Key questions grow three years after pandemic declared – analysis

Science and Health

Three years ago this week the World Health Organization held a media briefing. It was March 11, 2020, and at the time, the head of the WHO said that the number of cases of COVID-19 was increasing rapidly around the world. There were 118,000 cases in 114 countries and 4,291 known deaths.

“The WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic,” the organization said. 

It is extraordinary to look back now, after more than 749 million confirmed cases, 6.8 million deaths reported to the WHO and a total of 13 billion vaccine doses administered. However, the recent news about COVID is mostly focused on new revelations about the origins of the pandemic. This is because we’ve moved on from the emergency crisis phase, when we didn’t know enough about how to prevent the threat, let alone find patient zero, to a phase that appears more normal, so we have time to gather our thoughts. Director-General of the WHO Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently said that finding the origins of Covid is still a moral imperative.  

Most countries around the world appear to want to move on. Israel, which once heralded itself as a leader in vaccine acquisition, no longer talks about whether acquiring and administering vaccines, and its lockdown policies and closure of the airports and borders, was as successful as initially thought. This isn’t a major issue today, with most seeming to want to move on from what seemed like a dystopian horror movie nightmare. In the US things are different. Major media and Congress are pushing to know more.

This comes as US-China tensions have grown over the past years. The era when people were concerned about critiquing Beijing and when China had more influence over corporations, media, social media and even US policy, has not passed.  

Israeli receiving a COVID test at Meuhedet Health Maintenance Organization center in Jerusalem on August 11, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

As tensions with China grow, such as news of Australia’s submarine deal with the US and UK, or tensions over atolls in the South China Sea, there is more focus on what exactly happened in late 2019 and early 2020. CBS news this week had a story about “following the money to Wuhan labs: Records show organizations double billing US government CBS News has obtained records that appear to show the US government may have paid twice for projects in Wuhan, China, through the NIH and USAID. Some of those research projects may be tied to labs implicated in the lab leak COVID-19 origin theory.” 

As the US learns more, the House of Representatives voted unanimously to declassify intelligence on links between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the COVID-19 pandemic, on March 10. CNBC noted that “the effort by Congress to declassify intelligence on the origins of COVID comes after the Energy Department concluded with ‘low confidence’ that the virus most likely escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China, as the result of an accident.”

Why are these revelations shocking?

These are shocking revelations, especially after years in which discussion of the potential for a “lab leak” was seen as controversial or even misinformation. Today discussion about the definition of a “natural” origin of Covid is also developing. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who was a key figure in the US pandemic response, said on CNN Saturday that he still thinks the outbreak could have been caused by a ‘natural occurrence” but he has a new twist on that discussion.

“A lab leak could be that someone was out in the wild, maybe looking for different types of viruses in bats, got infected, went into a lab, and then came out of the lab. But if that’s the definition of lab leak, then that’s still a natural occurrence,” Fauci said. 

It is now becoming clear that even in the earliest days of the outbreak, before the WHO even declared a pandemic, there was concern the virus was linked to a lab. But shadows and obfuscation grew up around these questions very early. As the US continues to investigate the origins of Covid and also look into what kind of cover-up or corruption may have taken place during the period before and after the outbreak, some key documents from the early days of the pandemic continue to haunt our understanding of what subsequently happened. 

One of the most interesting documents is a February 2020 Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease which was based on a study conducted between 16-24 February 2020. This was prior to the WHO even saying there was a pandemic. The study painted a positive picture of China’s “bold” and “agile” steps to stop the virus. The report claimed that the epidemic rapidly grew from 10-22 January, “cases peaked and plateaued between 23 January and 27 January, and have been steadily declining since then.”

The report claimed that “bats appear to be the reservoir of COVID-19 virus, but the intermediate host(s) has not yet been identified. However, three important areas of work are already underway in China to inform our understanding of the zoonotic origin of this outbreak.”

China pointed to animals sold at the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market and other area markets” as a potential source.  

The study claimed that “airborne spread has not been reported for COVID-19 and it is not believed to be a major driver of transmission based on available evidence.” In April 2022 Nature Magazine wondered why it took two years to finally say it was airborne.

“Early in the pandemic, the World Health Organization stated that SARS-CoV-2 was not transmitted through the air. That mistake and the prolonged process of correcting it sowed confusion and raise questions about what will happen in the next pandemic.” 

Meanwhile back in Wuhan in February 2020 the report claimed that “the cordon sanitaire around Wuhan and neighboring municipalities imposed since 23 January 2020 has effectively prevented further exportation of infected individuals to the rest of the country.” We now know that’s not true, it rapidly spread to 100 countries and led to a pandemic. But we were told on February 20, 2020, that only 2,114 people had died and there were only 55,924 confirmed cases.

“Achieving China’s exceptional coverage with and adherence to these containment measures has only been possible due to the deep commitment of the Chinese people to collective action in the face of this common threat,” the report said. It said the rest of the world was not ready in “mindset” to do what China did. “China’s bold approach to contain the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic…This decline in COVID-19 cases across China is real.”

Then it spread to hundreds of millions of people. But the report said that “China is already, and rightfully, working to bolster its economy, reopen its schools and return to a more normal semblance of its society, even as it works to contain the remaining chains of COVID-19 transmission.” 

It’s difficult to read those lines from February 2020 in retrospect. It is like reading about the people going to sleep in Pripyat near Chernobyl in 1986, not knowing that days later some 116,000 people living in a 30-km radius of the nuclear plant would be evacuated, their lives turned upside down. We were living like that in February 2020, thinking that some far-off virus had emerged in China, and been contained and that “wet markets” were at fault. Even in May 2020 there were still articles about the need to “close the wet markets” even though we now know there is no complete evidence the markets were connected to the disaster. It doesn’t appear China has closed the markets, so clearly Beijing doesn’t think this was the main problem. 

Each person and country has different lasting controversies about the pandemic. For some, it might be the issue of masks, which by late 2022 were no longer required in most places. For some, it is the question of vaccines and their efficacy. For others, it might be lingering questions about pandemic missteps such as use of ventilators and sending patients to nursing homes. For others, it is questions about lockdowns and newly revealed messages in the UK about how fear was used to exaggerate threats during the pandemic. For others, it may be the concern that society is not taking threats seriously today, with concerns continuing about “long Covid” or what might come next. Have we been lulled into a false sense of security.

Some of the largest questions, about what was learned and how to prevent a new pandemic, still evade us. As the US focus on the origins of the pandemic winds its way slowly through political circles and media, it is likely the full story will never be known, only parts of the elephant in the room will ever be pieced together.