Where did COVID-19 come from? Part 2

Last week, I outlined genetic evidence that the present pandemic had its origin in a laboratory. In the segment below, I tell two stories of how this might have occurred, one as leak from an American lab and one from a Chinese lab. I was surprised to find that there is a history of collaborative work between American and Chinese bioweapons labs on exactly the kind of Coronavirus responsible for the current epidemic, in which a protein that binds with ACE2 was artificially spliced onto the genome of the bat virus ancestor.


After I posted this, Yuri Deigin, who is a frequent commenter on this page, posted this article on Medium. It is great background reading for anyone who wants to understand more deeply how viruses get inside cells, how they manipulate the cell chemistry, and how SARS-CoV2 is related to its ancestors. Spoiler: The virus seems to combine the backbone from a known bat virus genome with a spike protein (the part that binds to a target cell) from a pangolin virus. These two animals share no common habitat, so it is possible but unlikely that they could have combined in nature. Newly added to the SARS-CoV2 binding protein is a precisely placed insert that acts as an instruction to the cell, “cut here” making the virus a great deal more infective.


Here’s a puzzle worthy of Sherlock Holmes’s story of the dog who didn’t bark. The Chinese are eagerly promoting narratives about the SARS-CoV2 virus originating in America, while the Americans assume that, of course, the virus evolved where the first cases were identified, in Wuhan, China. But both sides agree, SARS-CoV2 had a natural origin, and had nothing to do with genetic engineering or breeding in a laboratory.  As we shall see below there are credible links to both the Wuhan Institute of Virology and to the US bioweapons HQ at Fort Detrick, MD and a university lab at Chapel Hill.

Why wouldn’t these two propaganda machines be eager to demonize one another by promoting stories about leaks from the other’s weapons lab? If one but not the other of these spin-control states were too eagerly dismissing the bioweapons meme, I know what I would suspect. But what does it mean that both these rivals are suppressing all discussion of the issue?

Two stories—they can’t both be true

There is a plausible story about a Chinese origin for COVID. There is another story, in my view equally plausible, about an American origin. The two stories are not easily reconciled, and that suggests to me that I have been suckered by disinformation, one way or the other. Some part of what I am about to report is not true. More confusion: there are hints that fall short of being a “story” about coordinated bioweapons development between China and the US. I like to think of it as a real-life mystery novel. I ask you, dear readers, to help figure out who is telling the truth, who is lying, and whodunnit. America? China? A cooperation between the two?

Or maybe it was Professor Pangolin*.

Outline of the Chinese story:

  • China’s main bioweapons research facility is right there in Wuhan, where the first patients were identified.
  • The laboratory has published papers in which they were doing closely-related research. [2007, 2013, 2015]
  • In fact, we know that they were harvesting bats from SW China, extracting SARS virus from them, genetically modifying the virus to enable “gain-of-fuinction” to infect human cells in vitro. (see 2015 link above)
  • Even the human ACE2 receptor used by SARS-CoV2 is mentioned in published articles from the Wuhan research facility.  (see 2015 link above)
  • Security at Chinese facilities is reported to be more lax than at comparable American facilities.
  • The Chinese government has reportedly silenced discussion of bioweapons research at the Wuhan facility, and of a possible leak. (Here’s an early complaint about lack of transparency. I offer this video as a source because it documents well the Chinese suppression of discussion of the bioweapon question. In other respects, the video is misleading, blaming the Chinese government as if the American government were not equally culpable.)

Outline of the American story:

  • The world’s most extensive bioweapons facility is at Fort Detrick, MD.
  • The Fort Detrick lab was closed by CDC for undisclosed security leaks last August.
  • I personally had a persistent cough for more than 2 months beginning in November. Other (American) friends have told me of similar unusual respiratory infections last fall and early in the winter. CDC reported in early December that “The U.S. winter flu season is off to its earliest start in more than 15 years.” [NBC news] Could this have been early cases of COVID-19, undetected as such?
  • The SF Chronicle reports today that an American who had not traveled recently died of COVID Feb 6, so he must have contracted the disease early January, a month earlier than the previous “first” American case which arrived in Seattle from Wuhan in February. It may be that we have not found even earlier examples because we have not been looking.
  • Late last October, there were military games, a kind of Olympic competition for the world’s armies, held in Wuhan. This was 6 weeks before the first COVID-19 cases were recognized by the Chinese, but only 3 weeks before the first Chinese case identified with hindsight.
  • Some of the American military personnel attending the Games in Wuhan were stationed in Maryland and had recently frequented Fort Detrick.
  • The entire American team, 300 strong, stayed at the Oriental Hotel, just a half mile from the infamous open-air market which has been blamed for the outbreak.
  • According to one report, the entire first cluster of 42 COVID patients were employees and their families of the Oriental Hotel.
  • Genetic diversity analysis can be used to estimate how long a virus has been mutating away from Patient Zero. One such analysis is consistent with an origin last fall.
  • Maximum Likelihood Analysis for the evolutionary tree of the SARS-CoV2 virus worldwide indicates that the “A” strain from which all other strains were derived is present only in America and Australia. The predominant strain in China is “B”. [ScienceDaily]
  • According to ABC News, “As far back as late November, U.S. intelligence officials were warning that a contagion was sweeping through China’s Wuhan region, changing the patterns of life and business and posing a threat to the population, according to four sources briefed on the secret reporting.” The Defense Intelligence Agency had already identified it as a coronavirus in November. But the “first 41 patients” in the Lancet article were admitted to Wuhan hospitals in December. Please stop and consider the implications of the fact that the US Dept of Defense knew that there was a dangerous coronavirus and knew it was in Wuhan before the first reported COVID patients. Pepe Escobar conjectures.
  • The only countries in the world where all known strains of COVID have been identified are China and USA.

Reports of bioweapon collaboration between USA and China

Exhibit A for this hypothesis is this Nature Medicine article from 2015. It describes a collaboration between University of North Carolina scientists and the Wuhan Virology Laboratory, funded jointly by American agencies, including Fauci’s NIAID, and the Chinese National Science Foundation. They describe modifying the bat coronavirus, the very one that is most closely related to the SARS-CoV2 pandemic. They use genetic engineering to add an ability to bind to the human (and mouse) ACE2 receptor, the very same modification that makes SARS-CoV2 so contagious.

The nominal justification for such research is to understand how such recombinations might occur in nature, so that we might be better prepared to defend against them if such a recombination should happen to take place. The number of such recombinations that could conceivably take place is enormous. But this group was lucky to anticipate the exact virus and the exact modifications that would make it a problem five years later. They had a jump on the competition. “Our work suggests a potential risk of SARS-CoV re-emergence from viruses currently circulating in bat populations.” Prophetic. And the research took place in the Chinese city where the current pandemic was first recognized. Coincidental.

It is morally outrageous that such research should be proceeding. It has been against International Law since 1975 (based on a 1969 treaty), and explicitly outlawed in the US since 1989. “Whoever knowingly develops, produces, stockpiles, transfers, acquires, retains, or possesses any biological agent, toxin, or delivery  system for use as a weapon, or knowingly assists a foreign state or any organization to do so, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for  life or any term of years, or both.” The law singles out research in gain-of-function engineering, as described in the Nature Medicine article.

Layered on my moral outrage is a head scratch: Why would a government agency steeped in secrecy publish such research? Even if we grant that their intent was not to produce a bioweapon but to learn about what might, at some future date, happen in nature, the fact remains that the paper contains explicit instructions that anyone with hostile intent might use to create a bioweapon.

Earlier in my career, I had security clearance as part of my research at Physical Sciences, Inc in the 1970s. I saw just enough of the Defense Department’s security system to extrapolate that the CLASSIFIED stamp was used liberally on any finding that might conceivably be used as part of a weapon system, even if the work described basic physics that had been well known for a century or more. Contrast this institutional paranoia with treatment of the Nature Medicine article, which is published freely, though it includes explicit instructions with which a competent but malevolent biochemist might produce an artificial pandemic.

What were the authors thinking when put such research out for the world to read? I have written to two of the authors to ask them.

  • Luc Montagner, French national hero and Nobel laureate in medicine, worked in China for several years. He claims there is a cooperative bioweapons program between China and the West.
  • Francis Boyle, professor of international law and world expert on bioweapons law, claims to have first-hand knowledge of cooperation in developing weapons between China and USA. He also says that the original SARS virus from 2003 was an American bioweapon, and that the high-security facility within Wuhan Virology Lab was set up to study it [interview transcript]
  • Three Published papers on SARS-derived viruses that were authored by scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology list sponsorship by American funding agencies, including NIAID, which has been directed by Anthony Fauci for 35 years. [20072013, 2015]
  • Last summer, the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg abruptly cut off a Chinese-Canadian researcher’s access to her own laboratory. Details of the reasons were not disclosed. “A number of observers have speculated that case involves concerns about the improper transfer of intellectual property to China,” according to Science Magazine. What the Science article omits to say is that NML Winnipeg is Canada’s primary bioweapons laboratory.
  • The chair of Harvard’s Chemistry Department is a specialist in the technology of microparticles. He has had long-standing contracts with the Wuhan University of Technology (not to be confused with the Virology Institute), and was recently dismissed by Harvard, where the Administration claimed to be ignorant until recently of his work with the Chinese university. [February news article from Nature] [EuroWeekly article] [Wall St Journal]

American work on bioweapons can be traced to Nazi scientists who had been experimenting with non-consenting human subjects, exempted from being charged as war criminals and imported to the US to continue their work under Operation Paperclip. The current wave of research sponsored not by the Defense Department but by civilian NIAID was begun in 2003, and protested widely in 2005.

More than 700 scientists sent a petition on Monday to the director of the National Institutes of Health protesting what they said was the shift of tens of millions of dollars in federal research money since 2001 away from pathogens that cause major public health problems to obscure germs the government fears might be used in a bioterrorist attack. [NYTimes]

Regardless of whether COVID-19 derived from a laboratory, let’s put an end to state-sponsored bioweapons research. It’s already illegal.


The case for the Wet Market origin has gained popular acceptance despite evidence that is thin to nonexistent. Pictures like this one are used to appeal to our lizard brains. Of course something so disgusting must be a breeding ground for germs.

Here’s how we do it in America. Is it any less distasteful?

Yes, the way in which animals are killed for food is disgusting, and we don’t like to look at it. But does it have anything to do with the way viruses mutate and acquire new functions?

Standard evolutionary theory tells us that mutations are random. (I’ve been a critic of standard evolutionary theory, but for reasons that I think are not relevant to the present discussion.) Occasionally, a random mutation makes it possible for a virus to jump from one species to another. But these mutations are rare enough that we don’t expect them to occur simultaneously with three other gain-of-function mutations that make a virus both more lethal and more contagious. Computer models based on the full SARS-CoV2 genome have trouble accounting for all the differences from the bat genome in a sufficiently short time frame. The wet market hypothesis is a politically convenient fallback, without a proposed mechanism. The bats that harbor SARS viruses live 1,000 miles from Wuhan and are not sold in the local meat market at Wuhan.


* The pangolin that has been proposed as an intermediate host is an endangered species. It cannot be sold legally in China, and the idea that there were underground pangolin vendors in the Wuhan wet market has not even been alleged, let alone researched. This Guardian article is appropriately skeptical. The Nature article which is the original source of the pangolin theory does not claim there were pangolins at the Wuhan market. A follow-up Nature article points to further weaknesses in the pangolin hypothesis, and clarifies that the pangolin virus genome is not closer than the bat virus to SARS-CoV2.

Where did COVID-19 come from?

There is genetic evidence suggestive of human tinkering in the genome, and there are news stories suggesting the virus might have been developed either at the Wuhan Institute of Virology or at the American virology lab at Fort Detrick. There are even some suggestions that the American and Chinese bioweapons labs may be working together, sharing samples and exchanging funding.


Part 1: The Genetic Evidence

Preface

We rely on the scientific community as a context for almost every public policy decision. People who want to influence policy know this, and they don’t just lobby Congress, they also buy scientists, scientific reporting, and placement in prominent journals. Most scientists are honest, but they have to survive in a world where funding is tighter than it should be. It’s not surprising that some of them succumb and publish what powerful and corrupt institutions want them to.

The question of a laboratory origin for COVID is politically explosive, so we expect a heavy hand restraining the science establishment. Those of us seeking an honest answer, who have a little expertise, a little horse sense, and a lot of patience, are left to sift through information, misinformation, and disinformation in a politicized environment.

My personal opinion is that I don’t like having to wonder if global pandemics have been created, accidentally or otherwise, by my own government. Bioweapon research is extensive in several countries, but dominated by the US. The disclosed US budget is over $10 billion per year, and who knows what the black budget is. There is no legitimate purpose for this “research,” and it is illegal. No bioweapon can ever attack “enemies” without unacceptable risk of infecting “friends”. Over time, it is virtually certain that there will be leaks with horrific consequence. Lyme disease is a case in point.

Regardless of whether COVID19 came from a lab, we the people must demand disclosure of this secret “research”, and demand an end to the American bioweapons program in its entirety.

I know of no coalition organized to this end. We’ll have to start one.

Three useful books to get into this subject:

Bitten: The secret history of Lyme disease and biological weapons
Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control
Lab 257: The disturbing story of the government’s secret germ laboratory

Expert opinion

Here’s an interview by Dr Francis Boyle describing the big picture. Boyle is a professor of international law at University of Illinois with a history in both government and academia working on the limitation of biological weapons. In this interview he alleges:

  • The US program in biological weapons was jump started after WWII by giving a new home to Japanese and German scientists who had been doing horrific human experimentation.
  • These programs continue to this day, at Merck, U of NC, U of Texas, Harvard, NIH and elsewhere.
  • Anthony Fauci and NIAID have also been tied to sponsors of bioweapons research, specifically relating to making coronaviruses more lethal. Boyle sites this NYTimes article about the shift of NIAID money in 2001 to bioweapons applications.

    Wikipedia states: “Since the 2001 anthrax attacks, and the consequent expansion of federal bio-defense expenditures, USAMRIID has been joined at Fort Detrick by sister bio-defense agencies of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (NIAID‘s Integrated Research Facility) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security…”
  • American bioweapons labs are sharing knowledge and specimens with foreign labs, including the high-security (BSL-4) Chinese installation at Wuhan.
  • Boyle believes that the origin of COVID was a Chinese-American research project, and that the proximate cause was an accidental release from the Wuhan facility.

Whoever knowingly develops, produces, stockpiles, transfers, acquires, retains, or possesses any biological agent, toxin, or delivery system for use as a weapon, or knowingly assists a foreign state or any organization to do so, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for life or any term of years, or both. 
The Bioweapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, authored and promoted by Prof Francis Boyle 

Since passage of this Act in 1989, offensive bioweapons research has been illegal in America. But Boyle claims that the research has continued under the guise of bioweapons defense or pandemic control. It is explicitly forbidden to genetically engineer pathogens for gain-of-function. That would mean deliberately making them more lethal or more contagious, or modifying an animal pathogen so that it is able to infect humans. Boyle charges that the most explicit violations have been outsourced to avoid technical violation of the Act, and some contracts have been with China.

This british news article claims NIAID gave a $3.7 million grant to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The Virology Institute is in the same city where COVID-19 was first reported and is reputed to be the largest center for bioweapons research in China.  Here is a 2017 article from PLOS that comes from the Wuhan Institute, describing genetic experiments with SARS virus extracted from bats. In acknowledgments of support, the authors list NIAID as a funder.

And here is an  article that appeared on the Web yesterday, titled Evidence SARS-CoV-2 Emerged From a Biological Laboratory in Wuhan, China. The article is unsigned, but contains only verifiable information in the public domain. It cites this article from 2007, in which Chinese researchers in collaboration with Australian researchers modify a bat coronavirus to enable it to infect humans. “A second paper, from 2015, not only reiterates the first paper’s findings, but outright claims they ‘synthetically re-derived an infectious full-length SHC014 recombinant virus and demonstrate robust viral replication both in vitro [human cell cultures] and in vivo [mouse models].”” Also in the anonymous article are recent job postings from the Wuhan lab, seeking researchers expert in bat virus and cross-species transmissions.

Not in this article, but also of interest, were a FEMA report from last summer that was eerily prescient. A job listing at CDC last November seemed to anticipate a coming need for emergency management. And a conference sponsored by Johns Hopkins University and the Gates foundation last October simulated a coronavirus outbreak that started in China and spread worldwide.

Where did COVID come from?

I don’t pretend to know the answer, and based on publicly-available information, I don’t think it is knowable. But there is genetic evidence suggestive of human tinkering in the genome, and there are news stories suggesting the virus might have been developed either at the Wuhan Institute of Virology or at the American virology lab at Fort Detrick. There are even some suggestions that the American and Chinese bioweapons labs may be working together, sharing samples and exchanging funding. I will defer these stories for Part 2 of this report.

The official story is that the origin of the epidemic was the “wet market” where meat and some wild livestock is sold to consumers in Wuhan. This hypothesis was challenged by an article in Lancet, summarized here in Science Magazine. The authors interviewed the first 41 known patients in Wuhan, who were assumed to have contracted COVID concurrently from “patient zero”. For 28 of them, there were links to the Market, either personal or through a family member, but for 13 of them, no links to the Market could be identified. In this neighborhood of Wuhan, most people did shop at the Market, so the authors were more impressed with the 13 who had no link, and suggested that 28 out of 41 could have been consistent with a random sample of people from that neighborhood.

Other sources claim that all 41 had links to the nearby Oriental Hotel, a short walk from the Market, and that Patient Zero was an American soldier/cyclist. I will have more to say in Part 2.

Is it plausible that the SARS-CoV2 mutated directly from a virus that infected local bats? For this question, I am dependent on evolutionary geneticists for an opinion, and there is a divergence of opinion on the scientific literature. Geneticists who say evidence points to a laboratory origin are typically cautious, but they make these points:

  • Wuhan is in central-eastern China. The bats that carry SARS come from Yunnan province in the southwest, about 1,000 miles away. It is known that the bats were collected for research on the SARS virus conducted at the Wuhan laboratory.
  • The genome has at least 4 gain-of-function mutations (if they are mutations) compared to the ancestor bat virus. Gain-of-function mutations are rare compared to loss-of-function, and usually the virus makes its leap when there is one gain-of-function. 
  • About a fourth of the genome looks nothing like a coronavirus, and must have arrived via genetic recombination. The recombined part bears a resemblance to HIV. Viral genome recombinations do occur in nature, but this one is particularly hard to explain, since HIV is a fragile virus that can’t survive outside human blood. How would it get into a bat virus? 

  • COVID has some pathological effects never before seen in a coronavirus, including attack on the GI tract and on artery walls. There are some reports that the virus’s lethality comes from its attack on hemoglobin, the red blood molecule that carries oxygen around the body. 

The claim that the four insertions look suspiciously like HIV was considered shaky, but it is supported just today by a testimonial from a French Nobel laureate. In 2008, Dr Luc Montagnier was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for having discovered (much earlier) the HIV virus that causes AIDS. In this radio interview (in French) with Dr Jean-François Lemoine, Montagnier expresses his conviction that the SARS-CoV2 genome points to a laboratory origin. 

“Indian researchers have already tried to publish the results of the analyses that showed that this coronavirus genome contained sequences of another virus, … the HIV virus, but they were forced to withdraw their findings as the pressure from the mainstream was too great.”

Against these analyses, there is one prominent article in Nature Medicine that claims to “irrefutably” rule out a laboratory origin. Their basis for saying this is

  1. That computations suggest that the virus’s surface proteins are not ideal for binding to a human enzyme called ACE2, and that if the virus were designed in a lab, the designers would certainly have found the ideal solution, and used that instead.
  2. That the backbone of the virus contains a piece that looks like a pangolin virus, and the pangolin virus genome wasn’t published until very recently, so lab scientists could not have used it. 

(The pangolin is a rare, endangered species of armored anteater. It looks a bit like an armadillo.)

I’m always suspicious when scientists use words like “irrefutably” and “definitive”. But, more objectively, I would point out that none of the four bullet points above were refuted or even considered in the Nature Medicine paper.

There is also a statement in Lancet signed by 27 researchers which was prominently echoed in Science Magazine that “strongly condemns rumors and conspiracy theories”, without refuting any of the geneticists’ claims. They cite dozens of papers that they say support a natural origin, but, reviewing these papers, I find that they rather assume a natural origin. In fact several of the papers note difficulties with this hypothesis. One of the papers concludes on the basis of evolutionary models that, if SARS-CoV2 evolved naturally from a bat ancestor, it must have diverged at least 40 years ago. This is difficult to reconcile with the story that SARS-CoV2 jumped from bats to humans just last year.

My personal perspective inclines me to think the Lancet statement is politically motivated. I find it suspicious that prominent scientific publications have seen fit to deny claims that COVID had a laboratory origin, but none have refuted the considered details of those claims.

The US Military has been studying Coronaviruses as bioweapons 

It is undisputed that the US has an extensive bioweapons “research” program, and that modifying Coronaviruses to make them more dangerous is part of their program of work.

Here is the first person account of Judy Mikovits, who claims she worked in the 1990s at Fort Detrick, an Army biology lab in Maryland. Part of her job was to weaponize coronaviruses. This work was ongoing and controversial as late as 2015. President Obama approved and extended the programs. Three years ago, Nature reported that “the SARS virus has escaped from high level containment facilities in Beijing multiple times”. Only in China? Also in 2017, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce requested from CDC information about leaks from similar research facilities in the US, and they got back a 503-page document with all specifics redacted.

Conclusions

I find it suspicious that the debate over whether COVID came from a laboratory is being avoided with ad hominem attacks, blanket denials, and straw man arguments. I’m impressed that the people who are supporting a laboratory origin have promptly corrected their misstatements, while I see no such willingness on the other side.

The totality of evidence for the hypothesis is not conclusive. The most compelling evidence I see is 

    • Bats that are reputed to be source of the virus are found naturally more than 1,000 miles from Wuhan, but we know that the Wuhan Laboratory was studying just these bats and just this virus, and further that they were experimenting with modifying the spike protein that the virus uses for entry, to make it compatible with human ACE2. 
    • The virus gained several new abilities on emerging from bats. Usually, we would expect just one.
    • Closely related to this, the genome shows four RNA segments that differ substantially from the bat ancestor where, again, we would expect just one.
    • Genetic analysis indicates that the divergence from bats happened decades ago, and yet the disease only appeared in humans recently.

I take Francis Boyle’s testimony quite seriously. He’s a career expert in biological warfare. Luc Montagnier is as credible a source as they come, but I don’t know what to make of how certain he seems about genetic evidence that others have said is inconclusive.

In Part 2, I hope to tie in American bioweapons research. Linking the American and Chinese bioweapons programs seems stranger than science. Teaser: Evidence suggests that SARS-CoV2 has been in America longer than it has been in China.

Overreaction

I have become concerned that dangers of the COVID pandemic have been overstated, perhaps deliberately. The containment measures adopted in most Western countries have had little effect on the spread of the virus, but they have been maximally disruptive of our economic and cultural lives, and have produced loneliness and isolation, while throwing millions of people living on the edge of their means into desperate poverty.

(graphic is my own, based on data from http://OurWorldInData.org/coronavirus )

Here is Dr John Ioannidis, professor of epidemiology at Stanford Medical School, speaking to this point.

The good news is that daily deaths from the virus have peaked worldwide, and begun their decline. Since death rates trail the rate of new infections by 2-3 weeks, we expect that spread of the virus peaked worldwide in mid-March and in the US 10-12 days ago.

Does it make sense to continue with policies of economic shutdown and social isolation now that COVID is declining? The answer depends on whether these policies have been responsible for the decline, or whether COVID is declining for other reasons. I tend to think “other reasons”, but I’ll try to present both sides. I recognize that there is no definitive proof, but only judgment in the face of diverse evidence. My bias is that in such situations I lean toward a contrarian view. 

There are three factors which I consider to be plausible reasons for the decline of COVID:

  1. Warmer weather is arriving
  2. Doctors are learning how to treat COVID from others’ experience
  3. Saturation / herd immunitymost people have already been exposed and have built up immunity

1. Respiratory illnesses tend to be seasonal. Reasons for this are not fully understood, and there may be several factors [ref, ref, ref]. Every year, there is a flu season, and deaths from flu are down almost 100-fold from winter to summer.

Is COVID19 likely to be an exception to this rule? We already see that cold countries have much higher incidence and much higher death rates from COVID than warm countries.

India may be the most striking example, a very hot country with weak central controls and a large population that is unreached by medical services. There has been no effective lockdown in India, yet COVID deaths per million population are comparable to the US.

The above leaves me very hopeful that, like SARS and MERS and countless strains of cold and flu that went before it, COVID is dying out as spring weather sets in.

In this week’s Science magazine, an article (summarized on ScienceBlog) argues that unlike these predecessors, COVID may not slow down with warm weather. As I read it, their basis for this claim is that these other seasonal illnesses spread sufficiently to engender herd immunity in the spring, but because of lockdown COVID has not crossed that threshold. Both these assumptions, in my view, are suspect. There is no scientific agreement why respiratory infections are so deeply seasonal, but it’s an empirical fact. If it were just about herd immunity, then we would see some waves of cold and flu that start in the spring or summer and die out by fall; but we rarely see this. And below I argue that if COVID is as contagious and as persistent as is claimed, then we (America and the world) may be acquiring herd immunity already.

2.  In just a few months, doctors have shared their successes, and there are now several promising treatments (though there has not been time for blinded, controlled clinical trials).

3.  It’s more difficult to know whether herd immunity is already being established around the world. We depend here on experts and on computer models. Here’s an expert (Professor Knut Wittkowski, head of Rockefeller University’s Department of Biostatics):

COVID is reputed to be extraordinarily contagious, and if that is so, I would argue that the kinds of half-measures used in the US and other Western countries are slowing but not preventing spread of the virus. People are still shopping in supermarkets and drug stores. Labs are claiming the virus remains active on surfaces we touch for 24 hours, but we are still freely sending and receiving mail and packages. 

If claims that non-symptomatic carriers can be contagious are credible, then surely a majority of people have been exposed by now, enough that our immune systems have generated the first few antibody-producing B cells, which can multiply rapidly (exponentially) when we are exposed to more virus.

If claims that non-symptomatic carriers can be contagious are not credible, then why are we locking ourselves away from people who look and feel perfectly healthy?

Herd immunity is the population’s usual way to stop an epidemic, and social distancing may have slowed the acquisition of herd immunity, but by now we have all touched someone who has touched someone who has touched someone who has been exposed.

Possibility number 4: Can we credit the lockdown for present decline of COVID?

There are many politicians and policymakers who will line up to take the credit for COVID’s decline. We would all like to think that the individual sacrifices we are making these months have achieved a collective purpose.

Empirically, we can never resolve the counter-factual, “what if we had not locked down?” The best we can do is to compare regions that have locked down to regions that have remained open. If we do this, then, subject to the caveat that all these numbers have been gamed in the reporting, we have to conclude that the evidence for effectiveness of lockdown is not strong.

The scale on the left is in deaths per million population. For comparison, the ten most recent flu seasons in the US have caused death rates ranging from 34 to 175 (according to CDC).

Rates of COVID deaths vary widely. But countries that have locked down do not appear to have an advantage over countries that have not.

As of this writing, there are 8 US states that have not locked down by executive order: Arkansas, Iowa, North and South Dakota, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Utah and Wyoming. Their death rates per million are, respectively, 11, 15, 7, 12, 27, 9, 6, and 3, all well below the national average of 77.

Looking at the state and country data, it appears to me that lockdown has been a response to high COVID mortality, rather than a preventer in advance of mortality. Perhaps this is the nature of political humans, to respond only after a threat becomes serious. But as policy, it is (to use the technical term) bass ackwards. Quarantine measures are very effective in early stages of an epidemic, but of limited usefulness once the epidemic has gotten its toehold in the population. 

China locked up quickly, cutting off all travel out of Wuhan in late January. Rules were liberalized and commerce resumed 2 months later. This makes sense. The US waited too long to lock down, and now, at a time when isolation measures are least useful, they are being intensified. I fear that the economic, psychological, and cultural consequences of this new wave of restrictions will be severe, while the epidemiological benefit will be marginal.

Greece locked down promptly and probably saved the whole country an ordeal. (I’m grateful to Zisos in the comment below.)

Theoretically, is there reason to believe that limited social contact and economic activity slows the spread of the disease. Yes, without a doubt. But is there reason to believe that it can affect the number of people who will eventually be exposed? Much less clear. I would say, only if the disease is truly wiped out in its early stage, before it becomes widespread and engenders herd immunity.

Costs

Heaven knows we all could use a few weeks of vacation. But we wouldn’t choose to spend it indoors, apart from our friends, deprived of cultural events and social supports, church, Kiwanis and AA meetings and yoga classes and folk dancing and community theater. 

Congress has appropriated $2.3 trillion for the Covid Relief Act (CARES), but some claim the true cost is $6 trillion. On Wall St, the S&P lost $10 trillion in March. If we were willing to spend any tiny fraction of this money on a rationally-designed program of public health, the number of lives saved would be far greater than the highest estimate of COVID’s potential toll. Diabetes is an eminently preventable disease that causes more deaths every year than COVID will cause over its entire lifetime, and NIH spends $0.0002 trillion to prevent it. 

Millions of small businesses are bankrupt. Tens of millions of people are unemployed. Depression and isolation have major impacts on health, much more so if they are prolonged as some are proposing.

Politics

I am all too aware of the potential for scientific opinion to be swayed by money and political influence. In the shadow of these unimaginable economic costs, there are a few who are profiting handsomely. Why did so much of the CARES money go to banks? Why is so much of the reporting promoting a vaccine to rescue us from COVID, when many past attempts to develop a coronavirus vaccine have been halted because test animals died. Vaccines are the most profitable segment of the pharmaceutical market, and drug companies are spared by law the costs of safety tests and are indemnified from legal liability.

The thing that keeps me up at night is not fear that I might catch the disease, but fear that Constitutional liberties in America are being systematically erased. “Hate speech” laws are being used to censor inconvenient political truths. The US government is barred by the First Amendment from direct censorship, but Google and Facebook and Twitter are immune because they are private companies, and they collectively have enormous influence on what we can find out and what we can discuss. They are doing the government’s bidding, suppressing dissent.

Dear readers, this is how fascists take power. They don’t say “Ha ha ha HA…now I’ve got you where I want you.” Rather, they get everyone scared, declare an emergency, and they offer to save us all from danger.

Read Naomi and Naomi. Remember the Reichstag fire. Discover, if you have not already, the shocking history of Operation Northwoods. Read Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (1936). 

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty has been attributed to Thomas Jefferson so often that he might as well have said it.