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COVID-19’s Origins Back Under the Microscope
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COVID-19’s Origins Back Under the Microscope

“[Whether] this was a lab leak or not, it’s absolutely conceivable that the next epidemic could be started by a laboratory.”

Happy Friday! Singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran announced this week he will release the final album of his mathematics era, −, later this spring. He’s already published +, x, ÷, and =.

Come on, Ed, let’s get crazy. What about ∑, π, and √ ? Or γ, ∫, and Dx y! We just know Poisson(λ) would be nominated for a Grammy.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Biden administration unveiled its first national cybersecurity strategy on Thursday, providing a roadmap of laws and regulations aimed at preparing the country’s cyber infrastructure for emerging threats. The 40-page document prepared by the Office of the National Cyber Director outlines the five pillars driving the administration’s cyber policy: defending critical infrastructure; disrupting and dismantling threat actors; shaping market forces to drive security and resilience; investing in a resilient future; and forging international partnerships.
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a meeting of G20 foreign ministers on Thursday, marking their first in-person conversation since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the 10-minute encounter, Blinken reportedly pledged the United States’ continued support for Ukraine, urged Russia not to abandon the New START arms control agreement, and demanded the release of Paul Whelan, an American citizen held by Russia since 2018. 
  • The Taiwanese Defense Ministry announced yesterday 21 Chinese military jets were detected in Taiwan’s air defense identification zone Thursday morning, one day after the U.S. State Department approved the potential sale of F-16 fighter jets and related material worth $619 million to Taiwan.*
  • A bipartisan group of senators—including Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown and JD Vance—introduced the Railway Safety Act of 2023, aimed at staving off future hazardous derailments like the one in East Palestine, Ohio, last month. It’s not clear any of the legislation’s provisions would have prevented the East Palestine disaster were it in effect, but the act would raise the maximum fine the U.S. Department of Transportation can levy for safety violations from $225,000 to 1 percent of a railroad’s annual operating income, set a two-person minimum for train crews, and require more emergency response plans and hazardous material training. President Joe Biden encouraged lawmakers to send the bill to his desk, and Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw has agreed to testify before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee next week.
  • The third place finisher in Nigeria’s recent presidential election, Peter Obi, vowed on Thursday to overturn his defeat in court, citing thus-far unverified claims of fraud and voter suppression. Obi ran as an outsider against candidates—Atiku Abubakar and the victor, Bola Tinubu—supported by the two major parties, and he has 21 days from the March 1 announcement of the results to file his claim contesting the outcome.
  • The annual rate of inflation in the Eurozone ticked down to 8.5 percent in February from 8.6 percent in January, the European Union statistics agency reported Thursday—a slower decline than anticipated. Prices fell in the energy sector, from 15 percent year-over-year in January to 14.1 percent in February, but rose in other sectors of the economy, including food and services. The continued high prices will likely result in the European Central Bank raising interest rates yet again.
  • President Biden said Thursday he will not veto a GOP-led bill—supported by a handful of Democrats—that would roll back changes to the D.C. criminal code eliminating some mandatory minimum sentences and reducing maximum penalties for crimes like carjacking and illegal possession of a firearm. The measure, which would repeal updates to the code the D.C. Council passed over Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser’s veto, is likely to pass with bipartisan support
  • Democratic California Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office announced Thursday the senator, 89, was hospitalized in California this week to receive treatment for shingles but plans to return to Washington later this month. With Democratic Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman currently hospitalized for clinical depression, the Senate stands at a 49-49 split between Republicans and Democrats. 
  • The House Ethics Committee unanimously voted Tuesday to investigate embattled Republican New York Rep. George Santos, the committee announced Thursday. The investigative subcommittee will attempt to determine if Santos violated federal conflict of interest laws, lied on paperwork submitted to the House of Representatives, or engaged in sexual misconduct towards a prospective employee of his office.    
  • The Department of Labor reported Thursday initial jobless claims—a proxy for layoffs—decreased by 2,000 week-over-week to a seasonally-adjusted 190,000 claims last week, indicating an historically tight labor market. 

Meat Market or Lab?

Laboratory technicians wearing personal protective equipment at a a COVID-19 testing facility, in Wuhan in China. (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

The Department of Energy may have only “low confidence” in its assessment that COVID-19 likely originated in a lab, but Republicans long criticized for their openness to the idea are still celebrating the agency’s conclusion—so much so, in fact, that you might think the report was accompanied by a little vial labeled “Nov. 2019 Wuhan COVID Recipe—Do Not Remove!”

“There was always enormous evidence that the Wuhan coronavirus leaked from the Wuhan lab,” asserted former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, “I’m glad the Department of Energy recognizes this reality.” Sen. Tom Cotton—previously excoriated as a conspiracy theorist for voicing his belief that the virus originated in a lab—also took a victory lap. “The only conspiracy back in the early part of 2020 was a conspiracy of silence,” he told Fox News.

The DOE’s assessment is far from conclusive, but it’s hardly surprising that proponents of the lab-leak theory of COVID origins—an idea previously dismissed as racist conspiracy mongering and restricted on social media—feel vindicated this week amid reports that both the DOE and FBI think a lab leak is more likely than natural transmission from an animal. Yet many researchers and intelligence analysts still insist natural transmission is more plausible—and both theories lack a final evidentiary link, prompting frustration with China’s obfuscation and calls for better investigations and oversight to prevent the next pandemic.

At first glance, it might seem strange for the Department of Energy to be weighing in on the virus’s origins. But the DOE runs a network of research laboratories which have assisted in the United States’ COVID response and researched various biological weapons and countermeasures. The agency had previously reserved judgment on the pandemic’s origins, but more research and new intelligence—the details of which were reportedly shared with the intelligence community but haven’t been publicly released—reportedly tipped the balance in favor of an accidental lab leak. But only just: The Office of the Director of National Intelligence defines a “low confidence” assessment like this as relying on “scant, questionable, fragmented” information.

The FBI is feeling a bit bolder, concluding with “moderate confidence” in 2021 that the virus that has killed nearly 7 million worldwide likely escaped from a Wuhan, China research facility. FBI Director Chris Wray confirmed this publicly in a Fox News interview aired Tuesday. “The FBI has for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan,” he said. “Here you are talking about a potential leak from a Chinese government-controlled lab.” At the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which studied coronaviruses, multiple employees were hospitalized in November 2019 with symptoms which could have been a seasonal illness or could have been COVID. And the first known cases of COVID emerged near the lab—though, again, Wuhan also hosts the suspect wet market.

Yet whatever evidence these agencies saw apparently hasn’t swayed other analysts in the intelligence community. The Biden administration commissioned a 90-day review of the data back in May 2021, and the resulting National Intelligence Council report found disagreement among analysts over how to weight various intelligence and scientific reports. That’s apparently still the case. For those keeping count at home: The score is reportedly now two intelligence agencies for lab leak, four with “low confidence” for natural origin, and two undecided. 

Lawmakers are trying to get more information about what changed DOE analysts’ minds. GOP Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming sent a letter to DOE requesting the agency hold a classified briefing on its intelligence with members of Congress, while the Senate on Wednesday unanimously re-passed a bill from 2021 calling on the director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, to declassify COVID origins information.

Meanwhile, plenty of researchers insist zoonotic transmission is still the far more likely explanation. “Every previous coronavirus of humans has come from animals,” Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University, told The Dispatch. But identifying an animal source of the original virus, which would validate the natural transmission theory, could take years. “For SARS, which happened in 2003, we did find that ancestor,” said Racaniello. “We found a virus that basically was nearly identical to SARS that circulated in people—and it took 10 years to find that.”

Lawrence Gostin—a global health law professor at Georgetown Law and a World Health Organization official—agreed with Racaniello’s assessment. “The vast majority of novel outbreaks are caused by naturally occurring spillovers from animals to humans, and so what is most common and most expected is probably what happened,” he said, adding that physical and genetic evidence suggests the outbreak emanated from Wuhan’s wet market.

Yet investigators trying to conclusively prove that link are up against time—and the CCP. “The more time that passes, the more difficult it becomes to really understand what happened in those early stages of the pandemic,” said Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist and the World Health Organization’s COVID technical lead, at a February press conference. The WHO has concluded available data suggests zoonotic transmission, yet China’s government restricted what evidence WHO researchers could access and even blocked a WHO team’s entry into the country.

“The longer the history is, the harder it’s going to be to put the puzzle together,” Gostin told The Dispatch. “We may never know conclusively. In fact, we probably won’t, because China won’t let independent researchers gain access to the data.”

Even the intelligence agencies that favor the lab-leak theory agree China didn’t design COVID as a bioweapon—but officials have also said CCP hijinks make tracking down the true origin unnecessarily difficult. “The Chinese government, it seems to me, has been doing its best to try to thwart and obfuscate the work we’re doing,” said Wray. And as expected, the Chinese government has condemned the DOE report and decried the lab-leak theory. “Certain parties should stop rehashing the ‘lab-leak’ narrative, stop smearing China and stop politicizing origins-tracing,” Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning said Monday.

Approaching the third anniversary of the initial lockdowns in the United States—with vaccines and treatments now readily available—it’s tempting to want to put the whole affair behind us. But public health officials are anxious to prevent the next pandemic—and both zoonotic and lab-leak origins have serious policy implications. 

Proponents of the natural transmission theory have championed regulating or closing live animal markets like Wuhan’s and preserving habitats to prevent the type of close contact that encourages cross-species spread and mutation of viruses. And even researchers who don’t think COVID originated from a lab say the type of gain-of-function research practiced at the Wuhan Institute of Virology—and elsewhere, including recently at Boston University—carries the risk of producing and leaking dangerous pathogens. 

Current oversight procedures appear to be lacking: A January report from the Office of Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services found the National Institutes of Health didn’t properly oversee safety in virus growth experiments it helped fund at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has proposed more guidelines for this type of research, including more carefully classifying what’s dangerous. Gostin suggested the WHO run rigorous oversight of labs performing these experiments—akin to United Nations inspections of nuclear facilities.

In the meantime? “We might want to consider a moratorium on all enhancement research until we can get a handle on it,” Gostin said. “[Whether] this was a lab leak or not, it’s absolutely conceivable that the next epidemic could be started by a laboratory.”

Worth Your Time

  • As Mark Twain once said, “There are three types of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” So it is with two of the indices the Federal Reserve watches to gauge inflation. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) and Personal Consumption Expenditures Price Index have told a similar inflation story over the past two years, but they may start to diverge in the coming months. “Markets are now betting that inflation, as measured by the 12-month change in the consumer-price index, will fall to about 2.8% by October, from 6.4% in January,” Gwynn Guilford writes in the Wall Street Journal. “Normally, CPI inflation runs a bit higher than inflation measured by the Commerce Department’s personal-consumption expenditures (PCE) price index. If that relationship holds, markets’ CPI forecast implies PCE inflation would drop to around 2.5%. That would imply the Federal Reserve’s work is nearly done because it prefers the PCE to the CPI index, and uses PCE as the basis for its 2% inflation target. But differences in how the two indexes are constructed mean the historical wedge might shrink or even invert as CPI inflation comes down much faster than PCE inflation. ‘For the Fed, the messaging could be kind of tricky,’ said Veronica Clark, economist at Citi. ‘They target PCE, technically, so as long as PCE remains high, they can’t declare victory.’”
  • A few weeks ago, we shared the first-person account, published in the Free Press, of a whistleblower who criticized Washington University’s Transgender Center at St. Louis Children’s Hospital and the institution’s treatment of its patients. These debates are only just beginning, and in the spirit of fostering thoughtful discussions, take a few minutes to read another perspective, as reported by Colleen Schrappen for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Almost two dozen parents of children seen at the clinic, which opened in 2017, say their experiences sharply contradict the examples supplied by Jamie Reed, a case manager who left the WU center after being employed there for more than four years,” Schrappen writes. “Patients recounted that the staff explained procedures using both medical and everyday vocabulary. ‘The doctor reached out to me after hours to answer my questions and make sure I understood what my treatment plan was,’ said a 16-year-old from the St. Louis area. Rather than the ‘rapid medicalization’ and ‘poor assessment of mental health concerns’ that Reed cited in a complaint sent to [Missouri Attorney General Andrew] Bailey in January, parents reported a well-defined, step-by-step approach that could be halted at any time.”

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Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters:  Nick explains why (🔒) he’s truly a NeverTrumper, even if that means voting for a candidate he finds somewhat distasteful. “Don’t overthink it,” he writes. “‘Never’ means never. I’d go as far as to say that there’s nothing Ron DeSantis could say or do to make me prefer Trump to him in a primary short of attempting a coup in Florida that would install him as governor of life.”
  • On the podcasts: Jonah, Sarah, and Kevin take to The Dispatch Podcast to discuss the diminishing returns on political endorsements, Fox News’ lies to its audience, and the latest developments in the COVID origins saga. Plus: a Jonah rant on journalistic integrity.
  • On the site: Price reports on what the end of pandemic-era benefits might mean for millions of Medicaid enrollees and David Boaz looks at the ideological leaning of the latest Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

Let Us Know

Why do you think the debate over COVID-19’s origins so quickly became tribal and politicized? Is there anything inherently Democratic about being skeptical of Asian wet markets, or inherently Republican about being leery of gain-of-function research?

Correction, March 3, 2023: The United States provided Taiwan with $619 million in aid, not billion.

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.