How much blame should we assign to China for lives lost in the United States and the impact the coronavirus has had on the U.S. economy?

That is among key questions scientists and academics are wrestling with as they strive to help the public sort truth from political posturing, fact-based hypotheses from emotional responses.

On Monday, we learned of a Department of Homeland Security intelligence report that says China “intentionally concealed the severity” of the pandemic from the world in January in order to stock up on supplies it believed would be needed to treat patients there.

According to the Associated Press, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday said China "was responsible for the spread of disease and must be held accountable." The death toll from coronavirus was about 250,000 globally and 100,000 in the United States.

But those who oppose the Trump Administration say the finger-pointing involving China is merely an attempt to deflect away from the federal government's handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Dr. Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, on Tuesday accused the Trump administration of ignoring warnings and failing to prepare for the predicted impact of COVID-19, and then touting unproven drugs over mitigation measures.

So what should we believe?

Here are thoughts from two University of Pittsburgh faculty members and researchers on some of the key questions about how the virus generated and became a widespread health concern, and how our leaders – and some of us – have responded to the pandemic: 

• Was coronavirus designed as a biological weapon against the United States?

Frank Jenkins, Ph.D., is an associate professor of pathology, infectious diseases and microbiology and director of the Division of Laboratory Animal Resources at the Graduate School of Public Health at Pitt.

Jenkins addressed a popular theory: That scientists in China intentionally designed and released COVID-19 in an effort to damage the U.S. economy and hurt other western nations in the global marketplace.

So, is COVID-19 a natural virus or a biological weapon?

"If this is a biological weapon, they really suck at it," Jenkins said. "It's not killing enough people to be a biological weapon – such as smallpox, say, might do."

The prevailing theory among scientists is that the virus came from bats, likely in a lab in China that was collecting the animals and doing research, and then was released into the human population by a lab worker.

"Perhaps someone got infected and went out into the community," Jenkins said. "That's probably what happened – if I were a betting man.

"If this came from a laboratory where it escaped, I would hope there would be pressure on that university to tighten up procedures. But honestly, we may never know the truth."

Jenkins said from literature he has examined, there is no evidence that COVID-19 involves material that was genetically engineered or altered. The "RNA sequence with biologics" has not been changed.

"There's no evidence of genetic manipulation with COVID," he said.

He also pointed out that China does not have a free-press system, which means information about the virus – including its origins – is not flowing freely. 

"Everything gets filtered," he said. "You know what they want you to know."

But in the end, Jenkins said: "It's human nature – you want somebody to blame. You want a bad guy. And whether China had an active role or a passive role, that may never be determined."

• Why do we take sides politically when facing a common health problem?

China isn't the only subject of reproach in this situation. Our political leaders have taken to blaming each other for the impact of the coronavirus. It is an election year, after all.

Democrats point to president Trump, who points to states. Within states, governors are at odds with legislators over steps taken and plans for reopening.

Steven E. Stern, Ph.D, chairman of the Division of Natural Sciences and a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, has examined how our two-party system allows for division over situations such as a pandemic.

Stern said social psychology – how we form and maintain attitudes – is a factor, as we tend to seek consistency.

"If you support the Democratic Party, you feel a pressure to conform to an agenda that not only includes robust health care and social welfare, and a strong environmental agenda, but brings in pro choice and (addressing) gun rights," Stern said. "At this point, that party is more openly embracing the more cautious approach that aligns with health and welfare, but also with a less overtly pro-industry agenda that includes focusing on worker protections.

"And if you support the Republican side, with Donald Trump at the helm, you embrace a party that leans toward a smaller federal government with less business regulation, lower taxation, a skepticism toward environmentalism, a mantra of responsibility and self sufficiency. And ... a purported willingness to brave this epidemic and get back to work. ... Which, favors, of course, industry." 

Stern recalled state politics a generation ago when many likely felt a sense of "cognitive dissonance" when Democratic Gov. Bob Casey Sr. took a strong pro-life stance while Republican Sen. Arlen Specter was pro-choice.

Now, a Democrat who wants businesses to reopen quickly would wrestle with challenging the governor's plan to slowly move forward – including keeping Cambria and Somerset counties under full "red" restrictions after May 8 when other areas of the state are moving to the less-restrictive "yellow" status.

And a Republican who is concerned about the health ramifications of opening too quickly would be crashing against his or her party stance.

"I would imagine that many of Donald Trump’s supporters are feeling pressure to favor the economy over the advice of those who would have us maintain the more cautious policies of our Democratic governor," Stern said.

Stern points to what he calls Social Dominance Theory at work with coronavirus –  "the assumption is that if people suffer misfortune, they must be in some way or other to blame for their misfortune. An outside observer might ignore factors that were not their fault," he said.

Stern added: "This also falls with in the 'Just World' hypothesis, the tendency that most of us have to see the world as a just and fair place. If someone has COVID, they must have been in the wrong place. When we have no explanation, or the culprit is someone we would rather not fault – be it fate, god, the president, the governor – we might tend to redirect our blame and lash out to other, more acceptable targets of our angst.

"Some might latch onto conspiracy theories that have little merit. Some might focus on failures in systems that are too big to comprehend. Prejudice and stereotyping comes into play as well. "

• How soon will we be able to treat the virus?

Jenkins said wider testing for coronavirus is the key to providing more accurate data about the disease – and then treatment and prevention options.

Since we're only testing individuals who show symptoms and go to the doctor, we aren't accurately comparing true negatives vs. true positives, he said.

"Modeling is only as accurate as the data that is used to create the model," he said. "The early models were based on an assumption that everyone who was positive was showing symptoms. So, if you didn't have symptoms, you didn't get tested. To know for sure, you would have to go out and test everybody – and you can't do that."

Jenkins noted that the mortality rate in the coronavirus hot spot of New York City is less than 1% now. But what theory does that support – that the threat was never as great as we expected, or that we responded in time to "flatten the curve."

"At the end of the day, we're not going to have the number of deaths that was feared," Jenkins said. "So, does that mean we didn't need to stay home? Or does this mean staying at home prevented deaths? You can't prove a negative."

Jenkins believes one answer lies in the use of antibodies – drawn from the plasma of individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 – in development of a treatment. Published reports last week showed that the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center was seeing "promising results" with the state's first plasma treatment of a seriously ill patient.

Dr. David Csikos, chief medical officer at Chan Soon-Shiong Medical Center at Windber, said in a text message that "antibody (blood machine) testing is now offered at CSSMCW."

Jenkins said antibody testing in New York is showing that people were positive but never entered the system.

"A vaccine is what you ultimately want," Jenkins said. "Hopefully, in the meantime, we can come up with treatments that would keep you from dying if you get sick."

More testing. The addition of antibodies.

We're still a long way from widespread treatment and months or even years away from a viable vaccine, he said.

"There's an assumption that it's easy to develop and produce and we should have had this last month," Jenkins said. "I think that's a real issue. People watch CSI police shows and believe that in two days you can identify anything and everything, but that's not the way science actually works."   

• Who can I trust to tell me the truth?

That's the big question as we continue to navigate the coronavirus.

Do you feel more comfortable with information dispatched daily by Gov. Wolf and state Health Secretary Rachel Levine, or from President Trump during his daily briefings?

Franklin recommends people pay attention to medical experts such as federal infectious diseases guru Tony Fauci, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published scientific data rather than information filtered through elected officials.

"This isn't politics," he said. "This is an infectious disease."

Jenkins added: "The whole issue became political. And regardless of which side someone stands on – 'what a great job the administration is doing' or 'what a lousy job the administration is doing' – both sides get to cherry-pick based on their own interests. What gets lost is the actual truth.

"Are people intentionally lying about things? I don't think so. Are they distorting or spinning things to fuel a certain narrative on both sides? Yes."

Jenkins said he often finds himself angered by national media reports by pundits who offer theories and advice without the benefit of scientific or medical training.

"I yell at the television a lot," he said, lamenting journalists who rely on speculation instead of sticking to facts.

Jenkins believes the media focus too heavily on tragedies "to the exclusion of people who have recovered. When a community sees that, it's easy to walk away and think, 'Well, I'm going to die.' But most people do recover. There are a lot of people who are surviving. It's not a death knell if you get infected."

Too often, he said, assumptions turn out to not be true.

"Let's focus on the facts – what we know vs. what we still don't know," Jenkins said.

And, Jenkins said, "Social media is the bane of our existence. Anyone can say anything." 

Chip Minemyer is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat and TribDem.com, and CNHI regional editor for Pennsylvania, Maryland and Ohio. He can be reached at 814-532-5091. Follow him on Twitter @MinemyerChip.

Recommended for you