As the COVID-19 pandemic diminishes in the United States, debates over the origins of the virus – and speculation that it originated from a laboratory in China, not an animal – have come back to life. And they divert attention to the wrong places. Focusing on the origin of the virus is a distraction from the rest of the urgent work that governments and health agencies around the world must do to end this pandemic and prepare for the next. We don’t need a consensus on the origins of COVID-19 to take action to strengthen global public health.
This does not mean that it is not important to know where the coronavirus came from. This is one of the pieces of information that could give us tools to prevent a similar situation from happening again. To say that the coronavirus came from a laboratory rather than an animal is an extraordinary claim; it would take extraordinary evidence to be proven. Both scenarios are still technically possible, although a lab leak is much less likely. And there are serious scientists calling for a serious investigation.
After renewed attention – albeit, notably, little new data – on the theory that the epidemic began after the virus accidentally leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, China, President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday that he asked US intelligence agencies to redouble their efforts to understand the origins of the coronavirus. In 90 days, he wants to see a report “that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion” on how the virus jumped to humans, triggering the COVID-19 pandemic.
Taking a methodical and unbiased approach to tracking the origins of the coronavirus could take several times longer than the 90 days proposed by Biden, assuming there is ever conclusive evidence. It took about 14 years to figure out where the SARS virus came from. Tracing the origins of the 1918 influenza pandemic took decades. Scientists again I don’t know where the Ebola outbreaks come from.
There are other things we could focus on that might not take that long and provide definite results. Countries like the United States could redouble their efforts to distribute life-saving COVID-19 vaccines to poorer countries. Rich countries have taken the lion’s share of doses – and so far 85% of vaccinations have been given there. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization, called it a “moral failure”. The pandemic is still an urgent threat in places where vaccines are insufficient for healthcare workers. While the virus is still spreading in these countries, the pandemic is not over. As long as it spreads, it can mutate and pose a threat anywhere – even in places with high vaccination rates.
The United States could also turn in on itself and take full account of how our public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic has gone horribly wrong. We could focus on strengthening our public health infrastructure and improving our hospital systems to withstand an influx of patients.
We could even take the opportunity to take a look at laboratory safety practices. “Let’s clarify that pandemics can be the result of natural fallout or laboratory accidents – then let’s move on to the implications,” Daniel Engber wrote in Atlantic. Laboratory misfires do happen, and they are frightening. People are especially scared of research that modifies viruses to make them more deadly or more transmissible, which is being done in some US labs. Long before the pandemic, experts wondered if there was enough monitoring of these experiences. Even if a lab leak was not involved in this particular pandemic, it might be worth strengthening policies around dangerous pathogens anyway.
Finding the source of the COVID-19 pandemic will not bring back the roughly 600,000 people in the United States who have died from the disease. The virus itself isn’t the only reason they left – they died because the pandemic was marred by a combination of poor leadership, poor communication and decades of cuts to public health infrastructure from the country. A viral outbreak is dangerous, but it only became such a magnificent disaster because of the way people reacted to it. Understanding how to prevent a future viral outbreak from turning into a disaster of this magnitude is a better use of our limited time and energy.
The fact that so many people are quick to assume that intentional wrongdoing or neglect led to the first outbreaks of the virus, however, shows how much trust in public institutions has eroded over the past year. It’s for a good reason: China did tries to minimize the pandemic and strives to present its response to COVID-19 as a victory. There have been mistakes from groups like the World Health Organization, which has been slow to recognize the importance of ventilation, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which messed up the messages. around the masks.
The terrifying mistakes made by public health officials, researchers and politicians are things we need to be honest about. We can take seriously the fears that lead people to investigate the idea of a lab leak. But we don’t need to know where the virus is coming from to deal with these issues – and they will be key to rebuilding the confidence, which we need for the next pandemic. Once the world is vaccinated, we should. But first, let’s try to keep as many people alive as possible.