We live in a postmodern milieu where reality as experienced by all earlier generations of human beings has ceased to exist. It has so completely ceased to exist that it is beyond our comprehension. We can read about the cultural practices and daily life of people who lived in the modern and pre-modern eras, but we cannot understand that reality any more than we can understand the reality of a cat’s consciousness simply by studying its behavior, performing scientific tests on it, analyzing its brain waves using artificial intelligence, etc.
The postmodern era’s chief characteristic is a human reality completely defined by abstract symbols that: (1) do not refer to any real thing, (2) shift and change in meaning and value over time, and (3) take meaning from imaginary contexts of other symbols and images. Unlike the symbols of previous eras, the complete postmodern symbolic lexicon available to us refers only to other symbols and not to any “real” thing.
In post modernity appearances are not just important, everything except appearances has ceased to exist. The only action available to almost everyone is to acquire, arrange and rearrange symbols and messages in an effort to maintain some type of personal identity and meaning. This is, of course, impossible and requires a lifetime of effort assessing and reassessing the shifting meaning and value of symbols and messages that appear in increasingly brief contexts.
What is “true” changes over disturbingly short periods of time, often to such a degree as to completely contradict what was previously “true.”
In this hyper real environment, people are detached from the outcome of events leaving many people indifferent, and passive. The only action that any person can take in response to any personal or external event is to shop or to consume something that was previously purchased in an effort to defend one’s imaginary identity — to display to others or to hold dear to one’s self a symbol. People can declare, but they cannot do — and declaring is most often achieved by buying and displaying a symbol, or clicking a “like” button.
This is the first postmodern pandemic. It has amusingly postmodern characteristics. No one knows its origin, yet its most likely origin based on simple logic is absolutely not where it came from. Amazingly, most everyone agrees now that where it came from and how it came into being is completely irrelevant. A lot of people have an inarticulable feeling that it is almost unscientific or an affront to common decency to even question the lack of interest in its origin. Every aspect of the virus, the government’s responses to it, prophylactic measures, medicines, vaccines — the “truth” of all of it is subject to disturbing changes that almost no one seems to remember mere weeks or months later.
Even by the dizzying, circus-like postmodern antics of the past two decades with the Iraq War’s weapons of mass destruction/liberate the Iraqis/avenge 9-11/punish Hussein for the 1980s chemical weapons attacks we’d protected him for by veto in the UN, this spectacle is unique. Compared to the Great Financial Crisis where the US Treasury paid hundreds of billions of dollars in shadowy fashion to ensure that investment banks that packaged fraudulent loans as investments, sold them as safe and then secretly bet that they would fail got paid out on their bets and that not a single investment banker went to jail for criminal fraud because they didn’t do anything illegal/prosecuting bankers risks harming investors and the economy/let’s look forward not back, — even after these nauseatingly head-spinning events each defended by a multiplicity of weak reasons that were shuffled through until the listener became exhausted, the pandemic sets a new and revolting standard.
In this regard, writing this article was pointless. It was difficult to write because merely being aware of some truthful aspect of certain circumstances at a particular point in time accomplishes nothing. Today, George W. Bush is celebrated by the left as an elder statesman who is close friends with Michelle Obama. Henry Paulson was the subject of a fawning documentary chronicling his efforts to “save” the economy. In July 2015, Eric Holder returned to Covington & Burling where he had worked before becoming Attorney General and whose clients included many of the large banks Holder declined to prosecute for the crimes of the Great Financial Crisis.
In post modernity, elites and institutions deluge everyone with innumerable messages and shifting definitions. Publicly proving conclusively that some fact used to justify an action is absolutely untrue accomplishes nothing. Elites and institutions produce 15 new facts to justify the action, ad infinitum. It is not possible to debunk the existing reasons as quickly as new ones appear.
The one thing that doesn’t change quite as much is the objective and direction of elite action, which we can say is perhaps the closest thing to the real that presently exists. The objective is almost always the acquisition of more money, more power, more control. In many previous eras, these objectives were concealed by deeply held and unchanging belief systems like religion, clan, connection to a particular land and culture — things that retained their meaning and value for centuries. Today these objectives are concealed by a flood of explanations and justifications delivered by “experts” who are often on some interested party’s payroll. What used to be accomplished by depth and weight is now accomplished by volume and speed. From the perspective of some alien race watching over us, the difference might seem trivial. But for we humans, the difference is vast — it results in a profound disconnectedness and emotionally flat daily life, a profound lack of meaning.
Where the virus came from and how it came into being, social distancing, mask wearing, hydroxycholoroquine, Remdesivir, ventilators, vaccines and more — the official “truth” has been reversed, reversed again, and as with everything else we must endure, for each of these critical aspects, the great importance of the messages and context overshadows the reality of it so much as to make that reality disappear into irrelevance.
The scientific objective of “social distancing” and quarantines is to flatten the curve. The idea, which news media explained fairly well in April, is to distance and quarantine to avoid an infection rate that results in a higher number of people requiring hospitalization or ICU treatment than is available at a particular time because that will result in a higher death rate. This is sensible and morally compelled if some relevant number of those suffering from the disease will die if they do not receive hospital care and will live if they do. If you flatten a curve, you don’t make the area beneath the curve smaller; you only change its shape. A flatter curve means a wider and less tall area beneath it, where width equals time. There is a trade off that all reasonable people agreed to: fewer deaths in exchange for this unpleasant situation playing out over a longer time.
At some point social distancing was transformed into a vaguely hinted at notion that if practiced for long enough, it will end the pandemic. Yet for that to work, we’d need social distancing and on and off quarantines to become a way of life for the people of Earth for a very long time, maybe five or ten years, or longer. No one has publicly discussed the broad and difficult to comprehend consequences of this possibility. If this possibility plays out, countries that were able to completely eradicate the disease early on will enjoy unfathomable benefits by life going essentially “back to normal” in exchange for a strict exclusion of international travelers entering the country with exceptions for small numbers of visitors put under government-run quarantines of about a month. That sort of operation is not one that will allow international travel and immigration to return to normal for many years.
In the United States only about eight percent of SARS-CoV-2 deaths occurred in people younger than 54. Only about 2.8 percent of deaths occurred in people younger than 45. If the pandemic continues over time with between 1,000 to 2,000 deaths per day in the United States, over two years between about 730,000 and 1.46 million Americans will die. Of these, 58,400 to 116,800 will be under age 54 and 20,440 to 40,880 will be under age 45. 30.9 percent of deaths are those age 85 and older.
The demographic implications if the pandemic persists are stunning. About 52 million Americans are over the age of 65. SARS-CoV-2 squarely targets this group, which bears 79.6 percent of the death rate.
Anyhow, the “flatten the curve” agreement didn’t play out as promised and has morphed into something different. For starters, there was a giant distraction about ventilators. We don’t have enough ventilators. Elon Musk is going to make ventilators, no he’s going to buy some, well, no, he’s going to buy some CPAP and biPAP machines that can be used as ventilators… sort of. General Motors was going to make ventilators. Ford was going to make ventilators. Dyson was going to make ventilators . “The US government dropped the ball and is incompetent because it can’t get enough ventilators.”
Why did we need so many ventilators? Because SARS-CoV-2 patients couldn’t breathe?
There was another reason… David Serlin, head of Intensive Care at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, Massachusetts, said that doctors were concerned about using high-flow oxygen because it might increase the quantity of virus in hospital rooms and result in a higher likelihood of hospital workers getting infected. So, at least by many accounts, a lot of hospitals used ventilators because they believed that this would reduce the risk of infection of hospital staff.
And then some doctors observed that in New York City, more than 80 percent of hospitalized SARS-CoV-2 patients placed on ventilators died. Some doctors began wondering if the ventilators increased the incidence of death. Now hardly anyone is using ventilators to treat SARS-CoV-2 patients unless they really can’t breath without one — which is a tiny fraction of the percentage of patients doctors put on ventilators in the past.
If you think about the mechanics of the problem, what happened to a lot of seriously ill SARS-CoV-2 patients isn’t too hard to guess. A lot of folks who wound up hospitalized with SARS-CoV-2 had remarkably low blood oxygen saturation. A healthy blood oxygen level is 94 to 100 percent and below 90 percent is considered low or hypoxemic. Amazingly, lots of patients seemed to be awake, talking and relatively undisturbed with very low oxygen saturation — reportedly as low as 50 percent! The way humans get oxygen into their blood is to inhale air that has oxygen in it. That process has two components: (1) the mechanical act of inhaling air using chest muscles to compress and then release the lungs, (2) the air inhaled has some oxygen in it, (3) the lung tissue is healthy and sufficiently free of debris to allow the transfer of oxygen in the air into the blood.
If a person with low oxygen saturation is inhaling and exhaling with not too much trouble, the obvious solution is to use high-flow oxygen cannulas (that clear plastic tube attached to an oxygen tank on one end and that has two small protruding plastic tubes that fit into the nostrils). Anyone who has an elderly relative with COPD or some other lung problem has seen these tubes. The tubes blow pure oxygen which enables the patient to get much more oxygen into his blood by inhaling the same volume of air because the ordinary air you find outside is only about 21 percent oxygen.
A ventilator is a pretty invasive machine. It consists of a 10 inch tube that gets forced down the patient’s throat and a machine that forces air into the lungs. It is very hard for an ordinary person to tolerate a ventilator, so doctors generally must heavily sedate patients on ventilators. Until the pandemic, prolonged ventilation was relatively rare. A study published by Dr. A. James Mamary in 2011 noted that prolonged mechanical ventilation (defined as 14 to 21 days) resulted “in significant morbidity and mortality.” So it wasn’t a secret that long term mechanical ventilation killed people.
The University of Chicago Medical Center achieved “remarkable” success as early as April 2020 by avoiding the use of ventilators. An article at Uchicago News noted, as if it was aware of the real reason so many SARS-CoV-2 patients were being mechanically ventilated:
“This approach is not without risk, however. The high-flow cannulas blow air out, which converts the COVID-19 virus into a fine spray in the air. To protect themselves from the virus, staff must have proper personal protective equipment, negative pressure patient rooms, and anterooms, which are rooms in front of the patient rooms where staff can change in and out of their safety gear to avoid contaminating others.”
In short, there appears to be some evidence that a lot of the very high death rate early in the pandemic was the result of hospitals using ventilators on patients who might have lived had they gotten high-flow cannulas and the hospitals did this because they believed it would reduce the risk of infection for hospital staff, not because it was the appropriate medical treatment for the patient.
Then there was the chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine fiasco — it works, it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work because Trump said it works, the French man who recommended it won a Nobel Prize, the French man who recommended it is an idiot, there hasn’t been a clinical trial proving efficacy, we have to stop the clinical trial because a worrying number of SARS-CoV-2 patients who were given (an undisclosed and ridiculously high dose of) hydroxychloroquine died! Then folks asked The Lancet and the researcher who wrote the paper for the data. He said no. Some time passed. Someone realized, apparently, that releasing the data might be more damaging to whatever the objective of that “research” was than just withdrawing the paper, so The Lancet withdrew it. Perhaps the data shows that hydroxychloroquine was highly effective at some lower dose and that it killed people at very high doses. Or maybe it shows that lower doses do nothing and higher doses kill people. We will never know because a not insignificant quantity of postmodern “science” isn’t really science anymore. You can’t have the data and you can’t reproduce the experiment. You have to take my word for it, but don’t worry, some other reputable researchers glanced at the data and were comfortable with my results!
Then there was Remdesivir. It reduces the death rate… OK, well, now we’re already into the trial and it doesn’t do that, so can’t we just identify some comically modest objective like many tragically expensive new cancer drugs, like, “in 42 out of 96 cancer patients, for a mere $427,345.32 life was extended for an additional 26.4 days, though the patient was more or less immobile, terrified, miserable and preoccupied with death for the entire additional period of life.” And so they did. A clinical trial that was halted by NIAID before it could report anything even more negative, reported that Remdesivir doesn’t reduce the incidence of death, but it may reduce the number of days of hospitalization from something like 15 to 11. This, of course, is a difficult metric because even with some objective standards about when to discharge a patient from the hospital, the decision itself is subjective. Sometimes patients themselves influence the decision by a day or a few days. It’s not a metric like if the person is alive or dead, has a resting pulse rate of 65 or 85, has virus antibodies, etc. It’s sort of a study drawing scientific conclusions from a social science-like metric. And this study could not be peer reviewed or published because it was halted very early for “ethical” reasons. The reasons? Because the drug was so effective, it was immoral to not stop the double-blinded study to give patients on the placebo the real drug. What is “so effective” you ask? Did it reduce the rate of death? No. Did it reduce the severity of illness? No.
I had a friend who was admitted to the hospital for three days because he passed out during a run. He was obviously dehydrated and shouldn’t have been admitted to the hospital at all. By the time the ambulance arrived at the hospital, he was absolutely fine because he’d drunk a couple of 12 ounce bottles of water and rested for 15 minutes. After three days in a hospital room, they told him, in Monty Python fashion, that they were unable to identify the cause of his having passed out, but they were confident that he had no serious health problems. The bill was $79,000 — and that was more than 10 years ago before prices doubled. So, I resist the use of time of hospital discharge as a scientific metric.
Gilead released new data that hit the news media July 10, 2020 with headlines like, “Remdesivir treatment reduces risk of death…” That “research” was not a clinical trial and merely looked at historical data. The FDA Commissioner noted, “It appears to be a retrospective analysis of the phase III data using historical matched controls, suggesting a survival benefit in severe COVID patients,” which as regards a scientific conclusion, means nothing. There is an enormous effort to find a way to describe something as useful rather than to make something useful. A postmodern medicine for a postmodern virus.
Also remarkably postmodern is the widespread belief that not “believing” that Remdesivir effectively treats SARS-CoV-2 is “anti-science” and that it somehow indicates support for President Trump. This widely held belief is astounding considering that Gilead proxies have played a prominent role in the Trump administration and the administration has lavished disturbingly large and undeserved sums of money on Gilead. Trump’s Director of the Domestic Policy Council until May 24, 2020 was Joe Grogan, who had previously worked as a lobbyist for Gilead. Grogan served on President Trump’s “Coronavirus Task Force” where he, like most of those serving, has no background in medicine or science.
As The Intercept noted in a February 29, 2020 article:
As a former lobbyist for a company that stands to gain big from a possible treatment for the respiratory disease, Grogan’s participation on the task force poses a host of ethical problems, according to Robert Klitzman, professor of psychiatry and director of the bioethics master’s program at Columbia University. “Does he have a conflict of interest? Yes!” said Klitzman, who points out that the government is likely to spend money on both the research and purchase of treatments for the virus. “Gilead could help shape a government request for proposals so that they could have an unfair advantage.”
While Grogan appears to have sold his Gilead stock and, according to the Office of Management and Budget, has severed all financial relationships and taken “the Trump pledge,” the situation is still problematic, according to Klitzman. “When he gets out of office, they could give him a gift for doing a good job or just hire him again. And what about his buddies? I’m sure he is still close to people who work for Gilead who will benefit. These are all major ethical concerns.”
The government provided $70.5 million for Gilead to develop Remdesivir and an analysis by Public Citizen found that the cost-effective benchmark price for a course of treatment is $310. Gilead not only announced that it will price a typical course of treatment at $3,120, but the US government wrote a check with taxpayer money to buy up virtually the entire available production for the next year with absolutely zero negotiation on price.
The postmodern aspect of this situation is a torrent of messages noting that Remdesivir is a “breakthrough drug” (though Dr. Fauci noted that it was “not a breakthrough drug”) and that those who believe it is an effective treatment also believe in science and tend to oppose President Trump and those who think it is either ineffective or not very effective (the only clinical trial concluded that it did not save a single life and merely reduced the duration of the average hospital stay from 15 days to 11) do not believe in science, support President Trump and probably believe in conspiracy theories. There is an irrelevant and tiring war of crippled, partial, Twitter-like concepts and images that associate whether Remdesivir is “good” or “bad” with a lot of things that have nothing at all to do with Remdesivir. It’s uniquely postmodern, just like believing that a particular car or wristwatch “goes with” a certain type of imaginary life that is populated with imaginary habits, locales, milieu, etc. This spilling over of the advertising industry’s methods of associating various symbols, commodities, brands, etc. with “imaginary lifestyles” into the realm of a drug’s effectiveness is remarkable evidence that our manner of life is completely unsalvageable.
Whether Remdesivir is effective is irrelevant. The reason people are going to take Remdesivir is because Gilead wants people to take Remdesivir. The reason people are going to pay a lot of money for Remdesivir is because Gilead wants them to pay a lot of money. The reason the government is pushing Remdesivir and paying so much for it is primarily because Gilead has a lot of power and has relationships of patronage with key political figures. Another reason is that Gilead is a US company and many of the other big pharma players working on SARS-CoV-2 treatments are not US companies and those companies have their own governments to influence. In the coming six to twelve months, when a SARS-CoV-2 hospitalized patient recovers, it will be because of Remdesivir and when one dies, it will be in spite of Remdesivir.
Yet now in November 2020, the WHO issued a statement saying that Remdesivir is completely ineffective and hospitals should “immediately” cease administering the drug to SARS-CoV-2 patients. The US news media has downplayed this news and it is likely that officials within FDA, CDC and NIAID are working closely with public relations specialists to construct a narrative that will permit already severely anxious and damaged American spectators (sometimes called “consumers” and previously referred to as “citizens”) to at least try to harmonize these completely contradictory facts. Just weeks ago, anyone who didn’t believe whatever WHO said was an anti-science redneck racist. And now WHO says Remdesivir for sure doesn’t work and is dangerous for COVID patients based on peer reviewed research that was published in medical journals. FDA, CDC and NIAID relied on research that was halted, not peer reviewed and never published. Whoever is crafting the story that will permit Gilead and hospitals to continue using Remdesivir in exchange for big money should be paid a lot of money for this delicate and important task.
Then there were the “lock downs” and the protests against the “lock downs” where heavily tattooed patriots wearing camouflage in government buildings (which couldn’t possibly make them any harder to see) and carrying assault rifles, pistols, and other weapons committed to protect the American freedom to masklessly bowl, play billiards, drink at a bar, etc. without interruption during a pandemic.
We sat through the President of the United States speaking his mind for hours without any script noting, among other things, that the virus wasn’t going to be a problem, it wasn’t going to come here, it wouldn’t be here long, it probably wouldn’t do well in warmer summer weather, we probably don’t need to use masks, that mass gatherings are safe if they occur in churches, etc. On February 26, the President said that the United States had 15 SARS-CoV-2 cases and that within a couple of days, it will be close to zero. On March 9, he tweeted that the flu kills more Americans, but “Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on.”
Then we were treated to the Democrats playing on the inability of ordinary people in the age of digital distraction to remember virtually anything for more than a few days. Prominent Democrats and media pundits pointed out that the President should have done more earlier and that everyone knew that the virus was a giant problem back in January. Only fringe websites posted video of Nancy Pelosi wandering around San Francisco Chinatown with a news crew and entourage and no masks on February 24 saying “It’s exciting to be here… Come to Chinatown, here we are… come join us” go to dinner, shop, etc.
New York Mayor Bill De Blasio tweeted on March 2 after 10 Italian cities were under strict quarantine, “Since I’m encouraging New Yorkers to go on with your lives + get out on the town despite Coronavirus, I thought I would offer some suggestions… thru Thurs 3/5 go see The Traitor @FilmLinc. If The Wire was a true story + set in Italy, it would be this film.”
Prominent Democratic representatives accused President Trump of racism when he instituted a travel ban on flights from China starting February 2, 2020. That ban was mostly ineffective because it allowed US residents and citizens to return to the United States after travel to China and did not bar Chinese citizens from traveling to the United States through Europe or other countries. It also fundamentally misunderstood the risk by only requiring a quarantine for US residents and citizens returning from China if they were in areas of China where they were likely to be exposed. And the WHO publicly and repeatedly recommended against travel bans, flight bans and even until June advised against wearing N95 masks!
To be fair, up until about April 2020, Americans only had experience with “the bird flu,” SARS, MERS, and other diseases we heard about, got scared of, read about in the news, and then more or less nothing happened. The public’s experience of learning about these viruses in other countries that never came here certainly made it less likely that ordinary sensible people would take this virus seriously.
And even now in November 2020 with California about to impose a curfew where more than 90 percent of people living in the state can’t leave their houses between 10 pm and 5 am — the governor attended a $350+ a plate dinner (not including what had to be an extra $500 per bottle of wine) with a powerful lobbyist and a lot of other people, none wearing masks, and in his apology described it as “outside” even though photos showed it was a contained structure with partly open glass doors, and that it was dinner with “a friend” even though the “friend” is more importantly a critical lobbyist. This fabulous party occurred while many Californians are being driven into poverty and the lines to food banks are hours long — the most demand for food donations in California history.
While President Trump was briefed on January 29 that SARS-CoV-2 could cause as many as 500,000 deaths and might become a pandemic, a month later on February 29, 2020, there were 24 cases and one death from SARS-CoV-2 in the entire United States. Just over 50 Americans a year are killed by lightning strikes. It wasn’t until early March that politicians from both parties and also public health officials felt that this was potentially going to be a very serious problem and only then did the Administration also ban flights from Europe starting March 11. By then it was obviously too late. By obviously, I mean looking back on it from July 2020.
Something as simple as the widespread use of N95 masks could have radically reduced the spread of infection, but until June 2020, the WHO said that masks weren’t necessary, even that they were undesirable. “There is no conclusive proof that they reduce infections!” They relied on “science” by saying that no conclusive peer reviewed study had proved that masks reduced the likelihood of infection by this particular virus. WHO was like a witless steward on a ship who correctly notes that there have been no recent peer reviewed studies that show that people who don life vests and sit in lifeboats are more likely to survive a ship that sinks in this particular ocean (let’s say the Andaman Sea). Absent conclusive peer reviewed research, the steward counsels, I think we should not use the life vests and lifeboats until there’s been some further study.
WHO’s Mike Ryan said on March 31 after many researchers, doctors and public health experts had criticized the WHO’s position, “There is no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any potential benefit. In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest the opposite in the misuse of wearing a mask properly or fitting it properly.” The WHO was actually warning people that it might be dangerous to wear an N95 mask because people might touch it or wear it improperly, or behave recklessly because they believe the mask gives them special powers. It’s almost like the WHO was intentionally trying to delay prophylactic measures as long as possible to increase the spread of the virus. Thank goodness the WHO doesn’t give advice about using seat belts (people might wrap them around their necks, put them under their armpits, or they might drive recklessly believing that the seat belt gives them special powers — seat belts can kill!).
Decades old studies show that viruses linger in the air indoors — in grocery stores, offices, restaurants, etc. Diagrams showed early on that people sitting in a restaurant 40 feet away from an infected person got infected because of the orientation of the air conditioning vents. Using masks earlier would have stopped perhaps 80 percent or more of the transmission.
There is lots of evidence that WHO and even US institutions like CDC were blatantly lying when they downplayed the prophylactic benefits of N95 masks because, as one WHO official put it, “The world is facing a significant shortage of PPE for our front line workers — including masks and gloves and gowns and face shields — and protecting our health care workers must be the top priority for the use of this PPE.” So from WHO and CDC came this dual message: (1) we don’t think ordinary people should wear masks because there is no evidence that they significantly reduce the likelihood of infection, and (2) we need masks for hospital staff because they could get infected without masks.
If they said “we can dramatically reduce the spread of the virus if everyone wears N95 masks when within 10 feet or so of another person who is not in the wearer’s household and at all times indoors in a place that is not your home,” the next question is obviously, “Where can we get some of these masks?” The answer is that you can’t. Why? Because the United States can’t make simple things as a matter of principle. Real things are irrelevant. It’s the brand that matters, or the symbolism that creates “value.” And in post modernity, even something as undeniably critical as providing everyone with scientifically tested masks that are proven to dramatically reduce the spread of disease and should cost $0.35 each, the real is not only irrelevant. It is inaccessible. The postmodern concern is the mask as a symbol rather than as a functioning device to filter out virus particles.
The hyper real principle is the market economy, where investors demand that companies source labor worldwide at the least possible cost and where postmodern business models demand that companies cultivate brands, methods, and esoteric financing and then outsource real production to someplace else, usually to absolutely powerless workers in countries where unionizing, complaining about working conditions or reporting unsafe working conditions might get a person blacklisted, beaten, or killed — maybe his family too. The postmodern market economy highly values the unreal and assigns the least value to the real. The United States has produced an enormous amount of digital media relating to masks. Our environment is littered with messages regarding masks, pundits on TV talking about masks, politicians wearing masks and counseling others to wear them, other politicians not wearing masks and claiming to protect the freedom of people to not wear masks, signs saying “mask up,” businesses requiring patrons to wear masks, groups of “protesters” fighting over whether or not to wear masks. The federal and state governments have created complex international deals and financing arrangements to buy and ship masks. Yet we have created few actual, real masks. So few that almost no ordinary person has one.
When medical workers needed masks and other PPE, government entities including FEMA and CDC, private hospitals, and state governments started ordering masks from 3M and other “multinational companies” that promptly placed orders for masks and other PPE mostly from China, which is the location of most of the companies and workers that make most of the things that Americans see and use in their daily lives.
On this particular occasion, 3M had to ask China for permission to ship masks from China back to the United States, according to an April 3, 2020 CNBC article. California governor Gavin Newsom famously paid $990 million to buy about three hundred million masks from Chinese electric car manufacturer BYD. It is not clear why an electric car manufacturer in China is able to manufacture hundreds of millions of N95 masks, but an N95 mask manufacturer in the United States in unable to manufacture many. I suppose it’s possible that BYD is a middle man and is securing the masks from some other location. I suppose it’s possible that the masks could be ones that were made in China a year or two ago, then shipped to the United States and sold wholesale for $0.25 each or so, then China bought them back for $0.40 each in January or February of this year and then is selling them to BYD for $2 each and BYD is selling them to Gavin Newsom for $3.30 or so each. Who knows?
These sorts of globalized market economy shenanigans are, I suppose, not inherently immoral as regards wristwatches, cell phones, automobiles, toaster ovens, etc. But there is a moral and national security aspect to the complete deindustrialization of a country because the process becomes difficult or impossible to reverse at some point. The education, power of will, habits, money, resources, time and expertise to make things can become so foreign to a nation and its people that even in the time of a pandemic, the answer to “we need masks and there aren’t enough” becomes “we’ll have to do without them.”
The undeniable truth is that we could have and still can dramatically reduce the spread by ensuring an adequate supply of N95 masks to the US public and providing regular instruction on TV, radio, and other media on the importance of masks and how to correctly wear them. Because this place is a greedy madhouse, instead government and institutions told ordinary people that they should not wear masks, then spent an enormous amount of taxpayer money paying 10 times the retail price for bulk orders of masks from China, and finally returned to the public to tell them to wear toy masks — “sew your own using any fabric, or buy one with a Hawaiian theme, or maybe Spider man!” While homemade masks or branded equivalents made from ordinary fabrics and not tested by NIOSH or anyone else probably do filter some particles and droplets, they are vastly inferior to real N95 masks that were tested to filter out particles as small as three microns. A virus particle passing through an ordinary fabric would look, at the microscopic level, like a thumbtack passing between a football field’s goalposts. On the scale of a virus particle, the spaces between fabric fibers are absolutely enormous. And the extent of inferiority of home made masks is unknown because everyone is making them out of different fabrics. I’m surprised the US Department of Transportation doesn’t counsel Americans to crochet their own seatbelts.
Home made masks are “mandatory” even though they are made from random fabrics, subject to no testing whatsoever, and may filter almost nothing.
Why are virtually all politicians wearing exclusively home made-looking sewn fabric masks? There are only a few possible reasons and all of them are very interesting. Politicians might be wearing N95 masks beneath toy fabric masks, or their ostensibly toy masks are some sort of N95 mask manufactured with a cloth wrapper, or they are really wearing home made cloth masks. If politicians wore N95 masks, it would open a striking divide between ordinary people and them: they can get an unlimited quantity of, let’s call them, “science masks” and we can’t. Another possibility is that wearing a mask is to them a symbol of solidarity, and ironically a symbol of a belief in science even though the masks haven’t been scientifically evaluated to filter any particular size of particles and they aren’t terribly worried because they inhabit fabulously large spaces and everyone they come in contact with has been tested for the virus several times each day.
According to a Rolling Stone article, “The Obama administration did attempt to secure a work-around for future N95 shortages. In 2015, BARDA contracted with Halyard Health to design a machine that could make up to two million N95 masks a day — creating surge capacity to meet demand in case of an outbreak… But in 2018, under the direction of the Trump administration, HHS defunded the project, after being presented a viable design for such a machine.” Notwithstanding his affinity for extrajudicial execution by drone, there are more than a few reasons to miss having Mr. Obama as President.
There’s been a lot of talk about “contact tracing” and how a sensible and robust response would have included a lot of testing and a lot of contact tracing. This is absolutely true. But for testing and contact tracing to work, a country needs a lot of things — some which the United States did not have early on and other things that it does not have now. Testing and contact tracing requires an accurate and widely available test, which the United States did not have until very late — some would argue we still don’t have one. In mid-January, CDC assured scientists and medical officials across the United States that it had a great test just about ready to send out and everything was going to be fine. On February 8, a laboratory received the first CDC tests and they did not work. CDC refused to permit any institution to use its own test, which stymied alternative SARS-CoV-2 test development. Nancy Messonnier, the Director of CDC who earned her Doctor of Medicine degree at the prestigious University of Chicago School of Medicine announced on January 17 regarding the SARS-CoV-2 threat, “for a family sitting around the dinner table tonight, this is not something that they generally need to worry about.”
The Washington Post reported that CDC had a test ready on January 28, but could only use it at its Atlanta facilities until FDA approved the test. By February 8, laboratories in New York realized that the CDC test regularly produced false positives because of a poorly chosen reagent — a substance or compound added to a solution to cause a chemical reaction. By February 16, CDC had still not solved the problem and also was remarkably silent that there even was a problem.
As the Washington Post further reported, after enormous pressure, including from Dr. Fauci, FDA agreed to make it easier for third parties to obtain FDA approval for SARS-CoV-2 tests. By February 28, the CDC test still did not work properly and it was the only one approved by FDA. By March 2, University of Washington was able to test 30 patients in a day using a test that it developed itself, and within a few days they tested 2,800 people in a single day.
By July 2020, Taiwan had only tested 78,212 people for the virus, yet they only had 451 cases and seven deaths. The United States had tested more than 40 million people for the virus and 36 times as many people per million as Taiwan, yet the United States had 172,000 deaths. The deaths per million in July 2020 in the United States was about 410 and in Taiwan there were roughly 0.000007 deaths per million.
The difference is timing. Once millions of people have the virus, testing and contact tracing are less effective — contact tracing becomes almost impossible because it is impossible to perform contact tracing with 20,000 or 40,000 new positive tests each day.
Of course, the World Health Organization is not allowed to say the word Taiwan. It’s impossible to search WHO data for Taiwan’s infection, death and recovery rates. Earlier this year, a WHO official comically pretended to be unable to hear an interviewer’s questions about why WHO was not recognizing Taiwan’s success in combating the virus — he disconnected the call, then after it was reconnected, each time the interviewer asked a question about Taiwan, he repeatedly responded “China… all of China” etc. But it was Taiwan that responded best to the pandemic — they had the most professional, most timely and most scientifically sound response and the people of Taiwan cooperated in every possible way. Taiwan’s numbers are not fabricated and international researchers and physicians are welcomed into Taiwan to look at the data, the records and the methods. The success of Taiwan’s response is not Orwellian propaganda that can’t be verified. Taiwan is a model for what is certainly the very best response to the pandemic of any nation on Earth . But we can’t easily consider the facts of their response and see their data because the WHO will not acknowledge Taiwan’s existence. The WHO, it appears, has at much at stake with regard to its business and personal relationships with the government of the People’s Republic of China as the NBA does.
In short, testing and contact tracing have limited utility once a lot of people have the virus.
A country needs one more thing to effectively quarantine using contact tracing: cooperation, or a serious system of enforced penalties to quickly adjust public behavior. A horrifying example of just how bad public cooperation is in the United States is the widely publicized tragedy of Thomas Macias. Macias attended a party in California after the quarantine restrictions were lifted, contracted the corona virus there and died a couple of days later. A friend of his had tested positive before the party and knew he had the disease, but because he had no symptoms, he did not believe that he could infect another person. The friend attended the party and did not tell anyone he was infected until days later. Everywhere I go I see people wearing masks pulled down over their noses. Not everyone does it, but there’s at least a person or two in every group I see with a mask pulled down over his or her nose. There are groups and neighborhoods meeting up for indoor parties, hookups, and other person-to-person activities with abandon.
To control the spread when facing these types of cooperation problems, government would need to start arresting people and meting out, at least for a while, relatively serious punishments, engage in a massive television, radio and Internet media bombardment of instructions, warnings and reminders. For perhaps its entire existence, the United States has prided itself on the “you’re on your own” economy and culture where people are supposed to figure out how to get through things by themselves. Over the past 50 years or so corporations and governments have worked hand-in-hand to commodify and automate an increasing range of daily tasks to create a “culture” that benefits the economy of consumption. That culture is probably very bad in responding to pandemics.
We had the kids on Spring Break in Florida. We’ve seen armed protests against wearing masks — why is it that in the United States the most passionate defenses of freedom tend to be over the most absurd things? I want my freedom to carry a pistol with a 21 round magazine rather than a skimpy 10 rounds and desperately want the freedom to not wear a mask inside of privately owned businesses that want patrons to wear masks. But I’m relatively unconcerned, maybe even oblivious to my lack of freedom to enjoy personal privacy. All of my “smart” home appliances are transcribing my conversations to provide me with “desirable products and services,” my phone and even my car are constantly tracking and reporting on my whereabouts — every single place I go. Every purchase I make is tracked, analyzed and used to predict or influence my behavior. None of this bothers me at all. I don’t have anything interesting to say or write, so freedom of speech isn’t a concern. Freedom means the freedom to have large firearm magazines, school bus-sized personal vehicles that achieve maximum air pollution, wake sleeping children with thunderous exhaust, etc. It seems like the only freedom people passionately defend anymore is the freedom to be an asshole.
But back to the pandemic.
No reputable doctor, infectious disease expert, or researcher has said that it’s possible to end the pandemic by social distancing and quarantine. Absent some lucky accident like a mutation or a safe and effective vaccine, the only type of quarantine that might end the virus is a strict one that lasts for perhaps a year while the government delivers food to each person’s home, etc. — a complete quarantine. That’s why it’s hard to imagine that countries that have managed until now to limit the spread can continue to do that unless they remain closed to outsiders for, perhaps, years. Small countries may be able to do this. It is unlikely that large ones can.
Countries that have had better short term results, which we can agree include fewer cases and deaths per capita, are also systemically and culturally different than the United States. These include Taiwan, Germany, New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, Norway, South Korea and Denmark. All of these countries have single-payer health care systems. All have relatively healthy populations. The United States has a wildly complex, astoundingly expensive medical services industry that is private, fragmented and profit-driven. And a larger share of Americans are overweight, obese, have other health problems and are already taking prescription medication than in any other wealthy, developed country on Earth. According to OECD, the United States spends about 40 percent of all health care spending on private insurance. The United States spends $11,072 per person per year on medical services. South Korea spends $3,384 Spain spends $3,616 per year. 40 countries that spend much less than the United States on “healthcare” and have single-payer nationalized healthcare systems have much higher life expectancy than the United States. All of these numbers are from OECD 2019 available at https://data.oecd.org.
During the March 15 Democratic Party presidential debates, Joe Biden attacked Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal saying, “With all due respect for Medicare for All, you have a single-payer system in Italy — it doesn’t work there.” This misleading and underhanded remark suggested that Italy’s poor response to the virus had something to do with its “socialized” medical system, which is completely ridiculous — so ridiculous as to be morally offensive. The cities that had the most severe initial outbreaks were the ones that had a combination of a high volume of visitors from China and dense population. Biden’s paean to the medical industrial complex signaled that under a Biden administration, business as usual will continue. 95 percent of Democrats watching the debate probably had no idea that almost every country has a single payer-style universal healthcare system. For some reason that has to be about money, money and more money, we had only two major candidates for the 2020 presidential election and both will not touch the perverse US medical system that can only meet the “growth” demands of its investors (which are increasingly in the case of pharma, ruthless hedge funds) if Americans become sicker, more heavily medicated and subject to more expensive and frequent treatments for something.
The only countries remaining on Earth that do not have some type of “free” universal healthcare using a government-payer model are most of Africa, India, Mongolia, Papua New Guinea, Suriname, French Guiana, Haiti, Cambodia, Indonesia, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and the United States. Bloomberg’s Health Care Efficiency Score, which compares medical costs and value in 56 countries with average life expectancy of at least 70 ranked the United States dead last. The reason is the US system is focused on making money — even the nonprofits are run by highly paid administrators with relationships with big pharma and other institutional players. There is enormous pressure to raise revenue, to “grow the business” — even if “the business” is sick people and “growing it” means providing more and more treatments and drugs to each patient each year at higher and higher prices.
As it is with masks, it is with medical care, pandemic response and even our new “branded” space program that is “ours” so long as we continue renting it and pay to have our logo on the rockets. It is not possible for the government of the United States to easily provide any product or service because it committed itself decades ago to never providing a product or service. The governmental provision of goods and services to the public became an exercise in quid pro quo deal making where public legislators and executives “help” ordinary people by paying outrageous amounts of taxpayer money for public goods and services from private, for profit companies that then donate to political campaigns, give $500,000 a year jobs to the idiot sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, brothers, cousins, etc. of that politician — or some vague promise of a future lucrative gig as some type of “consultant.”
Then there is the origin of SARS-CoV-2. For the first time in modern history, the origin of a pandemic is allegedly unknown to anyone. The first people to show SARS-CoV-2 symptoms appeared in Wuhan, China. Wuhan happens to be the location of China’s only BSL Level 4 biological research laboratory, the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Biosafety Level or BSL is a measure of how secure a biological research laboratory is with regard to containing dangerous pathogens. Level 4 is the highest safety level for laboratories handling extremely dangerous, highly infectious pathgens. The WHO reported that there are approximately 54 BSL 4 laboratories in the world. 54 is a very small number when considered in the context of the surface area of land on Earth.
As reported in the American Spectator on May 4, 2020, China acquired its BSL 4 laboratory from France. In 2003 the Chinese Academy of Sciences requested that the French government assist it in building a BSL 4 laboratory on account of its recent experience with SARS. France itself had only achieved its first BSL 4 laboratory in 1999. China and France signed a poorly drafted agreement in 2004 providing that France would design and build the laboratory, that all research studies and results would be shared between China and France, and that 50 French researchers would work on site with their Chinese colleagues to ensure proper training in handling dangerous pathogens.
French intelligence services warned the government that the laboratory was likely to be used for both for civilian and military biological research. The science attaché to the US Ambassador to China Clark T. Randt, Jr. warned the French that building the BSL 4 laboratory was irresponsible.
China used a Chinese design firm in violation of the agreement, but France continued on. Then China used Chinese construction companies and limited French oversight in violation of the agreement, but France continued on. Construction began in 2010 and was completed in 2015. Ultimately, the French design engineering firm that was supposed to certify the laboratory refused to. The laboratory became operational in 2018. France announced that 50 French researchers would work at the Wuhan Institute of Virology for five years to provide technical expertise and training. No French researcher ever worked at WIV, except one, who visited briefly. China ultimately certified the laboratory’s compliance with the BSL 4 safety standard itself, sort of like a person passing himself on his first driving test and then giving himself a license. No other country or international organization inspected or certified the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The Washington Post reported on April 14, 2020 that the US Embassy in Beijing sent two cables to the White House in 2018 warning that a visit to the Wuhan Institute of Virology revealed disturbing safety practices and that the United States should provide additional help to WIV to avoid the institute inadvertently releasing a dangerous pathogen. It is highly unlikely that these private cables were some sort of political propaganda because if they were, they certainly wouldn’t have suggested that the United States help China improve the operation of the laboratory.
There’s a fairly crazy type of research where virologists take a virus that infects other animals and not humans and they try to alter the virus so that it can infect humans, sometimes trying to render the virus highly transmissible between humans. This type of research is called “gain of function” — the function apparently being the ability to wreck havoc on human society. Virologists argue that this type of research is critical because it helps them understand how wild animal viruses mutate into ones that can infect humans. It helps them predict which viruses are likely to mutate and where outbreaks may occur so that someone can better respond to a novel virus pandemic.
All of these justifications seem ridiculous. Developing a vaccine, a pharmacological treatment, or imposing a quarantine are serious and expensive things. They are undertaken in response to a clear and present threat, not a theoretical one. In the United States, they don’t even necessarily take place in response to a clear and present threat. No company is going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars developing a vaccine or treatment for a virus that cannot infect humans now, but may possibly be able to infect them in a few years. Maybe study the virus, but intentionally alter it to become highly infectious for humans? Most private for-profit medical and pharmaceutical companies won’t take any action at all even after a novel virus is transmitted between humans unless the numbers are big enough because it doesn’t make any sense to do the research and clinical trials if there’s not enough money in it. No for profit company beholden to investors is going to research and trial a vaccine or treatment for a disease that is likely to infect no more than 5,000 people.
There are at least three ways to conduct gain of function experiments: (1) edit the RNA of a virus directly using an editing tool like CRISPR, (2) expose a series of animals to the virus, infecting one, collecting the virus that animal produced, infect another, collect the virus that animal produced, etc. until it infects humans, or (3) culture the virus with various cells (in crazy town, you do this with human cells to attempt to get the virus to infect human cells) in Petri dishes — continue doing this over time until some useful mutation appears that enables the virus to infect human cells. Hopefully, you can create a virus that very easily infects human cells since the objective is to create a human pandemic-quality virus, but to be very, very careful not to accidentally release it!
In 2011, there was a backlash from more than 200 scientists demanding cessation of dangerous gain-of-function research. That research took viruses from the wild and infected ferrets in a series over time to try to get the virus to mutate into a form that was highly transmissible among humans — their objective was to transform a virus that was poorly transmitted among humans into one that was. Dr. Anthony Fauci defended gain-of-function research in a December 30, 2011 article in the Washington Post where he argued more or less that scientists can’t effectively develop countermeasures for highly communicable diseases unless they also create highly communicable diseases.
In 2013 NIAID agreed to give $3.7 million over six years to Shi Zheng-Li and the Wuhan Institute of Virology to research bat corona viruses. Some of that research, including gain-of-function work, disturbed our previous and remarkably cerebral President, Barack Obama. Obama pressured NIH to suspended 21 studies because the administration felt that intentionally inducing mutations into a virus to make it highly contagious in humans was bat shit crazy (though I’m certain these were not his exact words).
In December 2017, NIH ended the suspension and resumed funding gain-of-function research. It is unclear whether the Trump administration was aware of this or even if it could have understood the implications of it had it known.
According to Newsweek, one Wuhan Institute of Virology research proposal stated, “We will use S protein sequence data, infectious clone technology, in vitro and in vivo infection experiments and analysis of receptor binding to test the hypothesis that % divergence thresholds in S protein sequences predict spillover potential.” Spillover refers to a virus’ ability to move from one species to another, for example from bats or pangolins to humans. The WIV’s research objective was to alter the S protein sequences to try to get them to better bind to human ACE2 receptors. Please read this again and again. The published objective of the WIV’s research was to alter the S protein sequences in a bat corona virus to make it bind more effectively to human cells so that it could more easily infect humans. WIV wasn’t the only laboratory performing gain of function research on dangerous viruses. Lots of laboratories do that. After the world’s people have suffered so much, it is worth at least asking whether this type of research ought to be very carefully regulated and probably instead completely prohibited unless researchers can articulate a very clear, sensible need and objective other than, ’“because we want to and because we can” which is the current standard.
Vanity Fair published an article on April 10, 2020 addressing the conspiracy theory-esque allegations that the virus was accidentally released from WIV, but noted that some scientists agree that the possibility of an accidental lab release can’t be dismissed. Yet, “virologists — especially virologists who perform gain-of-function or global-virome research, whose research likely would be restricted or terminated if the possibility were confirmed — tend to disagree.” Most newspaper articles that mention the possibility that the virus was accidentally released from the Wuhan Institute of Virology dismiss the possibility as “unscientific” or a “conspiracy theory.” It’s like a few decades ago asking tobacco industry scientists if smoking causes cancer. Tobacco industry scientists published an enormous amount of scientific research in peer reviewed journals that was designed to raise doubt that smoking causes cancer. As Upton Sinclair once famously remarked, it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it. It is ridiculous to ask virologists who work for laboratories or institutions that conduct or support gain-of-function research whether this virus, that has killed so many and destroyed so much, was recklessly created and released by folks conducting gain-of-function research. It’s not entirely unlike the police and district attorney investigating police misconduct. They will acknowledge misconduct only if every other possibility has been ruled out after exhaustively searching for some reason, any reason, other than that one.
Some articles have suggested that there are lots of BSL 4 laboratories, so the fact that the virus first appeared in humans a few miles from a BSL 4 laboratory doesn’t mean anything. It’s unscientific to even consider it! But there are 54 BSL 4 laboratories on earth and the odds that the virus emerged within a few miles of one but not from one — especially one like WIV that conducted years of gain of function research on bat corona viruses — are pretty close to zero. Yet it seems like there is some force field inhibiting the ability of even normally sensible people to see how obvious this is. If you put these 54 buildings together they would probably take up less than a square mile on Earth, which has just less than 197 million square miles of surface area (though to be fair, most of that is uninhabited, so we can reduce that to say 1 in 40 million or so). Think about it. It’s a ridiculously unlikely coincidence.
The Wikipedia page for the Wuhan Institute of Virology discusses the possibility of an accidental lab release under a heading titled “Conspiracy Theories.” Just about every major US news media has published an article claiming that there is “no conclusive proof” that the virus was accidentally released from WIV.
Yet, SARS, which was another bat corona virus that originated in China, was accidentally released from the Chinese Institute of Virology in Beijing in the 2000s twice resulting in death and infections. Similar accidental releases of SARS occurred in laboratories studying the virus in Taiwan and Singapore.
China claimed that the virus originated in the Huanan Seafood Market, but then in late May 2020, Chinese officials said that after “further research” they concluded that SARS-CoV-2 did not originate in the Huanan Seafood Market. On Monday July 13, 2020, the World Institutes of Health announced that it will not visit or investigate any laboratory in Wuhan to try to determine if any was the source of the outbreak. Even after China announced that the virus did not originate in the Wuhan Huanan Seafood Market, many US and British news sources have continued identifying it as the origin of the virus in their articles. Most US media also suggests that the idea it originated in China’s only BSL 4 laboratory that had spent years performing gain of function research on bat corona viruses just a mile or so away are conspiracy theories asserted by idiots or politicians seeking to evade responsibility or inflame public opinion. Consider that.
Major US news sources are so concerned to deflect responsibility from the Wuhan Institute of Virology that even after China announced that the virus did not originate in the seafood market, many US news media continued to say it did. Why? Anyone with a background in public relations knows that it is much more difficult to say that something didn’t happen in one place if you don’t say where it did happen. The US news media doesn’t need to know where the virus actually originated, it just needs some official statement from the Chinese government that it originated someplace so that the story is easier for Americans to understand. I’m surprised that the US news media hasn’t asked the government of China to please provide an official proclamation of the new origin of the virus to make this narrative more credible, or perhaps file a complaint that the government of China is interfering with the US media’s obsequious cooperation by saying the virus didn’t originate in the Huanan Market and could it please issue a statement that it did originate there regardless of whether that is true.
An article from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists noted:
“By way of introduction, there are two virology institutes in Wuhan to consider, not one: The Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention (WHCDC) and the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). Both have conducted large projects on novel bat viruses and maintained large research collections of novel bat viruses, and at least the WIV possessed the virus that is the most closely related known virus in the world to the outbreak virus, bat virus RaTG13. This virus was isolated in 2013 and had its genome published on January 23, 2020. Seven more years of bat coronavirus collection followed the 2013 RaTG13 isolation.”
“On January 1, Wuhan Institute of Virology’s director general, Yanyi Wang, messaged her colleagues, saying the National Health Commission told her the lab’s COVID-19 data shall not be published on social media and shall not be disclosed to the media. And on January 3, the commission sent this document, never posted online, but saved by researchers, telling labs to destroy COVID-19 samples or send them to the depository institutions designated by the state. Late Friday [May 16, 2020] the Chinese government admitted to the destruction … but said it was for public safety.
The Chinese government’s explanation for the destruction of SARS-CoV-2 samples has no scientific credibility. For purposes of “public safety” any samples would surely be stored and studied, exactly as with the ones that were isolated from patients, and their RNA genomes decoded and published.”
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists went on to note that “many China scholars noted that it was quite unusual for Chinese government authorities to identify Wuhan’s Huanan South China Seafood Market so quickly as the source of the outbreak. They thought this behavior so uncharacteristic that it raised suspicions in their minds.” Chinese researchers published their skepticism of the official story in early 2020:
“…we were surprised to find that SARS-CoV-2 resembles SARS-CoV in the late phase of the 2003 epidemic after SARS-CoV had developed several advantageous adaptations for human transmission. Our observations suggest that by the time SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in late 2019, it was already pre-adapted to human transmission to an extent similar to late epidemic SARS-CoV. However, no precursors or branches of evolution stemming from a less human-adapted SARS-CoV-2-like virus have been detected…. It would be curious if no precursor or branches of SARS-CoV-2 evolution are discovered in humans or animals…. Even the possibility that a non-genetically-engineered precursor could have adapted to humans while being studied in a laboratory should be considered, regardless of how likely or unlikely.” Shing Hei Zhan, Benjamin E. Deverman and Yujia Alina Chan, “SARS-CoV-2 is well adapted for humans. What does this mean for re-emergence?” BioRxiv, posted May 2, 2020
From January through May 2020, the Chinese Communist Party’s explanation for the origin of SARS-CoV-2 was that it came from bats, probably from Yunnan Province about 800 miles away and that it infected some intermediate animal and then leapt to a human. The CCP suggested that this all happened at the Huanan Seafood and Wildlife Market.
The problem with this story was that (1) many of the earliest patients that the Chinese government identified had not visited the Huanan market and had no connection to it through intermediaries, (2) after extensive interviews, the Chinese government concluded that the market did not sell bats. Though bats are a culinary delicacy in China, the government concluded that people could not buy them at the Huanan Seafood Market.
But there are also obvious problems with the new and more confused story that “we don’t know where this bat corona virus that infects people came from, but it for sure didn’t come from a laboratory that was performing research on how to make bat corona viruses infect people.” It is really almost unbelievable that the American news media is not exploring this. This lack of investigation and discussion portends some major cultural shift — a major shift in the reality of human communications, relations, and politics that ought to be studied.
None of the bat corona viruses that are most closely related to SARS-CoV-2 can infect people. They can only infect bats. The most widely accepted theory is that there is an intermediary animal, probably a pangolin (which is also a culinary delicacy in China) and the virus from a bat infected a pangolin and then mutated in a way that allowed it to infect humans. The problem with this is that SARS-CoV-2 isn’t very good at infecting pangolins and there is no evidence that it came from pangolins.
Natural selection requires that if SARS-CoV-2 evolved from a bat corona virus into a virus that could infect some third animal like a pangolin and then into a virus that could infect a human and passed from a pangolin or other animal intermediary into humans, SARS-CoV-2 would have to be more adept at infecting the pangolin or other animal intermediary than it is for humans.
Pathogens can be made to mutate in a laboratory without the directed manipulation of their genes. In so-called “passage experiments”, viruses or bacteria are passed from one lab animal to another in order to study how the agents adapt to their hosts. Past experiments have succeeded in making viruses more transmissible between animals using this low-tech method.
Then, there is the matter of natural selection. While many people claim to “believe” in science, few take the time to consider scientific principles. The most widely supported theory explaining the appearance and development of life forms on Earth (including viruses) is natural selection. The theory more or less explains that the DNA or RNA in living organisms suffers some transcription errors or mutations over time. Sometimes these mutations are big and sometimes small. If the mutation results in a characteristic that is biologically helpful, it persists and is more successful at reproducing itself and if it is unhelpful, it dies out because it is not successful at reproducing itself. Over time, successful mutations dominate and unsuccessful ones die out and disappear. It might sound crazy that this process could through generations transform a short-necked Okapia (an animal that looks like a donkey wearing 80s glam rock pants) into a giraffe, but over tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years, that is indeed what happens.
Scientists have produced no identifiable intermediary species that spread SARS-CoV-2 to humans. This is probably because one doesn’t exist. MERS-CoV was a bat virus that spread to camels and then humans. SARS-CoV was a bat virus that spread to civet cats and then humans. In both cases, scientists found widespread infection in the intermediate animal host population, which one would expect as necessary for natural selection to work its magic. But with SARS-CoV-2, no one has identified a single intermediate animal. Not one. One virologist noted that tests revealed that SARS-CoV-2 infects human cells much more easily and quickly than the cells of many, many other animals — more quickly and easily than every other animal tested. The virologist noted that fundamental principles of natural selection counsel that the earliest strains of the virus found in humans ought to have more easily infected the cells of some intermediate carrier animal than human cells.
Much like the propaganda leading up to the Iraq War, possible contradictory explanations are dismissed as “conspiracy theories” or “propaganda.” Here, the eminence grise savages any suggestion that the virus originated in a Wuhan lab as calculated to deflect from President Trump’s awful handling of the pandemic. This reason makes no sense at all. It’s entirely possible that Trump could have equally badly mishandled the pandemic whether it was the result of an accidental lab release or if it emerged from nature. It’s impossible to even conceive of how an accidental lab release would somehow absolve President Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic. Initial discussions of an accidental lab release were met with claims that such claims were “ridiculous because the virus was not genetically engineered.” In a recent article in The Guardian in response to the “conspiracy theory” that the virus was accidentally released from a lab, the writer notes that “Contrary to the idea that Chinese scientists deliberately released the virus… of people living in rural Yunnan province… nearly 3% [sic] had antibodies for bat coronaviruses…” but not, of course, this particular bat corona virus.
Virologists want as much freedom as possible to conduct research…. on viruses. Scientists, like most people, also want to be revered, respected, even, for some, feted like a hero. Identifying this pandemic that killed millions of people and shut down the world’s human activities from work to school — to reveal that it was released in a laboratory accident would heap ignominy on virology and biomedical research as a reckless endeavor run by fundamentally irresponsible people. It would likely result in new safety restrictions on research and probably the end of a lot of dangerous and arguably not very helpful research. The government of China and virologists and biomedical researchers worldwide have a common interest in resisting the conclusion that the virus accidentally escaped WIV. So even though a careful consideration of obvious facts results in an overwhelmingly high probability that the virus was released from WIV, it will remain an “unscientific” conspiracy theory unless and until conclusive proof is found, which will likely never happen.
Then we have the vaccines. The fastest vaccine ever developed in world history took four years. The average is six to 10 years. Lots of diseases haven’t ever seen a vaccine even though companies spent tens of millions of dollars or more trying to develop one. After 17 years working on a SARS vaccine, we don’t have one. There’s never been a successful vaccine for a corona virus. However, there has never before been such concentrated effort and money poured into the search for a vaccine for a single virus.
It’s not clear if a successful SARS-CoV-2 vaccine will confer a very temporary immunity requiring regular “booster” shots. From an economic perspective, a relatively expensive vaccine that requires boosters every four to six months would be the best possible outcome, though vaccinating so many people every four to six months for years presents some logistical problems. A vaccine might cause delayed negative side effects. It might be relatively ineffective. Or maybe it will work great. But it is unprecedented to vaccinate billions of people over a relatively short period of time with a vaccine that was tested over very a short period of time. It is undeniable that there is unprecedented risk in both the pandemic and the possible solutions to it.
If we’re lucky, a postmodern vaccine will be more or less ineffective, but not have horrific side-effects. A postmodern public health directive might mandate vaccination every four to six months for everyone in the country. Such an edict could force individuals to pay for the shots, or the government could pay for the shots and then tax everyone to recoup the cost.
China and Russia claim to have safe and effective vaccines produced by scientists, tested in clinical studies and described in peer reviewed research papers published in reputable medical journals. US health officials, NIAID, CDC, FDA and the health officials of some other western countries have suggested that those vaccines are dangerous and untested. Yet, these same officials suggest that the new vaccine proposed by Pfizer is safe and effective — though in the United States, there has been toned down media about Pfizer and more focus on Moderna, who is at least somewhat behind Pfizer in clinical trials, because Moderna is a US company and if at all possible, that flood of money will be directed to a US company.
The Russian and Chinese vaccines are of the traditional type — a small attenuated, deactivated or damaged piece of virus is included in the shot in the hope that it will generate an immune response. The US and German vaccines are the very first mRNA vaccines ever set to be approved for use in humans. The mRNA vaccine contains no virus. It contains an mRNA instruction that is designed to invade human cells and sort of hijack them and make them produce the spike protein that is found on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Most scientists have said that because mRNA is such a fragile thing, the risk of long term side effects are low. These folks wrote that the greater risk is that the mRNA is somehow damaged or destroyed before it gets into human cells rendering the vaccine ineffective in an unknown number of patients. Some scientists have pointed out that mRNA vaccine tests in the past produced dangerous side effects like autoimmune disorders. It’s hard to say how this will play out, but it is at least as likely that it will not go well as that it will — where not going well is either an ineffective vaccine followed by people behaving as if the vaccine conferred immunity (e.g. not wearing masks, not distancing, etc.), or severe side effects.
The one area where government spent unlimited sums and acted in amazing planned coordination in response to the pandemic was to boost stock prices. From circumstantial evidence, it is possible to conclude that the only truly real and important thing in our society is asset prices. The myriad messages explaining this have discussed whether it was enough, too much, or not enough, whether it will really help the “economy,” if it might exacerbate disparities in wealth, whether the Fed can find “some other way” to stimulate the economy, etc. The flood of messages, changing rationales, and the heated debates they engender overlook the obvious reason for the Fed’s largess: rich people and powerful corporations don’t want stock prices to go down and they also do want them to go up. It’s that easy. As a man with a hammer looks at most every problem as a nail, no matter the type of crisis or even the absence of one, the reason the Fed does what it does is fairly obvious and very predictable. It has nothing to do with unemployment or helping “the economy.”
In almost every other regard, government, corporations, elites of all kinds from the best schools and with the most impressive credentials and salaries failed us in every way except rescuing stock prices. However, absent a safe and effective vaccine, every country sooner or later will suffer through this. The only way to avoid it is for countries that have things under control like Taiwan, South Korea, New Zealand, etc. to permanently bar people from entering the country, or to keep entries to a trickle and to strictly quarantine each person entering for two to four weeks in some type of serious, government run or monitored facility.
Until now, the public has treated this as a temporary problem of unknown duration. The talk of treatments and vaccines may be partly to encourage that perception. But at some point, ordinary people are going to reconsider everything. At some point, most people are going to begin considering prevailing conditions as either permanent or close to it. Only then will we learn what the next few years are really going to look like. I fear that California’s new November curfew may be at least partly to tamp down crime and civil unrest. At some point eviction moratoriums will end. Congress seems to be set to hand out about $1,200 a year to those displaced by the virus and government policy to deal with it. At some point, there at least ought to be a lot of angry poor people. Usually we divide poor people up by pointing out their racial differences. If the group of poor becomes large enough and angry enough, there is a systemic risk that they may not be amenable to division based on race, sex, or other identity.
The most likely outcome is that this just keeps going on while powerful interests use the crisis to take greater power and more resources. It will benefit the public to maintain a healthy level of skepticism. We need a safe and effective vaccine and we might get one. But we live in a terribly corrupt era where our only chance to save our country and ourselves is to calmly consider the facts and to demand dignity, democracy and public control. We must demand facts and data. We must be slow to relinquish our privacy and freedom, but we must also be willing to do what is necessary to reduce the virus’ negative consequences — in other words wear masks, observe distancing, demand that our government start manufacturing “science masks” with at least a small fraction of the money they’ve spent to prop up stock prices for the richest among us.
Citizens who do not demand their privacy, freedom and democracy will get none of these and, at least from one perspective, don’t deserve them.