A Chinese flag flutters at the Yellow Crane Tower attraction after the coronavirus lockdown was lifted in Wuhan, China, April 10, 2020. (Aly Song/Reuters)
On the menu today: why so many Americans have a hard time talking about China in an honest and direct manner; why it’s extremely unlikely that the bad cold or flu that you had early in winter was the coronavirus; and why some high-ranking U.S. government officials have grown skeptical of the lab-accident theory.
Vox Finally Asks a Hard Question . . . about Its Own Coverage
You have to give Vox a few molecules of credit for recognizing that while they rage against disinformation, some of their earliest pieces about COVID-19 included information that just wasn’t accurate — in part because it was coming from well-credentialed experts who flat-out misjudged the danger from the virus.
While President Trump has been correctly pilloried for describing the coronavirus as less dangerous than the flu, that message was commonplace in mainstream media outlets throughout February. And journalists — including my colleagues at Vox — were dutifully repeating exhortations from public health officials not to wear masks for much of 2020…
If you read the stories from that period, not just the headlines, you’ll find that most of the information holding the pieces together comes from authoritative sources you’d want reporters to turn to: experts at institutions like the World Health Organization, the CDC, and academics with real domain knowledge.
The problem, in many cases, was that that information was wrong, or at least incomplete.
. . . given that the Covid-19 coronavirus is brand new, even the best-meaning experts and institutions gave conflicting information, some of which now has proven to be inaccurate or up for debate. That includes National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci, who is now the most trusted official in the federal government when it comes to the Covid-19 response, but as late as February was calling the risk from coronavirus “minuscule” and warning people to worry instead about “influenza outbreak, which is having its second wave.”
Why did we spend much of the first weeks of this outbreak listening to information that just wasn’t right? Allow me to offer a theory that is perhaps a bit too simple but encapsulates a lot of the problem.
For the last thirty years, the vast majority of powerful institutions in the United States placed a gargantuan bet on the idea that the government in Beijing could be a reliable partner in prosperity and would be a responsible actor on the world stage. Many leading politicians in both parties chose to believe this, many foreign-policy wonks chose to believe this, many academics and university administrators chose to believe this, and obviously, corporate America loved the idea of both using Chinese labor for imported goods and receiving access to the Chinese market. This includes Comcast, Disney, Viacom, AT&T, and Fox Corporation — the parent companies of NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, CNN, and Fox News, among other large multinationals that own major U.S. news organizations.
The controversy over the NBA last year was a vivid demonstration that most of these entities were not going to let little things like the Chinese government forcing over one million ethnic minorities into concentration camps or a brutal crackdown in Hong Kong disrupt these extremely profitable relationships. These American companies had gone way too far down the road of partnership with China to turn back now and could do elaborate mental gymnastics to justify why Chinese oppression and brutality was qualitatively different from oppression and brutality anywhere else. This mentality took root at institutions like the World Health Organization, too.
The problem was, the Chinese government was never the stabilizing, reasonable force for order that these Americans wanted to believe it was. We saw the regime’s true nature over three decades of brutal human-rights abuses and censorship and shameless lies to cover that brutality.
When the Chinese government initially declared this new virus could not be spread from person to person, and that the situation in Wuhan was under control, very few people wanted to stand up and say they couldn’t be trusted. We had just seen the Chinese government try to blow up the business plans of the National Basketball Association over a single general manager’s tweet. If you cross the Chinese government, you take your livelihood in your hands, if not your life. On March 4, the state-run Xinhua News Agency declared, “If China retaliates against the United States at this time, in addition to announcing a travel ban on the United States, it also announces the strategic control of medical products and the ban on export to the United States, then the United States will be caught in the sea of new coronavirus.” Every day, the leaders of China tell us and show us exactly who they are and how they see the world. They are perfectly content to watch us die painful deaths if this means greater leverage and power for themselves.
The bet that the United States could be partners with China was catastrophically wrong, an error that makes the intelligence failures on Iraq, 9/11, Vietnam, Pearl Harbor, and God knows what else look like small potatoes. Even to this day, an honest assessment of the actions of the Chinese regime are denounced as “scapegoating” or some sort of covert effort to excuse President Trump — who has made plenty of his own mistakes. A lot of powerful and influential people are much more comfortable talking about the latest rant by Trump because they believe they were right about him — and it allows them to avoid thinking about how wrong they were about China.
Unfortunately, You Probably Just Had the Flu in December or January
It’s easy to see the appeal of the theory out there, contending that the coronavirus came to America earlier than the medical community thinks, that a lot of us suffered anything from “a bad flu” to a “weird flu” in December (or even November) and that a lot of us are walking around having already beaten the virus. It is reassuring, even confidence-building, to think that many of us are already full of antibodies that can terminate SARS-CoV-2, and that we’re a lot closer to herd immunity than the medical community thinks.
I wish this were true. But there are three big pieces of counterevidence, indicating this theory is not true.
The first counterevidence is strain testing.
Nextstrain is an open-source project publishing and analyzing the genomic data of the virus — tracking the minor changes in its DNA as it grows and mutates. (That sounds ominous, thanks to sci-fi films, but most mutations are very minor and don’t really change how the virus works.) So far, all of the collected genomic data of the cases in the United States fall in line with what is already known, with the first confirmed case being in diagnosed in Snohomish County, Wash., on January 21; he had returned to Washington on January 15 after traveling to visit family in Wuhan, China. No one has found any genomic data suggesting a strain of SARS-CoV-2 had been floating around the West Coast or anywhere else in the U.S. from November or December, or even early January.
The second piece of counterevidence comes from flu tests. The Seattle Flu Study went back and reviewed thousands the samples it had taken in an ongoing study of flu outbreaks in and around that city. Out of 3,600 samples taken in January and 3,308 samples taken in February, the first test that showed SARS-CoV-2 was on February 21.
One of the reasons people think they may have had coronavirus in late 2019 or January 2020 is that this has been a particularly bad flu season — with two potent strains going around, and this has been the worst flu season for children’s hospitalizations in a decade. Ironically, one of the arguments we saw thrown around early in this epidemic was that the coronavirus death toll was less than the flu, because “the flu kills 80,000 Americans per year, and we don’t shut down the country,” etc. So far this flu season, the CDC estimates the flu has killed 24,000 Americans.
As of this writing, the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 is 22,115.
The third, and perhaps most visually powerful piece of counterevidence, comes from what we’re seeing in the hospitals in New York City, as well as places like northern Italy and Spain. This is what happens when SARS-CoV-2 gets into an oblivious and unprepared population. No one in the United States even knew about COVID-19 in January; onset of symptoms in the first recorded patient was December 1, at least according to the study in The Lancet.
If SARS-CoV-2 was floating around oblivious American communities in November and December, we should have seen much higher rates of hospitalization and death, particularly among the elderly and immunocompromised several weeks later. Other places in the country would be in the horrific situation that New York City is in now.
New York City leaders cannot blame the dire state of their city entirely on population density. Yes, ten of the eleven most densely populated communities in America are in the New York City metropolitan area. But four of the top 17 are in Los Angeles, and L.A. county has 9,192 cases, while New York City has 102,208. This country has lots of densely populated cities and neighborhoods, but no community has been hit anywhere as severely as the Big Apple. It’s not even close. New Orleans and Detroit are looking bad on a per-capita basis — meaning the number of cases and deaths per 100,000 people.
If SARS-CoV-2 had been in American communities earlier, we would have seen massive outbreaks of cases like this earlier.
If the argument is, “But New York City mayor Bill de Blasio is a doofus,” well . . . yeah. But New York City brought together several bad factors: its status of one of the world’s top international travel hubs, widespread use of crowded public transportation, numerous daily large gatherings like Broadway shows and sporting events, thousands of people using the same doorknobs, stairway railings, elevator buttons, ATM keyboards, etc., . . . and then on top of all that, a mayor who was declaring as late as March 11, “if you’re not sick, you should be going about your life.”
The U.S. National Security Team Doesn’t Think This Was a Lab Accident
If this account in the New York Times pans out, this is pretty strong evidence against the “laboratory accident” theory:
With his skeptical — some might even say conspiratorial — view of China’s ruling Communist Party, [deputy national security adviser Matthew] Pottinger initially suspected that President Xi Jinping’s government was keeping a dark secret: that the virus may have originated in one of the laboratories in Wuhan studying deadly pathogens. In his view, it might have even been a deadly accident unleashed on an unsuspecting Chinese population.
During meetings and telephone calls, Mr. Pottinger asked intelligence agencies — including officers at the C.I.A. working on Asia and on weapons of mass destruction — to search for evidence that might bolster his theory.
They didn’t have any evidence. Intelligence agencies did not detect any alarm inside the Chinese government that analysts presumed would accompany the accidental leak of a deadly virus from a government laboratory. But Mr. Pottinger continued to believe the coronavirus problem was far worse than the Chinese were acknowledging. Inside the West Wing, the director of the Domestic Policy Council, Joe Grogan, also tried to sound alarms that the threat from China was growing.
It’s one thing for an authoritarian and secretive government to cover up a lab accident that had catastrophic consequences. But it’s another thing for that kind of government to cover up a lab accident that had catastrophic consequences without leaving any sign that they’re covering anything up.
China has imposed restrictions on the publication of academic research on the origins of the novel coronavirus, according to a central government directive and online notices published by two Chinese universities, that have since been removed from the web.
Under the new policy, all academic papers on Covid-19 will be subject to extra vetting before being submitted for publication. Studies on the origin of the virus will receive extra scrutiny and must be approved by central government officials, according to the now-deleted posts.
Gee, that doesn’t sound like a government that has anything to hide, now does it?
ADDENDUM: Take a few moments to watch British prime minister Boris Johnson addressing his country and thanking, by name, the doctors and nurses that he credits with saving his life. You rarely see an elected leader appear more human.