A new, old explanation for Covid’s origins

BEN KRITZ ben.kritz@manilatimes.net



The Manila Times



THIS may legitimately qualify as one of those “in case you missed it” news items, as it is only about an hour old as I write this on Friday afternoon: As reported by The Atlantic and The New York Times, an international team of researchers investigating the origins of the coronavirus — a task that has been complicated by China’s absolute refusal to cooperate or do anything else constructive to help solve the riddle — has found substantial DNA evidence to indicate that the initial source of the virus was raccoon dogs being illegally traded in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China. According to the explanation in the news articles, which was drawn from the preliminary press release of the findings as the actual study has not yet been published, the team extracted the DNA traces from swab samples taken from the market premises shortly after it had been closed because of the Covid-19 outbreak in January 2020. Samples containing coronavirus traces came from the same areas of the market where raccoon dog DNA was found, leading the scientists to conclude they were related. The researchers were careful to point out that this is circumstantial; for one thing, it does not indicate whether the viral infection jumped from the animals to humans, or vice versa. But, since it has long been hypothesized that the likeliest path of the infection was from animal to human, the new findings are definitely considered a strong piece of evidence for that. It would be more certain one way or another if the Chinese government was not still exerting aggressive reluctance to be at all forthright about the origin of the pandemic. In the news reports, it was noted that Chinese test samples from actual animals removed from the market have not been made available to this or any other outside research team. If those samples were able to be independently tested, it would be possible to determine clearly which animals were infected, and whether they were carriers of the coronavirus, or had been infected by a human source. Also, although some Chinese scientists were able to make their own test results of samples from the market premises available to international researchers online — results that apparently corroborated the latest findings, but were done much earlier — when researchers outside China tried to access them earlier this month, they discovered that they had been removed from the shared database. Even so, the latest results, without providing a definitive answer, are definitely pointing in a plausible direction, and look like a validation of Occam’s Razor — that the simplest explanation for something is most likely to be the correct explanation. The results cast serious doubt on the recently resurrected “lab leak” theory, which was raised again a few weeks ago by the US Department of Energy based on “intelligence reports.” The idea that the coronavirus had been created in a Chinese laboratory and then escaped, either intentionally or accidentally, has always seemed like a stretch, and the latest results certainly seem to indicate that it is. The widely held suspicion that the Chinese government was somehow responsible for the Covid- 19 pandemic is entirely its own fault, because, for reasons no one else can fathom, it refuses to allow its own scientists to act like scientists trying to solve a globalscale question and share the results of their work. Perhaps acting out an arrogant superiority complex has become so ingrained in the character of the Chinese leadership that they can’t help themselves anymore, and they behave in a manner that attracts suspicion even when they don’t really mean to. Whether it is part of some inscrutable strategy or just plain thoughtlessness, however, the Chinese efforts to prevent the investigation to reach clear and certain conclusions is a disservice to the entire world — and most especially to China’s own 1.4-billion or so people, who suffered the longest of anyone from the Covid-19 pandemic and the unpleasant side effects of efforts to control it. *** In further embarrassing news from the ongoing oil spill disaster off Oriental Mindoro, the mayor of the town of Pola in that province reportedly disclosed on Friday that cleanup workers there have been using human hair and shredded coconut husks to help remove the oil from the water. This is relatively good news, as it demonstrates that someone is trying to apply some common sense efficiency to dealing with the calamity. Both coconut husk and hair, especially the latter, have long been used in oil spill cleanup; you might recall that during the Guimaras oil spill disaster in 2006, the inhabitants of several correctional facilities staged haircut parties in order to donate the hair to help clean up that mess. The reason it works is that hair is a lipophilic material, meaning that it naturally attracts oil and repels water; 1 kilogram of hair can apparently trap about 8 liters of oil. It does make kind of a mess, as huge piles of oil-soaked hair are no more fun to clean up than oil-fouled water, but it is effective, and otherwise safe as hair and other natural fibers are obviously biodegradable. There’s just one problem, as the mayor of Pola admitted: The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), which since the accession of the Marcos administration has seemed to have been engaged in an imaginary competition to be the country’s stupidest government agency, apparently has rules prohibiting the use of hair to clean up oil spills. Why that may be so is anyone’s guess — and if it’s actually not, then someone from the DENR ought to let the mayor of Pola know, because it certainly seems to be her impression that her town has been forced to do something illegal out of desperation. Of course, maybe they wouldn’t feel that way if the DENR would actually make more of a visible effort to address the ongoing environmental disaster instead of suddenly becoming a ghost department.