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The High Tragedy of the Pandemic
with Jay Bhattacharya
At the end of this clip from our recent conversation, after laying out what he sees as Anthony Fauci’s role in the COVID pandemic, Stanford professor of medicine Jay Bhattacharya suggests that it would make great material for a Shakespearian tragedy. Jay believes that it is quite likely that the virus originated in an inadvertent lab leak from a gain-of-function research facility in Wuhan. He lays out Fauci’s role in authorizing that type of research, which, Jay thinks, probably led to the pandemic and to Fauci’s subsequent position as the architect of the lockdowns whose effects we are still dealing with today.
I can imagine that play. A powerful man who controls vast sums of grant money and has advised presidents on public health policy over many decades, a man who’s grown accustomed to wielding power, with an overweening confidence in his own judgment, funds a program that, despite the protests of his fellow scientists, he believes to be necessary. Some years later, a critical failure in that program unleashes a virus on the world that kills millions of people and sickens hundreds of millions more. The man, privately cognizant that he is partially responsible for this disaster, nevertheless persists in his belief that he is the only one with the expertise and position to implement measures that could contain the virus. In his desperation to limit the damage his actions have caused, he imposes draconian containment measures on the populace and uses his influence to brand anyone who questions his wisdom as a dangerous heretic or a fool.
Such a play might conclude once the worst of the crisis has passed. The virus is now treatable but endemic—it will never be eliminated from the Earth’s human population. Society remains intact, but it has been distorted in untold ways: children deprived of years of crucial education and socialization, formerly economically secure people left with bankrupt businesses and empty savings accounts, an already polarized political environment completely fractured by distrust and paranoia. Finally stepping back from his public role, the man sits alone uneasily contemplating an uncertain future and his role in bringing it into being.
That’s a bit dramatic. And of course, it’s fiction. But, as Shakespeare understood, tragedy is a central part of human drama and we need to maintain a sense of the tragic. Jay’s description of Fauci’s involvement in the research that may have led to the pandemic suggests that human flaws are as much a part of the COVID story as impersonal forces like herd immunity and genetic mutation. With the lockdowns in the past, we’re now largely left to make sense of what happened—and what continues to happen—on our own. High drama is not truth, in the scientific sense. But in the absence of verifiable facts, the imagination does tend to run wild.
This is a clip from the episode that went out to paying subscribers on Monday. To get access to the full episode, as well as an ad-free podcast feed, Q&As, and other exclusive content and benefits, click below.
GLENN LOURY: Now I wanted to ask about the lab leak stuff and the origins. Is that also live and let live and never mind and we don't need to actually do anything to anybody about that stuff?
JAY BHATTACHARYA: Oh, God. Can you imagine this? I think it's more likely that this was a lab leak. Let me set the stage for this. It's not a Dr. Evil plot kind of thing. It's, again, the bad, bad consequences of good intentions. I think that's the right story here. Let's go back. 2001, the anthrax scare happens. The Bush administration builds this infrastructure to deal with bioterror events.
2006, there's the H5N1 avian flu scare. People have this idea, “Well, why don't we use this infrastructure that we deal with for biodefense and have it for civilian uses?” The thought comes up in people's heads when we have these genetic techniques to ask how many mutations it takes for a virus that mainly only affects birds to infect humans. We can get vaccines for the viruses even before they've made the leap.
2012, there's a paper published in Science with this exact advance. Someone essentially puts out a formula to weaponize H5N1, publishes it openly in Science. This is a disease that, when it does infect humans, 30% death rate. So you have a few chicken farmers die at really high rates from it, but it doesn't make the jump from chickens to humans very easily. And it doesn't make the jump from humans to humans at all. Here's a formula to make it more likely to infect humans.
So in 2012, there's this massive pushback within the scientific community. This Cambridge working group pops up and says, “This is really fricking dangerous. Don't do this.”
And this is gain-of-function research that you're describing.
Yeah. You saw Tony Fauci try to push back and say it's not gain-of-function. But in any colloquial sense, any real sense, it's gain-of-function.
And there's a pause. President Obama very wisely approves a pause in US funding of this work. 2014, the gain of function pause. 2017, the Trump administration comes in. And essentially Fauci and the NIH work their way around Trump. I mean, I've talked to some insiders. People who should know said that they didn't even realize it crossed their desk. And they reversed the pause, and they put in place this committee to evaluate every single proposal for gain of function work.
Why were they trying to get around the earlier prohibition? What was the imperative, in terms of the scientific questions?
They think that it's absolutely necessary to know which viruses are likely to make the leap. They're not doing this because of nefarious reasons. They're doing it because they honestly believe that if they go into bat caves in China, pull the viruses out of those bat caves, and bring them into a lab to do this kind of work, they can develop vaccines faster. They can protect human populations from this natural zoonosis threat that exists. They think they're doing good. That's what makes it so freaking dangerous. They're not like Dr. Evil. They think they're doing good.
It's hard to do this work, because if you do this in a BSL-4 lab, a BSL lab, you're wearing a spacesuit. It's hard work. It's easy to make a slip, right? You just forget to put your mask on one day. This COVID virus, in 2021, there was a lab in Taiwan studying this virus. And there's a lab leak. It's a high-security lab, a lab leak of this virus in Taiwan in 2021, knowing what this virus is. Okay, maybe there's some theoretical benefit from developing vaccines early to potential threats, but you might actually raise the probability of the threat happening because of this accident in a lab.
I think that's what happened. I think that's very, very, very likely what happened.
How costly was the lack of cooperation or candor from the Chinese government about what happens in Wuhan and beyond to the project of responding effectively at a global level to the pandemic?
I think it was tremendously costly. I don't know this for a fact, and now the reporting is—this is sometime in November 2019—there was a lab leak. So let's just say that 2019 story is true. Three workers that are exposed to this virus. Suppose, in a counterfactual world, those workers had said, “Oh my gosh, I've made this mistake,” and then they'd been quarantined for two weeks. They get their illness and they get better. But they're not going back to their families, [the virus] doesn't get out outside of that. And then the Chinese authorities told everyone, “There's a leak. We should be really careful about it.”
Either you've suppressed it in its infancy, or it's gonna get basically to a hundred. Like, if they'd gotten to zero right then, it would've been zero. By March of 2020, the attempt to lock down was so far outside the bounds of possibility, it was ridiculous. The only thing you could do was try to protect people that were really vulnerable at that point. That would've been the right thing.
But then that would've taken the psychological step of saying, “Oh my God, we really don't have the technology to stop the spread.” So I think in the sense that you mean it, it was tremendously harmful that there wasn't cooperation by the Chinese authorities to tell the world that this had happened immediately when it happened. It was also tremendously harmful and irresponsible of the American government to fund this work in places where they knew for a fact that there was lax security, in terms of working with dangerous viruses. They fund the work in Wuhan because it's harder to get this work done in the United States because you have to do more security.
But even in the United States, Glenn, I'm not sure you can work with viruses like this safely. I just don't think it's possible to work with viruses like this safely. Anything we learned from the last three years is it's so dangerous that we probably just don't want to do this, kinda like with the nuclear test ban treaty. We won't test nuclear weapons above ground like this. It's so dangerous for human populations, it's just not worth it. We need to break the sorcerer's wand. It's a scientific tool we just won't use because it's too dangerous. There needs to be an international treaty banning this thing. We have to start thinking about this thing the way we think about chemical weapons. It should induce horror in us.
It does involve a kind of imposition on science, doesn't it, to say these things are too dangerous?
Yeah. I do think that that's exactly right. The issue is, what does it cost us to get that knowledge? So a scientific conversation on basically almost anything is not so dangerous, I think, that you have to restrict it. But there are some things that we've discovered in science that are so dangerous. And I don't mean the endpoint of it, because we don't know what the endpoint of it is. I mean just the playing around with it.
I was reading this account of Fermi and in his experiments in the University of Chicago squash court and the nuclear pile. And they'd done this calculation saying, “Okay, it's not going to set off a chain reaction that's gonna burn the entire world up.” But what if they were wrong, Glenn? What if they were wrong? They were playing with this nuclear reactor, essentially in a major population center, and what if their calculations were off by a little bit and there was this unstoppable chain reaction that burns the world up? That was a really dangerous experiment.
I'm trying to wonder how they might've even begun to estimate the likelihood that the reaction would not be contained. I don't know enough for the physics to know how to approach the problem, but presumably the number was bigger than zero.
Science is dangerous in one sense. We're gonna learn new things about the world. But when we are pretty sure that something is so dangerous that it can cause the devastation of the lives of tens of millions of people like this. I mean, this experiment gone awry, that's what it did. Let's be honest. It was a science experiment gone awry that led to the misery of the last three years. What do you do with that?
I would love to resurrect William Shakespeare to write Tony Fauci. He signed off on this experiment, and now it's January 2020. He might think to himself, “My God, this experiment I funded led to this. What do I do?” Well, what they did was they ... you know, it was funny. They tried to destroy the careers of prominent scientists that were saying that it might've been a lab leak in January 2020. You can look at the FOIA'd emails. It's the same play. They tried to create this illusion of consensus that it wasn't a lab leak.