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The Debate Over Covid’s Origin

By |2023-03-09T07:24:33-05:00March 9th, 2023|Breonna Taylor|

Both U.S. political parties are now open to the idea that Covid may have come from a lab in China.A new House committee investigating the origins of Covid opened its first public hearing yesterday with plenty of political theater. Republicans accused Dr. Anthony Fauci of covering up the virus’s origins, and Democrats criticized those claims as biased and unsubstantiated. But lawmakers displayed bipartisan agreement on one point: The virus really may have come from a laboratory in China.“Whether it was a lab leak or infection through animals, I think we’ve got to pursue both of those paths if we are ever to get the truth,” Representative Kweisi Mfume, Democrat of Maryland, said.Such agreement might have been surprising not long ago. From the start of the pandemic, the idea of a lab leak was fraught. Some scientists treated it as an outright conspiracy theory. Many Democratic politicians, journalists and others instead embraced the explanation that the virus jumped from animals to humans.Now, the F.B.I. and the Energy Department, which employ leading U.S. scientists, say a lab is the likely origin. But they remain uncertain, and four other U.S. intelligence agencies say, with low confidence, that it more likely originated in animals.Today’s newsletter will explain the debate over the theory and why it matters.What’s the lab leak theory?There are actually multiple lab leak theories.The most plausible is that the virus accidentally leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China, where scientists may have been studying it, and possibly engineered it, for research and medical purposes.That theory differs from the claim that lab scientists created Covid as a bioweapon or that China intentionally leaked the virus. Neither experts nor U.S. officials take that assertion seriously. “It is an important distinction,” said my colleague Sheryl Gay Stolberg, who covers health policy.What is the case for each explanation?The natural origin theory: Animal-to-human transmission is the predominant origin of viral diseases, including other coronaviruses and bird flus. Many of the first confirmed Covid cases were linked to an animal market in Wuhan, and live mammals there are known to spread viruses.The lab leak theory: Wuhan is home to an advanced virus-research lab and the Chinese C.D.C. — ties that lend credence to the idea of a lab leak, much as the animal market’s presence does for the natural origin theory. Chinese officials’ apparent destruction of evidence adds to the suspicions of a lab leak. Biological labs around the world also have a history of accidental leaks.Even many officials and others who lean toward one of the two theories remain uncertain. U.S. officials are divided and acknowledge they are working with imperfect information, largely because China has not allowed an independent investigation within its borders.Why does this debate matter?For many, determining the cause of a pandemic that has killed nearly seven million people worldwide, including 1.1 million in the U.S., is important regardless of broader implications. Basically, the truth matters for its own sake.The Wuhan Institute of Virology.Hector Retamal/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesLearning the origins of Covid could help save lives, too. If the virus came from an animal, then studying and tracking the spread of viruses in nature could be crucial to preventing the next pandemic. If it originated in a lab, then improving the security and safety of virology labs might be more important.And if both theories seem plausible, that is a case for doing more to prevent animal-to-human transmission and future lab leaks. “Some scientists argue there’s more to be done on both fronts,” said my colleague Benjamin Mueller, who covers health and science.Why the lab leak skepticism?Some scientists who initially dismissed the lab leak based their views on earlier, incomplete evidence. At first, experts embraced the animal market explanation because some of the first confirmed cases, from December 2019, were linked to the market. But researchers later discovered that the virus may have been spreading weeks earlier, and it is not clear that those cases were linked to the market.Typical human bias probably played a role in the skepticism, too. “Scientists are human, and science has become a vested-interest industry,” Tim Trevan, founder of the safety consulting company Chrome Biorisk Management, wrote in The Wall Street Journal.Early in the pandemic, the lab leak theory became politicized when Donald Trump and his allies began promoting it. Many experts took sides, as did much of the public. Some may have also feared that blaming scientists for Covid could have vilified their industry and hurt the funding they rely on. The dynamic is a reminder that experts are also susceptible to biases and self-interest like the rest of us.Will we ever know the origin?Probably not. Pinning down the origin of a virus is inherently difficult. China has made the task harder, blocking outside investigations and refusing to share data on the virus’s spread.But the investigations, including the House’s, have already spurred discussion and debate about better tracking of animal viruses and improving lab security. Those steps could help save lives even if we never know what really caused the Covid pandemic.For more: “Assigning blame is not going to bring back seven million people” The hearing showed the difficulty of uncovering conclusive evidence about Covid’s origin.THE LATEST NEWSPoliticsMitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, was hospitalized after tripping at a Washington hotel.“I hate him passionately”: Tucker Carlson’s texts show contempt for Trump. Read the messages.Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat, criticized the Biden administration for refusing to show Congress classified documents found at the homes of Biden, Trump and Mike Pence.A former New York City Hall insider has found lucrative work with real estate companies, worrying critics about his influence on Mayor Eric Adams.An Arizona county gave a Republican election skeptic the power to oversee voting. The state’s Democratic attorney general is suing.More Black women are running for office, confronting racism and sexism. A Black woman has never been a governor, and only two have been senators.InternationalAn armed guard in Dhangri village.Atul Loke for The New York TimesIndia is arming villagers in part of Kashmir, one of the world’s most militarized places, after attacks against Hindus.Russia launched missiles at residential areas in Ukraine this morning, killing at least nine people.After street protests, Georgian lawmakers dropped a law that critics said was inspired by Russia and would have been used to clamp down on dissent.Recent kidnappings in Mexico have brought attention to the medical tourism industry.Other Big StoriesA memorial to Breonna Taylor, whom the police shot to death in 2020.Xavier Burrell for The New York TimesThe police in Louisville, Ky., disproportionately pulled over Black drivers and used racist epithets as part of a pattern of discrimination, the Justice Department found.California is bracing for more heavy rain and snow.Scientists announced a breakthrough in superconductors, which could someday transform the way electrical devices work.The murder conviction for the lawyer Alex Murdaugh unraveled his family’s century of influence in South Carolina.The director of the Whitney Museum in New York will step down after 20 years. OpinionsEnglish majors are disappearing, partly because of the miserable way K-12 schools teach it, Pamela Paul writes.The Supreme Court isn’t just scrutinizing Biden’s student debt program. It’s also confronting the ways presidents have abused emergency powers since Sept. 11, says Christopher Caldwell.Jennifer Finney Boylan was a Rockefeller Republican at the start of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. His triumphs — and failures — turned her into a progressive, she writes.MORNING READSKate DehlerCluttercore: Your bedroom isn’t messy — it’s trendy.High-altitude treks: Nepal will ban solo hikers in its national parks.Restaurant review: Soupless ramen in a stressless setting.A morning listen: Imagining life with the men of their dreams.Advice from Wirecutter: How to clean your Birkenstocks.Lives Lived: Topol, an Israeli actor, took on the role of Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” in his late 20s and reprised the role for decades. He died at 87.SPORTS NEWS FROM THE ATHLETICJim BoeheimChris Carlson/Associated PressA titan: Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim said he would retire after 47 seasons coaching the Orange. He leaves with the second-most wins in N.C.A.A. history.NDA challenge: Erica Herman, Tiger Woods’s former girlfriend, asked a court to release her from a nondisclosure agreement that she says Woods made her sign in 2017.Staying a Yankee: The story of how Aaron Judge turned down more than $40 million extra from the San Diego Padres.ARTS AND IDEAS To glove or not to glove?Chris Ratcliffe/Getty ImagesThe cotton menacePicture a museum worker holding up a centuries-old book. Is the person wearing white gloves? “The glove thing,” one museum director said, wearily, to The Times’s Jennifer Schuessler. “It just won’t die.”People who work with rare books say the conventional wisdom is wrong: Delicate manuscripts should not be handled with gloves — which make fingers clumsy and actually attract dirt — but with clean, bare hands. Barbara Heritage, a curator at the University of Virginia, acknowledged it could be “shocking” to see precious books handled with bare hands. “But that’s how these books were read, and how they were made,” she said.PLAY, WATCH, EATWhat to CookLinda Xiao for The New York TimesSteam, roast or pan-grill this salmon in aluminum foil.What to ReadPatricia Highsmith was excellent at creating psychopathic antiheroes. Browse a guide to her best books.The OscarsWatch scenes from eight of the Best Picture nominees, narrated by their directors.Late NightThe hosts can’t believe Tucker Carlson’s texts about Trump.Now Time to PlayThe pangram from yesterday’s Spelling Bee was embankment. Here is today’s puzzle.Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Let the spirit move you? (three letters).And here’s today’s Wordle. Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow.P.S. “A pro in every aspect of crossword making”: Lynn Lempel published her 100th puzzle in The Times this week.Here’s today’s front page.“The Daily” is about migrant children.Matthew Cullen, Lauren Hard, Lauren Jackson, Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Ashley Wu contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at [email protected] up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.

Policing the Wrong Way

By |2023-02-01T07:41:25-05:00February 1st, 2023|Breonna Taylor|

Memphis’s Scorpion is the latest special police unit to come under scrutiny.The Memphis police officers charged in the death of Tyre Nichols were part of an elite unit known as Scorpion that was set up to crack down on high-crime neighborhoods. The officers’ actions as they stopped and beat Nichols show how the squad’s work could, and did, go very wrong.Stories of botched work by special law enforcement units are notably common in the U.S. In Baltimore, members of a gun-tracing task force robbed residents of cash, drugs and jewelry. By the time federal officials investigated the New Orleans Police Department in 2010, residents perceived its special units as corrupt and brutal. In Los Angeles, a “special investigation section” in the 1990s was involved in multiple deadly shootouts. There are many more examples.Police departments establish these squads with a good intention: addressing a genuine crime problem. But they fall short in the implementation — tainted by poor leadership, the wrong benchmarks or a culture of impunity.Today’s newsletter will explain how Scorpion, which officials in Memphis disbanded last week, fit into a broader pattern in American law enforcement of well-intentioned efforts to fight crime instead leading to abuses.A sound ideaThe Memphis Police Department founded the Scorpion unit in late 2021 to do what officials call “hot-spot” policing.For regular readers of this newsletter, the term may sound familiar. The idea is to focus police resources on high-crime neighborhoods or city blocks or even people (such as repeat offenders). They can also zero in on specific crimes, like shootings or drug trafficking.The term is broad, and over time just about every big-city police department in the U.S. has said it is focusing on hot spots in some way. When done correctly, the strategy reduces crime without simply displacing it to other areas, studies have found.But those three words are the catch: when done correctly. “When people use the term ‘hot-spot policing,’ that could mean lots of different things,” said Anna Harvey, a public safety researcher at New York University.Many departments ignore important tenets of the concept, sometimes resulting in abuses. For example, the Louisville, Ky., police unit that investigated Breonna Taylor’s ex-boyfriend was also following a hot-spot model. (Officers shot Taylor to death in her home in 2020.)In some hot-spot efforts, police officers merely try to make their presence known — to produce a kind of scarecrow effect, as people are less likely to commit crimes in front of an officer. In others, officers aggressively enforce the law with as many stops and arrests as possible. Exemplary hot-spot policing demands a balancing act between maximizing the deterrence of officers’ presence and minimizing the social costs of hassling, stopping and arresting more people.“You can do hot-spot policing in a way that’s super aggressive, or you can do it in a way that’s more respectful,” said Neil Gross, a sociologist at Colby College who studies the police.Flawed implementationSo what went wrong in Memphis? Officials appeared to emphasize the wrong things, experts said.Police officials deployed Scorpion to the city’s most volatile neighborhoods — “hot spots” — to crack down on all sorts of crimes, like reckless driving or shootings, with punitive tactics even against minor offenses.City officials praised Scorpion for high arrest numbers, effectively encouraging aggressive tactics. Chief Cerelyn Davis lauded the approach, advocating “being tough on tough people.” (Officials could have emphasized other goals, like reductions in crime rates in specific neighborhoods, to help focus officers on results instead of antagonistic methods, experts said.)“It’s the command staff implementing a version of hot-spot policing that is not consistent with what the research evidence says is best,” Harvey said.The unit also seemed captured by a culture of impunity. Consider that at least some of the officers who beat Nichols were wearing cameras that were recording their actions. The fact that they punched and kicked Nichols anyway suggests that they thought they were above the law and could get away with it, said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.It is a common phenomenon among American police departments: Evidence-based policies can fall apart in their implementation. Researchers can call for law enforcement strategies that focus on specific places and people and try to minimize the social costs. But if those ideas are filtered through a culture or leadership style that prizes toughness and aggressive action, they can lead to abuse.More Tyre Nichols newsFour officers charged in Nichols’s death had been disciplined before, including two who hadn’t reported using force during arrests, records show.Nichols’s family and the broader community will mourn him at his funeral today.THE LATEST NEWSPoliticsFlorida’s governor, Ron DeSantis.Scott McIntyre for The New York TimesGov. Ron DeSantis proposed to overhaul Florida’s higher education system. His plans would eliminate diversity programs and reduce tenure protections.Republicans won’t say which spending cuts they want in the debt ceiling showdown. President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy are meeting about it today.Bias and human error played a role in the F.B.I.’s failure to predict — or prevent — the Capitol riot, new documents suggest.Representative George Santos, whose résumé was full of fabrications, said he would temporarily recuse himself from his congressional committees.InternationalReviewing drone videos near Bakhmut, Ukraine.Nicole Tung for The New York TimesRussia is sending large numbers of soldiers into Bakhmut, a city in eastern Ukraine that has become an epicenter of fighting.This week’s attack on a mosque in Pakistan that killed more than 100 people has raised fears of a new wave of militancy.Italy’s older population is growing, and its birthrate is plummeting, making it the West’s fastest-shrinking nation.The Justice Department charged four men in the U.S. with involvement in the 2021 assassination of Haiti’s president.Other Big StoriesChief Justice John Roberts’s wife has made millions recruiting lawyers, some with business before the court. Her ties have raised ethics questions.The case against a former N.Y.P.D. detective accused of faking evidence was dismissed after prosecutors withheld evidence.Many Black families say they are leaving New York because raising children there has become too expensive.Black taxpayers are at least three times as likely to be audited by the I.R.S., a study found.The Federal Reserve is having its first meeting of 2023 today and is expected to raise interest rates by a quarter point.Two monkeys that went missing from the Dallas Zoo were found inside a closet at an empty home nearby.OpinionsBanning TikTok would enrage its fans and invite retaliation from China. Pass a law to protect Americans’ online data instead, says Glenn Gerstell.The failures of America’s organ recovery system are killing patients, Kendall Ciesemier says.MORNING READSThe Navy’s Marine Mammal Program in San Diego.Gabriella Angotti-Jones for The New York TimesMine hunters: These Navy dolphins may be geriatric, but they still have a lot to teach us.Memes, rants, private parts: Dissecting Elon Musk’s tweets.The last Boeing 747: The “Queen of the Skies” has left the factory.Bog bodies: Ancient remains reveal an often-violent burial ritual.Advice from Wirecutter: Weatherize your home.Lives Lived: Harold Brown was one of the last surviving Black pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen and faced a lynch mob of villagers in Austria after his plane was downed in 1945. He died at 98. SPORTS NEWS FROM THE ATHLETICHires: Sean Payton, arguably the best coaching candidate on the market, is the new head coach in Denver. The Texans hired another hot name: the 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans.A unique call: North Carolina’s new women’s field hockey coach is Erin Matson, a 22-year-old former star player.ARTS AND IDEAS Salman Rushdie in 2015.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesA resilient author’s returnSalman Rushdie, the author and free speech icon, was stabbed onstage last summer after years of living under the threat of a fatwa. Though the attack left him blind in one eye, he pushed ahead with releasing a new novel. “Victory City,” out next week, is the story of a long-lost empire, told as a translation of a fictitious Sanskrit epic.Fellow writers are seizing the moment to turn attention back to Rushdie’s fiction. “In the face of danger, even in the face of death, he manages to say that storytelling is one currency we all have,” the novelist Colum McCann said.The Times review: “Blindness is foretold in the novel’s very first sentence,” Michael Gorra writes. “In its haunting, uncanny, predictive power ‘Victory City’ shows once again why his work will always matter.”PLAY, WATCH, EATWhat to CookArmando Rafael for The New York TimesRotisserie chicken makes for a nourishing pasta sauce.What to ReadThe novel “Stolen,” by Ann-Helén Laestadius, reflects the culture of an Indigenous people living near the Arctic Circle to a broad audience.What to Watch“Pamela, a Love Story” powerfully rewinds Pamela Anderson’s life and fame.Late NightMike Lindell, the MyPillow founder, appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”Now Time to PlayThe pangram from yesterday’s Spelling Bee was pinewood. Here is today’s puzzle.Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: In good shape (five letters).And here’s today’s Wordle. Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — GermanP.S. Sia Michel, an innovative journalist who has edited Pulitzer Prize-winning criticism, is The Times’s new Culture editor. Here’s today’s front page. “The Daily” is about the U.S. economy.Matthew Cullen, Lauren Hard, Lauren Jackson, Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Ashley Wu contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at [email protected] up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.

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