We were always going to have to learn to live with the virus.
Three years ago, in March 2020, when the coronavirus outbreak had turned into a Global pandemic, every single country around the World was suddenly facing the threat of a new, deadly virus. By then it was already too late. The cat was out of the bag.
Different countries adopted different approaches to address the crisis. Borders were closed, lockdowns enforced and extensive travel restrictions were put in place. Testing, tracing and quarantines were rolled out, schools and restaurants were closed with mask mandates, plus social distancing, family bubbles and the rule of six – to name just a few. Some, such as Sweden, opted for very few restrictions at all. In the end, however, all these measures, even the vaccines it turned out, failed to contain or to eradicate the virus. Millions lost loved ones, hospitals were pushed to breaking and economies crashed. Its impact will be with us forever.
In reality, the best and perhaps only chance at truly stopping the pandemic was at the very beginning with Patient Zero in Wuhan during late 2019. Failing total containment of the virus, travel restrictions and shutdowns should have been imposed on the city — more than month before their actual imposition in January 2020. Had the world known the facts sooner, it could even be argued that COVID-19 might have been stopped in its tracks from the very outset.
For these reasons, the public deserve to know the whole truth: How did the coronavirus pandemic begin? What happened in Wuhan in 2019? Was it from a lab leak? Why did the first cases of the virus pass by undetected? And why is it, more than three years later, that we still know so little about the origins of the virus that changed the world?
The US House of Representatives held the first in a series of congressional hearings last week aimed at exploring how the pandemic began. “This question is fundamental to helping us predict and prevent future pandemics, protecting our health and national security and preparing the United States for the future” said its chair Brad Wenstrup. This committee are not the only people who want answers.
Research for Newsweek by Redfield & Wilton Strategies shows an overwhelming 70% of Americans say it matters to them a significant or fair amount whether the coronavirus pandemic originated from a lab leak or from nature. Notably, this figure includes virtually identical proportions of those who voted for Joe Biden in 2020 (72%) and for Donald Trump (75%). This broad bipartisanship has resulted in Congress voting unanimously for all government intelligence on the origins of the virus to be de-classified. President Joe Biden, however, has yet to decide whether to sign or veto this bill.
As campaigning for the Republican and Democrat Presidential primaries moves into view, there is also an electoral opportunity. Our research shows that 67% believe China should be held responsible for the coronavirus pandemic, including large majorities of both Republican and Democrat voters. There there is also cross-party support to force China to allow an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. Candidates that understand this may find an advantage with voters as we head towards 2024.
After such obfuscations and abuses of authority, transparency is needed. Equally important, scientists and public health officials need to show that they have learned from their policy mistakes. With a majority of Americans (52%) now believing that an accident at a research lab is the more plausible explanation for the origin of the pandemic than a wet market (27%), the stakes could not be higher. Far from preventing or stopping the coronavirus pandemic, scientists might have caused it.
President Joe Biden’s decision to sign the bill cannot wait. Trust in science urgently needs to be restored. 43% of Americans, a plurality, say they trust the scientists and public health officials less as a result of their pandemic experience. This is bad news for democracy and society at large. Without urgent and honest answers to restore their trust, it could have a detrimental effect on public health for many decades to come.
This story originally appeared in Newsweek