The Missing Covid Origin Debate
Did covid-19 come from a raccoon dog or a lab leak? We may never know. But there's a more important debate that has been hidden from public view, and it's crucial that we start talking about it.
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Three years ago this week, much of the world went into lockdown. No event in modern history affected so many lives, so quickly, as the coronavirus pandemic. We still don’t know where the virus came from.
In recent weeks, the strongest evidence yet emerged in favor of so-called “zoonotic transmission,” in which the virus arose naturally, jumping from a cute animal known as a raccoon dog to humans. But, as with all covid origin stories, it wasn’t as straightforward as it seemed.
As Katherine J. Wu of The Atlantic explains, the new evidence was discovered by accident.
A few weeks ago, the data appeared on an open-access genomic database called GISAID, after being quietly posted by researchers affiliated with the country’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention. By almost pure happenstance, scientists in Europe, North America, and Australia spotted the sequences, downloaded them, and began an analysis.
When these researchers ran the data through a series of tests, it only took a few hours for them to repeatedly get a match with genetic material that was known to come from the common raccoon dog, the adorable, but lesser known creature pictured here:
This new vector convinced many scientists. But in late February, another US government agency had announced precisely the opposite conclusion (albeit with “low confidence”): that covid-19 had come from a lab leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. These contradictory pronouncements were made within weeks of each other.
Then, five days ago, there was another strange twist. The genomic data that the researchers had discovered by accident…had disappeared. Again, Katherine Wu of The Atlantic explains:
Within a day or so of nabbing the sequences off a database called GISAID, the researchers told me, they reached out to the Chinese scientists who had uploaded the data to share some preliminary results. The next day, public access to the sequences was locked—according to GISAID, at the request of the Chinese researchers, who had previously analyzed the data and drawn distinctly different conclusions about what they contained.
So, as of now, many scientists are concluding a zoonotic link, but some of their conclusions are partly based on new data that mysteriously appeared, then disappeared, and were only discovered by accident in the first place. I, quite clearly, am not qualified to weigh in on the strength of the evidence — nor do I wish to. I’ll leave that to the real experts (and the quack pundits who have gotten way out over their skis by pretending to know more than people who have devoted their lives to studying viruses and are experts in genomic sequencing).
But what I do know is this: the ongoing back-and-forth debate over the origins of covid-19 is obscuring a much bigger, much more important discussion that’s currently being ignored by both sides of the debate. And if we don’t talk about it — and address it — then the risk of another pandemic will be far, far higher than it needs to be.
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