'Pure baloney': Zoologist debunks Trump’s COVID-19 origin theory -- explains how animal-human transmission works
With the largest one-day death toll in the U.S. yet — 2,400 in just 24 hours — President Trump is trying to deflect attention from his handling of the pandemic by waging a war on public health experts and science, threatening to cut World Health Organization funding and fueling a theory that the coronavirus came from a lab in Wuhan, China. We speak to a zoologist who has been sounding the alarm about a coming pandemic for years. “The idea that this virus escaped from a lab is just pure baloney,” says Peter Daszak, disease ecologist and the president of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that works globally to identify and study our vulnerabilities to emerging infectious disease. “These pandemic viruses that emerge originate in wildlife.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, here in New York, the epicenter of the pandemic, with my co-host Nermeen Shaikh, usually sitting right here at my side but joining us from her home to keep us all safe and stop community spread. Hi, Nermeen.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Hi, Amy. And welcome to our listeners and viewers around the country and around the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to begin right away with our first segment. The White House is unveiling new guidelines today aimed at rolling back states’ stay-at-home orders protecting against the spread of coronavirus. President Trump’s call to wind down social distancing came as the United States recorded more than 2,400 deaths in just 24 hours, the highest one-day death toll for any nation since the start of the pandemic. Across the United States, there are nearly 640,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, though the true number is likely far higher due to the critical shortage of tests. At least 31,000 people have died of the disease in just a matter of weeks.
Despite this, President Trump spent the last few days waging a war on journalists, public health experts and science. On Wednesday, Trump suggested, without evidence, that World Health Organization officials conspired to hide the truth about the coronavirus. His comments came one day after he announced the U.S. would begin withholding hundreds of millions of dollars of funding for the U.N. body. At the same news briefing, President Trump fueled the fringe theory promoted by Fox News that the virus came from a lab in Wuhan, China. This is Fox News reporter John Roberts questioning Trump at Wednesday’s press briefing.
JOHN ROBERTS: Mr. President, multiple sources are telling Fox News today that the United States government now has high confidence that while the coronavirus is a naturally occurring virus, it emanated from a virology lab in Wuhan, that because of lax safety protocols, an intern was infected, who later infected her boyfriend and then went to the wet market in Wuhan, where it began to spread. Does that correspond with what you have heard from officials?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I don’t want to say that, John, but I will tell you, more and more we’re hearing the story. And we’ll see. When you say multiple sources, though, there’s a case where you can use the word “sources.” But we are doing a very thorough examination of this horrible situation that happened.
AMY GOODMAN: This came just one day after the Pentagon’s top general, Mark Milley, said the coronavirus likely came from natural sources, not a Chinese lab. On Thursday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson responded.
ZHAO LIJIAN: [translated] China’s position on the origin and means of transmission of the novel coronavirus is clear. We will always believe this is a scientific issue, which should be studied by scientists and medical experts. I would like to remind you, the head of WHO has repeatedly said there’s no evidence that the coronavirus was made in a lab. Many well-known medical experts in the world also believe that claims of the so-called laboratory leaks have no scientific basis.
AMY GOODMAN: The scientific journal The Lancet has said the virus seems to have come from wildlife.
Well, for more on the origins of the coronavirus, Trump’s response, and where we go from here, we’re joined by a zoologist who has long studied diseases that cross the animal-human divide, and who for years has been sounding the alarm about a coming pandemic. Dr. Peter Daszak is with us. He’s a disease ecologist, the president of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that works globally to identify and study our vulnerabilities to emerging infectious disease. EcoHealth Alliance has been studying coronaviruses in China since the end of the SARS outbreak in 2004. This coronavirus is really called SARS2. He’s joining us from the Hudson River Valley in New York.
Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. So, if you can unpack what we just heard, it goes to the issue of the origins of the coronavirus. Especially interesting that President Trump is raising this now as he’s being seriously attacked for the United States’ lack of action and delay, and so he is striking out at as many sectors as he can. But talk about the origins of the coronavirus, Dr. Daszak.
PETER DASZAK: Yeah, great to be here.
Look, first, the idea that this virus escaped from a lab is just pure baloney. It’s simply not true. I’ve been working with that lab for 15 years. And the samples collected were collected by me and others in collaboration with our Chinese colleagues. They’re some of the best scientists in the world. There was no viral isolate in the lab. There was no cultured virus that’s anything related to SARS coronavirus 2. So it’s just not possible.
And like you say, it’s really a politicization of the origins of a pandemic, and it’s really unfortunate. The stories, as President Trump said he’s been hearing, have been around since day one of the outbreak, and they’re around in every outbreak. Every single outbreak of a novel virus, somebody somewhere says, “Well, this has been manufactured in a lab.” In fact, a few weeks ago, when this started circulating, I googled ”HIV is man-made.” Do it yourself and see. There are people out there who still believe this is a bioengineered virus that spread around the world. It’s just really unfortunate. And I don’t really know why these conspiracy theories get such traction. I think the people just have trouble understanding what’s going on on the planet.
We’ve been studying the origin of emerging diseases. About 75% of every new emerging disease — think about Ebola, H1N1 flu, H5N1 flu, you know, these pandemic viruses that emerge — originate in wildlife. Every species of wildlife carries viruses that are a natural part of its biology, a bit like we have the common cold and herpes, cold sores. They don’t really do much to the species in the wild, but sometimes when we make contact with them, we pick up those viruses, and they can be lethal. Most times they’re not, but every now and again we get a lethal virus. And we estimate there are 1.7 million unknown viruses in wildlife, so there’s a lot of diversity out there that could emerge in the future.
And really, we need to be looking at that, instead of pointing fingers for political gain at scientists who are working to benefit public health. The scientists in those labs are right now, today, working to see if vaccines and drugs will kill the coronavirus to save our lives. This sort of battle doesn’t help in a pandemic.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Daszak, could you say more about the origins of this specific pandemic? What do we know about its origins? Of course, many believe, as you’ve said, that it originated in bats. But explain how it moved from bats to humans. Was it at the Wuhan market? And what did that involve?
PETER DASZAK: Yeah, it’s — we don’t really know for sure, but we can trace back the origins by looking at the genetic signal within the virus itself. So we sequence out the gene from the virus, the genome, and then we compare it to others. And when we do that, we see that the viruses in people, the closest relative of those are from bats. This is not unusual. Bats happen to carry a lot of different viral species. There are many different bats around the world that carry their own viruses. We make contact with them. Often we don’t see them. They fly at night, for instance. And we pick up their viruses. SARS coronavirus, the original virus, emerged from bats. Ebola virus is a bat-origin virus. Rabies and many others.
How did a virus like this get from a bat to a human? It is a very strange thing when we try and think about it. But first of all, in Southeast Asia, there is a huge diversity of bats. People live out in rural areas close to bat caves. They’re exposed every night when bats fly over them, urinate, defecate, maybe onto their food or into their drink. People go into bat caves. People go in for various reasons. They go in to dig out the bat guano, the feces, and they use it as a fertilizer, just like we used to do many years ago with bird feces. They go into caves to shelter from the rain. They’re farmers. They’re subsistence farmers hunting and eating wildlife, so they get exposed that way. People do eat bats. It’s true. And they eat bats all around the world. It’s a free source of protein. If you’re out there in a bat cave, they’re pretty easy to catch. And these are the ways people get exposed.
Now, how did it get into the market? We know for sure that the Wuhan market was part of this outbreak, but we think that the first few cases weren’t in the market. And this is not uncommon. We’ve seen this with many, many other disease outbreaks, new viruses that emerge. They trickle out from rural areas through a person getting infected maybe in Hunan province and then moving into Wuhan, that maybe they’re part of the wildlife trade. Maybe a farmer got infected, or a farmer’s animals, and they were shipped into the markets. These wet markets aren’t just places to sell wildlife; they’re places where people congregate. They come in in droves. They circulate around. They’re really good places for a virus to spread. And if a person brings it in, or an animal, that virus will spread. And it looks like that’s what’s happened here.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And could you also explain — you have talked about the environmental causes of this, what’s called a virus spillover, like — infectious diseases like COVID-19, causes such as environmental, causes such as deforestation, the loss of biodiversity, and wildlife poaching. You’ve also said that people are developing a lot of new towns in this region of southwest China with a lot of high-speed train lines. And you warn that we’re going to see more pandemics like this as long as such rampant development continues. So, could you explain what the link is between development and the spread of these infectious diseases?
PETER DASZAK: Well, we’ve done the science on this. We’ve been working on this for 20 years. We tracked every known emerging disease to its origin, from the scientific literature. And then we tested, with mathematical models, what’s driving that, what are the causes that could underlie the emergence of these new diseases. And what we found is they emerge in places where human populations are very dense and growing. They emerge in the tropics mainly, because that’s where the wildlife diversity is, and the viruses that become pandemic come from wildlife.
And the other key factor is land-use change, people moving into new areas, encroachment into wildlife habitat, building roads into a forest for a mine or for a logging camp. There are many, many examples of diseases, like Ebola, SARS and others, HIV itself, from this. And that’s a global trend that will drive the rise of future pandemics.
Now, we’re not saying that we’ve got to stop every modern aspect of development. We can do these things, but we need to do them in a smarter way, a more sustainable way. And we need to start treating pandemics as a risk of doing these things around the planet. We’ve got to reassess our relationship with the environment and reduce our ecological footprint. It’s to the benefit of conservation. It’ll reduce climate change. It will also stop us getting sick. And I think that’s a really important point. For folks on the right who aren’t interested in conservation or climate change, what about your own health? You know, we are making ourselves sick by making the planet sick.
And that’s really the message that needs to come through from this, because if we just treat this as another disease, wait for a vaccine and then think, “Great, it’s all over,” well, I’ve got news. There are 1.7 million more viruses out there that will be emerging in the future. We can either wait for them to emerge and get sick and have another global recession, or we can get out there and readdress our relationship with wildlife and make the planet a little bit healthier.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about a recent tweet, Dr. Daszak. You refute the widespread belief that COVID-19 is a black swan event, pointing to a 2013 Wired article that said, quote, “there are bats carrying a virus that can directly infect people, and cause another SARS pandemic.” If you could comment on that, and also the idea that if this came from a virology lab — there are labs, of course, in China, there are labs in the United States — it doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theory that released on the world, but the idea of perhaps there weren’t the proper safety precautions or someone inside the lab somehow got infected, that can happen in any virology lab in the world?
PETER DASZAK: Yeah, look, I mean, we’ve been raising the flag on these viruses ever since SARS, for 15 years. We went out to work in China with our colleagues out there, with a specific goal of saying, “Where did SARS come from?” It was an alarm call, SARS, because we had 8,000 people infected, 10% of them died, a very high death rate. But it didn’t go to a true global pandemic like COVID-19. So we went out to China, and we started looking into wildlife origins of this virus.
And what we found was really surprising: a huge diversity, dozens, hundreds of bat-origin coronaviruses. We found evidence that they were continually spilling over into people. We looked at rural populations in southwest China and found 3% of them had antibodies to these viruses. And we estimate that the exposure across Southeast Asia is about 1 million to 7 million people a year, just by living in rural areas where bats live. So, it’s not just an expectation that we’ll have more events. It’s a certainty. And we started saying that.
We looked at the viruses bats carried, and we showed that they can actually already infect human cells in the lab. They can cause disease, like SARS, in some of the mouse models for SARS. And they evade the vaccines that were being developed at the time. And this is not unusual. You know, there are many other viruses. There are viruses related to Ebola that we don’t know much about. We don’t know if they infect people. There are viruses related to influenza out there that we don’t know what they do in people.
But the way to deal with this is not to wait for them to emerge and make us sick. The way to do this is to get out there ahead of the curve, find out what’s out there in wildlife, find out who’s at risk, work with the people on the frontline and reduce that risk. And, you know, that’s a really important public health message. It’s also a really important message for international development. These viruses tend to emerge in poor countries in the tropics, just by the nature of where wildlife live, countries that are less able to deal with outbreaks. So, sending out taxpayer money to those countries is very unpopular with the current administration, but it not only protects them, it protects us. It’s a right-wing agenda and a left-wing agenda.
Now, on issue of whether this could be a lab release, well, this is the problem with conspiracy theories, you know? It’s impossible to say that it didn’t happen, and it never will be possible, even if you showed video evidence of every hour of everybody working in that lab. And there are video cameras up there. These are biosecure labs with very high-tech, sophisticated security systems. Even if you showed all the notebooks, the conspiracy folks would continue to say, “Well, it’s a cover-up. Clearly something happened, and these are doctored notebooks, doctored videotapes.”
The point is that, let’s look at a balance of probability. That’s what you have to do. We have a few hundred technicians and scientists working in these labs. They do not have a problem with staff or with security or with loose controls. These are very well-run labs. They’ve been inspected by the U.S. CDC, by people working in BSL-4 labs, high-security labs, in the U.S., in France and internationally. They’re accredited by the U.S. So, it’s ironic that now we’re saying they’re not very well organized. We actually inspected them properly and allowed them to open. You know, the cables that were reported in the —
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Daszak —
PETER DASZAK: Sorry, yeah.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Daszak, if I may just interrupt, just we only have a minute, and this is a question that we have to get to before we move to our next segment, which is on India. You know, there was widespread belief that COVID-19 would cause hundreds of thousands of deaths in the developing world, from India to Brazil, and that millions would be infected. But that’s not yet happened. Your response to why that might be the case, and whether we should expect something different in the future? We have a minute.
PETER DASZAK: Well, yeah, look, rich countries test more. We can afford it. And poor countries don’t. And what I expect is that there are a huge number of hidden community transmission in poorer countries around the world, that is going to create an incredible problem in the future.
Who’s going to deal with that problem? Countries that can’t afford to are going to seek support from their colleagues and their allies around the world. It’s going to go through the WHO, the very organization we heard yesterday we’re going to pull funding from. It’s a travesty. And again, if we let that happen, we will see this outbreak continuing to cause problems in the developing world, and it won’t go away. And it will affect us. We’re never going to be free from a pandemic if we allow a virus to rage uncontrollably in countries that are out there with travelers coming back into the U.S. So, again, it’s misguided. It’s shortsighted.
And I really hope we address this quickly and aggressively, because, you know, I really feel that it’s going to be impossible to do social distancing in the favelas of Rio and the slums and some of the places where people are already disenfranchised because they’re considered illegal squatters. So, there really are going to be issues around the world with this coronavirus in poorer countries, for sure.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Peter Daszak, we want to thank you so much for being with us, disease ecologist, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that works globally to identify and study our vulnerabilities to emerging infectious disease.
When we come back, we speak with the acclaimed author Arundhati Roy about the coronavirus in India and the political implications of the crisis. She says, “The pandemic is a portal.” Stay with us.