Blaming the Wuhan Scientists

The 511 / June 29, 2021

For information in the 20th century, we called 411. The 511 includes: 

  • a handful of paragraphs about health tech or my take on a science-y news item
  • 1 sentence for reflection (and maybe a laugh), and 
  • 1 track I’ve currently got in heavy rotation.

Please pardon my absence, as I’ve been working on some fun projects in AR/VR and carbon exchanges in recent weeks — in the role of a subcontractor and, with discretion being the better part of valor, I can’t ID these fantastic companies via my blog or portfolio. (If you’re really curious, let’s talk.)

Still, a big welcome to the folks who started following my blog over the past few weeks.

First, cool things about the pangolin

“Pangolin” means roller in Malay. This scaly anteater responds to threats by rolling into a ball and showing predators a spheroid of protective scales.

Ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) curling up to rest on a termite mound in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique.
The pangolin defense: not an option for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.

Pangolin meat is a delicacy in China, and traditional Chinese medicine uses derivatives of pangolin scales to treat asthma, rheumatism, and arthritis — but not, it seems, the flu.

While snacking on anthills with a tongue that can be as long as 16″, the pangolin can voluntarily constrict its ears and nostrils to keep out stray ants.

Folks who don’t learn from history …

are, of course, doomed to repeat it.

And maybe some of them folks are us, considering that the best means to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus are the same means used to limit the spread of the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918.

Still, we are hardwired for curiosity, so the current effort to determine the source of the COVID-19 virus — which originated by most accounts in the Chinese city of Wuhan, which is proximate to wet markets of live animals, the Wuhan Center for Disease Control, and the Wuhan Institute of Virology — is understandable and noteworthy.

One key hypothesis is that scientists in Wuhan collected SARS-CoV-2 from an animal, or created it using coronavirus genomes, and an unlucky scientist became patient zero as a result of human error.

In these scenarios, a person in the lab might have then been accidentally or deliberately infected by the virus, and then spread it to others — sparking the pandemic. There is currently no clear evidence to back these scenarios, but they aren’t impossible.

“The COVID lab-leak hypothesis: what scientists do and don’t know.” Amy Maxmen & Smriti Mallapaty, June 8, 2021, in Nature

The rival hypothesis implicates a bat, and maybe a pangolin (a key commodity in Wuhan wet markets), in passing the virus across the animal-human barrier to patient zero.

At this point, there’s no data that implicate the virologists of Wuhan — and there’s plenty of data that implicates the wet markets so prominent across China. “Most emerging infectious diseases begin with a spillover from nature,” note Maxmen and Mallapaty, “as was seen with HIV, influenza epidemics, Ebola outbreaks and the coronaviruses that caused the SARS epidemic beginning in 2002 and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak beginning in 2012.”

the-coming-plague.jpg

And, along those lines, check out this entry from the timing-is-everything box: Pulitzer winner Laurie Garrett, author of The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance (from 199-bloody-4!). Her description of the regular vaporization of the cocktail of effluvia at Wuhan wet markets will make you shudder. Ms. Garrett appeared this past week on This Week in Virology (see here).

The threshold for rejecting the null hypothesis can get political, and not simply in terms of quelling the uproar of a political faction here in the US. I think it has to do with American exceptionalism and American notions of individualism. We believe, in some fundamental way, that we control our own destinies. See, for example, a prompt from a recent GRE exam:

“The concept of ‘individual responsibility’ is a necessary fiction. Although societies must hold individuals accountable for their own actions, people’s behavior is largely determined by forces not of their own making.”

The stickiness of the Wuhan Lab hypothesis reflects this idea, and our faith in this fiction. (See Yuval Harari on the many fictions that constitute our world.) In school, work, and the justice system, the individual bears responsibility. It’s difficult in the US to imagine how things might be otherwise.

That fiction depends, too, upon our taming of nature — whose nature still runs wild, despite our best efforts. Check out the California wildfires. Check out the flash floods in Mississippi, Louisiana, Indiana, and Alabama. Check out the record high temperatures in the Pacific Northwest.

Chaos thrives. Things fall apart. Our vision of individual responsibility — when it comes to climate change, disease, and racism, to begin — cannot hold. Still, we’re stronger together, and we have few options but to think anew this time to avert doom the next time.

5(1)1 — On friendship

“I ask you to judge me by the enemies I’ve made.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt
51(1) — In rotation: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “There She Goes, My Beautiful World”

When Karl Marx was diligently compiling the 2,000+ pages of the three-volume Das Kapital, he was responsible for various assignments for the New York Herald-Tribune. The details are foggy now, but his editor wanted the master’s take on the specter haunting Europe, the specter of communism, and the ways it inspired strikes and rebellions across Europe in the mid-19th century. Marx, bless his heart, couldn’t be bothered. What did bother him, though, were his carbuncles (since it involves pus, I’ll let you Google it). And, often when he faced a Tribune deadline, he didn’t dare set aside his magnum opus, and enlisted comrade Friedrich Engels to ghostwrite it for him.

There She Goes …” is the only song I know of that cites this part of their relationship. It’s a brilliant take on what to do when inspiration doesn’t come and — given the odds faced by Marx and Engels, Dylan Thomas, and Johnny Thunders — how to muster the energy to keep going.

Please share this post with someone you know who’s interested in science, cool tech, and inspired tunes.

I’m also on this thing called Twitter (@randaldoane). While it may be a passing fad, let’s connect, just in case it proves enduring.

I have capacity for a new client starting in mid-August. If you want to talk about branding and marketing, or a newsletter that needs more pop, drop me a line over here.

Cheers!

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Published by Randal Doane

Living the good life in NE Ohio. I dig science and the written word. Let's build something amazing together.

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