By MIKE MAGEE, MD
What a strange irony. Trump decides, full-bravado, to challenge China to a trade war just months before China unwittingly hatches a virulent pandemic that collapses our deeply segmented health care system and our economy simultaneously. And rather than cry “Uncle”, our President then fires the WHO just as their experts are heading to China to attempt to unravel the mystery of COVID-19.
With the ongoing, cascading catastrophe of Trump’s mishandling of COVID-19, it is easy to lose sight that the next pandemic (fueled by global warming, global trade, and human and animal migration) is just around the corner. And we haven’t even begun to nail down the origin story of this one.
Unraveling the transmission trail requires international cooperation. As one expert recently noted, “Origin riddles for other new infectious diseases often took years to solve, and the route to answers has involved wrong turns, surprising twists, technological advances, lawsuits, allegations of cover-ups, and high-level politics.”
What we do know is that there are originators, intermediate hosts, and human super-spreaders….and COVID-19 appears to have begun in China. These are not new insights. We’ve seen this playbook before.
The 2002 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) rode palm civets to the human hosts.
The 2012 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) utilized camals as intermediaries.
The Influenza Pandemic of 2009 traveled through Mexican pigs which had been imported from Europe.
This particular tragedy appears to have begun in Wuhan, China, with the first documented case occurring in December, 2019. The city is the site of the Wuhan Institute of Virology lead by the highly recognized bat virologist Shi-Zheng-Li.
WHO experts will be meeting with China’s experts to share information that has only been released in bits and pieces.
For example, the original working assumption is that this pandemic began in Wuhan’s open seafood market. In January, 2020, there was a small cluster of pneumonias there, and the market was closed and disinfected. But a later study outlined five early cases, four of which had no ties to the market.
The next thrust, fueled in part by the Trump administration, was the pandemic was the result of an inadvertent or purposeful release of the microbe by Shi. Scientists who have now studied the viral genome have uncovered no telltale marks of lab-based engineering.
The lead theory presently is bat-based transmission through an animal intermediary, possibly feral cats, led to the first human infections.
A hostile US government has not served to enhance information exchange. Quite to the contrary. Enlightened leaders are fully supporting the WHO, seeking answers to questions as recently detailed by veteran Science writer Jon Cohen:
1. “Does more epidemiological data exist about the earliest cases than have been made public so far…?”
2. “How aggressively have Chinese researchers looked for SARS-CoV-2 in samples collected before the first known cases in Wuhan?”
3. “Have they looked outside of Wuhan? How far back in time have they probed?”
4. “Can widespread screens be done of bats and other wild animal species thought to be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 and common in China, including primates, deer, and rodents?”
5. “Can widespread screening of susceptible domesticated animals provide clues to COVID-19’s origin?”
6. “Do stored samples from farmed animals exist?”
7. “Can widespread screening take place of people in China who might come in contact with bats or other wildlife that harbor SARS-CoV-2?”
8. “Do government health reports contain any information about possible COVID-19 cases that predate 1 December 2019, the first confirmed case of SARS-CoV-2 in the scientific literature?”
9. “Are there stored samples from sewage plants in China that can be probed?”
10. “Did Shi’s team ever work with coronaviruses in that lab, and, if so, why?”
Answers to these questions, and many others that affect the future of our nation, await the results of November’s election.
Mike Magee is a Medical Historian and author of “Code Blue: Inside the Medical Industrial Complex” (Grove Atlantic/June, 2019).