Splainer

Wednesday, May 26 2021


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This is a vicious cycle that has been going on for far too long. Israel deserves to live as a free and safe nation, our neighbors deserve the same. I pray for the victims and their unimaginable hostility to end, I pray for our leaders to find a solution so we could live side by side in peace. I pray for better days.

Wonder Woman Gal Gadot posted her thoughts on the recent Israel-Palestine conflict—which left her feeling not so wondrous. She was promptly attacked by PM Netanyahu’s son Yair for choosing “to write a neutral post as if she was from Switzerland.” Meanwhile, former porn star and Palestine supporter Mia Khalifa called her ‘genocide barbie’.  Also this: A group called World Values Network ran a full-page New York Times ad calling out Dua Lipa, Bella and Gigi Hadid as three “mega-influencers” who have “accused Israel of ethnic cleansing” and “vilified the Jewish State.” This explains why Paris Hilton, Kendall Jenner et al have hastily deleted their pro-Palestine posts.

Big Story

A heated debate over the origins of Covid

Editor’s note: This explainer was requested by subscriber Malvika Kaushik.

 

The TLDR: Where, oh where does this wretched coronavirus come from? The answer is fraught with political, ideological and scientific baggage—and remains elusive more than a year after the first reported case of Covid. We lay out the debate over the virus’ origins, but offer no definitive answers—since they are none to be had.

 

Why are we talking about this now?

For three reasons.

 

One: Over recent months, two big pieces were published by well-known journalists that support the ‘lab leak’ hypothesis—i.e. the virus was manufactured in a lab and then ‘escaped’. The first was a deep dive penned by Nicholson Baker in New York magazine. The second was a Medium essay penned by former New York Times writer Nicholas Wade. Both got a lot of attention since these marked the first time that the theory found traction outside the usual conspiracy theory or China-bashing circles. 

 

Two: On May 14, an international group of respected scientists published an open letter criticising a report submitted by a WHO team investigating the origins of the virus. There are two leading hypotheses about the virus’ origins—either it escaped from a lab or it jumped from an animal species to humans. But which one is it, they asked:

 

“The WHO-led team, which included scientists from China and several other countries, reported no definitive proof of either hypothesis. Yet, the scientists wrote, the team nevertheless concluded that an animal origin for the pandemic was the likelier scenario and devoted only four out of the report’s 313 pages to the possibility of a lab accident.”

 

To be clear: they did not champion the ‘lab leak’ theory, but demanded that it be fully investigated “until we have serious data.” And the letter was a big deal because it was signed by the world’s leading coronavirus experts—and published in the prestigious Science journal.

 

Big points to note: The WHO report concluded that the probability of the virus jumping from an animal to humans was “likely to very likely”—while the likelihood of a lab accident was “extremely unlikely.” What raised the red flag: The team reached this conclusion even though it never investigated the Wuhan lab—since it was never part of their mandate. And on the very day the WHO report was released, its own Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said

 

“Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy."

 

Three: Most recently, the Wall Street Journal accessed a US intelligence report that caused a renewed stir. It revealed that three researchers at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became seriously ill in November, 2019—and were hospitalised. Now, no one knows why they got sick, but the timing raised a red flag for proponents of the ‘lab leak theory:

 

“I’m very doubtful that three people in highly protected circumstances in a level three laboratory working on coronaviruses would all get sick with influenza that put them in the hospital or in severe conditions all in the same week, and it didn’t have anything to do with the coronavirus.”

 

Plus this: The US government has urged for a fresh investigation into all possible explanations for the virus’ origins. The National Security Council spokeswoman carefully said: “We continue to have serious questions about the earliest days of the Covid-19 pandemic, including its origins within the People’s Republic of China.” The EU too has called for a “transparent investigation” without explicitly mentioning the ‘lab leak’ theory.

 

Ok, so what is this ‘lab leak’ theory?

Nicholson Baker in New York magazine sums up the most sober version of the theory perfectly: 

 

“A virus spent some time in a laboratory, and eventually it got out. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, began its existence inside a bat, then it learned how to infect people in a claustrophobic mine shaft, and then it was made more infectious in one or more laboratories, perhaps as part of a scientist’s well-intentioned but risky effort to create a broad-spectrum vaccine. SARS-2 was not designed as a biological weapon. But it was, I think, designed.”

 

And what’s the evidence for this?

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In today’s edition

Headlines That Matter

  • New Indian rules for social media
  • An amazing breakthrough for the blind
  • Jeff Bezos is no longer #1
  • Who’s afraid of Marilyn Monroe?

 

A list of curious facts

  • The new thing in skincare products: Snail slime soaps
  • One piece of totally random trivia
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