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No one can find the animal that gave people covid-19

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No one can find the animal that gave people covid-19


One problem with the lab leak theory is that it presumes the Chinese are lying or hiding facts, a position incompatible with a joint scientific effort. This may have been why the WHO team, for instance, never asked to see the offline database. Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance, which collaborated with the Wuhan lab for many years and funded some of its work, says there is “no evidence” whatsoever to back the lab theory. “If you just firmly believe [that] what we hear from our Chinese colleagues over there in the labs is not going to be true, we will never be able to rule it out,” he said of the lab theory. “That is the problem. In its essence, that theory is not a conspiracy theory. But people have put it forward as such, saying the Chinese side conspired to cover up evidence.”

To those who believe a lab accident is likely, including Jamie Metzl, a technology and national security fellow at the Atlantic Council, the WHO team isn’t set up to carry out the sort of forensic probe he believes is necessary. “Everyone on earth is a stakeholder in this,” he says. “It’s crazy that a year into this, there is no full investigation into the origins of the pandemic.” In February, Metzl published a statement in which he said he was “appalled” by the investigators’ quick rebuttal of the lab hypothesis and called for Daszak to be removed from the team. Several days later, the WHO director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, appeared to rebuke the origins team in a speech in which he said, “I want to clarify that all hypotheses remain open and require further study.”

The scenario the WHO-China team said it considers most probable is the “intermediary” theory, in which a bat virus infected another wild animal that was then caught or farmed for food. The intermediary theory does have the strongest precedents. Not only is there the case of SARS, but in 2012 researchers discovered Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), a deadly lung infection caused by another coronavirus, and quickly traced it to dromedary camels.

The trouble with this hypothesis is that Chinese researchers have not succeeded in finding a “direct progenitor” of this virus in any animal they’ve looked at. Liang said China had tested 50,000 animal specimens, including 1,100 bats in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located. But no luck: a matching virus still hasn’t been found.

The Chinese team appears to strongly favor a twist on the intermediate-animal idea: that the virus could have reached Wuhan on a frozen food shipment that included a frozen wild animal. This “cold chain” hypothesis may have appeal because it would mean the virus came from thousands of miles away, even outside China. “We think that is a valid option,” says Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist who traveled with the group. She said China had tested 1.5 million frozen samples and found the virus 30 times. “That may not be surprising in the middle of an outbreak, when many people are handling these products,” Koopmans says. “But the WHO did request studies, spiked the virus onto fish, froze and thawed it, and could culture the virus. So it’s possible. You cannot rule it out.”

Blame game

The WHO-China team, in its eventual report, is expected to suggest further research that needs to be carried out. This is one reason the report matters; it may determine which questions get asked and which don’t.

There is likely to be a larger effort to trace the wild-animal trade, including supply chains of frozen products. In addition to animal evidence, Ben Embarek also said China should make a greater effort to locate people who were infected by covid-19 early on, but perhaps were asymptomatic or didn’t get tested. That could be done by hunting through samples in blood banks, using newer, more sensitive technology to locate antibodies. “We need to keep looking for material that could give insight into the early days of the events,” Ben Embarek said. As well, the report is likely to call for the creation of a master database that includes all the data collected so far.

WHO officer Peter Ben Embarek (right) and Liang Wannian shake hands after a press conference in Wuhan, China, on Feb. 9, 2021 in which they ranked four theories for how the covid-19 pandemic began.

KYODO VIA AP IMAGES

Ultimately, in seeking the cause of the covid-19 disaster, we don’t just want to know what happened. We’re also looking for something—or someone—to blame. And each hypothesis points to a different culprit. To ecologists, the lesson of the pandemic is nearly a foregone conclusion: humans should stop encroaching on wild areas. “We have come to recognize how this kind of investigation is not just about illness in humans—nor indeed just about an interface between humans and animals—but feeds into an altogether wider discussion about how we use the world,” says John Watson, the British epidemiologist.

The Chinese authorities, meanwhile, are already taking action on the intermediary theory by putting responsibility on wild-animal farmers and traders. Last February, according to NPR, China’s legislature started taking steps to “uproot the pernicious habit of eating wild animals.” At the behest of President Xi Jinping, they have already banned the hunting, trade, and consumption of a large number of “terrestrial wild animals,” a step never fully implemented after the original SARS outbreak. According to a report in Nature, the Chinese government has already closed 12,000 businesses, purged a million websites with information about wildlife trading, and banned the farming of bamboo rats and civets, among other species.

Then there is the chance covid-19 is the result of a laboratory accident. If that’s true, it would bring the sharpest consequences, especially for scientists like those in charge of finding the virus’s origin. If the pandemic was caused by ambitious, high-tech research on dangerous germs, it would mean China’s fast rise as a biotech powerhouse is a threat to the globe. It would mean this type of science should be severely restricted, or even banned, in China and everywhere else. More than any other hypothesis, a government-sponsored technology program run amok—along with early efforts to conceal news of the outbreak—would establish a case for retribution. “If this is a man-made catastrophe,” says Miles Yu, an analyst with the conservative Hudson Institute, “I think the world should seek reparations.”

According to some former virus chasers, what’s actually in the WHO-China origins report may be different from what we’ve heard so far. Schnur says the Chinese probably already know much more than we think, so the role of the team could be to find ways to push those facts into the light. It is a process he calls “part diplomacy and part epidemiology.” He believes China’s investigation was likely very thorough and that the foreign visitors may also have stronger views than they have let on so far.

As he points out, “What you say in a press conference may be different than what you put in a report once you have left the country.”

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The Download: a long covid app, and California’s wind plans

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The Download: a long covid app, and California’s wind plans


1 The Twitter Files weren’t the bombshell Elon Musk billed them as 
His carelessness triggered the harassment of some of Twitter’s content moderators, too. (WP $)
+ The files didn’t violate the First Amendment, either. (The Atlantic $)
+ Hate speech has exploded on the platform since he took over. (NYT $)
+ Journalists are staying on Twitter—for now. (Vox)
+ The company’s advertising revenue isn’t looking very healthy. (NYT $)

2 Russia is trying to freeze Ukrainians by destroying their electricity 
It’s the country’s vulnerable who will suffer the most. (Economist $)
+ How Ukraine could keep the lights on. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Crypto is at a crossroads
Investors, executives, and advocates are unsure what’s next. (NYT $)
+ FTX and the Alameda Research trading firm were way too close. (FT $)
+ It’s okay to opt out of the crypto revolution. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Taylor Swift fans are suing Ticketmaster
They’re furious they weren’t able to buy tickets in the botched sale last month. (The Verge)

5 The internet is having a midlife crisis
What is it for? And more importantly, who is it for? (Slate $)
+ Tim Berners-Lee wanted the internet to have an ‘oh, yeah?’ button. (Slate $)

6 We need a global deal to safeguard the natural world
COP15, held this week in Montreal, is our best bet to thrash one out. (Vox)
+ Off-grid living is more viable these days than you may think. (The Verge)

7 What ultra-dim galaxies can teach us about dark matter  
We’re going to need new telescopes to seek more of them out. (Wired $)
+ Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has some big plans for space. (Reuters)
+ A super-bright satellite could hamper our understanding of the cosmos. (Motherboard)
+ Here’s how to watch Mars disappear behind the moon. (New Scientist $)

8 An elite media newsletter wants to cover “power, money, and ego.”
It promises unparalleled access to prolific writers—and their audiences. (New Yorker $)
+ How to sign off an email sensibly. (Economist $) 

9 The metaverse has a passion for fashion 👗
Here’s what its best-dressed residents are wearing. (WSJ $)

10 We’ve been sending text messages for 30 years 💬
Yet we’re still misunderstanding each other. (The Guardian)

Quote of the day

“There is certainly a rising sense of fear, justifiable fear. And I would say almost horror.”

—Pamela Nadell, director of American University’s Jewish Studies program, tells the Washington Post she fears that antisemitism has become normalized in the US, in the light of Kanye West’s recent comments praising Hitler.

The big story

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California’s coming offshore wind boom faces big engineering hurdles

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California’s coming offshore wind boom faces big engineering hurdles


Research groups estimate that the costs could fall from around $200 per megawatt-hour to between $58 and $120 by 2030. That would leave floating offshore wind more expensive than solar and onshore wind, but it could still serve an important role in an overall energy portfolio. 

The technology is improving as well. Turbines themselves continue to get taller, generating more electricity and revenue from any given site. Some research groups and companies are also developing new types of floating platforms and delivery mechanisms that could make it easier to work within the constraints of ports and bridges. 

The Denmark-based company Stiesdal has developed a modular, floating platform with a keel that doesn’t drop into place until it’s in the deep ocean, enabling it to be towed out from relatively shallow ports. 

Meanwhile, San Francisco startup Aikido Technologies is developing a way of shipping turbines horizontally and then upending them in the deep ocean, enabling the structures to duck under bridges en route. The company believes its designs provide enough clearance for developers to access any US port. Some 80% of these ports have height limits owing to bridges or airport restrictions.

A number of federal, state, and local organizations are conducting evaluations of California and other US ports, assessing which ones might be best positioned to serve floating wind projects and what upgrades could be required to make it possible.

Government policies in the US, the European Union, China, and elsewhere are also providing incentives to develop offshore wind turbines, domestic manufacturing, and supporting infrastructure. That includes the Inflation Reduction Act that Biden signed into law this summer.

Finally, as for California’s permitting challenges, Hochschild notes that the same 2021 law requiring the state’s energy commision to set offshore wind goals also requires it to undertake the long-term planning necessary to meet them. That includes mapping out a strategy for streamlining the approval process.

For all the promise of floating wind, there’s little question that ensuring it’s cost-competitive and achieving the targets envisioned will require making massive investments in infrastructure, manufacturing, and more, and building big projects at a pace that the state hasn’t shown itself capable of in the recent past.

If it can pull it off, however, California could become a leading player in a critical new clean energy sector, harnessing its vast coastal resources to meet its ambitious climate goals.

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How Twitter’s “Teacher Li” became the central hub of China protest information

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How Twitter’s “Teacher Li” became the central hub of China protest information


It’s hard to describe the feeling that came after. It’s like everyone is coming to you and all kinds of information from all over the world is converging toward you and [people are] telling you: Hey, what’s happening here; hey, what’s happening there; do you know, this is what’s happening in Guangzhou; I’m in Wuhan, Wuhan is doing this; I’m in Beijing, and I’m following the big group and walking together. Suddenly all the real-time information is being submitted to me, and I don’t know how to describe that feeling. But there was also no time to think about it. 

My heart was beating very fast, and my hands and my brain were constantly switching between several software programs—because you know, you can’t save a video with Twitter’s web version. So I was constantly switching software, editing the video, exporting it, and then posting it on Twitter. [Editor’s note: Li adds subtitles, blocks out account information, and compiles shorter videos into one.] By the end, there was no time to edit the videos anymore. If someone shot and sent over a 12-second WeChat video, I would just use it as is. That’s it. 

I got the largest amount of [private messages] around 6:00 p.m. on Sunday night. At that time, there were many people on the street in five major cities in China: Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Wuhan, and Guangzhou. So I basically was receiving a dozen private messages every second. In the end, I couldn’t even screen the information anymore. I saw it, I clicked on it, and if it was worth posting, I posted it.

People all over the country are telling me about their real-time situations. In order for more people not to be in danger, they went to the [protest] sites themselves and sent me what was going on there. Like, some followers were riding bikes near the presidential palace in Nanjing, taking pictures, and telling me about the situation in the city. And then they asked me to inform everyone to be cautious. I think that’s a really moving thing.

It’s like I have gradually become an anchor sitting in a TV studio, getting endless information from reporters on the scene all over the country. For example, on Monday in Hangzhou, there were five or six people updating me on the latest news simultaneously. But there was a break because all of them were fleeing when the police cleared the venue. 

On the importance of staying objective 

There are a lot of tweets that embellish the truth. From their point of view, they think it’s the right thing to do. They think you have to maximize the outrage so that there can be a revolt. But for me, I think we need reliable information. We need to know what’s really going on, and that’s the most important thing. If we were doing it for the emotion, then in the end I really would have been part of the “foreign influence,” right? 

But if there is a news account outside China that can record what’s happening objectively, in real time, and accurately, then people inside the Great Firewall won’t have doubts anymore. At this moment, in this quite extreme situation of a continuous news blackout, to be able to have an account that can keep posting news from all over the country at a speed of almost one tweet every few seconds is actually a morale boost for everyone. 

Chinese people grow up with patriotism, so they become shy or don’t dare to say something directly or oppose something directly. That’s why the crowd was singing the national anthem and waving the red flag, the national flag [during protests]. You have to understand that the Chinese people are patriotic. Even when they are demanding things [from the government], they do it with that sentiment. 

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