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We’ve Held Our Breath for Long Enough

Nurse Tina Nguyen administers a nasal swab at a coronavirus testing site in Seattle, Wash., March 26, 2020. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)

On the menu today: Why we need a ‘reopened America,’ which will not be the same as pre-coronavirus America; some really promising news on the hunt for a vaccine; and what we’re really arguing about when we discuss the likelihood that this virus can be traced back to a lab in Wuhan.

‘Reopen America’ Is Not a Synonym for ‘Ignore the Coronavirus’

If you tune in to the latest episode of The Editors podcast, you’ll notice intermittent notes of impatience in my rants. The United States and the world have to make a series of difficult decisions, choosing from a menu of bad options that all involve considerable risk. I quipped that this is a time for the grown-ups to make a decision. The metaphorical children in our national debate, the folks who cannot handle nuance or grasp different degrees of risk and who instantly demonize any position that isn’t theirs, ought to be quiet.

Most of the country is in week seven of quarantine, lockdown, shelter-in-place or other restrictions. These rules look different on April 28 than they did on March 28.

The country enacted a set of rules that were designed to help hospitals to continue to operate safely; in the process, they cut off most of the revenue for hospitals. I cannot think of a more spectacularly ironic headline than “Mayo Clinic to furlough or reduce pay of 30,000 employeesin the middle of a global health crisis.

Thankfully, more states are recognizing that “elective procedures” — meaning anything that is not life and death, up to and including cancer treatments — need to get started again. Among these are Indiana, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Utah, Arkansas, Florida, Colorado. Tennessee restarts them May 1, and some hospitals in Kansas are restarting them May 4. Here in Virginia, Governor Ralph Northam last week extended the ban on elective surgeries another seven days, but those procedures should be getting started Friday.

The cries to begin the gradual, evidence-driven, locality-based, safety-focused reopening of our society and economy are not driven by boredom, or greed, or selfishness, or ignorance. Perhaps medical officials really believe it would be ideal if 290 million Americans or so stayed in their homes, or only left them minimally, for two months or more. Keep the kids home from school, have everyone telecommute if they’re able or simply be furloughed if they’re not, and just . . . wait out the virus. The only problem with this plan is that it cannot function with human nature or modern economics. You can only keep people on financial life support through massive spending bills for so long, and we’ve seen massive problems in administering these programs.

Our food supply chain is hitting all kinds of problems. The entire U.S. oil industry is on the brink of disaster. The CBO fears unemployment will still be 10 percent or more through most of 2021. A little less than half a school year is more or less barely at par at best and unsalvageable at worst. Working parents are at the end of their rope. (Social distancing, working parents, previous expectations of the workplace: Pick any two.) Our current ongoing policies — mandatory isolation, decreased access to community support, and high levels of stress and anxiety are basically a “perfect storm” for increasing the suicide rate.

We have all metaphorically held our breath as long as we can. We need oxygen.

The New York Times reports what many of us expected: Americans have honored the quarantine rules for a while, a month or more . . . but then as the weather got better, Americans started leaving their homes more:

As the lockdowns drag on, the weather gets warmer and some states move to reopen, researchers at the University of Maryland have found that more people across the country are going outside, that they are doing so more frequently and that they are traveling longer distances.

The changes in behavior, tracked using cellphone location data, have been measured in the past two weeks and can be seen in all but three states.

However, note this paragraph:

The Maryland Transportation Institute’s research is based on anonymized cellphone location data that is updated daily. A trip is counted if the end point is more than a mile from the person’s home and he or she stays there for more than 10 minutes, Dr. Zhang said. That way, the research does not pick up people who are just checking the mail, going for a jog or walking the dog.

(I don’t know about you folks, but my step-counting wristband says I’m walking well more than a mile from my house most days, and I sometimes stop for a while. So that would technically count as a ‘trip’ even though I’m not interacting with anyone besides my family. I said, I’m not interacting with anyone besides my family, Karen!)

I think almost everyone has the good sense to realize that “reopened America” is not going to be the same as pre-coronavirus America. We’re all going to continue wearing masks, perhaps gloves, and trying to stand six feet apart. We’re going to be eating at home more or using take-out and delivery. It won’t be the same, but it will be a step.

The Smartest Thinkers, Tackling the Toughest Questions

All kinds of promising news on the vaccine and treatment front this morning. Start with Oxford University:

Oxford scientists now say that with an emergency approval from regulators, the first few million doses of their vaccine could be available by September — at least several months ahead of any of the other announced efforts — if it proves to be effective.

Now, they have received promising news suggesting that it might.

Scientists at the National Institutes of Health’s Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Montana last month inoculated six rhesus macaque monkeys with single doses of the Oxford vaccine. The animals were then exposed to heavy quantities of the virus that is causing the pandemic — exposure that had consistently sickened other monkeys in the lab. But more than 28 days later all six were healthy, said Vincent Munster, the researcher who conducted the test.

“The rhesus macaque is pretty much the closest thing we have to humans,” Dr. Munster said, noting that scientists were still analyzing the result. He said he expected to share it with other scientists next week and then submit it to a peer-reviewed journal.

Next up, the Wall Street Journal describes an unusual secret gathering of billionaires and scientists, which is usually the villainous conspiracy in a thriller novel:

They call themselves Scientists to Stop Covid-19, and they include chemical biologists, an immunobiologist, a neurobiologist, a chronobiologist, an oncologist, a gastroenterologist, an epidemiologist and a nuclear scientist. Of the scientists at the center of the project, biologist Michael Rosbash, a 2017 Nobel Prize winner, said, “There’s no question that I’m the least qualified.”

This group, whose work hasn’t been previously reported, has acted as the go-between for pharmaceutical companies looking for a reputable link to Trump administration decision makers. They are working remotely as an ad hoc review board for the flood of research on the coronavirus, weeding out flawed studies before they reach policy makers.

The group has compiled a confidential 17-page report that calls for a number of unorthodox methods against the virus. One big idea is treating patients with powerful drugs previously used against Ebola, with far heftier dosages than have been tried in the past.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs have already implemented specific recommendations, such as slashing manufacturing regulations and requirements for specific coronavirus drugs.

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins told people this month that he agreed with most of the recommendations in the report, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and people familiar with the matter. The report was delivered to cabinet members and Vice President Mike Pence, head of the administration’s coronavirus task force.

Wow. When you’ve got a Nobel Prize in Biology and you feel like you’re the least qualified guy in the room — I guess that would be like being Christian Laettner on the 1992 Dream Team — who’s the rest of the team? Hippocrates, Jonas Salk, Louis Pasteur, and Florence Nightingale?

The group has a couple of intriguing conclusions already, including dismissing hydroxychloroquine as a useful treatment, and their warning about antibody testing probably ought to give us laymen reason for caution.

The group also disparaged the idea of using antibody testing to allow people back to work if their results showed they had recovered from the virus. Mr. Cravatt, a chemical biologist, declared it ‘the worst idea I’ve ever heard.’ He said that prior exposure may not prevent people from giving the virus to others, and that overemphasizing antibody testing might tempt some people to intentionally infect themselves to later obtain a clean bill of health.

What We’re Debating When We’re Discussing the Labs in Wuhan

In case you missed it on the home page yesterday, I saw a few good points but some glaring omissions in a recent story by National Public Radio about the possibility of the virus emerging from a lab accident in Wuhan. There’s also an aspect that strikes me as the subtext of this debate that I think we might as well drag out into the light:

It is also important to understand that a great many people in powerful positions, both inside and outside of China, are consciously or subconsciously hoping the pandemic cannot be traced back to a lab accident.

If the source of the virus is a wet market or natural exposure — say, a farmer going into a cave to collect guano to use as fertilizer — then the villains of the story are familiar and aligned the status quo. No one likes poachers of exotic animals or endangered species. Experts have warned about the dangers of wet markets for years. While it will be difficult to significantly reduce the use of wet markets, or to tackle the $19 billion-per-year international wildlife trafficking trade, there are very few economic or political elites who openly support pangolin smuggling or dining on bats.

However, there are a lot of economic or political elites who invested a great deal of their credibility on the idea that the Chinese government could be a trustworthy and responsible partner in prosperity, despite regular disagreements with other countries about topics such as human rights, freedom of expression, and trade-rule enforcement.

This virus has, as of this writing, infected more than 3 million people worldwide and killed more than 209,000 people. China’s relationship with the rest of the world has never been more strained. Internal pressures in China have rarely been worse. Around the world, populations are scared, frustrated, newly unemployed, financially ruined, and angry. The revelation that a Chinese lab was the ultimate source of all this misery could set off violent repercussions for the Chinese government, the Chinese people, or Chinese Americans.

We shouldn’t want the trail to lead back to a Wuhan laboratory. But that doesn’t mean we can avert our eyes from anything suggesting it does.

ADDENDUM: If Disney indeed goes ahead with a Star Wars television series that will be a prequel to Rogue One . . . with it be called Rogue Zero? Rogue One Half?

Stellan Skarsgard is always terrific. I’d love a Craig Mazin-directed series about how the Death Star project was the Chernobyl of the Galactic Empire.

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