the troop buildup on the Ukrainian border was saber-rattling and a feint to draw concessions.

Few Russians expected a full-scale invasion of Ukraine because few Russians really wanted an all-out war. The people didn’t want a war, the military didn’t want a war, and most of Putin’s advisers didn’t want a war.

The Russian military launched the largest land war in Europe since World War II because of the ambitions and desires of one man: Putin. Maybe the Russian dictator really did go nuts while spending two years in extreme isolation as a protection against Covid. (This would make the Russian invasion of Ukraine another consequence of the pandemic.) Several hundred thousand soldiers killed between the two sides, thousands of Ukrainian civilians killed and more than 13,000 injured, an estimated 5.9 million internally displaced, 8 million Ukrainian refugees fleeing to Europe, 17.6 million in need of humanitarian assistance . . . all because Vladimir Putin wants to be remembered like Peter the Great.

In autocratic regimes, wars start because the guy at the top wants one and believes it will lead him to glory, a greater grip on power, distract his country’s citizens from other problems, address historical grievances, or gain additional resources through territorial conquest. Autocratic regimes are almost inherently destabilizing to their regions, because when the leader gets a bad idea in his head, there’s no one around who is powerful enough to say, “No, that’s a bad idea. We shouldn’t do that.” By stomping out dissent, the dictator has ensured that no one can hit the brakes on a disastrous plan.

That’s what happened with Russia in Ukraine, and we must wonder what Xi Jinping is hearing when the topic turns to Taiwan.

That Financial Times article also included this detail about the Western response to the Russian annexation of Crimea: “When the west, fearful of escalating tensions to a point of no return and jeopardizing Europe’s economic ties with Russia, responded with only a slap on the wrist, Putin was convinced he had made the right decision, according to several people who know the president.”

Insufficient consequences for aggression left Putin with the impression that he could get away with anything. What consequences has China suffered for not cooperating with the WHO’s investigation into how the Covid-19 pandemic started?

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