UA Scientist Michael Badowski: Myth-busting the COVID-19 narrative
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UA Scientist Michael Badowski: Myth-busting the COVID-19 narrative

The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

Preparing test-kits to detect a virus is simple for those trained to follow precise protocols.

Simple? Yes.

In laboratories at the University of Arizona, my technicians and I have spent many weeks (and weekends) putting together what we call a “sample collection kit” used in testing for the presence of virus. It involves mundane yet critically important tasks such as dispensing 3.0 ml of FDA-approved viral transport media into a sterile tube. Placing the properly filled and labeled tube along with the individually packaged, approved sterile swab into plastic bag for biohazard transport — and doing it all 10,000 times.

Simple? Yes.

This is a repetitive, easy process once we scientists submit ourselves to the rigid, honest specifications of scientific rigor. But, don’t confuse “simple” with “easy.”

On the contrary, there is no margin of error here. The stakes are too high; humanity won’t allow it. Getting it right every time is important.

The world is filled right now with laboratories doing good works in combating the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This virus is causing what we all are calling the COVID-19 global pandemic. As the virus test kits go out into the hands of people around the city and the state, I know that they are correctly and properly made and that they’ll be useful in the battle against the virus.

As scientists, all the things we produce must be correct, accurate and useful to the best of our ability to make them so. As our “collection kits” must be made precisely, all things that come from the world’s current endeavor must be equally precise to be useful.

The information that is being produced must be accurate or it may stymie the scientific progress we are making. If the information is not accurate, lives are at stake. History is unforgiving.

The servant of science adheres, by necessity, to meticulous standards. And, yet, anyone held to this standard today finds himself asking why that rigidity, the same honesty and the same protocols are wantonly ignored when it comes to discussion of the virus itself.

Since the outbreak of the virus, Americans have been both perpetrators and victims of tawdry, dishonest and xenophobic presentation of facts. They require immediate correction. If the innuendo and deceit behind this distortion aren’t stopped — just like a virus — they will contaminate our integrity. We may well have healthy bodies but compromised intellects.

Here are some inaccurate narratives put forth by the some, including the U.S. government:

Narrative: China was slow to react.

Reality: It was not until Dec. 18-29 that fluid samples were taken from those with pneumonia in Wuhan. On Dec. 31, the World Health Organization was informed of pneumonia with unknown origin. SARS-CoV-2 was identified by Chinese doctors a week later. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the next day, alerted doctors to look out for respiratory symptoms in those who’d traveled to Wuhan.

Two days later, Chinese scientists shared the full genome sequences of the virus, allowing for production of test kits and tracking. That same day, WHO reported, “(P)reliminary investigation suggests that there is no significant human-to-human transmission, and no infections among health-care workers.”

On Jan. 20, Dr. Zhong Nanshan, China’s infectious-diseases authority, said COVID-19 could be passed among humans. The next day, China warned, “anyone who deliberately delays and hides the reporting of (virus) cases out of his or her own self-interest will be nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity.” On Jan. 23, Wuhan and three other cities were locked down.

Narrative: The Chinese doctor who reported China’s first cases of COVID-19 is a whistleblower who was censored by an authoritarian regime.

Reality: Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist, said on Dec. 30 to his social networking group, “There are seven confirmed cases of SARS.” (China advised WHO on Dec. 31 that it was not SARS but a different coronovirus.)

Li was warned by police on Jan. 3 to desist making false comments online. Li went back to work and contracted COVID-19 and died.

Contending that there were, “seven confirmed cases of SARS,” could have brought about extraordinary panic. The real heroes in this emerging pandemic were the 36 Chinese doctors and scientists who isolated, identified the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and shared the viral genome sequences.

They accomplished this task in weeks, which is unprecedented. Li may well be a genuine hero for doing his job and sacrificing his life. He was a scientist seeking truth. He was not a “whistleblower.”

Narrative: Virtually every reference to China by the U.S. government mentions China’s, authoritarian regime.” “(L)et me tell you something,” said Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly. “The only reason we are dealing with this right now is because a big authoritarian regime called China was not forthcoming about what was happening with this virus. And they put the world at risk to protect themselves and to protect their reputations.”

Reality: China does have an authoritarian government and has since 356 B.C. The U.S. harping on this point, however, carries the implicit falsehood that a system of government is, in and of itself, responsible for sinister conduct and failure to comply with societal standards. That is not only dubious and irrelevant, but it actually may be the contrary. Only an authoritarian government could have quickly immobilized tens of millions.

Compare that to the “free world,” where presidents, prime ministers and governors allowed the number of victims to multiply through decentralized indecision or by allowing a return to “normal life” after a too-short period of staying in place.

Narrative: There was a cover-up.

Reality: The initial lack of reporting is because there was a lack of information. Remember that this entire situation from “patient zero” to “worldwide pandemic” is only mere months old. In order for something to be covered up, it must first be known.

Chinese authorities knew nothing initially. Wuhan is a common large city. Under normal circumstances many cases of respiratory illnesses would be seen. What the world knew about the virus came directly from both official and informal sources in Wuhan. Telling everybody everything you know is a decidedly bad way to cover something up.

As a scientist observing daily updates now since January, I’m truly astounded by the incredible progress made in such a short period, first by Chinese scientists and now the world.

Narrative: The virus is “Chinese” in origin.

Reality: “In the first weeks, President Trump alluded to the “Wuhan” and “Chinese virus,” as if somehow the virus had a nationality.

It’s scientifically useful to know whether the virus has an origin via bats, pangolins, or civet cats. Outside of epidemiological considerations of tracking viral spread, the geopolitical origin is irrelevant.

The scientific community early on gave the virus a specific name, SARS-CoV-2. Attempts to subvert the name for political purposes muddies the waters at best — and what we have seen is not the best.

This manipulative (and dare I say, xenophobic) conduct cuts both ways, of course. Years ago I lived for a time in China. Government and media there regularly demonized Americans, whether the motive was an accidental bombing of a Chinese embassy, the downing of a Chinese aircraft or the invasion of Iraq. A scholar cares about facts, not the politics, race or nationality of those involved.

Finally, some words of restraint about words themselves.

It is tempting to overuse the vocabulary of war to describe any crisis — but it is fraught with risk. Yes, there needs to be worldwide resolve against a common illness.Yes, there needs to be sacrifice. But it is too easy, too imprecise, to suddenly invoke a great deal of the lexicon of warfare to a public-health crisis. War involves a defined enemy. An enemy can negotiate, or not. An enemy can regroup, cease fire or surrender. An enemy in a real war is not an inanimate object.

Why does this matter? Because once we declare “war” or give a leader wartime powers, we will witness a decrease in the average citizen’s ability to make prudent decisions. George Orwell accurately described the dangers that come with a perpetual state of “war.”

It is telling that, among world leaders, one of the few who appears not to have employed war vocabulary was German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The leader of a country ravaged by wars, and a country known for its precision of language, opts to warn her constituents with clear, mature language instead.

So, why the nitpicking about these issues? Every one of us faces a common obligation when it comes to honesty in communication. Having 3.0 milliliters of transport media in a test tube is an irrefutable, uncontestable fact.

Americans have a duty to understand the present with no less precision.

Michael Badowski, who has a doctorate in microbiology and immunology, is an associate research scientist at the University of Arizona Health Sciences Biorepository.

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