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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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Investing in women pays off

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Investing in women pays off


“Starting a business is a privilege,” says Burton O’Toole, who worked at various startups before launching and later selling AdMass, her own marketing technology company. The company gave her access to the HearstLab program in 2016, but she soon discovered that she preferred the investment aspect and became a vice president at HearstLab a year later. “To empower some of the smartest women to do what they love is great,” she says. But in addition to rooting for women, Burton O’Toole loves the work because it’s a great market opportunity. 

“Research shows female-led teams see two and a half times higher returns compared to male-led teams,” she says, adding that women and people of color tend to build more diverse teams and therefore benefit from varied viewpoints and perspectives. She also explains that companies with women on their founding teams are likely to get acquired or go public sooner. “Despite results like this, just 2.3% of venture capital funding goes to teams founded by women. It’s still amazing to me that more investors aren’t taking this data more seriously,” she says. 

Burton O’Toole—who earned a BS from Duke in 2007 before getting an MS and PhD from MIT, all in mechanical engineering—has been a “data nerd” since she can remember. In high school she wanted to become an actuary. “Ten years ago, I never could have imagined this work; I like the idea of doing something in 10 more years I couldn’t imagine now,” she says. 

When starting a business, Burton O’Toole says, “women tend to want all their ducks in a row before they act. They say, ‘I’ll do it when I get this promotion, have enough money, finish this project.’ But there’s only one good way. Make the jump.”

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late


All too often, the work of developing global disaster and climate resiliency happens when disaster—such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami—has already ravaged entire cities and torn communities apart. But Elizabeth Petheo, MBA ’14, says that recently her work has been focused on preparedness. 

It’s hard to get attention for preparedness efforts, explains Petheo, a principal at Miyamoto International, an engineering and disaster risk reduction consulting firm. “You can always get a lot of attention when there’s a disaster event, but at that point it’s too late,” she adds. 

Petheo leads the firm’s projects and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region and advises globally on international development and humanitarian assistance. She also works on preparedness in the Asia-Pacific region with the United States Agency for International Development. 

“We’re doing programming on the engagement of the private sector in disaster risk management in Indonesia, which is a very disaster-prone country,” she says. “Smaller and medium-sized businesses are important contributors to job creation and economic development. When they go down, the impact on lives, livelihoods, and the community’s ability to respond and recover effectively is extreme. We work to strengthen their own understanding of their risk and that of their surrounding community, lead them through an action-planning process to build resilience, and link that with larger policy initiatives at the national level.”

Petheo came to MIT with international leadership experience, having managed high-profile global development and risk mitigation initiatives at the World Bank in Washington, DC, as well as with US government agencies and international organizations leading major global humanitarian responses and teams in Sri Lanka and Haiti. But she says her time at Sloan helped her become prepared for this next phase in her career. “Sloan was the experience that put all the pieces together,” she says.

Petheo has maintained strong connections with MIT. In 2018, she received the Margaret L.A. MacVicar ’65, ScD ’67, Award in recognition of her role starting and leading the MIT Sloan Club in Washington, DC, and her work as an inaugural member of the Graduate Alumni Council (GAC). She is also a member of the Friends of the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center.

“I believe deeply in the power and impact of the Institute’s work and people,” she says. “The moment I graduated, my thought process was, ‘How can I give back, and how can I continue to strengthen the experience of those who will come after me?’”

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The Download: a curb on climate action, and post-Roe period tracking

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The US Supreme Court just gutted the EPA’s power to regulate emissions


Why’s it so controversial?: Geoengineering was long a taboo topic among scientists, and some argue it should remain one. There are questions about its potential environmental side effects, and concerns that the impacts will be felt unevenly across the globe. Some feel it’s too dangerous to ever try or even to investigate, arguing that just talking about the possibility could weaken the need to address the underlying causes of climate change.

But it’s going ahead?: Despite the concerns, as the threat of climate change grows and major nations fail to make rapid progress on emissions, growing numbers of experts are seriously exploring the potential effects of these approaches. Read the full story.

—James Temple

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The belief that AI is alive refuses to die
People want to believe the models are sentient, even when their creators deny it. (Reuters)
+ It’s unsurprising wild religious beliefs find a home in Silicon Valley. (Vox)
+ AI systems are being trained twice as quickly as they were just last year. (Spectrum IEEE)

2 The FBI added the missing cryptoqueen to its most-wanted list
It’s offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to Ruja Ignatova, whose crypto scheme defrauded victims out of more than $4 billion. (BBC)
+ A new documentary on the crypto Ponzi scheme is in the works. (Variety)

3 Social media platforms turn a blind eye to dodgy telehealth ads
Which has played a part in the prescription drugs abuse boom. (Protocol)
+ The doctor will Zoom you now. (MIT Technology Review)

4 We’re addicted to China’s lithium batteries
Which isn’t great news for other countries building electric cars. (Wired $)
+ This battery uses a new anode that lasts 20 times longer than lithium. (Spectrum IEEE)
+ Quantum batteries could, in theory, allow us to drive a million miles between charges. (The Next Web)

5 Far-right extremists are communicating over radio to avoid detection
Making it harder to monitor them and their violent activities. (Slate $)
+ Many of the rioters who stormed the Capitol were carrying radio equipment. (The Guardian)

6 Bro culture has no place in space 🚀
So says NASA’s former deputy administrator, who’s sick and tired of misogyny in the sector. (CNN)

7 A US crypto exchange is gaining traction in Venezuela
It’s helping its growing community battle hyperinflation, but isn’t as decentralized as they believe it to be. (Rest of World)
+ The vast majority of NFT players won’t be around in a decade. (Vox)
+ Exchange Coinbase is working with ICE to track and identify crypto users. (The Intercept)
+ If RadioShack’s edgy tweets shock you, don’t forget it’s a crypto firm now. (NY Mag)

8 It’s time we learned to love our swamps
Draining them prevents them from absorbing CO2 and filtering out our waste. (New Yorker $)
+ The architect making friends with flooding. (MIT Technology Review) 

9 Robots love drawing too 🖍️
Though I’ll bet they don’t get as frustrated as we do when they mess up. (Input)

10 The risky world of teenage brains
Making potentially dangerous decisions is an important part of adolescence, and our brains reflect that. (Knowable Magazine)

Quote of the day

“They shamelessly celebrate an all-inclusive pool party while we can’t even pay our rent!”

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