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Today’s read: 9 minutes.
Theories about where coronavirus started, my feelings on states reopening and an important story about what you all are up to.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Photo: Gage Skidmore.
Yesterday, 87 of the 100 members of the Senate returned to D.C. and held their first roll call vote since March 25th. The House of Representatives is still on recess. Nearly every member of the Senate arrived wearing a mask, and they worked throughout the day while trying to exercise social distancing guidelines. They didn’t get much done on day one, which brought a lot of criticism from Democrats who want to move on another coronavirus relief package. Instead, an inspector general for the Nuclear Regulatory Committee was approved by an 87-0 vote and some judicial nominees and national security items are on the docket for later this week.
What D.C. is talking about.
The mysterious coronavirus lab. On Sunday, the Trump administration ramped up claims that the coronavirus originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he’d seen “enormous evidence” the virus started in a Chinese city lab. “I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan,” Pompeo said, without specifying what the evidence was or even the nature of it. “We’re going to be giving a very strong report as to exactly what we think happened,” Trump said on Sunday night, responding to questions about whether it started in a Wuhan lab. “I think it will be very conclusive.” Pompeo’s comments were a significant step forward from remarks he made just a week ago, when he said he was unsure where the virus started. Last week, U.S. intelligence agencies took the unusual step of confirming reports that they were trying to determine whether the coronavirus escaped a laboratory in Wuhan, though they shot down speculation it was manmade. The predominant theory amongst epidemiologists is that the virus began with a bat and was transmitted to humans who consumed the bat, which likely came from so-called “wet markets” in China. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told National Geographic that “everything about the stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that [this virus] evolved in nature and then jumped species.”
What the right is saying.
Many conservatives have floated this theory from the start. In February, when Sen. Cotton first suggested the virus may have escaped a Wuhan lab, The New York Times dismissed it as a fringe theory. Since then, as the theory has become more mainstream, Cotton has become more confident in his early assertion. “Common sense has been my guide,” he told Fox News in mid-April. Toward the end of April, he published a widely shared op-ed in The Wall Street Journal refuting claims from China’s state media that the virus originated with bats sold in wet markets. “Chinese researchers reported in the Lancet Jan. 24 that the first known cases had no contact with the market, and Chinese state media acknowledged the finding,” he wrote. “There’s no evidence the market sold bats or pangolins, the animals from which the virus is thought to have jumped to humans. And the bat species that carries it isn’t found within 100 miles of Wuhan.” Cotton added that what Wuhan does have is two laboratories where bats and humans interact as Chinese researchers study highly contagious viruses.
Even Josh Rogin, who often uses his WaPo columns to slam Republicans, wrote inquisitively about the prospect of China’s labs being responsible. Rogin noted that in 2018, after multiple visits to the laboratories in Wuhan, U.S. officials came home with warnings of inadequate safety and the dangers of a virus escaping. Now, the intelligence community confirming they are investigating this possibility while the Secretary of State says he’s seen conclusive evidence has left many on the right feeling far more confident in Cotton’s initial presumption.
What the left is saying.
California Democrat Adam Schiff is the yin to Tom Cotton’s yang. Schiff chairs the U.S. intelligence committee and said last night on MSNBC that he hasn’t seen any evidence to support the claim COVID-19 originated in a lab. “What they’re clearly trying to do is deflect attention away from the administration’s terrible mishandling of this virus.” Many on the left have also said Cotton, Trump and Pompeo are doing their best to ramp-up anti-China sentiment in order to make it seem as if their own response was adequate — or that they were handcuffed by China and that’s why the outbreak got so bad here.
Robert Garry, a microbiology expert from Tulane, explained to FiveThirtyEight that every time there is an outbreak “people say, oh, there’s a lab close by.” In 2014, Garry was working in a lab in West Africa and was accused of being the source of the Ebola epidemic, a theory that never panned out. As Dr. Fauci said in NatGeo, there’s growing evidence that COVID-19 is a naturally occurring virus that somehow got from bats to humans. Fauci is alluding to the genomic structure of the virus, which scientists say would have signs of being man-made or a genetically engineered virus if it came from a lab — and it doesn't. One key tip-off is that the virus is extremely contagious, so good at binding itself to other things that virologists have basically concluded only nature could have built it because humans would have needed thousands of years of guesswork to get a similar outcome.
Like most Americans, I find Dr. Fauci as the most trustworthy voice in this whole mess. He seems ice cold on the laboratory theories, so I’m inclined to believe him. Still, it’s important to parse these things: “escaped from a lab” doesn’t mean the virus is man-made. It also doesn’t mean it was a bioweapon or intentional or is a kind of virus that was genetically modified. The idea that the virus “originated in the Wuhan lab” seems to translate to “was designed to kill Americans” in the brains of a lot of people.
Or, was designed at all. If this virus came from the Wuhan lab, and if an outbreak started there, it seems far more likely that it was accidentally transmitted to a researcher from a subject of one of their studies than anything else. Is this possible? Apparently, it is. I didn’t think so a few months ago and I said as much. Dr. Fauci has also shot down the theory that someone found the coronavirus in the wild, brought it to the lab and then it escaped, though it was not immediately clear what evidence he had that made that theory unlikely. Still, right now, the Tom Cottons of the world seem to be operating on common sense and connecting the dots, while the people who understand how viruses are built seem pretty convinced this did not come from a lab. I find Cotton’s theory enticing and attention-grabbing, but after a few deep breaths, I’d bet this is all a horrible naturally occurring accident. The most convincing story I’ve read about this was the FiveThirtyEight article where virologists and biologists talk about the anatomy of the virus, and they seem fairly confident this did not come from a lab — in any form.
Your questions, answered.
One of my favorite parts of Tangle is answering reader questions. If you have something you want to see in the newsletter, simply write in and ask a question. You can reply directly to this email to contact me.
Q: How do you feel about states beginning to reopen? My state of North Carolina is set to reopen this Friday, although I don’t think the details on what that means have been released yet. I don’t know how to feel about that. What do the experts think? Have we sufficiently flattened the curve to go back to normal (plus social distancing), or should people voluntarily stay in their homes regardless of what their state allows? And if so, until when?
— Josh, Charlotte, North Carolina
Tangle: When this pandemic began to unfold here, “flatten the curve” was an idea that most Americans were learning about for the first time. One of the misunderstandings about it was that we would reduce the total number of cases of the virus by staying inside, practicing social distancing and — eventually — wearing masks. In part, that’s true. There is sound evidence and there are plenty of experts who think we “turned a mountain into a molehill,” as one biologist from Texas told Politico.
At the same time, it’s important to understand what the goal really was: to slow the peak of the virus. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to see fewer infections overall, it just means they are going to come in like an afternoon downpour instead of a tsunami, so as not to overwhelm the healthcare system. In New York City and places like Italy or Spain, we saw what happens when the curve pops. Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the FDA, noted that the number of new cases in New York City is slowing but America is hovering around 30,000 new daily infections and has been for about a month.
“Everyone thought we’d be in a better place after weeks of sheltering in place and bringing the economy to a near standstill,” he wrote. “Mitigation hasn’t failed; social distancing and other measures have slowed the spread. But the halt hasn’t brought the number of new cases and deaths down as much as expected or stopped the epidemic from expanding.”
Having established this understanding of the curve and what it means to flatten it, I want to address your question more precisely. First with the pessimistic side of me and then with the optimistic side of me.
The pessimism: 30,000 new daily infections are a ton. It wasn’t so long ago that a number like that was unbelievable, and we’re hitting it every single day with the entire country treading water. Laurie Garret, the woman who wrote the book that essentially predicted the situation we’re in now (and saw the HIV/AIDS outbreak coming), had a grim outlook on the future. She basically says that the next three years are going to look similar to the last few months. Hope around the drug remdesivir is overblown (it’s not a cure, and just shortens people’s recovery) and she doesn’t see a vaccine coming out in the next year. In her gloomy vision of the future, the coronavirus hits towns and cities and regions in waves — not a “tsunami” across the U.S. but pops of the virus that forces people to reconsider their daily activities and put us all in a game of whack-a-mole of social distancing and lockdown for the foreseeable future. It’s not a pleasant idea, but it’s a vision shared by many epidemiologists who feel like the cat is out of the bag.
The fear for me has always been what we’re facing now: we lockdown for a couple of months, cause serious economic damage, and then “come back” too soon and get the worst of both worlds. A huge virus spread, lots of sick Americans, and 30 million people unemployed from a failed mitigation effort. Missouri is talking about having concerts. There are rumors Major League Baseball will be back in July. Beaches in the south are already opening. Anti-lockdown protesters are gathering in crowds of hundreds. The experts say we won’t contain this thing until 60 to 70 percent of the population gets infected or has immunity. We’re somewhere between 5 and 15 percent now. It may taper off in the summer, but even then we’ll have to look to the fall for a bounce back.
Again, all of this is with the mitigation efforts we’re trying now. There’s plenty of reason to think the worst is in front of us — as fatigue over the social distancing guidelines set in, as states and towns reopen, as people come back out of their houses, the virus could explode again. Yesterday, reports dropped about a draft of a government report saying COVID-19 cases could surge to 200,000 a day by June 1st. That’s… unthinkable. It would mean 3,000 deaths a day — a 9/11 each day for weeks on end. There’s plenty of reason to doubt the model, and the CDC said someone leaked unfinished charts and projections, but it’s out now and it comes just as states are trying to restart their economies.
That all makes it seem absurd and crazy to go back to work or open a salon.
Now, the optimism: Cities like New York City are built for the spread of coronavirus, and the way it’s ravaging our region may look similar to what happens in a New Orleans or Miami, but plenty of other cities, suburbs and rural areas are functioning under totally different conditions. The truth is we still don’t know a lot about COVID-19. We don’t even know how it started, we’re not totally sure why kids seem to beat it so easily (or if there are long-term effects from getting it), how long it’s been here or how far it’s spread. On the one hand, that’s all scary. On the other hand, that means our understanding of this thing may change for the better as time goes on.
For example, preliminary studies showed the virus was more prevalent in New York City than we thought, which is (mostly) a good thing. It means more people have antibodies and have recovered then most models expected. An implied death rate of 0.5% is frightening (and 5x that of the flu), but it also means 99.5% of infected people in the city are recovering. For me, at least, when I consider the number of New Yorkers who have underlying conditions which would make them susceptible to getting seriously ill from this virus, the fact that 99.5% of everyone who gets infected survives is a lot more reassuring than the feeling I get from scrolling through Twitter.
And while most commentaries about those studies suspect they overcounted the number of infected (the study was conducted outside a grocery store, and people going to the grocery store are probably less risk-averse and more likely to have come in contact with the virus), there’s also the opposite theory: sick people are staying home, infections are concentrated amongst the nursing homes, hospitals, and first responders. And antibodies take a little while to develop — so we very well may be undercounting the total number of people with antibodies that are now immune to the virus by doing this grocery store test. What’s that mean? It means the virus is more contagious but a lot less deadly than we thought a few months ago (WHO previously estimated a 3.4% death rate).
There’s also the “panic porn” element of all this. Every American, by now, has seen a post from a friend who has an uncle that’s a doctor who had a patient that got the virus and their eyes fell out of their head or whatever. The fear porn is an addiction right now, and it’s spreading everywhere. But, again, this isn’t Contagion. It seems very unlikely you’ll catch the virus from going outside. Young people and kids are not immune to this, but it’s very unlikely they get seriously ill. Basic preventative measures such as washing your hands and not touching your face after handling things other people have touched do wonders to reduce the transmission, especially if everyone showing symptoms is being cautious and staying home. What happens if in two or three weeks states like Georgia don’t see the big spike we’re expecting? I think other states follow suit and everyone slowly crawls out of their homes. That kind of slow re-entry is probably a good thing. Even if we turn into a mask country that’s a lot more paranoid about washing hands or hugging, I could see a world where you’re doing some of the things you were doing a few months ago at some point this summer (seeing friends, eating out, visiting family, etc).
As for the vaccines, cure and outlook: My general rule in life is that when all the world’s smartest and richest people are trying to get the same thing done, they usually get it done. Humans are remarkable. A friend of mine in the pharma industry told me recently he’d bet his house and kids they already have the vaccine, but they just need to make sure it’s safe. Several tests are in human trials. A cure isn’t here, but it’s just going to take one clever scientist in some lab between here and Wuhan that tries something nobody else has tried and hits the jackpot. How far off is that day? I couldn’t say. But I imagine it’s closer than Laurie Garrett or people like her are betting. Yes, there’s never been a vaccine in less than four years. But there’s also never been such a roaring societal pressure to produce one in four months. Even the pessimistic Dr. Fauci has said he thinks a final vaccine could be available for general use by January. We’ve got rockets orbiting Mars and planes that make themselves invisible to radar and vaccines that wiped polio off the face of the planet and scientists who can map solar explosions from 20 billion years ago and trillions of dollars in the pharmaceutical industry with every genius and CEO and altruistic “I want to save the world” biologist chasing the same thing. I wouldn’t bet against that — even if it takes a little longer than I want it to.
For some states, coming back online now is a reasonable idea — especially if they do it with serious caution (like the states opening restaurants or retail stores with 25% capacity). There’s a cost to keeping things how they are, and plenty of reasonable arguments that the mental health toll, economic damage and health care outlooks for Americans will cause a lot of death, too. But will Americans come out of their homes? It seems unlikely — at least not until there is more testing, a cure, a vaccine or all three. But not every town is New York and not every state is Italy, so I’m more in the “watching cautiously with lots of hope” mode for the states that are slowly reopening than I am looking at them and thinking “that governor is about to kill thousands of people.”
A story that matters.
Like it or not, people are ending their shelter in place. Apple’s mobility trends report shows that U.S. traffic — and even traffic in places like Germany — is already on the uptick. Traffic had been down 72%, but nearly doubled in the last three weeks. In the midwest parts of America, fast food visits and gas station stops are back to pre-COVID-19 levels. Grocery store visits are also down to normal levels, after spiking 30-40% when panic was setting in across the U.S. In rural areas, the data is showing the same pattern, according to Foursquare. “Whether governments, medical professionals, and scientists want it to or not, people seem tired of the shutdown and eager to get back to some semblance of normal life,” Forbes reports. Click.
63%. The percentage of Democrats who believe that the number of Americans dying from COVID-19 is more than the reported number.
40%. The percentage of Republicans who believe that the number of Americans dying from COVID-19 is less than the reported number.
32%. The percentage of all Americans who believe the real death toll from COVID-19 is “about the same” as the reported number.
100 million. The number of Americans who are in states making assertive moves to reopen or had no stay-at-home orders to begin with.
43-43. The percentage share of voters saying they plan to cast a ballot for Joe Biden or Donald Trump in Texas, according to a new Dallas Morning News poll.
24.4 million. The number of Americans who suffer from seasonal allergies.
12 million. The number of doctors visits caused by those allergies each year.
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The grocery store chain Kroger has successfully purchased 200,000 gallons of fluid milk and helped redirect it to Feeding America’s network of food banks. Kroger purchased the milk from dairy farmers who have struggled to find new buyers for their excess supply that had been destined for schools or foodservice before the pandemic shut everything down. Kroger is calling it their “Dairy Rescue Program” and it’s one of the most prominent examples of the food supply chain being altered to address the needs of people who are at risk of being food insecure. Click.