The Morning Jolt

Health Care

The ‘Human Error’ Theory on COVID Origin Still Very Much Alive

Experts from China and the World Health Organization (WHO) visit the Wuhan Tongji Hospital in Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Hubei province, China, February 23, 2020. (China Daily/via Reuters)

On the menu today: Can you believe we start the week with . . . good news on several fronts? At least one Sunday morning talk show is now taking the lab-leak theory seriously, the country had a pretty good pace of vaccinations last week despite miserable weather, the stockpile of unused vaccines is slowly whittling down, and former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb says certain parts of the country have reached not quite herd immunity, but an infection rate that slows down the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

Trump’s Deputy National-Security Adviser: Human Error More Likely Than Natural Outbreak

Yesterday President Biden’s National-Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, appeared on Face the Nation and was asked about a fact sheet concerning activity at the Wuhan Institute of Virology issued by the State Department in the final weeks of the Trump presidency.

If Sullivan wanted to pour cold water on that fact sheet and dismiss it as the unsupported speculation of the previous administration, he could have done so. He did not, and his wording strikes me as deliberately careful on this topic:

MARGARET BRENNAN: The State Department said back in January that the U.S. has evidence that a COVID-like virus was circulating in Wuhan, China, as far back as autumn of 2019. And the Chinese military was conducting secret experiments at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Do you dispute any of that declassified material?

JAKE SULLIVAN: Look, this is why the WHO investigation has to be left to the scientists and the experts to lay out without any interference by any government because that’s the only way we’re going to know what the origins of this are. I’m not in a position to say how COVID-19 came into this world. All I’m in a position to do is to call upon the WHO to do its job to the fullest extent possible.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But you– so you are standing by that declassified report?

JAKE SULLIVAN: No. I’m saying that I am not in a position, nor is the Biden administration in a position to make a determination about precisely where COVID-19 originated. And that’s in part because there has not been sufficient transparency coming from the government of China. And the WHO still has more work to do to get to the bottom of exactly where this virus emerged.

One of the points on that memo was “the U.S. government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”

Later in the program, Matthew Pottinger, President Trump’s deputy national-security adviser and former Asia Director of the National Security Council, elaborated on his thinking over what the Chinese government was telling the U.S. government:

MATT POTTINGER: Well, U.S. intelligence wasn’t focused on these kinds of questions. They– they were relying on the CDC. The problem was the Chinese Communist Party did not turn to their CDC to deal with this crisis. They turned to their military. And our CDC did not have relations established with the Chinese military. So the director of the Chinese CDC, based on public reporting, didn’t know either. I mean, the Chinese CDC director did not know that this thing was circulating until the last day of December, which is incredible when you think about that. So it looks like the Chinese CDC to some extent was cut out because the Chinese Communist Party turned to its military to try to cover this thing up, to try to contain it until it was too late.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So the– the Biden administration and their national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said he has deep concerns about the World Health Organization’s recent report and Chinese interference in it.

MATT POTTINGER: Look, the World Health Organization made all sorts of– of un– untruthful or– or misinformed claims about this virus. So, the WHO has a lot to answer for. When it comes to the– this investigation into the origins, unfortunately, we’re seeing a panel that’s been sent to China that is deeply conflicted. You have people who were hand-selected by the Chinese government. They had a veto over who could come in.

MARGARET BRENNAN: U.S. intelligence has said COVID, according to wide scientific consensus, was not man-made or genetically modified. You are not in any way alleging that it was, are you?

MATT POTTINGER: No. If you weigh the circumstantial evidence, the ledger on the side of an explanation that says that this resulted from some kind of human error, it far outweighs the– the side of the scale that says this was some natural outbreak. We have very strong reason to believe that the Chinese military was doing secret classified animal experiments in that same laboratory, going all the way back to at least 2017. We have good reason to believe that there was an outbreak of flu-like illness among researchers working in the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the fall of 2019, but right — immediately before the first documented cases came to light.

I’m so old, I can remember when once-respectable publications such as The New Republic insisted this was all a crazy conspiracy theory, and asserting as fact that the virus started at the Huanan Seafood Market. Now we’ve got the former Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations treating the lab-accident theory seriously on a Sunday show, and a Democratic administration’s national-security adviser refusing to rule the possibility out.

Hey, For Bad Winter Weather, This Is a Pretty Good Vaccination Pace

Some good news: Last Tuesday, the Bloomberg chart showed 15.4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine either in transit or sitting on shelves somewhere, while the New York Times chart showed 17.2 million.

This morning, both the Bloomberg chart and the New York Times chart show 12.2 million doses either in transit or sitting on shelves somewhere.

Collectively, the 50 states, as well as U.S. territories and federal entities, have whittled away at the unused stockpile, and they did so during a week where frigid temperatures and bad weather disrupted vaccination sessions, delayed shipments, and generally made a mess of things. We’re extremely likely to reach 100 million doses administered within the first 100 days of Biden’s presidency. About 15.7 million doses had been administered on January 20; in the month since Biden took office, 47.3 million doses have been administered.

In my neck of the woods, Fairfax County, Va., has picked up the pace considerably after a slow start. The county has used 94.4 percent of the vaccines they’ve been provided so far and given at least one shot to more than 133,000 people.

And former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said yesterday that while the country isn’t at herd immunity per se, we may be reaching the point where we’re starting to see a slower rate of new infections in certain parts of the country because the virus is finding fewer fresh uninfected or unvaccinated bodies to attack.

I think we’re going to continue to see infection rates decline into the spring and the summer. Right now they’re falling quite dramatically. I think these trends are likely to continue. The new variants do create new risks. I think B.1.1.7 creates some risk that we could see a resurgence of infection in certain parts of the country and higher prevalence overall in the spring and summer than we might have seen without this strain. But it’s not going to be enough to reverse these trends at this point. I think it’s too little, too late in most parts of the country. With rising vaccination rates and also the fact that we’ve infected about a third of the public, that’s enough protective immunity that we’re likely to see these trends continue. The risk is really to the fall. And one last point, if you look at the counties in New York and New Jersey that had greater than forty-five percent seroprevalence, meaning that forty– more than forty-five percent of the population was infected going into the winter, they really didn’t have much of a winter surge. So once you get to about forty percent of the population with some form of protective immunity, you don’t have herd immunity, meaning that this won’t transfer at all. It will continue to transfer, but it will transfer at a much slower rate. And that’s what we have right now around the country.

With the United States either on the cusp of or just beyond 500,000 deaths from the coronavirus, we are 175,000 deaths away from equaling the U.S. death toll from the influenza pandemic that lasted from 1918 to 1920. And yet somewhere out there, there’s a handful of folks still screaming that it’s all a hoax, that these are motorcycle accidents being counted as coronavirus deaths, that it’s no worse than the flu, and that the vaccine is the real danger. There’s an excellent chance these people will show up in the comments section on the website version of this newsletter.

ADDENDUM: You will learn more about how the Texas system of generating and producing electricity works, why the system experienced the failures it did, and what can be done about it in the future in Kevin Williamson’s “Ask an Engineer” column than in pages and pages of mainstream media coverage. America, and the world, need more of this and less flood-the-zone coverage of entertaining but relatively inconsequential brouhahas such as Ted Cruz’s travel screw-up. On Friday, our Kyle Smith counted “seven pieces on this in the New York Times, 17 pieces on CNN, and a mind-boggling 27 pieces in the Washington Post.

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