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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Have we learned from our mistakes during the COVID-19 pandemic?

With future public health crises potentially on the horizon, public trust in science needs to be restored

 

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD

 

Almost three years ago on Mar. 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic, and just last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the end of California’s COVID-19 State of Emergency. With an official ushering in of a return to normalcy, public discussion of the origins of COVID has begun in the U.S. House of Representatives, even raising the possibility that the virus was human-made and leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China.

 However, some doctors invited so far to testify at the hearing have been hesitant to support this lab-leak theory without any conclusive evidence. They have so far maintained that the origins of the virus came about naturally by chance since many highly infectious variants evolved from the initial strain after spillover to humans from bats. 

Yet, continued skepticism from the government officials leading the hearings has steered what should be a purely scientific discussion towards one that is politically charged. The U.S.-China relationship has already been strained with the recent UFO events, and despite these political tensions, it’s important to put the well-being and best interests of the country first by scientifically understanding the origins of the virus.

This mistrust among political leaders, health professionals and the public is a persistent problem — one that is often considered a contributing factor to the U.S.’s poor public health response and management throughout the pandemic. The conflicting information surrounding health guidelines by the government combined with misinformation espoused by anti-vaccination movements only exacerbated the distrust of science. 

Furthermore, Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities suffered repercussions amid prevailing racist, xenophobic sentiments egged-on by former President Donald Trump when he labeled COVID the “Chinese Virus.” Since the start of the pandemic, there have been over 9,000 reported incidents of anti-AAPI hate. To put it in different terms, between 2020 and 2021, hate crimes against Asian Americans rose 339% nationally. Those in the House should keep these numbers in mind when investigating the origins of the virus and ensure that they are not reaching conclusions prematurely. 

It’s clear that the pandemic was mishandled on a national scale; over 300,000 deaths out of the one million from COVID-19 recorded in 2022 could have been prevented (which does not account for the additional deaths due to anti-AAPI hate).

So will the U.S. government learn from its mistakes during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Trust and bipartisanship in scientific discussions are more important now than ever with the rampant avian influenza virus H1N5 that has affected over 55 million birds. Spillover to mammals like minks has already been observed, and an 11-year-old girl in Cambodia died after her father was infected with a variant of H1N5 that was different from the strain circulating among birds in the U.S.

While there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission and the risks of infection by the current bird flu virus are low, we can’t yet rule out the possibility, as much as we would like to ignore it.

Complex scientific phenomena like COVID-19 and climate change are unpredictable and often require significant research and preparation to combat. Delayed initiative on climate change policies, for example, has led to extreme weather events and irreversible changes to the planet. It can be similarly said that the U.S.’s slow public health response during the pandemic worsened the situation and led to detrimental consequences that could have been avoided.

History may repeat itself if the U.S. follows on a trajectory of hesitancy in addressing H1N5. Given the highly infectious and severe state of the avian flu in bird populations, the government’s approach to policy surrounding the virus should be bipartisan and guided by experts. 

While it is important to investigate the origins of COVID in order to prevent future pandemics, U.S. government officials should also prioritize collaboration with scientists and other countries to develop robust, preventative measures against future public health emergencies based on scientific evidence now. They need to be transparent about the process and, more importantly, let the science and experts inform and educate the public.

 

Written by: The Editorial Board