The Lab Leak Scenario

It’s been about a year since the coronavirus started to spread in earnest and unleash its wrath on an unwitting world. Since that time, tens of millions of people have been infected, countless more have died, and therefore the focus understandably has been on fighting a desperate, rear-guard action to try to minimize the spread and effects of COVID-19. But . . . will we ever know, for sure, the origins of the virus and how it came to shut down the world?

Initially, many people thought that the virus had its roots in a “wet market” in Wuhan, China, where a virus that previously was limited to animals somehow made a leap to humans. Increasingly, however, people are exploring the alternative “lab leak” scenario. That hypothesis posits that the virus had its roots in a naturally occurring condition among animals, but than was modified and bioengineered and made even more infectious in a medical laboratory — in this case, a lab somewhere in Wuhan.

And here’s the scary part: the people who are articulating the lab leak scenario do not believe that COVID-19 was intentionally designed to function as some kind of biological weapon. Instead, they believe it was created and enhanced in infectiousness and virulence as part of routine, ongoing experimentation with viruses — and that, through negligence and inadvertence, it somehow got out of the controlled environment and began its destructive rampage across the globe. In short, they believe medical researchers throughout the world have been engaging in incredibly risky behavior with incredibly risky viruses, and through someone’s mistake or carelessness, we’re now all paying the piper. If that hypothesis is what actually happened, this wasn’t some naturally occurring phenomenon, but a self-inflicted wound that didn’t have to happen in the first place.

A New York magazine piece, The Lab Leak Hypothesis, does a good job of explaining this scenario for the creation of COVID-19 and establishing why it seems plausible. It turns out that, for years now, scientists and medical researchers have been tinkering with viruses and modifying them in an effort to make them more deadly and more easily transmitted, for the putative purpose of trying to prevent the spread of viruses and designing vaccines or other treatments. And, in publications in the scientific community, some people have sounded the alarm bells and predicted that, one of these days, one of those bioengineered viruses would escape. That may be precisely what happened here.

Reading the New York article, I found myself thinking: didn’t anyone involved in funding or supervising or performing this kind of incredibly risky research ever read The Stand, Stephen King’s novel about a bioengineered disease that decimated the world? And didn’t the scientists who were engaging in this research have a bit of humility about their capabilities, and question whether they should be playing God with viruses that could potentially sweep across the world?

We may never know exactly how COVID-19 came toravage the world. It’s unlikely that, if the lab leak scenario is true, someone will step up and admit that they opened the door to allow a global pandemic to escape. But Congress and the incoming Biden Administration can take a good, hard look at precisely what kind of risky research is being performed, at taxpayer expense or otherwise, and consider whether that research should be shut down entirely, or subject to much more rigorous controls than currently exist. We may not learn from whence the coronavirus came, but we can take the lab leak scenario seriously, and try to prevent a human-engineered disease from killing unwitting victims, smashing our economies, and throwing millions of people out of work in the future.

Looking For A Quick, Clean Exit, Far Into The Future

How do you want your life to end?  An even more difficult question:  how do you want the lives of your loved ones to end?  An article in New York magazine, about a family’s struggle with their mother’s long, slow decline — and the related emotional and societal costs — raises those stark heartbreaking issues.

I think most people would like to go out like my grandfather did.  He lived to be 99, kept his mental and physical health until the end, then had a stroke while eating breakfast and died later that day.  No institutionalization.  No dementia.  No months or years of a twilight existence, apparently unaware of his surroundings, experiencing bedsores and diaper changes and incomprehension.

Of course, we don’t get to make stark choices between the ideal and the awful.  Instead, families deal with impossible judgment calls.  Should the frail 84-year-old woman with the bad hip endure the pain, or have an implant operation that could give her a pain-free existence — or produce a shock to the system that causes her to slide into an irreversible downward spiral?  If an elderly relative decides not to undertake life-extending treatment, should the grief-stricken children try to argue him out of his decision?  How should a family deal with an institutionalized Alzheimer’s victim in the bewildered, angry, unrecognizing end stages of mental decline and the guilt that comes from not wanting to see their relative in that terrible condition?

The author of the New York article yearns for a “death panel” — he calls it a “deliverance panel” — where family members could appeal for a relative’s death.  There’s a reason why the concept of such panels provoked such opposition during the recent debate on health care reform, however.  What modern Solomons would staff such panels?  The doctors who want to sharpen their skills at an aggressive life-extending procedure and get paid for their efforts?  The bureaucrat who sees his health care budget exploding and wants to rein in costs?  The hospital administrator who thinks the room the patient occupies could be better used by someone receiving more care and treatment?  The children who are heartsick about the potential loss, hoping for a miracle, guilt-ridden, exhausted, overwhelmed, and concerned about their inheritances, all at once?

There are no easy answers to these terrible issues.  I think the appropriate first step is for everyone to make their own decisions about their own care, when they are still healthy and capable of doing so, and memorialize those decisions in some kind of binding way so that their surviving relatives aren’t saddled with impossible choices.  Is the prospect of long-term institutional care and constant pain a source of unimaginable horror, or would you be willing to put up with it in order to meet your great-grandchildren?  Only the individual can know how much of a deviation from the ideal end-of-days scenario they are willing to endure.

The March Of Civilization, Writ Small

Say what you will about the Occupy Wall Street group — it’s helping to provide people with an education about how civilization works.

It’s one thing to spend one night in a park, enraptured by your freedom and the spirit of the protest, listening to the tom toms and the snares of the “drum circle.”  But what to do when you’ve been there for a week?  Hey, how long can that damn drum circle play?  How are we going to divide the tips that those drummers get, anyway?  Are we going to let just anyone in?  Who’s going to make sure that my stuff doesn’t get taken?  This particular patch of the park is my patch, and I’m not going to move for the johnny-come-latelys who probably are here just to look for a good time.  Who is going to make sure that things are cleaned up?  Where’s my food?

New York magazine has a classic article on the growing pains of the OWS group, as “facilitators” and drummers clash, the old guard and the newbies bump heads, the “General Assembly” gets denounced as “unwieldy” and “cumbersome,” those who want to sleep and those who want to just let the music flow jostle for power, and property rights get asserted and exercised. It’s a living sociology class, confined to a smelly park in Manhattan.