I’ve just published a really long piece in the New York Times about the origins of the pandemic.
I’ve been working on this for months—I wanted to write something comprehensive but not inflammatory, and with information not blame as the focus. I was wary of the topic last year, and I’ll explain why later, too. (Besides: the pandemic itself has been, and still is, the real emergency but this topic deserves attention especially since we do not want to be here again).
Because of the audience, I have left out a lot of ― to me, at least — details and topics out of it. I’ll now be publishing a series of it here! If you had any interest in how and why we can investigate and try to prevent rare but catastrophic events, this next month in Insight will have a lot of that.
Here’s how the piece starts, with the 1977 pandemic that was caused by our research activities:
There were curious characteristics about the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 1977-78, which emerged from northeastern Asia and killed an estimated 700,000 people around the world. For one, it almost exclusively affected people in their mid-20s or younger. Scientists discovered another oddity that could explain the first: It was virtually identical to a strain that circulated in the 1950s. People born before that had immunity that protected them, and younger people didn’t.
But how on earth had it remained so steady genetically, since viruses continually mutate? Scientists guessed that it had been frozen in a lab. It was often found to be sensitive to temperature, something expected for viruses used in vaccine research.
It was only in 2004 that a prominent virologist, Peter Palese, wrote that Chi-Ming Chu, a respected virologist and a former member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told him that “the introduction of this 1977 H1N1 virus” was indeed thought to be due to vaccine trials involving “the challenge of several thousand military recruits with live H1N1 virus.”
For the first time, science itself seemed to have caused a pandemic while trying to prepare for it.
Now, for the second time in 50 years, there are questions about whether we are dealing with a pandemic caused by scientific research.
While the Chinese government’s obstruction may keep us from knowing for sure whether the virus, SARS-CoV-2, came from the wild directly or through a lab in Wuhan or if genetic experimentation was involved, what we know already is troubling.
I’ll leave this newsletter here since the piece is already long, but wanted to give a heads up that I believe there is a lot of things we can already learn from this episode—spoiler alert, my piece doesn’t have a single answer—for the future. But that requires trying to sort through a lot of issues, ranging from the scientific side to the policy considerations, and ideally with a focus on making things better, not just finding parties to blame.
One key lesson I came away after this many months of research has been that we were due for a coronavirus pandemic—one way or another. We may not know what that way has been, but we can still try to prevent all the potential ways we’ve learned about. And that is more important than anything else.