Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday held the first of a series of public hearings looking at how the COVID-19 pandemic began.
They claim that early in the pandemic Dr. Anthony Fauci, then director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and an advisor to President Donald Trump on the coronavirus pandemic, deliberately downplayed the notion that the virus may have come from a lab leak.
But in the past two weeks, it has emerged that the U.S. Department of Energy and the FBI both assess that COVID-19 may indeed have leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China.
Yet the Energy Department has “low confidence” in its assessment, while FBI director Christopher Wray said the agency has “moderate confidence” in its.
So what exactly does that mean?
Below is a Q&A with Dr. Robert Murphy, professor of infectious diseases and the executive director of the Robert J. Havey Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
WTTW News: As best we can understand, the evidence hasn’t changed much in the last couple of years, but the lab leak theory seems to be gaining credibility because of what we’ve heard from the DoE and the FBI. As an infectious disease expert, what do you make of that?
Dr. Robert Murphy: Well, first of all, I have no idea why the Department of Energy is making any kind of comments at all. They’re about nuclear power, oil, solar power, wind power, its energy — they have nothing to do with pandemics, epidemics, viruses, transmission of diseases. I mean, why they even came up with a statement — and theirs was also low confidence. There’s four agencies in the government that have any kind of medical background: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the White House staff and Department of Defense — even they don’t agree with that. And so why are we listening to them? And then as far as the FBI is concerned, Christopher Wray … he’s a philosophy major from Yale who then got his JD at Yale and probably hasn’t had a biology course since he was in high school. He doesn’t know anything about biology. The reason why they say (the lab leak theory) with moderate confidence is because the Chinese won’t talk to them. They hardly talk to anybody. They’re very opaque. However, they let in two international groups of experts, including one American on each of those groups, to come in and interview people at the laboratory — interviewed people all over in the public health department and at the market. And they came up with the conclusion that it’s probably animal derived. Granted they didn’t have total access to all the government information, OK, the Chinese are opaque. I mean, this is just the way they are, and that is not going to change.
Is there anything as far as the biology of the coronavirus is concerned that sways you toward the natural spillover theory from a wild animal wet market versus a lab-leak theory?
Murphy: Well, history will tell us more as time goes on, but it’s not going to answer this question about the lab leak. People say with almost certainty, which means 99% or more, it’s from the animals. There’s tons of epidemiological evidence that that is correct, and that’s why those two groups came up with this conclusion. And that’s why most of the government believes in that.
We looked at an interview we did with you in June of 2020 where you very accurately predicted that this was going to be the worst event in terms of the loss of life that America had ever seen. At the time, you were really ripping the response of the Trump administration and the lack of coordination between states. Do you think we have learned the lessons of this pandemic and are we better prepared for the next pandemic?
Murphy: So there’s a yes and there’s a no to that question. I don’t know if you asked me when I thought a vaccine would be developed. … I was thinking it was going to be way over a year to get those things to market, and I was wrong. Everybody was wrong. Even Dr. Fauci was wrong. Every single person in the field said not until well into 2021 would a vaccine be out. And we had the first one approved in December of 2020. So that part is really geared up. So that has really changed vaccine development. This technology is really incredible, and it saved millions of lives. The other thing that happened is in the diagnostic area, you know, the CDC totally flubbed the PCR test that they were developing. They wouldn’t let universities who made the test faster even utilize them. They wouldn’t take the tests in from Europe that were already verified over there. And then the first one that they came out with didn’t even work. So we totally screwed up. And then they started the rapid acceleration of diagnostics. And that was a $1.5 billion effort to scale up testing that worked tremendously. We have so many tests. So that’s changed things because now there’s all this technology out there, even if people aren’t buying the tests like they used to buy the tests. Remember, at the beginning, as a doctor working in a big hospital, they gave me one mask per week, which I had to keep in a brown paper bag when I wasn’t using it. I mean, that was insane. We had no capacity. That’s all over now. There’s stockpiles of all that stuff, ventilators and all that. So that has improved.
Has the public health approach approved? No. It may even be worse because it’s been so politicized in that you’ve got basically laws being written by judges and governors and state legislators that are really anti-public health. And that’s worse than before. The system is fragmented as it is. But now you have kind of an anti-public health kind of approach in many states and people are proud of it. And that’s why of the top 20 high-income countries, the death rate now is the highest in the United States.
How do you think we should view the pandemic at this point? Because in this country, most people view it as something that’s in the rear-view mirror. Obviously, that’s not the case everywhere around the world. How should we be regarding where we are at with the COVID-19 pandemic?
Murphy: We are in the endemic stage. When I say that, I mean that what we’ve done is we have agreed, collectively agreed, that we’re going to just accept the fact that somewhere between 300 and 400 people are going to die every day from COVID, and that it’s, we’ve accepted it. We’ve just accepted the fact that COVID is the third leading cause of death that came out of nowhere in 2020. And apparently everyone has accepted that. We have an immunity developed, we still have two thirds of the population has been vaccinated. A lot of them have been boosted but with a new booster, the one that works better, it’s still under 20% of people have taken it. You have politicians and judges who are not educated in epidemiology or in health making these giant public health decisions that have life-and-death consequences for the population. We know the vaccines work, we know the boosters work, and we know the new booster even works better. We know that masks work. We know that social distancing and limiting crowd size and we know all that stuff works, but not enough people are willing to do any of that.