Disinformation policing, lab safety, public health – we’re getting it all wrong
Can we please not make this partisan?
The Intercept this week published two major investigations that seem at first blush unrelated, but a closer look shows the link between the two in a profoundly important way.
One is a deep look at safety inside the labs that work with extremely dangerous pathogens. What our reporter Mara Hvistendahl has uncovered is disturbing:
An Intercept investigation based on over 5,500 pages of NIH documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act has uncovered a litany of mishaps: malfunctioning equipment, spilled beakers, transgenic rodents running down the hall, a sedated macaque coming back to life and biting a researcher hard enough to lacerate their hand. Many of the incidents involved less dangerous pathogens that can be handled with basic safety equipment, and most did not lead to infection. But several accidents happened while scientists were handling deadly or debilitating viruses in highly secure labs, and a few, like the Chikungunya virus slip-up, did lead to illness.
And some of it is downright frightening. Here’s the top of one piece in her series:
At the moment that the ferret bit him, the researcher was smack in the middle of Manhattan, in a lab one block from Central Park’s East Meadow. It was the Friday afternoon before Labor Day in 2011, and people were rushing out of the city for a long weekend. Three days earlier, the ferret had been inoculated with a recombinant strain of 1918 influenza, which killed between 20 and 50 million people when it swept through the world at the end of World War I. To prevent it from sparking another pandemic, 1918 influenza is studied under biosafety level 3 conditions, the second-tightest of biosafety controls available. The researcher at Mount Sinai School of Medicine (now Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai) was wearing protective equipment, including two pairs of gloves. But the ferret bit hard enough to pierce through both pairs, breaking the skin of his left thumb.
The flu is typically transmitted through respiratory droplets, and an animal bite is unlikely to infect a scientist. But with a virus as devastating as 1918 flu, scientists are not supposed to take any chances. The researcher squeezed blood out of the wound, washed it with an ethanol solution, showered, and left the lab. A doctor gave him a flu shot and prescribed him Tamiflu. Then, after checking that he lived alone, a Mount Sinai administrator sent him home to quarantine for a week, unsupervised, in the most densely populated city in the United States. As documents obtained by The Intercept show, staff told him to take his temperature two times a day and to wear an N95 respirator if he got sick and needed to leave for medical care.
The second story is an investigation by Lee Fang and Ken Klippenstein into a sprawling new mandate that the Department of Homeland Security has adopted for itself: to police the spread of “misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation” on the interwebs. The main targets of the truth police are, according to a draft version of a leaked DHS quadrennial report, “the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, racial justice, U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the nature of U.S. support to Ukraine.” The director of a DHS advisory committee, worried about how all this might look, reported Fang and Klippenstein, “recommended the use of third-party information-sharing nonprofits as a ‘clearing house for information to avoid the appearance of government propaganda.’”
And here we find the overlap. For some reasons that I vaguely understand, and for some others that I still can’t fully comprehend, the conversation around the origin of the pandemic and the efficacy of the vaccines have both become coded along a left-right axis. It is right-wing to be skeptical of the vaccines and to believe that Covid originated from a lab accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. (Increasingly, the even-further-right-wing view is that it was produced and released deliberately, though that simply makes zero sense to me.) Meanwhile, it is left-wing to oppose any discussion around the safety or efficacy of the vaccines, and it is left-wing to believe that Covid jumped naturally from a host species – we inconveniently don’t know which one yet, but let’s set that aside – into humans at a “wet market” in Wuhan where vendors sold wild animals.
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But why? Under what political logic are any of those positions either right wing or left wing? You could just as easily imagine vaccine skeptics on the left – and in my early career at the Huffington Post, I was embarrassed at how our blog side frequently gave space to those nutty California liberals like Jenny McCarthy who were campaigning against vaccines, making tendentious links to autism while relying on junk science. All of it was built on top of a traditional left-wing edifice: that Big Pharma is corrupt and profit-hungry and should never be taken at face value, and that the FDA is a victim of corporate capture. Those are now the arguments being made by the right.
A sign of how confused our times have gotten: I found this Ross Douthat column in the New York Times quite well done. (Un-paywell-ed version here.)
What about the partisan valence of the lab leak theory? I could easily sketch a left wing, or at least partisan-Democratic argument for it: President Obama, having been briefed fully on the risks of gain of function research, forced the NIH to pause such work. The Trump administration lifted that ban, and was funding bat coronavirus work at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, work that may have sparked the pandemic. Then Trump tried to downplay it. Voila: It’s all Trump’s fault.
Instead, Democrats shut down the debate over its origin, suggesting that asking the question was only fueling anti-Asian hate crimes. But the alternative notion itself played on racist stereotypes and prejudice, blaming the pandemic on backward Chinese people eating bat soup.
But both of these questions should be outside of politics. Whether the vaccine is safe and effective on a particular variant is a question that ought to be answered with data. The same is true with the origin of Covid. But everything is now political, and politics is everywhere, and everyone must choose a side – and if you’re not with us, you’re with them.
The problem is, the world keeps throwing problems at us – or, perhaps more accurately, we keep making problems for ourselves. And those problems need to be thought through deliberately. These aren’t all easy questions. Foreign propaganda and disinformation campaigns exist. What do we do about them? Governments – and government agencies like DHS – do try to expand their scope and authority relentlessly. What do we do about that?
And gain of function research – along with the overlapping but arguably more useful category called “dual use research of concern” – can potentially have social benefits, but also comes with existential risks. Consider this: virtually all scientists who’ve looked into Covid’s origins, with the exception of a few ideologues on either side, acknowledge that both explanations are plausible. That means that it is plausible we did Covid to ourselves – and that alone should be cause for deep reflection and significant policy reforms. Instead, the number of labs doing dual use research of concern has only mushroomed since 2020.
While Lee and Ken’s story is going viral on the right and being ignored on the left, Mara’s story has not produced the sensation I think it should. Many on the left don’t want to be coded as right wing for even talking about lab biosafety – faith in science bleeding naturally into faith in all scientists at all times – and many on the right don’t actually care about it as an issue beyond its usefulness as a weapon to bludgeon the hated public health establishment.
Making these points feels like standing at the edge of the beach and whining about the tide, as the water rises and your feet sink into the wet sand. But I appreciate you reading this anyway, and appreciate you keeping an open mind in the face of all the unusual realignment of political forces we’re all living through. (How do I know that you are? Cuz you read this far.)
I’ll leave you with the top of another of Mara’s dispatches:
It started with a bold idea. “Someone finally convinced me to do something really, really stupid,” virologist Ron Fouchier told Scientific American in 2011. Fouchier, of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, and another scientist, Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, had separately tweaked the H5N1 virus — an influenza that primarily infects birds — in a way that made it spread more easily in ferrets. H5N1 is a prime pandemic candidate, and ferrets are often used as proxies for humans in flu experiments. When word got out that the two scientists were planning to publish papers detailing their experiments, making a blueprint available to the world, the outcry was extreme. The scientists were trying to better understand H5N1 in order to prevent a pandemic, but critics worried that their experiments could instead cause one — or provide would-be bioterrorists with an outbreak manufacturing guide.
The New York Times ran an editorial titled “An Engineered Doomsday.” The backlash was so severe that in 2012, Kawaoka, Fouchier, and other prominent flu scientists voluntarily agreed to pause the transmissibility work. The debacle prompted an overhaul of policies, now being reconsidered in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, governing work with so-called gain-of-function research of concern.
The story is well known. And yet, what happened next has never been reported in its entirety.
Early on, Fouchier told Science that he had created “probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make.” But after controversy broke out, as the science communicator Peter Sandman has written, Fouchier and his supporters shifted to downplaying the danger. In early 2013, flu scientists ended their voluntary pause, arguing that when the research was done at enhanced biosafety level 3, or BSL3+, the benefits outweighed the risks. Kawaoka, who was normally the more taciturn of the two, hosted journalists in his lab, where he explained his safety procedures. “The influenza virus is sensitive to detergent,” he reportedly said while explaining the process of showering out. “They die.” A biosafety staffer at the University of Wisconsin got up before a university audience to dispel what she called myths about lab oversight. The address was broadcast on local television.
Then, months later, Kawaoka’s lab saw two accidents involving lab-generated flu viruses, just one week apart.
The accidents, a spill and a needle prick, carried a low risk of infection. Flu viruses are typically transferred through respiratory droplets, not skin contact or injection. Nonetheless, in letters obtained by The Intercept, staff at a funding agency accused the university of shirking biosafety precautions that Kawaoka had promised to adopt. They also demanded changes to the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s protocol for accidental lab exposures. Of particular concern was a plan to quarantine all researchers exposed to modified H5N1 at home, even if they were at high risk of infection — an approach that the funding agency administrators found so alarming that they threatened to end the lab’s grant unless the university changed course.
At the center of the debacle was the National Institutes of Health, whose National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases had funded both Kawaoka’s and Fouchier’s labs. (Fouchier was a sub-awardee on a grant to a U.S. institution.) The agency oversees biosafety protocols on the same research it funds, and its oversight arm has a reputation for being timid, generally resolving issues through polite dialogue. “We want to be cautious about when we use that stick,” said Jessica Tucker, acting deputy director of NIH’s Office of Science Policy, referring to the threat of termination.