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The Misguided Media Debate of Lab Leaks

While the origins of the pandemic must be investigated, the reasons to investigate aren’t what the media makes them to be.

Donald John Trump and his minions, needing a scapegoat for their own miserable efforts against the pandemic, decided to blame China. Before that point, there had been adamance that China was doing a great job. Donald John Trump sang China’s praises in that horrid falsetto he always put on. But once it was clear he hadn’t acted, that people were dying, that cases were rising, he changed his tune.

The extremists cooked up their contradictory theories that it was all a hoax, also a plot, and finally an industrial accident at a lab in Wuhan, China. And now, a year and a half later, the media is suddenly intrigued by the possibility of a lab leak, in one form or another. There is debate whether it was overlooked because Donald John Trump is a lying schmuck, whether a mistake was made in not championing a theory for which there remains no real evidence.

Investigate, I say. Let the origin be investigated. I don’t recall anyone serious saying we shouldn’t investigate! So investigate! But on the matter of the 6 January Capitol attack, there is an extremist faction that does not want to investigate. Funny, that. I don’t hear the media wondering much about that. They squirm over something everyone does want investigated, but they offer yawns of acceptance at something that must be investigated, because Republicans don’t want to. Media bias? What’s that?

There are two things to keep in mind about the lab leak theory. First, it doesn’t matter much. Second, it should still be investigated. We need to know the origin of the virus for several important reasons that don’t matter that much. We need to know to help develop the ability to track disease to its origins, to help us understand how diseases cross species and how their behavior in one species may or may not predict the behavior in another. There are very good epidemiological reasons, medical reasons, to hunt this thing down.

And we do need to know if it was a lab leak. Particularly, if there were, the manner it escaped, as it’s always possible that it wasn’t shoddy protections of a lab that allowed it out. It’s possible the lab designs and protocols need specific improvements.

But that’s also why it doesn’t matter: anyone who has lived through these past months upon months should be able to tell you that we should treat the pandemic as though it both were and weren’t caused by a lab leak. Both are plausible scenarios for future pandemics. Both cases require some overlapping and some different defenses. We must do both things, regardless of whether this particular plague was brought direct from nature or by way of a laboratory.

We do need to continue to improve infectious disease containment in labs, to make it less likely that one could escape while still allowing for the vital research to help us detect and predict disease and to defend humanity against it.

We also need to improve our surveillance of pathogens in nature, for much the same reasons, but in very different places. Most of nature doesn’t live in our laboratories, and so you need field surveillance and a different set of skills.

But if the investigation into the virus finds one answer or the other, we should still act as if both were true! It’s a false debate, it’s a bunch of media jerks thumping their chests trying to show what kind of hot shits they are while doing nothing productive.

One area where the origin might matter most is accountability for China. But it remains a marginal utility. China must be held accountable for their failure to adequately warn the international community once they knew what was coming. If it was from a lab, perhaps there are separate measures of blame to be laid on China. But the main blame, that they and their media friends, including Donald John Trump in the early days, didn’t give enough warning.

For all the things learned from Donald John Trump’s presidency, many in the media did not learn that grandstanding is lame and they should cut it out.

A conclusive investigation would help with reforms around whichever origin turned out to be true, but only marginally. Most of the work, in this case, could be done without knowing definitively.

The sudden debate comes as a proxy for debate about how the media performed during Donald John Trump’s term of office. Not well, one would think. But for the media looking back, one particular type of failure is seen as more important: if they bent too much away from the noxious smell of a decomposing, would-be demagogue, that they missed a story in their revulsion. For all the times they took selfies with Donald John Trump, aided his lies, those are acceptable. Those are sins to be proud of. But if even once they turned too far away, it would be a black mark.

If we look at parallel stories, such as police alternatives and crime rates, the similar sin-aversion of the media becomes apparent. If they push for humanity in criminal justice, and crime rises, they are more sinful than if they push for tougher policing and it results in more police murders, more incarcerations that diminish our humanity and our government budgets. (Even during the woes of Texas last winter, the media was ready to accept blaming wind turbines for one of the largest states being frozen dark!)

Consider crime a cancer, and the community the body. Prevention includes green spaces (eating a balanced diet) and education and employment (exercise). Policing is chemotherapy, which is a harsh attack on existing cancer and existing crime. But the media is much more afraid of not having enough chemotherapy. The story of a person having cancer, fighting it, suffering through torture treatments, is more enticing than prevention efforts.

The prevention of pandemics is less clickable than intrigue over their sources. And we see the same pattern repeated in the immigration crisis. Were they too tough on Donald John Trump? Not tough enough on Joe Biden? No question about them being tougher on the lawmakers to actually reform the law, to invest in the places that people flee, to do the necessary work to stop cancer.

Whether or not COVID escaped a lab, we should act as though it did. Such things remain a real risk, and only by continued efforts to improve lab safety will we avoid it. Meanwhile, the animal kingdom holds deadly pathogens we must continue to study, both in the wild and in the lab. We must do both. We should investigate the origins of the virus, but we can proceed to protect our species without knowing which happened to be the cause. And those who failed to raise warnings, including China and Donald John Trump’s administration, should be held accountable. That accountability should focus on avoiding the same mistakes in the future, rather than punishment.

The media should not waste its time tallying its own score. It should proceed on the assumption it is screwed up and work to reduce its flaws, rather than focusing on some acute sense of guilt when it has committed worse crimes that it fails to recognize. Fix the system, not the blame.

To Vaccinate the Idiots Before the Good

Hypothetically, would society be better served by vaccinating people who follow guidelines before those who ignore them?

Setting aside the policy decisions made for vaccination priorities, including for folks working hard to keep pantries full of anti-stress foods, the nurses, sanitation workers, and so on. And including all the older folks and folks with conditions that put them at extra risk. Set them aside. (Mostly because they’ll get their shots first anyway, but also because their vaccinations represent the primary population risk, so once they are covered the worries already drop off a good bit.)

The remainder of the population still needs vaccines to reach herd immunity. That raises a hypothetical question: should people who did a good job, who wore masks, washed hands, kept distance, all the sane things to protect their communities get the vaccine before the rip-roaring freedom types?

The surprising answer, or maybe not, is no. In fact, the opposite! The spread is biased from the second group. It’s from the people who can’t control themselves. They are the ones who need the vaccine, because vaccines do two things:

  1. Vaccines protect the vaccinated.
  2. Vaccines protect the community.

And the math on that works a little funny. It works a little like a loan, where each subsequent payment has a sliding tradeoff between interest and principal. In the case of vaccination, the tradeoff is between individual protection and community protection. As you go along, as more get covered, the individual protection remains, but you’re filling up the community protection as you get closer to herd immunity.

Think of the virus as fire and every person represents a potential torch. The vaccine douses a person’s torch, which protects them from being lit, but also therefore from spreading the fire further. And as we bounce around our world, the fire has to keep spreading or it is gone for good.

Because the freedom types are a big source of spread, vaccinating them first would douse their extra-big very bouncy torches. I’m sure people with better grasp of the math than I could quantify the difference. You turn people into particles and you bounce them around. Mask-wearing distancers move slow and have reduced collision speeds, perhaps some other property that reduces transmissibility, like small particle size. Freedom particles move fast, perhaps have a larger particle size.

Imagining the bell curve of particle types (on following guidelines only; curves would look different for other COVID factors like disease risk or impact of protective measures), it probably humps, in order of prevalence: those strictly adhering, with some minor number of slip-ups or intentional breakages; those who ignore at least one of the main guidelines (e.g., gathering size); those who only follow guidelines when and where they are mandated (e.g., wearing mask in a store); and those who actively ignore all guidelines, even when mandated.

A stairstep-style curve descending to right from upper-left.

Hoping people had a Merry Christmas. Biden’s inauguration is in about 3.5 weeks.

On Masks

Why do they work? What could make them better?

Lots of folks don’t seem to understand masks. I’ve seen some folks say that the virus is too small to be stopped. But most pollutants, dust, viruses, do not exist in air by themselves in a simple and lonesome form. Even when floating in air, things want to stick to other things. Regular stitched masks without special filters aren’t perfect, but they can block a lot of small conglomerations. Moreover, the more doublings of cloth can make that even better. The tradeoff of doublings up is the efficiency of breathing—the thicker the mask, the harder it is to pull air through.

In a different area, cholera in water, see NIH: Fogarty International Center: February 2015: “Sari cloth can filter cholera from water, research shows”. In that study, villagers in Bangladesh used simple cloths, folded twice (for four layers), to filter water as they collected it. It filtered 99% of cholera bacteria from the water in lab tests, and while the real-world use probably wasn’t as effective, it still cut cases and the cases that developed were milder.

Simple interventions can be effective. Masks do help, even if they aren’t N95 masks. Even if people make some mistakes in wearing them part of the time. They still help.

Separating the mouth covering and the nose covering would improve masks.

The nose is a challenge due to the variety of shapes, but more importantly it could be continuously covered even when the mouth needs to be uncovered. It is very easy for the public to cover the mouth and not realize their nose is uncovered, mainly because of the natural tendency to forget our noses. Noses are passive. Mouths are active. We do all sorts of things with our mouths, like eat, drink, brush teeth, talk, sing, whistle, play musical instruments, chew gum, and so on. Most of what we do with our nose is breathe.

I’ve often seen, sometimes in person, but often in photographs, people without their noses covered. I admit, I made the mistake on one occasion, myself. It’s an easy mistake, but we breathe through our noses, so it’s important to cover.

By covering the nose itself, or through some other method of protecting the entrances to the nasal airway separately, most of the inhaling could be protected and a common mistake could be countered. It would also make the masks more comfortable to wear, as a combined design is harder to make than two separate designs.

One of the most important things about that Sari cloth study is the fact that cases were milder. Masks do not block all cases, but likely do lead to milder ones. That may help reduce the transmission rate, but even if it doesn’t, it surely saves lives.