By Dr John Töns
Scott Morrison’s support for President Biden’s assertion that there is an urgent need to bolster and accelerate efforts to identify the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and further that there is a need to ensure that the World Health Organization is independent and invested with stronger surveillance powers, seems on the face of it more than reasonable.
Surely, we should know what caused this pandemic for then we can prevent future pandemics. Given that the WHO is there to protect the world’s health surely, we need to ensure that it is independent and safe from political interference? Surely any reasonable person can only applaud these efforts and congratulate Scott Morrison on being prepared to leave no stone unturned to find out the true cause of the pandemic? Can anyone seriously question his sincerity? Could anyone seriously suggest that this is little more than an attempt to deflect criticism from his ham-fisted management of the outbreak?
Far be it from me to suggest any such thing. All I can do is what anyone with access to the resources can do and that is to follow the science.
Both in social media and mainstream media it was hard to escape any story dealing with the impact of COVID-19 that did not refer to it as being ‘unprecedented’. It invited the idea that because COVID-19 was unprecedented there was nothing that could have been done to prevent it. Thus ‘unprecedented’ became shorthand for unforeseen. But it could and should have been foreseen. In January 2020 an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine stated: ‘for the third time in as many decades a zoonotic coronavirus has crossed species to infect human populations. By 2012 The Lancet summarized the challenges posed by zoonotic infections as follows:
- Nearly two-thirds of human infectious diseases arise from pathogens shared with wild or domestic animals.
- Endemic and enzootic zoonoses cause about a billion cases of illness in people and millions of deaths every year, and emerging zoonoses are a rising threat to global health, having caused hundreds of billions of US dollars of economic damage in the past 20 years.
- Ecological and evolutionary perspectives can provide valuable insights into pathogen ecology and can inform zoonotic disease-control programmes.
- Anthropogenic practices, such as changes in land use and extractive industry actions, animal production systems, and widespread antimicrobial applications affect zoonotic disease transmission.
- Risks are not limited to low-income countries; as global trade and travel expands, zoonoses are increasingly posing health concerns for the global medical community.
- Ecological, evolutionary, social, economic, and epidemiological mechanisms affecting zoonoses’ persistence and emergence are not well understood; such information could inform evidence-based policies, practices, and targeted zoonotic disease surveillance, and prevention and control efforts.
- Multisectoral collaboration, including clinicians, public health scientists, ecologists and disease ecologists, veterinarians, economists, and others is necessary for effective management of the causes and prevention of zoonotic diseases.
These seven challenges demonstrate the interplay between the natural and the human world. Zoonotic diseases are part of the natural world, but their impact can be minimized or avoided. One of the reasons that there is increased frequency in the incidence of pandemics is given under point 4 above – it is the price we pay for development.
Nonetheless, we need to ask: why did COVID-19 hit the world so hard? Afterall, the policies and strategies were in place to cope with a pandemic. However, public health considerations are also political considerations. As early as January 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) advised ‘all countries should be prepared for containment, including active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention of onward spread.’ The Australian Government followed some of that advice but largely relied on pulling up the drawbridge. Australia was not prepared to pay the full price to stop the pandemic in its tracks.
The result has been that there is an ongoing tension between the priorities of politics: ensuring that the economy continues to function and the priorities of public health to stop the virus in its tracks. That tension has helped shape the nature of the response to the virus.
So, the first point that we need to make is that had we paid more attention to the science then COVID-19 would not have come as such a rude shock. A Government which follows the science would realise that this will not be the last pandemic with which we will be confronted. Such a government would have embarked on a public building programme that throughout the country there are residential facilities that can readily be repurposed as quarantine centres. Not only can such facilities provide a boost to local economies they also ensure that Australia has the resilience to respond to any pandemic without needing to grind the country to a halt.
It would seem the government ‘follows the science’ when it suits its political narrative. When it comes to purpose-built quarantine centres around the country that does not suit the narrative. Clearly if we can demonstrate that the pandemic was China’s fault then we would not need these centres. This in turn means rejecting the extensive research which dates back to the early fifties that acknowledges that pandemics are the price we pay for over development.
But let’s leave that aside. There is of course the possibility that the disease escaped from a lab in Wuhan. We know Wuhan has carried out research on corona viruses so COVID-19 could have escaped from their lab, and they refused to tell us. It is by no means an implausible account. We can be reasonably certain that if it escaped from a lab in Wuhan, it would have been an accident. For those who suspect evil intent consider this. If the escape was deliberate, then they would have had a vaccine ready; what better way to gain global economic ascendency by controlling a lifesaving vaccine?
But nonetheless the lab scenario should worry us. Governments around the world operate labs that create and study viruses. One could claim that this is a disinterested pursuit of scientific knowledge but somehow, I doubt that funding such research is motivated by lofty altruistic motives.
The laboratories working on various biohazardous research are graded from 1-4 according to their potential risk. Fifty or so laboratories worldwide come into category 4. Category 4 laboratories are highly regulated and often top-secret establishments. One cannot help but infer from that level of secrecy that governments fund that research out of their defence budgets. Wuhan is a category 3 lab – one of some 3000 labs scattered around the world. Security is far laxer, and it is by no means inconceivable that the virus could have escaped from that lab.
But here too. I am not sure if there is any merit in identifying the cause of the COVID-19 outbreak. I can only be guided by two old war horses: Colonel Hamish de Bretton Gordon and General David Petraeus. The Colonel is a British soldier turned academic with considerable expertise in the deployment of biological and chemical weapons. The General like the Colonel was active in the Middle East both saw at first hand the way biological and chemical weapons were used against civilian populations. As countries continue to fund research into these biological weapons, they are placing the world’s population at risk.
The risk they pose is not just from rogue governments. In 1995 domestic terrorists in Japan released Sarin in the metro system. The attack killed 14 people and injured a further 5000. We must not assume that terrorists need to attack a lab to get the biohazards. Some of these can be produced by anyone with a basic knowledge of chemistry.
All the information in this article comes from some very basic research that anyone can do. I expect the government has its own nerds who can do that sort of research. Would the conclusion that one draws from this be that we need to be very concerned about the control and transparency of work on biohazards? Would we not want to be more circumspect about the way we are reducing global biodiversity? Instead of wanting to point the finger at China perhaps we should merely look in the mirror and admit that the pandemic is the price we pay for the lifestyle we have bought into.
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