United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ recent statement on Covid-19’s global impact hit the nail on the head as scientists worldwide strive to determine the origins of the virus.
“This is a time for science and solidarity. Wild conspiracy theories are infecting the internet. I salute journalists and others fact-checking the mountain of misleading stories and social media posts” he said.
More than 18 months on, and Covid-19 has infected 200 million people around the world, with over 4 million dead. In countries the world over, variants of the virus are still spreading. The future remains uncertain. Exhausted and uneasy, people are questioning when it will all end, but also, where did this virus suddenly originate from?
In a climate of misinformation, scientists maintain Covid-19 natural origins
In an assertive, globally televised press conference, Dr. Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organisation Health Emergencies Programme, stated that the WHO has “listened, again and again, to numerous scientists who’ve looked at the sequences, looked at this virus and we are assured that this virus is natural in origin.”
And Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Advisor to U.S. President Joe Biden, in a Forbes article dated June 9, 2021, stated that he and most scientists ‘continue to believe the virus originated in animals in the wild and was transmitted to humans’.
In addition to a wealth of scientific support, numerous scientific publications, including The Lancet and Nature Magazine, observe that the strongest evidence available to date suggests the coronavirus pandemic emerged via a natural spillover event, and that it ‘has a natural origin’ that ‘was transmitted from an animal to humans’.
These science-based conclusions are backed by online research revealing that nearly 98% of articles, using a neutral keyword search ‘Covid-19 virus origin’, supported the view that the virus has a natural origin, or, that the findings are inconclusive.
Virology expert, Dr. Dennis Carroll, who serves as Chair of the Global Virome Project Leadership Board, echoed these statements but touched on what has become an often-politicized global event.
“The problem we have is that we don’t have definitive scientific evidence. It will again remain an argument. And those that have more of a political agenda to argue that the origin was a laboratory one. Both are possible, but the probability weighs heavily in favor of a natural emergence”, he said.
But what are the arguments from the people who advocate the lab leak theory? Rather than scientists, it is specific sources of media, writers, and public figures that have more vocally supported this. Popular science writer and journalist Matt Ridley has contended that the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, even though it is recognized as a P4-level bio-secure facility.
And in a May 2, 2021, article, science correspondent Nicholas Wade backed the lab leak theory with concerns about safety conditions at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. However, with no scientific corroboration, this appears to be speculation.
Can such speculation determine the origin of the virus? Or should the scientific community continue their scientific approach?
Often cited veteran freelance journalist Justin Ling, who specializes in covering stories often missed in the mainstream media, thinks the problem of misinformation in the past few years has only grown, especially with the proliferation of social media, disinformation campaigns and alternative news sites.
“We’ve seen a rapid increase in the number of fake stories, conspiracy theories, flooding the zone, leading to a general kind of radicalization, leading to a general disruption of our political and media systems, and frankly, leading to a further distrust in more trustworthy outlets” he said.
Cleary, experts believe public opinion has been influenced by salacious headlines and amplified misinformation, even across social media opinion pieces and politically motivated mainstream media.
Eric Merkley, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, believes that it’s very challenging for journalists to convey fast moving science, stressing “Journalists don’t really know how to delicately tailor those stories to acknowledge that uncertainty, because people crave certainty.”
Merkley believes a combination of survival bias in an era where journalists and mainstream news outlets are under considerable pressure, and people wanting clear answers immediately, has resulted in ‘complications into science communication’.
What’s more, continues Merkley, “there was a desire in the early stages of the pandemic for Trump to kind of off responsibility on to China. And so Republican leaders and Trump pushed that linkage as much as possible in order to evade responsibility.”
Who understands this virus best? Doesn’t it make sense to leave the investigation into the origins of the pandemic to the scientists themselves? If scientific research confirms the source of the Covid-19 virus, then no matter what that truth is, we can be assured it will be a major scientific event for all of humanity. Let’s wait for that day.