I’ve been taking a closer look at what happened at the start of the pandemic and how it came about, and what we can do to stop it happening again.
There are two basic questions that need answering. One concerns the origin of the virus itself – was it engineered or natural, when did it emerge or leak and where, and what explains its changing behaviour in different times and places? The second concerns the origins of our response: where did the lockdowns, social distancing, masks and other non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) come from, and why did everyone adopt them even though they had never been used before and there was no evidence such costly measures would achieve anything of significance?
Here’s what I currently think happened – this article is deliberately concise, to serve as a summary. Follow the links to read more detail on each aspect.
The lockdown and NPI agenda began in the Bush White House in 2005 – though China had previously used lockdowns/NPIs in response to SARS in 2003 and claimed success (despite SARS disappearing everywhere and not just where NPIs were used). U.S. President George W. Bush was worried about biological attacks after 9/11 and the Iraq invasion and asked his team to come up with a whole of society response. The 2005 bird flu scare added impetus to the emerging agenda of ‘pandemic preparedness’ (despite the fact that the scare came to nothing). The plan the team came up with was based on the use of NPIs for social distancing – very similar to what China had used, though the team members themselves did not credit China for their idea but, bizarrely, the high school science project of one member’s 14 year-old daughter.
This draconian biosecurity strategy grew from there. It came to include a stress on the fast development of vaccines and deployment of digital vaccine passes as the exit strategy from restrictions, particularly mRNA vaccines which were seen as a printable vaccine amenable to quick tailoring to emergent pathogens. The strategic preference for mRNA vaccines may explain why U.S. and other health authorities seem to have put much more effort into finding safety problems with the adenovirus vector vaccines (Johnson and Johnson, AstraZeneca) than the mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna). Bill Gates was an early convert to the biosecurity movement and became a major patron, particularly as U.S. Government enthusiasm for it cooled during the Obama years.
The new biosecurity-oriented, NPI-based pandemic preparedness ideas gradually became embedded in international policy and practice, including through national pandemic plans, WHO guidance, and pandemic simulation exercises such as Event 201, organised by Johns Hopkins University.
Lockdowns were first deployed on the advice of the biosecurity crowd in Africa in 2014 in response to Ebola, and intriguingly included the strange phenomenon next seen in early 2020 of hundreds of social media bots promoting the idea. Who was behind these ‘lockdown bots’ in 2014 and 2020 has not been resolved.
Tinkering with viruses to help develop vaccines and treatments for potential pandemic pathogens is part of the biosecurity agenda, and it is well known that viruses leak from labs, raising serious questions as to whether the pay-off for research is worth the risk of deadly leaks.
After the virus emerged into public consciousness in December 2019, China put the new biosecurity ideas into action – though interestingly, not until January 23rd, suggesting it initially did not consider the virus to be a threat; indeed, at first the Chinese Government was widely criticised for not taking the threat seriously enough. It is notable that China’s CDC Director George Gao is a member of CEPI, one of the Gates-funded organs of the biosecurity agenda whose mission is to “make pandemic vaccines in 100 days”. As pioneer of the NPI strategy, both in 2003 and in 2020, China became a big pusher of NPIs during the COVID-19 pandemic, with both the pride of the country and the reputation of President Xi Jinping tied up with their success. The World Health Organisation joined in with this to a degree (though inconsistently), with the head of its joint mission on COVID-19, Bruce Aylward, declaring on February 24th 2020 that: “What China has demonstrated is, you have to do this. If you do it, you can save lives.”
NPIs were first imposed in the West by Italy. Early in February 2020, Italy commissioned alarmist modelling studies from a Gates-backed biosecurity institute, the Kessler Foundation, which recommended NPIs to control the spread. When emergency services in Lombardy became, according to their head Alberto Zoli, overwhelmed in mid-February, Health Minister Roberto Speranza (a fanatical socialist who saw, or came to see, lockdowns as a new dawn for the Left) imposed the West’s first lockdowns, first in Lombardy on February 21st and, two weeks later when it looked like they had worked (and as deaths climbed), across the country. Other countries then followed Italy’s lead, while various biosecurity-types, including modellers like Neil Ferguson, pushed the agenda in the open and behind closed doors. 10 Downing Street’s then-Chief of Staff Dominic Cummings told Members of Parliament he was lobbied hard in mid-March 2020 by a “network of Bill Gates-type people” telling him to “completely rethink the whole paradigm of how you do this”.
The consequence of all this was that during the growing panic of early 2020, the world was finally brought round to the biosecurity fanatics’ point of view on NPIs to ‘control the spread’ and, later, on fast-tracked vaccines and digital vaccine passes. Any holdouts of doubt or scepticism among public health officials and others were disarmed or muzzled at this time as a new pandemic orthodoxy took hold among elites. Leaders became politically and psychologically committed to the authoritarian new agenda, which was also reinforced by groupthink and pressure from a panicking general population. This process can be seen occurring in real time, as the vain efforts of U.K. Government officials to stick to a herd immunity strategy in mid-March 2020 were soon abandoned in the face of alarmist modelling, a hostile media and public backlash. The panic behind the scenes, especially in the U.S., may have been driven in part by some officials being aware that the virus was (or looked very much like it was) engineered.
The vested interests of certain groups, such as pharmaceutical companies and trade unions, also played an important role in reinforcing the alarmist biosecurity narrative.
What motivates the biosecurity crowd (which includes figures such as Richard Hatchett, Robert Glass, Carter Mecher, Rajeev Venkayya, Neil Ferguson, Stefano Merler and George Gao) driving this? For many it is, I believe, a genuine belief that what they are doing is saving humanity from deadly disease and preparing it for future pandemics and biological attacks. That certainly appears to be what drives Bill Gates, for example. While motives may be mixed, we should, I think, never underestimate the harm that can be done by those who sincerely believe that they are saving the world – that their radical solutions, however painful, are necessary to avert catastrophe.
What about the virus itself? It appeared no later than autumn 2019 – the earliest reliable testing evidence finds samples (antibodies and antigens) from countries such as France and Brazil dating back to November 2019. There are some samples testing positive earlier, but these lack controls so are more likely to be cross-reacting or contaminated. While some have suggested that the low spread of early waves in East Asia is evidence of earlier spread building up some immunity, the low antibody levels in those populations early on in the pandemic count against that idea.
SARS-CoV-2 appears to be an engineered virus, presumably leaked accidentally from a lab working with samples of it. The engineering is suggested by, among other things, the presence of the furin cleavage site, which makes it unusually infectious for a coronavirus, and probably explains why, unlike SARS, it is both airborne and has driven a multi-year pandemic. Furin cleavage sites are unknown in this type of coronavirus in nature, though are commonly inserted in the lab to increase infectiousness. No reservoirs of the virus have been found in animals, despite a thorough search, and molecular clock evidence suggests it would take 15-43 years for SARS-CoV-2 to evolve naturally from its closest known relative, RaTG13. The extensive cover-up by those responsible for exactly the kind of research that would have produced the virus is also evidence that it is engineered.
Omicron also probably leaked from a lab, the evidence for which includes that it evolved from an extinct strain and that it contained all the previously published immune-evading mutations. It may have been created for the purpose of vaccine research.
There are still some aspects of the transmission dynamics of the virus that remain unexplained. There have, for example, been several phases of spread, each with notably different dynamics.
- Emergence (summer-autumn 2019)-December 2019: Global undetected spread with low disease and mortality burden.
- December 2019-February 2020: A relatively deadly outbreak in Wuhan but little of note elsewhere such as Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Europe, the U.S. and the rest of China (regardless of NPIs imposed).
- February 2020-May 2020: Some deadly outbreaks in certain regions and cities (e.g. London, New York, Paris, Stockholm etc.) mainly in Western Europe and the U.S., starting in Lombardy (and also Iran).
- Summer 2020: Some deadly waves in other locations not previously heavily affected, including parts of the U.S.
- Autumn and winter 2020-2021: Global deadly outbreaks in most areas, though not India or Africa.
Following this, Alpha, Delta and Omicron variants emerged in succession, each causing a new global wave, including in India (with Delta) and eventually in South East Asia (with Omicron).
My suspicion is that these changing dynamics primarily arise from changes in the virus itself (variants) and how these interact with the human immune system, though admittedly evidence on this from the early phase is sparse.
Molecular clock evidence suggests that the common ancestor of the variants behind the initial wave of December 2019-February 2020 first infected humans in summer to autumn 2019. Why it only started being deadly in Wuhan in December 2019, and then nowhere else until Lombardy and Iran in February 2020, is not entirely clear. Some places did not see deadly outbreaks until much later, in summer 2020, winter 2020-21, spring 2021 (India) or even, in the case of South East Asia, winter 2021-22. For myself, I am convinced this is not because the underlying virus is not responsible for most of the deaths and that instead it is panic/NPIs/treatment protocols, as some suggest. This is because I do not see in the data any clear relationship between when waves of deaths occurred and degrees of panic, NPI stringency or treatment protocols (for example, places which did not panic such as Sweden, South Dakota and Belarus still saw substantial waves of deaths in 2020). The main factor appears to be the variant involved. Bukin and colleagues note that single amino acid substitutions in the genome of SARS-CoV-2 “could increase the pathogenicity and infectivity for humans”.
Some mysteries remain, particularly around what China knew and when. When did the Chinese Government become aware that the virus was spreading, and when did it realise it was a leak? Was the taking offline of the Wuhan Institute of Virology coronavirus database on September 12th 2019 a signal that it already knew or suspected something then, or just part of the general secrecy around coronavirus research? Did the U.S. military know about a viral epidemic in Hubei province (of which Wuhan is capital) in November 2019? Was this Covid or seasonal flu? Why, after announcing the virus on December 31st, did China not lock down Wuhan until January 23rd – was this linked to a Government-backed report on January 24th which concluded human transmission was occurring (though equivocated on how efficient it was)? The same report also provided details on what it said were the first 41 Covid hospital patients in Wuhan during December, stating they were of median age 49, over two thirds had no underlying conditions and six (15%) died. Why were these patients so young and healthy compared to Covid patients elsewhere, and where were all the rest of the patients for a disease circulating globally throughout the autumn and winter? Why was the virus much milder elsewhere that winter, and the next deadly outbreaks were months later, in Italy and Iran – did Wuhan experience an unusually deadly but not very infectious local variant that winter (is this why the Chinese initially had doubts about how efficiently it spread)? So much about the initial reports from Wuhan don’t make sense, and indeed may be unreliable. Yet the reports from doctors like Li Wenliang on how they first encountered the virus in patients in late December seem credible.
These open questions notwithstanding, the above seems to me to be the most plausible current explanation of what happened, taking into account all the available evidence.
A key takehome is it wasn’t just panic. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic represented the triumph of a pseudo-scientific biosecurity agenda that emerged in 2005 and has been pushed ever since by a well-organised, well-funded and well-embedded network of ideologues. These fanatics promote and perpetuate the ideas underpinning the draconian new approach by publishing them in leading journals, planting them in public policy and law, pushing them in the media and smearing those who dissent, however eminent or well-qualified.
This ideology is the enemy, and seeing it for what it is is the first step to defeating it.