Josh Mitteldorf at Aging Matters has a series of posts with some bizarro views on COVID-19. First, he argues that we have hugely overreacted to COVID-19. That was written ten days ago when about 2,000 people per day were dying in the United States from it and they were digging trenches for temporary burials in New York. We are now over 50,000 deaths in a little more than a month. Despite his argument that we are overreacting, he then in two additional posts argues that COVID-19 might have the result of genetic tinkering at either at the Wuhan Institute of Virology or at the American virology lab at Fort Detrick. Or, even more bizarrely, the United States has been working with the Chinese on bioweapons research. He elaborates the theory in a third post.
I’ve liked many posts, primarily on aging, on the Aging Matters blog, but I do think he may have jumped the shark with some of these recent posts.
Is there any merit to these claims?
I would say some but not enough to persuade me. It is easy to string together some facts, conjectures, and theories, draw some tenuous connections and come up with a superficially persuasive theory.
It is true that the Wuhan Institute of Virology has been doing research with bats and coronaviruses. It is in the area of the world when human and bat contact is common, because people extract guano from bat caves for fertilizer and bats are caught and sold for human consumption. Naturally they would be working with bat viruses. Scientists there also have apparently engaged in some genetic manipulation of coronaviruses. If we combine those facts with some miscellaneous facts and interpretations from elsewhere, we can generate a full-blown conspiracy theory.
Fact Check has thoroughly debunked the claims. Peter Daszak has been working with the Wuhan Lab said in an interview.
Look, first, the idea that this virus escaped from a lab is just pure baloney. It’s simply not true. I’ve been working with that lab for 15 years. And the samples collected were collected by me and others in collaboration with our Chinese colleagues. They’re some of the best scientists in the world. There was no viral isolate in the lab. There was no cultured virus that’s anything related to SARS coronavirus 2. So it’s just not possible.
And like you say, it’s really a politicization of the origins of a pandemic, and it’s really unfortunate. The stories, as President Trump said he’s been hearing, have been around since day one of the outbreak, and they’re around in every outbreak. Every single outbreak of a novel virus, somebody somewhere says, “Well, this has been manufactured in a lab.” In fact, a few weeks ago, when this started circulating, I googled ”HIV is man-made.” Do it yourself and see. There are people out there who still believe this is a bioengineered virus that spread around the world. It’s just really unfortunate. And I don’t really know why these conspiracy theories get such traction. I think the people just have trouble understanding what’s going on on the planet.
Are there strands of identical genetic material between HIV and COVID-19? This is a key part of the theory. No. The complete genome of both HIV and COVID-19 have been identified and there is a software program that can look for matches. “Per BLAST, ‘no significant similarity was found’. In plain English, SARS-CoV-2 is not made of the bat coronavirus and small bits of the HIV virus”.
Are there similarities between HIV and COVID-19. Yes. They are both viruses with “have a glycoprotein envelope. Even though if they belong to two completely different families – HIV is a lentivirus while SARS is a coronavirus – the two viruses are bound to have ‘something’ in common”.
So I would still not say the possibility that COVID-19 escaped from a lab is zero. I would just say the odds are much better that it arose naturally from a mutated bat virus. To quote Daszak: “And we estimate there are 1.7 million unknown viruses in wildlife, so there’s a lot of diversity out there that could emerge in the future.” That’s a lot of rolls of the dice that could produce a virulent flu.
Adding to the conspiracy theory is an ABC News report that ““Concerns about what is now known to be the novel coronavirus pandemic were detailed in a November intelligence report by the military’s National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI), according to two officials familiar with the document’s contents.” November was well before anybody had identified a new contagion. So, how did they know? The report, however, specifically does not say that Intelligence knew that whatever was happening in Wuhan in November was a coronavirus.
That Intelligence could pick up signs of a epidemic before it comes to attention of authorities is not at all surprising. I believe trend analyses on Google searches can often provide warning of normal flu outbreaks. There is also the Kinsa thermometer which has been used to track trends here in the United States. In a country like China, likely all or most Internet and phone traffic is tracked. So Chinese Intelligence would likely have known about it from key words in social media, emails, and chats and, if they knew about it, most likely we would have known about if our Intelligence is any good.
I’ll grant one thing about a possible conspiracy if we are looking for deliberate intent. If anybody wanted to disrupt the United States they could hardly have picked a better way to do it with this particular administration at this point in time.
What we have is almost a perfect storm of a viral agent that requires governmental action, coordination, and resources guided by science hitting a administration run by ignoramuses and completely inept at doing anything besides lining their own pockets.
Why would the culprits be the Chinese who the need the markets in the United States? There are any number of others who would have more interest in disrupting the United States – Iran, Russia (who seems somewhat mysteriously unmentioned in all of this). And what better place to release the virus than Wuhan where the blame could be placed on nature or the Chinese.
When it comes to the virus and pandemic, my rule is, be skeptical, be very skeptical, until you see it in at least a few reputable news sources. And even then, look carefully at the disclaimers.
I really don’t understand why anyone listens to our current president anymore.
95% of the people talking don’t know what they’re talking about. The ones in the best position to know, exude the least certainty.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I can’t agree more.
Although we can be certain about one thing: bleach injections won’t help.
LikeLiked by 1 person
It took a “perfect storm”, if not a reasonable disturbance, to elect our idiot president. And hell if he hasn’t been as laughable as we all thought he’d be, and then some. But here’s the thing. As predicted, did the country thus spiral into some kind of staircase to hell? Not even close. Why? Because as I implied at the beginning of this, our president is just one cog of the entire machine. (Remember Mike?)
So how will things play out in six months? It seems to me that this could be “perfect storm II — COVID style”. The media has mandated that our politicians close the country for business. Come November, how many out of work voters are going to appreciate that maybe thousands of vulnerable people now live that otherwise would not? Citizens who can’t pay their rent and are forced to learn new skills in order to potentially live the lives that they thought was set, are then going to be asked to pick between someone who says “Open the economy!”, as well as a democrat who’s going to natter on about the merits of social distancing.
That first perfect storm caught me off guard. This new one however, seems set in stone.
LikeLiked by 1 person
You really still see this as an overreaction? The first time we talked about this, on my March 14 post, there were 2800 known cases in the US and 60 deaths. As of yesterday, not quite six weeks later, we’re at 900,000 cases and 46,000 deaths. And that’s with all the lockdowns. (Which incidentally have happened throughout the world, not just in this country.) If we hadn’t done the lockdowns, if the virus had continued spreading at the rate it was in March, there would likely have been millions killed, and every one of us would have known someone who died from it.
I won’t pretend to know what’ll happen, but at least right now, most people are more worried about the restrictions being lifted too fast than not fast enough.
Some restrictions are starting to be lifted. But government proclamations won’t mean much economically if people don’t feel safe.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Yes Mike, I am skeptical that the world in general is doing the right thing here. To me the whole thing seems reactive rather than thought out. Note that people are generally given raw numbers which seek emotional effect rather than weighted figures which relate this sort of death to standard sorts of deaths. Apparently COVID—19 deaths per day have surpassed the former top in this country, or heart disease. What would the difference have been if extra vulnerable people had been quarantined while the country generally remained open for business? I don’t know, though apparently Sweden is taking this very path.
Anyway the main point of my comment was that we seem to have stumbled upon a second perfect storm, or that millions of unemployed Americans will now insure a commanding Trump victory in November given that he’ll obviously keep talking about getting back to work, while liberals will obviously counter that he’s being reckless with human lives. Does that seem like a reasonable projection?
LikeLiked by 1 person
The Swedish efforts have been more voluntary, but most of that country is practicing social distancing. (Their government is having to do their own economic rescues.) Arguably, the US needed a more heavy handed approach due to our belated response. That said, no one knows what the ideal response to this should be. It’s all an improvisation, everywhere. The idea that there’s a known proper response is an illusion. We’ll only know that response after post-crisis analyses and find out who guessed better and who guessed worse.
On Trump and November, you’re assuming that public opinion on this will shift, but that the position of Democratic politicians will remain static. I think the first is possible, but if so, the second seems unlikely. And historically voters have taken economic anger out on the incumbent.
LikeLiked by 2 people
“What would the difference have been if extra vulnerable people had been quarantined while the country generally remained open for business?”
That was my thought too but I think now that there is no way that could ever work. The most vulnerable people are in nursing homes and they are the hardest hit. There are too many points of contact between the vulnerable and the not vulnerable. Besides that there are too many dying that are not that vulnerable including some young and seemingly healthy people (strokes for some reason).
Young and middle-aged people, barely sick with covid-19, are dying of strokes
“Reports of strokes in the young and middle-aged — not just at Mount Sinai, but also in many other hospitals in communities hit hard by the novel coronavirus — are the latest twist in our evolving understanding of the disease it causes. The numbers of those affected are small but nonetheless remarkable because they challenge how doctors understand the virus. Even as it has infected nearly 2.8 million people worldwide and killed about 195,000 as of Friday, its biological mechanisms continue to elude top scientific minds. Once thought to be a pathogen that primarily attacks the lungs, it has turned out to be a much more formidable foe — impacting nearly every major organ system in the body.”
I seriously doubt the “young people are having strokes because of Covid.” It’s anecdotal and thus completely unreliable. More reliable are official statistics that show IFR’s for those under 40 at 0.04% as Ferguson from Imperial estimates. His all ages IFR is 1%. Seologic testing is indicating that is too high, perhaps by a factor of 2-4. In Italy the median age of fatalities is 81.
It’s very clear we are not doing the “right thing.” Ferguson estimates that if you get Covid your probability of death is about 1-2 years of “normal” mortality risk. If he is too high by a factor of 4, that goes down to 3 months to 6 months. If you smoke or are obese you will loose an order of magnitude more years of life. This is the correct metric to use.
LikeLiked by 1 person
New England Journal of Medicine
“We report five cases of large-vessel stroke in patients younger than 50 years of age who presented to our health system in New York City. Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infection was diagnosed in all five patients”.
“A retrospective study of data from the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China, showed that the incidence of stroke among hospitalized patients with Covid-19 was approximately 5%; the youngest patient in that series was 55 years of age.1 Moreover, large-vessel stroke was reported in association with the 2004 SARS-CoV-1 outbreak in Singapore.2 Coagulopathy and vascular endothelial dysfunction have been proposed as complications of Covid-19.3 The association between large-vessel stroke and Covid-19 in young patients requires further investigation”.
I guess it would qualify as pretty good anecdotes at this point. There is a lot we won’t know for 4-5 years most likely.
The fact is that there is no really good way to deal with this now. We might have been able to deal with this better with a more robust health care system and quicker and more coordinated action from the Federal government to test and track. At this point, however, I think we are in really bad shape. My initial thought was the economy would bounce right back with the pandemic passing. But that was when I thought it might pass quickly. No longer do I think that. Not only will CV be with us for a good while, the economic impact, I think, is going to take years to recover. No good options. This could be the sort of crisis that leads to significant change which might be for the better, but unfortunately is more likely to be for the worse.
LikeLiked by 2 people
No merit, period. Conspiracies, generated and directed by AI, delivered by bots, are a real threat to liberal democracy, even civilization. Genuine malicious horseshit, funded by the hard Right in this country, by dictators overseas.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Maybe. But it seems we might be fairly prone to see conspiracies even without a lot of encouragement.
To add to that. We try to see patterns. Sometimes we exaggerate the pattern with positive spin and interpret the Hand of God or some other Force. Other times we use the negative spin and see conspiracies.
Here is another article explaining the various possibilities for the origin of COVID-19. It too concludes the natural origin is most likely.
I have a few comments:
1. Conspiracy theories are all a bunch of B.S. for two fundamental reasons. First, they require secrecy and second, conspiracy theories require exceptional intelligence. Human beings possess neither of those two qualities.
2. In a pseudo free society, the news media is the most powerful institution in that culture; and the media is not shy about proclaiming that it is their job and primary responsibility to shape that culture. So called leadership, (which is nothing more than weak minded individuals in positions of power) are manipulated by the media, and because they are too weak minded and ignorant to know they are being manipulated, they respond to real or imagined threats like a puppet on a string. Regardless of how I feel personally about Trump, his take on the media is correct and he has personally made it his mission to wage a war on that institution to demonstrate who or what holds the reigns of power. As it stands right now, the press is winning and will continue to win.
3. The most profitable market in America is keeping sick people alive who fifty years ago would have died from natural causes. Just one example is the scourge of diabetes. I saw a documentary on PBS last week. Fundamentally, diabetes is a death sentence, just like any other organ failure and/or cancer. Forty million Americans living with diabetes are being kept alive at the annual cost of 250 billion dollars a year. Tens of thousands of organ transplants are done every year, millions of Americans with congestive heart failure are being kept alive with drugs, and cancer patients have there own lives extended by surgeries and drugs. COVID-19 is a formidable respiratory virus, make no mistake about that fact. Nevertheless, the virus is only lethal for those individuals who fifty years ago would have passed away from natural causes. “Life at any cost” is the prevailing paradigm in America, a paradigm fueled and promoted by the press. Personally, I haven’t met anyone who has made it out of this place alive. We all need to grow up, start a responsible discourse about death and quit being a bunch of cry babies.
In closing: The correct message should be the wisdom of Spock; “The needs of the many, out weigh the needs of the few”.
“Nevertheless, the virus is only lethal for those individuals who fifty years ago would have passed away from natural causes”.
Mostly but not completely true. Even young and seemingly healthy people are dying of it though not in the numbers of the older more compromised ones. It is a good more deadly than the average flu.
Pingback: Aging and the Gut Brain Axis | Broad Speculations