The Goodall “quote” should be corrected. As the link makes clear, what you quoted is someone’s analysis of what she said, not what she said.

Relevant excerpt from https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2022/jul/27/instagram-posts/no-jane-goodalls-population-comments-didnt-spark-p/

“ The poster expands on his claim in the video, in which he plays a clip of Goodall’s remarks, then cuts in to ask:

"What was the population in the year 1500? About 500 million. What on earth could take place that would cause a planet with 9 billion people on it to be reduced by 95% to 500 million? Hmmm…I wonder if a virus could do that?"”

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Is there a companion piece coming up that looks at reforming our public health agencies and improving their ability to adequately respond to new pandemics? That seems like a big part of being prepared for the next big one.

Also, what does good preparedness look like at the local or state level? Let’s say I’m the mayor of Orlando and my public health department has been doing wastewater monitoring and they tell me a scary new disease is detected. What should I do? What’s the response plan?

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I still remain confused why Everybody Knows ventilation is the greatest thing since sliced idiom, but in practice it's gotten implemented...not much at all? Or even just maintaining/repairing already-existing HVAC systems. Even outside of covid, I've heard so many positive cost-benefit things about reducing indoor air pollution and increasing oxygen levels that it sure feels like a low-hanging $20 fruit lying on the ground. Why don't we do more of this? Unlike pan-vaccines, it doesn't even require new science or enormous financial resources..."Gentlemen, we have the capability!"

Separately, it'll be kind of sad if factory farming ends because all the animals got killed by avoidable diseases before we could reform the system intentionally. I hope it's even possible to go back to traditional agriculture, if such a fate befalls our livestock.

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Aug 24, 2022·edited Aug 24, 2022

I actually think that this post is a smidge misleading in focusing on bioterrorism. Studying pandemics and teaching public health has convinced me that the major threat most Americans fail to think about is the growth of megacities in sub/tropical waterfront zones in less wealthy countries. (If you are curious about my work, including the hilariously on-point museum exhibit I did in November 2019 on the historical experience of pandemics, check out my website.)

Regardless of whether you think Covid was a lab leak, its emergence in a Wuhan wet market perfectly fits this set of circumstances:

1) Wuhan is a "new" megacity (i.e. more than 10 million residents, explosive growth in the last 50 years), which means that many residents are first- or second-generation city dwellers with deep continuing ties to other places.

2) Like most of the newer megacities, it has a relatively less affluent population, which is one reason--though not the only one--why it has a huge wet market.

3) It is unusual for being inland, but it is still constructed in a historic wetland, on the Yangtze.

4) Wuhan is well-connected to the global market / production system.

I will not go long on the specifics, except to say that this is a more or less perfect set of circumstances for nurturing new infectious disease outbreaks. Some of the factors are probably obvious to everyone who reads this (density, population, etc.), but some you might not be thinking about. Just to name two, wetlands and warmer areas are more conducive to both pathogens and vectors (like mosquitoes), and cities with high percentages of first- and second-generation rural-to-urban migrants experience constant flows in and out because of internal travel (go back to the village to visit family), which means you basically have a much higher flow of humans across different immunological / disease zones.

Bottom line is that I worry a lot less about bioterrorism than about old-school novel infectious disease outbreaks, whether they are species jumpers, mutants of existing pathogens, or lab leaks. And I worry a lot about those. We have lived through a bunch of either actual or potential events already in just my lifetime--HIV, ebola, SARS, MERS, flu, Covid, zika, monkeypox, resurgent resistant strains of TB and gonorrhea--although most of them went unnoticed because they did not end up being a big deal or haven't become a big deal yet (i.e. the last flu pandemic was a relatively mild strain). But the truth is that we are getting hit on the regular. A Covid style event was just a matter of time, and the same is probably true of something worse.

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"The main reason I’m skeptical of the Covid-19 lab leak skeptics is that they seem to treat the idea of a lab leak as inherently improbable."

"That being said, I don’t particularly want to rehash the Covid-19 origin story because I think it’s become counterproductive."

Ooooooh, so close to admitting that the evidence points in the other direction!

But in all seriousness, I think your first statement is wrong. It's not that most lab leak skeptics treat that hypothesis as improbable (on the contrary, it very much is something we should worry about, as you nicely lay out today). It's that it's always seemed far more likely to be a zoonotic origin, and the evidence for the lab leak doesn't amount to anything more than "there's a virology research institute in Wuhan and the Chinese government is untrustworthy." Which, to be fair, is not nothing, but the onus really should be on the lab leak proponents to build a better case for it. Meanwhile, the zoonotic hypothesis has been carefully and thoroughly investigated (see https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abp8715, and Derek Lowe for further commentary: https://www.science.org/content/blog-post/origins-pandemic---under-rug). But as you rightly state, we need to worry about zoonotic origins as well! So I'm not sure why we can't just say "accidental lab leaks are possible and have nearly happened before, even if not in this particular case."

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Not to beat a dead horse, but two of EA's biggest planks are pandemic prevention and widespread factory farming reform. It ain't all AI risk.

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Matt’s post is a cri du coure for serenity. We are all going to die. We are much less likely to die in the next year than our pleistocene ancestors, our medieval european ancestors, our early industrial ancestors, or even Americans 50 years ago. Of course, our minds are really good at imagining ways we could die— asteroid risk, climate change, nuclear war, bioterrorism. Yet these exotic risks have killed very few people. It’s easy to imagine mass casualty scenarios precisely because we lack robust data on how these things kill people.

If I want to live longer, my best strategy is to eat fewer calories and less saturated fat and drink less alcohol. That strategy has proven results as obesity, clogged arteries and booze combine to kill millions of Americans every year. I should probably stay married, which also has proven longevity benefits. Controlling my appetites and maintaining my marriage are hard enough, and would be harder still if I walked around freaking out about AI risk.

“Honey, could you fix us a salad?”.

“No baby, I need to understand AI risk, why don’t you order pizza.”

“I wish you loved me enough to make healthy food.”

“It’s hard to focus on that when the world sucks so much.”

(queue the cork screw and possibly the divorce lawyers).

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“The main reason I’m skeptical of the Covid-19 lab leak skeptics is that they seem to treat the idea of a lab leak as inherently improbable.” This statement strikes me as weasely imprecise and only correct (or “fair,” since it’s a “seems” statement) if you cherry-pick your skeptics or skeptical claims. Most prominent lab-leak skeptics I’ve read readily acknowledge the absolutely essential need for great care in lab settings because of the real risks—many seriously entertained (and subsequently investigated) the possibility. If “inherently improbable” is supposed to describe their estimation of the likelihood that “some lab leak of some disease happens sometime,” then I don’t think that fairly describes their view. Nor is it improbable that “someone wins the lottery.” But the likelihood of any one person winning the lottery is improbable, and so is the likelihood of any particular instance of a lab leak. For Covid, the fact that it emerged near a lab significantly raised that low baseline probability, but no one’s found evidence of any of the additional markers we would expect to find if there was a lab leak.

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This post is all over the place and in some spots nonsensical. I've been tangentially associated with the bioweapons community during my working career (consultant to the former Congressional Office of Technology Assessment as well as to the Dept. of State prior to the 3rd Review Conference on the Biological Weapons Convention and a participant in Federation of American Scientists' work group on this issue). Anything associated with high dread worries the public as Paul Slovic's seminal work in the late 1970s demonstrated.

Microorganisms mutate all the time (thank you Charles Darwin) and this has been a fact of life for centuries. Pandemics come and go (Black Plague, 1918-19 influenza, and 1957 Asian Flu, etc). The failed response to Covid-19 is multi-factorial and books have and will be written about this. All we can request of policy makers is to use common sense, prepare, and react.

Yes, we do need more antibiotics but recognize that the easy work of natural product screening has already been done and new approaches are required. However, recognize that most illness and fatalities arising from the bacterial infections shown in the table are more a function of the individual's health (malnourishment, immunocompromised, etc.).

If Matt set out to scare his readership, I guess he achieved that goal. He didn't scare me.

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Yep, 'tis a mystery why the infrastructure bill did not include money for ventilation/UV sterilization and universal vaccines or even just a bunch of MNR single strain vaccines for different families that could be tweaked for whichever strain of virus family Y turns up.

But in a way it's just part of the same mystery as to why these things were not done FOR COVID! [Hint it's more the fault of the PHE [Public Health Establishment than Donald Trump.]

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There’s actually also a Tom Clancy novel about this idea (Executive Orders) where Ebola is weaponized and spread at a business conference. I believe President Jack Ryan ends up enforcing a nationwide lockdown (the national guard literally prevents people from crossing state lines) lol

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I liked One Billion Americans a lot but today's post raises all sorts of issues against a larger world population (unless, perhaps, we go vegetarian on a large scale).

Concentrated agriculture just asks for this type of accidents. Some people (eg https://ourworldindata.org/mammals but estimates vary a bit, apparently) believe that mammal bio mass is currently 35% human, 63% livestock and 2% wild mammals (23%, 60%, 17% in 1900, respectively) and with a substantially larger world population, this is unlikely to improve.

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The fact that this post could be read and commented on avidly by large numbers of people now whereas had it been written in, say, 2018, it would have been greeted with a few sage nods and then people would move on should tell us something. And that something is the way presentism manipulates our attention.

Are future pandemics a threat? Sure. So are lots of things. If the New Madrid fault erupts again like it did in 1812, not only would the devastation be biblical but it would so direct our attention to earthquake-proofing infrastructure (too late!) as to make our heads spin. If one terrorist managed to bring down an airliner with a MANPADS, we would talk and act about nothing else.

We'll always have diseases new and old afflicting us, but the big ones like COVID and Spanish flu are likely to remain fairly rare, no matter what our presentism biases scream at us. The question is how do we take sensible steps to avert or mitigate threats while we pay requisite attention to all the other low-probability catastrophes that may hit us in the coming decades.

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There are better masks already on the market: Cambridge Mask makes comfortable adjustable reuseable FFP2 (European equivalent to N95/KN95) masks.

They are essentially an FFP2 filter sewn inside a comfortable cloth mask, but getting the full authorisation meant they have had to pay a lot of attention to the way the cloth sits on the face of the user and how good a seal they get.

So why aren't they everywhere? Why aren't they making an enormous profit? No-one in government or public health is saying that some masks are better than others, or more comfortable than others - resulting in most people having just tried an early-pandemic cloth mask or a surgical mask and never really considered using something better.

I'm a happy customer; this is not a paid promotion for Cambridge Mask; it is a personal recommendation.

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Big "Don't Look Up" vibes in today's column.

And yes, the total failure to do much reforming of pandemic preparedness in the US is incredibly discouraging.

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More people than need to be are weirdly obsessed with the lab leak hypothesis.

Here's the thing: both lab leaks and zoonotic stuff needs addressed urgently and that doesn't change based upon whether COVID came from a lab or not.

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