There have been two pieces of news in the last couple of weeks that claim more or less opposite conjectures about the origins of COVID-19.
The first is that the U.S. Department of Energy (which, presumably because it’s in charge of nuclear reactors, has some kind of intelligence-gathering capability) thinks there’s a good chance that COVID-19 started spreading from a biological lab.
The other is new scientific evidence linking the virus to raccoon dogs, which are small, Asian animals related to canines.
First of all, I should make it clear that even if COVID’s origins as a pandemic came from a lab accident, that doesn’t mean it was some kind of engineered or deliberately released plague. Outside of the fevered ravings of conspiracy theories, no one is suggesting that.
(If you’d like to explain to me why the Chinese government, or any government, would want to unleash a novel coronavirus, please go and dig a nice, deep hole in your back yard and shout all your very clever thoughts into that.)
The lab leak hypothesis is simply the idea that researchers were working with some viruses – something scientists do the world over – and one of the labs had some kind of poor biological control.
There has been a tremendous amount of argument about whether or not the lab leak hypothesis could be true.
I frankly don’t think it matters much.
The virus wasn’t engineered, and there’s no way that any Chinese lab, or government agency, or private company, deliberately released it.
So the question is, was it a case of a random biological incident – someone shooed a coughing raccoon dog away from their trash and got sick – or of human error – someone touched an improperly cleaned petri dish and then rubbed their eye.
Presumably, the researchers found the virus in local raccoon dogs. Both theories could be true.
What matters most, at this point, is preventing another viral outbreak, of any kind. Bird flu, for example, is tearing around the world right now, and it’s infecting everything from skunks to sea lions, not to mention poultry flocks. If it jumped to humans, that would be bad, and we have a very clear idea of exactly how bad, don’t we?
So if COVID-19 came from a lab, what should we do about it?
The obvious answer is to beef up lab biosecurity around the world, to maintain very high standards.
The Chinese government will never, ever, ever admit that one of its labs did anything wrong. But that’s no reason not to encourage better biosecurity everywhere, via the UN and other agencies.
And if it was simply a random infection from an animal, then the best course of action is to stop human encroachment into wild areas, and to monitor viruses of concern, like H5N1 bird flu.
In other words, we already know the answer. The question – lab leak or wildlife? – doesn’t actually matter that much.
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