Social Media taps into that fundamental human need to gossip. Indeed some anthropologists attribute the development of our large and complex brains to imagination, story telling and persuasion. Thus the 'Cloud' is a like a cumulonimbus in which a hail of imaginative nonsense, misinformation and 'false news' circulates before falling to earth to smash someone's window or dent their car: or ending in tears of another sort; or simply evaporating.
Among this nonsense are many conspiracy theories.
For example, at the moment, we are told by some that the new 5G mobile network has, variously, caused the Coronavirus pandemic or is wilting trees, despite not yet being installed where the trees have allegedly wilted, presumably in anticipation. Of more concern is the claim by some that the Covid-19 virus was deliberately manufactured in a laboratory somewhere and released in China.
There are two broad versions, each with various elaborations:
The alleged motive in either case fails the briefest analysis:
But the most telling repudiation is that researchers in almost every country have analysed the genome of this virus and no one (including those in China; the US; and researchers in more than 20 other countries) has reported any sign of cutting and splicing that might indicate engineered DNA or anything else that suggest that this is not a naturally occurring mutation of an identified bat virus. Indeed several teams that have actually analysed the virus have explicitly rejected the 'made in a lab' theory, several have published peer reviewed papers, for example:
Viruses mutate naturally all the time and sometimes the change just happens to match the coatings on human cells - then we might get infected and not always for the worse. Recent research suggests that gut viruses, that serve to infect and mediate gut bacteria, may well be beneficial.
In the absence of any deliberate genetic engineering this mutation might have occurred in any location with bats and a suitable intermediate carrier, before passing to humans. For example Hendra Virus (HeV) passed from flying foxes to horses to people in Australia. In this case China appears to be nothing more than the first unfortunate victim of this pandemic, possibly as a result of the Chinese penchant for exotic foods that they have been eating for centuries.
Obviously President Trump and his supporters would like to blame China in some more specific way than objecting to their dietary choices. After all several 20th century disease outbreaks can be traced back to pig farming in the US.
In total there are now 23 'WHO COVID-19 Reference Laboratories' around the globe assisting the global effort and many independent government laboratories and University research teams also working on solutions, from vaccines and antivirals to faster, more accurate testing. Many of the current test kits used worldwide originate from work done in China.
While I have no access to a genetics lab or the skill to personally check the biology I can, like you, look at the sequence of events, published in the media at the time, to assess the other claims regarding Chinese culpability.
In December 2019 a Chinese doctor noticed patients suffering from a viral disease circulating in the wet markets in the City of Wuhan and initially thought it was a fresh outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). As a result the markets were closed on January 1 2020. By January 5 SARS was ruled out.
Contrary to the claim that the Chinese kept it secret, on January 7 Chinese researchers warned the WHO (World Health Organisation) that they had identified a new virus named 2019-nCoV and the WHO immediately warned relevant health authorities around the World. In addition the Chinese had provided the full genome of the virus to the world's principal reference laboratories including the US-CDC's Respiratory Viruses Diagnostic Laboratory in Atlanta; the Japanese Nagasaki Institute of Tropical Medicine and the Australian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory in Melbourne.
Using the Chinese genome information the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was able to confirm the first case in a Seattle hospital on January 21. The US citizen had recently returned from Wuhan. So US doctors and scientists were already sounding the alarm and calling for the quarantine of travellers from China.
On January 23 the cities of Wuhan, Xiantao and Chibi in Hubei province were placed under effective quarantine as air and rail departures were suspended. By the end of the week, more areas were placed under lockdown affecting a total of 56 million people.
This was not a secret. It was well publicised and no doubt you remember scenes of doors being locked and even welded shut. It was also reported that China: "has used drones equipped with speakers to force citizens to wear face masks and shut down 16 cities across the country and... China’s railway operator is using 'big data' to track down passengers who were in the same carriage as those who contracted the virus."
On January 25, in Australia a man who had returned from Wuhan to Victoria tested positive to SARS-CoV-2.
The same day (the 25th) President Trump tweeted:
China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!
The following week (on Jan 31) amid, growing concerns about the draconian nature of the Chinese lock-down, WHO director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted:
"The speed with which #China detected the outbreak, isolated the virus, sequenced the genome and shared it with WHO and the world are very impressive. So is China’s commitment to transparency and to supporting other countries."
Yet media outlets in the West continued to condemn the Chinese actions. For example, Frances Eve from Chinese Human Rights Defenders who wrote, in The Guardian (on Feb 2), that China's reaction to the coronavirus outbreak violates human rights and that: "The WHO should abide by its own human rights principles and demand the Chinese government end its censorship and police suppression surrounding the coronavirus outbreak."
Meanwhile (on Feb 6) the big story was that: Dr Li Wenliang, who had been hailed a national hero in China for raising the alarm about the coronavirus, had died of the infection. Dr Li had famously received an ignominious apology from Chinese Authorities who had reprimanded him early in December for 'spreading rumours', when he'd sounded the alarm about what he then believed to be a SARS outbreak at the Wuhan 'wet market'. He had been quickly vindicated when the first deaths occurred and again, early in January, the outbreak was discovered to be a novel coronavirus. No doubt he'll get a posthumous medal.
By this time cases of the novel coronavirus had been identified in a dozen countries.
In response to the obvious danger Australia closed its borders to China (on February 2) and the Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Australia’s travel advice had been raised to level four – “do not travel” as the number of deaths worldwide rose to 260 and the estimated number of people infected worldwide was reported to be around 12,000 (a significant underestimate). Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate family, arriving out of mainland China (not just from the Hubei province) were immediately required to self-isolate for a period of 14 days.
At that stage Australia had identified only 12 people who were infected and placed them in isolation. There were no deaths. Yet it was soon evident that Iran and Italy had a serious problem and the travel restrictions were extended first to Iran and then to other 'hot spots'.
WHO Map from Situation Report – 23
Countries, territories or areas with reported confirmed cases of COVID-19, 12 February 2020
By the end of February worldwide deaths passed 2,800, mostly in China, but many other countries had suffered one or more deaths. In the US officials were already very concerned and urging President Trump to invoke the Defence Production Act giving him the power to expand industrial production of key materials or products for national security. For his part the President appeared sanguine, trusting in a health system that has less beds and less doctors per head than the majority of OECD countries, where health care is more affordable.
Around this time several apparent experts had speculated that the virus probably originated in the Hubei Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Wuhan. Chief among these were the controversial French scientist: Luc Montagnier, a disputed discoverer of the AIDS virus, and the equally controversial Russian scientist: Prof P Chumakov who's opinions have since been disowned by the Russian Federal Medical-Biological Agency (FMBA) and who is promoting his own controversial 'solution' to the pandemic. “If you let one virus into the human body that does not cause symptoms of the disease, then there will be no more space for another, even the most 'evil' ”one," he told an interviewer. "A polio vaccine can quench the pandemic of the coronavirus infection,"
Such wild and untested speculations prompted twenty six Western public health scientists to published a "Statement in support of the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China combating COVID-19" in The Lancet which they asserted that the "The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins. We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin. Scientists from multiple countries have published and analysed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife, as have so many other emerging pathogens."
On March 11th the WHO belatedly declared a pandemic, allegedly in cahoots with China, that was previously concerned that travel bans would injure its commercial interests. For weeks China had been berating Australia for closing its borders to Chinese travellers. The travel bans they wished to reverse had already been in place for over a month and that a pandemic was underway was obvious to 'Blind Freddy'.
By mid March the epicentre of the pandemic had moved from China to Europe with hospitals in northern Italy overwhelmed and by late March Australia had closed it's borders to all foreign travel and, along with over 130 other countries, imposed a lock-down and legally enforced social distancing.
Yet in the US, that had known about the danger since January 21, less than three weeks after China, the borders were still open to Europe and most of the world and less than a dozen of the 50 States had enforced social distancing, despite a growing crisis in New York.
For his part the President was still equivocating, saying it was nothing to worry about, that it was all under control and suggesting home remedies and promoting unproven drugs that have since turned out to be more deadly than no drug at all. Then he railed against the two dozen States that had imposed a lock-down, advocating civil disobedience. While air traffic over Europe, Asia and Oceania virtually disappeared travel over the US seemed largely unabated.
By the end of April the US had become the new epicentre of deaths due to the virus, now with over a quarter of total deaths worldwide, doubling every 12 days. This equated to 165.8 deaths per million of population.
China, on the other hand, by dint of draconian lockdowns, in addition to comprehensive testing and contact tracing, had limited deaths due to the virus to 3.22 deaths per million. Other countries that acted quickly, like Australia and New Zealand, had similar success in limiting outbreaks. Australia had suffered a total of 84 deaths or 3.25 deaths per million, and these were largely due to cruise ships.
China was reporting less than 5,000 deaths in total and several days with none. But this was called 'fake news' by those who wanted to argue that China planned the whole thing and was now falsifying its numbers, an alleged lie in which the WHO is said to be complicit. Yet independent observers reported that Wuhan was no longer in lock-down and the last patient had left hospital because all those infected by the virus have now either died or recovered.
There is no general immunity in China, except in Wuhan, so there have been other 'hot spots'. But so far quarantining, rigorous testing and contact tracing appear to have contained these new outbreaks.
Australia and New Zealand also rely heavily on testing and contact tracing. Australia currently conducts an an average of 77 tests, still mainly targeting people with potential to have contracted the virus, to find one infection and New Zealand over 100. The death rate in Australia to date is 1.3% of those known to been infected. This is a lot lower than in several harder hit countries where infection rates have probably been under reported due to less testing.
The very low level of infection has encouraged authorities to ease lock-down restrictions and to send children back to school.
As many have pointed out including: Boris Johnson (UK PM) initially; the authorities in Sweden; and me in my paper Love in the time of Coronavirus, on this website, a possible alternative strategy to a total lock-down is to protect the obviously vulnerable and then let the virus run its course. Infections will rise rapidly but then slow and cease as those who have recovered and are now immune make up a majority of the population - so called 'herd immunity'. This is what vaccines achieve without the need to infect people with the actual disease to gain immunity, as was once the case with childhood mumps and measles.
But to reach 'herd immunity' in the absence of a vaccine, if that's the strategy the Washington Administration has in mind, then the majority of the US population will need to become infected and recover. That's going to result in an awful lot deaths.
As a point of comparison, the 1918-19 influenza epidemic, that had a case-fatality rate (CFR) of around 2.5% (Taubenberger and Morens), took the lives of more than 550,000 Americans (Crosby - 1989). At that time the population of the United States was about 103 million (Linder and Grove). Analysis of preliminary data (The Lancet, March 31, 2020) estimating case fatality rates of COVID-19 found a CFR of around 3·85%. In other words Covid-19 seemed to be over 50% more deadly than the 1918-19 'Spanish Influenza'. But as the CFR is the ratio of those dying from a disease to those contracting it, both numbers are critical to arriving at the correct number. At present the CFR for COVID-19 varies dramatically between countries mainly due to under estimating how many people have caught it and varying methods of reporting deaths. It seems that a great many who have contracted COVID-19 have not realised it or not reported it.
At present only Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia, and South Korea have sufficient testing (per capita) to have reasonably reliable infection statistics. These four countries have relatively stable CFRs as numbers grew in the range 1.4 to 2.35. The US CFR is presently 5.84 but this is likely to fall substantially with more testing as a significant proportion of infections appear to be going unreported.
Since originally writing this I've taken a look at the prospect of taking the 'herd immunity' path to virus eradication using Spain as an example.
It seems that in several countries the infection is so wide spread that isolation is no longer an economically viable option and control of the virus has thus been lost. In the US there are presently (May 29) 1.72 million cases 1.3 million of which are deemed 'active'. As indicated above, this is almost certainly a very large under-enumeration. So the US probably has over two million more actively infected people, most of them wandering around undetected.
If this is the case, with a population now over 328 million, well over a million Americans are under imminent sentence of death.
The alternatives are to extend and enforce lock-down measures nation wide until, combined with extensive testing, contact tracing and isolation, new outbreaks are reduced to a small manageable number; or simply to maintain sufficient restrictions to contain the death rate to within present levels, around a thousand a day, indefinitely or at least until a vaccine is available.
As at the end of May, over 100,000 Americans are now dead, as a result of their governments' slow response to this pandemic.
Had the US acted decisively as did China, even a month later, when the problem was evident to everyone, yet still potentially manageable, the infection might have been contained to a few thousand deaths in total and new infections could now be contained to a traceable number so that lock-downs could safely be eased.
The Trump Administration's reluctance to protect its citizens and it's, apparently cavalier, attitude to the lives of the vulnerable has not been universal across North America.
California, took early action and with 12% of the US population has suffered less than 3% of the death toll but it's very unlikely they could succeed in achieving no new infections for 28 days as they would need to keep the border closed, and insist that interstate travellers quarantine themselves, indefinitely.
Canada also acted more decisively and, in spite of a long common border, has suffered a third of the deaths per million of its neighbour. Mexico, to the south, has an even lower death rate, perhaps a benefit of 'Trump's Great Big Wall'? But they have other problems that may prove difficult over time.
In casting around for someone to blame for the carnage now afflicting the US, President Trump, together with his support team, has decided to blame China, making totally unsubstantiated claims that the virus originated in a Chinese laboratory.
His next assertion was that they somehow covered-up the pandemic. Apparently he didn't have to act until the pandemic was called by the WHO in early March. Yet, even then, he didn't do anything substantial to isolate the 'hot spots'; like closing down internal and external travel; or despite his posturing, to test everyone with flue-like symptoms; and to quarantine all those found to be infected. His own scientists had been warning him to take such actions from January 21st, when the first case was confirmed in Washington State.
There's no need to hypothesise an evil Oriental genius in a biotechnology laboratory to explain COVID-19.
All we had to do was watch nature (or is that God?) do its thing.
There are an estimated 1,300 species of bat (batcon.org: Bats are Everywhere), some in very large numbers. They are mammals like us and carry a vast number of viruses that are constantly mutating within their population, like the four main viruses that cause the common cold do, along with dozens of other viruses, in the human population.
When bats cough or sneeze; urinate or defecate their viruses may pass to humans directly or more often to animals we keep as pets or for food. Mostly these mutant virions are harmless to us but every now and then the mutated virus is able to replicate in us. Very occasionally it proves to be both infectious and deadly.
Then there are the birds that have been the source of at least three H1N1 pandemics - like the Spanish Flue. On earth there are an estimated 50 birds per person.
Nature is a very large biotechnology laboratory with billions of bats and birds and billions of people hosting trillions of constantly mutating virions and bacterium.
So all we had to do was do nothing. As scientists have been warning us for at least 50 years novel pandemics will inevitably come, quite without human intervention, maybe in less than a hundred years next time.
Apparently Donald Trump knows more than the many qualified scientists who say that Covid-19 was NOT made in a laboratory. That's why two years ago, on May 8, 2018, he shut down the National Security Council's, Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, charged with: preparing the nation for a pandemic, as unnecessary overhead, in his mission to 'drain the swamp' in Washington.
Yet he's a fast learner - in March he didn't really know what a virus is. And it's not long before that he didn't know that Puerto Rico is an island, 'surrounded by salt, ocean, water' or that stealth fighters, like the F35, are not 'literally' invisible - like James Bond's car or Harry Potter under his cloak.