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The Covid-19 virus: its origin, its power

The Body Scientific

The U.S. Energy Department has reported that the Chinese scientists did not make the Wuhan-1 version (as it was then called) of the SARS-Cov-2 coronavirus. This conclusion is the most important, but least remarked. Virologists, Chinese or American, would not have known how to create such a virus.

The Energy Department also reported that the virus may have escaped from a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but they had low confidence, which is an odd thing to say. Why report anything? In their search for dangerous respiratory viruses, Chinese scientists went into caves and abandoned mineshafts, and despite protection, were occasionally infected. Before they developed symptoms and were isolated, a virus could have passed to others. There are ways to test the effects of viruses on human cells growing in petri dishes, which was what the cave explorers intended for the viruses they found.

Finally, the SARS-CoV-2 virus may have evolved in a live animal market, from which some of the initial patients came. The virus was spreading in late 2019. Where it came from or how it escaped, is less important now that it is on the loose, than controlling this infection and stopping future pandemics, which are surely coming.

China is an authoritarian country and that interferes with its responses to pandemics, from arresting the scientist who first found the virus for spreading rumors, to not using foreign made mRNA vaccines, to their zero covid policy, to not reporting statistics on hospitalizations and deaths, and by blocking visits of outside virologists.

The Chinese are angry and so are Americans, but we cannot afford anger that gets in the way of good sense and hard work. Laker and Chicago Bulls Coach Phil Jackson once said, ‘nobody learns anything when they are angry’ and he was right. Viruses are a fearsome enemy and interfering rage must be suppressed.

The world will need a scientific relationship with China and China with the world to stop pandemics and treat diseases, whether they start in China, the United States, Africa, or elsewhere. International institutions exist but are not able to take on all the opportunities that we have for combatting viruses and other pathogens.

The public is more acquainted with the power of viruses than they were three years ago. Viruses make proteins that help them get into human or animal cells. They make other proteins that copy their genomes, and several small proteins that derail our immune responses. When SARS-Cov-2 infects a cell, it makes hundreds or even thousands of new viruses in a few hours. Viruses mutate to make new variations of their proteins that are resistant to vaccines and antibodies. That and fantastically large numbers, let variants spread across a country in weeks. Viruses have other tools: they are carried by mosquitos, other insects, and bats. Viruses have their own air force. Before we leave the threat viruses pose, realize that there are more than two hundred families of viruses assessed by comparing DNA or RNA sequences and how the viruses look under an electron microscope; all these families may have dangerous relatives. Viral disease, (never mind bacteria or other ghastly organisms) is too big a problem for anything less than full effort and cooperation.

Where does this information leave us? President Biden is about to call Secretary Xi, ostensibly about China arming Russia against Ukraine. Not that Mr. Biden needs my advice, but perhaps he should start by trying to reestablish connections on disease research. The Chinese government was badly burned by Covid, as were we, both losing more than a million people and infuriating many others who lost work. Covid-19 left many clues that should be exploited, and we are going to need a treatment that is faster than vaccines, which take a year to make. Perhaps Mr. Biden and Secretary Xi could set up working groups on a warm Pacific island (it’s hard to be angry there) to provide an agenda. Then, Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi could discuss arming Russia against Ukraine. Perhaps Mr. Xi would decide there are better things to do.


Richard Kessin is Emeritus Professor of Pathology and Cell Biology at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center. His email is Richard.Kessin@gmail.com His website is Richardkessin.com.

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