The Wuhan Lab and the Virus of Our Implicit Biases

I have been seeing more buzz lately on the theory that COVID-19 leaked from the lab in Wuhan. Six months ago, the voices who promoted that concern were labeled conspiracy theorists. An article in the NY Times today (See Good morning. The lab-leak theory is everywhere. We have an explainer, by David Leonhardt, NY Times, may 27, 2021) poses the question: what changed?

A cynic like me (and partisan Republicans) will say the change is that we have a new party in control of the White House. The lab-leak theory is no longer a conspiracy theory because that narrative has lost its expediency and usefulness with the change in political control.

As the article points out, the origin of the virus was unclear from the beginning. Some scientists, politicians and journalists urged consideration of the Wuhan lab. Those voices were drowned out, however, by louder voices.

Now, things have changed. The Times article reports:

“Two weeks ago, 18 scientists wrote a letter to the journal Science calling for a new investigation and describing both the animal-to-human theory and the lab-leak theory as ‘viable.’ And three scientists who last year dismissed the lab-leak explanation as a conspiracy theory have told The Wall Street Journal that they now consider it plausible.”

Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, now says, “We cannot exclude the possibility of some kind of a lab accident”, though he maintains it more likely that the virus developed naturally. Over a year ago, a couple of Chinese researchers wrote a paper concluding the virus “probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan”, but not many people were willing to jump on the bandwagon.

The Times article is refreshingly candid in its assessment that the dismissal of this lab-leak theory “appears to be a classic example of groupthink, exacerbated by partisan polarization”.  I could turn this statement into a weapon for a particular political ideology, but I won’t. I also believe a lab-leak is less likely than natural causes based on my understanding of the facts that are known to date.

Regardless of what is more likely than not, the lab-leak appears to be more plausible than the scientific (and political) consensus would allow just six months ago. The political din has subsided long enough now for the disparate voices of scientists to be heard who maintain we should not rule out the lab at Wuhan as a potential source from which COVID arose.

This shift in the “consensus” can be attributed more directly to political ideation and political polarization, than science. This seems to be the indictment of the article.

We are so divided along partisan lines in our country (and world) that we can’t think straight; we can’t even get our facts straight. Our filter for determining fact from fiction and credible theory from conspiracy theory is so tainted by the dirty film of political dross that reality seems to be obscured to a large segment of our society by it.  

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Public Trust at Stake in the COVID-19 Crisis

An article in the Washington Post, explains some things about the comparison of COVID-19 to the flu. There’s a more accurate way to compare coronavirus deaths to the flu (by Christopher Ingraham May 2, 2020) explains that flu deaths are estimated based on confirmed reports.  The confirmed reports are much, much lower, as a result, than the number of flu deaths the CDC reports.

As an example, he author cites to the 2018-2019 numbers published by the CDC. Confirmed flu deaths were 7,172 , from which the CDC estimated between 26,339 and 52,664 deaths for the year. They do this, apparently, to account for what epidemiologists believe is a sever under-count in the confirmed deaths.

(If you want to know how this works, you can refer to the abstract, Estimating influenza disease burden from population-based surveillance data in the United States, published March 4, 2015.)

Does anyone see an issue with this in light of what we are learning about the reporting of COVID-19 deaths per the CDC guidelines?

The writer cited to the 63,259 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 (as of May 2, 2020), and speculates that estimating COVID-19 deaths in the same way would result in a number that is “a full order of magnitude” more than the estimated flu deaths. (Today, as of this writing, there are now 87,841 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the US according to the Johns Hopkins Resource Center.)

The author says the comparison “gets complicated as soon as you realize that flu mortality is not reported as a tally but as an estimated range, which is far different from the individual counts, based on testing and diagnoses, used for COVID-19”. He assumes, as well, that “COVID-19 deaths are probably underestimated”.

But are they? Someone would have to compare the CDC guidelines for reporting flu deaths and compare those guidelines for reporting COVID-19 deaths. I am not an expert in these things, so I will leave it to someone else, but I will address the way COVID deaths are reported below.

The author goes on to highlight how tricky it is to do the comparison. People usually cherry pick the figures that seem right to them: the figures that support what they feel is correct. What else is a non-expert in these things to do?

Thus, the author says, we should trust the experts. When the experts don’t agree, we should trust the consensus. That’s science, right?

More or less, that’s true, but we have a crisis of trust right now that is being exposed by the current epidemic. “Science” or not, people don’t trust the experts. We can speculate all kinds of things about the psychology and sociology of “those people” who don’t trust the experts, but I see some reason to be legitimately concerned, even without giving any credence to crazy conspiracy theories.

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