China

Did a strange lab leak cause the COVID-19 pandemic?

Photo by KOBU Agency on Unsplash

In November and December 2019 a novel corona virus began circulating in China. The world -and China’s citizens- first learned of this thanks to a group of Chinese whistle blowers , including Opthamologist Dr Li Wenliang, who would ultimately die of the virus. These whistle blowers were denounced by their administrators and some of them -such as Dr. Wenliang- received a police warning. After he died from COVID-19 on February 7, 2020 there was a wave of popular outrage, and sympathy for his pregnant widow, which caused authorities to censor Chinese social media platforms. So the Chinese state sought to conceal the COVID-19 outbreak in its early stages, much as it once did with SARS. But where did the virus come from? And what do we know about its origins?

Wet markets have often been associated with the start of earlier outbreaks of infectious diseases, such as avian influenza and SARS. This makes sense because these environments bring together a diversity of wild animals that may carry unknown pathogens. Packed into cages in poorly ventilated areas, viruses can passage across the species barrier in a way that would be difficult to achieve in the wild. When the outbreak first appeared in China, many people first looked at cases that appeared to be associated with a local wet market. But as earlier cases became known, the tie to the wet market lacked strong support in the data, although a recent study perhaps strengthens this case.

Attention turned to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which reportedly had collected novel bat viruses, including some from a cave in Yunnan. Lab leaks have caused pandemics before. For example, in 1977 an influenza pandemic swept the world. Because the virus was nearly identical to historical samples from an earlier outbreak, there have been suspicions that it began as a result of a lab leak in the Soviet Union. Gain of function experiments -in which scientists deliberately increase either the transmissibility or infectiousness of an infectious agent have been controversial for many years for this reason. Accidents have happened.

Nearly a decade ago I was attending an influenza conference in Oxford, and happened to have breakfast with three well-known figures in the field of influenza virology. One of the people at the table was an outspoken advocate for gain of function research. This person’s work had attracted international controversy on this issue. He/she was an outspoken, confident person, who was more than willing to talk about the gain of function debate, and appeared to enjoy both the attention and the controversy. I thought that this person was eloquent, informed and generous in sharing their thoughts with a complete nobody like me. I was enjoying the conversation immensely. But as the discussion went on, another person at the table -a legend in influenza virology- became increasingly glum looking as he or she picked at their eggs. I felt increasingly awkward, and noticed that my charming colleague didn’t seem to be noticing their colleagues’ withdrawal from the conversation.

Finally, the gain of function researcher turned to another person -a German colleague- and said words to the effect: “You understand how these constraints are maddening.” And this German researcher said (as best as I can recall): “Yes, but I don’t do anything nearly as dangerous as you do.” One thing that I loved when I used to lecture in Germany (actually, I loved everything about Germany) was how frank my students were in giving feedback, and this response was true to form. What I took from the debate was the extent to which gain of function research worried even those people with the best practical knowledge of laboratory work with influenza viruses. As time has passed, there has been increasingly skepticism that gain of function research will produce knowledge at all worthy of the risks. But did the Wuhan Institute of Virology in fact have novel corona virus sequences, and -if so- what kind of research was being done with these strains? …

The sticky intermediate language trap

I am a Chinese and Portuguese language learner, which is one of the great joys of my life. I’m currently somewhere at the lower intermediate level in Chinese. I’m studying around HSK 4 level material (old level), although since my tutors are Taiwanese my curriculum doesn’t match the mainland’s well. I love Chinese study, and typically spend at least an hour a day at it. But I also find -as most language learners do- that the intermediate language level has some challenges. I want to talk about those in the context of Chinese, and some advantages too:

  1. I sometimes have enough vocabulary to ask a question or tell a story, but not enough vocabulary to understand the response. It’s like playing ping pong, and I can hit the ball over the net, but sometimes I just stand there when the ball comes back.
  2. It’s difficult to see consistent improvement in your language ability. At the basic level, your language skills can improve significantly in a month. Those days are gone.
  3. Worse, your language ability can seem to fluctuate widely from day to day. I had a rough language class last summer. My teacher told something to the effect: “Sometimes you speak at the HSK 3 level or even higher. And sometimes it’s like you’re at the beginner level.” It was true, and I was struggling to understand it. I talked to me friend Kim in Applied Linguistics, who said that linguistic ability depends so much on context. Are you tired? Is it a topic that you’re not fully comfortable with? For some reason, are you and your tutor not having the best day? Your language level is not fixed but fluctuates, which we need to learn to accept.
  4. Yes, it helps if you’ve already learned another language. But that can also be a trap. I truly learned Portuguese living in an apartment in Brazil with my student roommates and their friends. My first four months living on my own in Brazil my language learning was painfully slow. But then in the next five -when I started living with my room-mates- my learning sky-rocketed, and felt nearly effortless. At this point, I’m not sure COVID-19 is going to allow me to travel to Taibei for my Taiwan Fellowship this fall. So I may have to continue learning Chinese outside of an immersion environment. Of course, that’s likely how most people in the world learn a language. So we need to keep learning strategies to stay motivated. But my main point is it’s not good to compare your ability or path in one language with another, which can be demotivating. In Portuguese my focus is currently on learning European vocabulary, slang and structures. But I want to stay with a standard south-eastern Brazilian dialect in my own speaking. These kinds of language choices are so far in the future with my Chinese that there is no point comparing the two languages. Don’t compare. What worked with one language won’t always translate to another one.

Of course there are some advantages at the intermediate level:

  1. With Chinese, it’s much easier to learn new characters, because most of them build on older characters. Oftentimes I can guess how to say an HSK 4 level word based on the characters, even if I have no idea of its meaning.
  2. I can begin to read stories. I’ve begun graded readers with “Journey to the West.” The first month trying to read was painfully difficult. Over the last few months it’s become dramatically easier. Even though my overall Chinese doesn’t improve in short periods, it’s possible to make major progress on sub-areas of your language ability in a time period that still feels meaningful. I’m not yet at a good enough level with my listening to follow Chinese-language podcasts, but I hope to reach that point in the next year or two. I feel that point -when you can really read and listen on your own- is when you start to make rapid progress.
  3. It’s possible to be more independent. I am beginning to think that I don’t need a teacher as much as a conversational partner. I can study textbooks, grammar and vocabulary on my own. What I need is someone who can help me to use what I’ve learned. I think that this takes some pressure off learning, because you can be more self-directed. Of course, for many people a more formal curriculum is motivating. I really needed that for my first few years studying Chinese. But I’m finding that I’m at the point that I don’t want to do any more homework with numbered exercises. I’d much rather discover a new grammar point while talking, and then go read about it on my own at the Chinese grammar wiki. This makes language learning more flexible and fun.

How do we as language learners deal with these challenges? I really respect Steve Kaufmann, a polyglot, who speaks Japanese, Chinese, Arabic and many other languages. One point that he makes is that it’s about spending time with the language, and not focusing on small victories or defeats. If you do, you’ll become dispirited. You won’t likely see much progress in the space of a month any more. But you will over a year. Kaufmann also argues that you need to vary your input method. If you keep focusing on just one approach -a tutor, a software platform, graded readers- you’ll burn out. I find this to have been really great advice, and try to consistently switch how I study, often more than once in a day. Lastly, Kaufmann says that you have to make language learning fun. Or you won’t do it. I actually think that’s the most important advice.

I always say the same thing about language learning. There are no short-cuts. You have to put in the time. Find a way that gives you joy; spend time with it regularly; and don’t take it too seriously. Just don’t give up.

Shawn Smallman, 2021

For language nerds- -if you are interested in how people learn a language -and the language acquisition model that many polyglots follow- I recommend Matt in Japan’s channel. You can see a brief video about Matt’s learning journey and experience here.

The warning signs in Hong Kong

In 2017 I traveled to Hong Kong to do research for a paper about the pandemic risks posed by wet markets (marketplaces which sold and slaughtered live animals). I traveled to wet markets large and small, and took notes on their practices and clientele. I also interviewed public health experts and doctors about the territories system to control avian influenza in poultry.

Card in a Shenzhen hotel, which explains China’s internet restrictions to guests. Sorry for the bad lighting. Photo by Shawn Smallman

While in Hong Kong, I also traveled to Macau and Shenzhen. When I crossed into mainland China, I was struck by the extent to which information was restricted. It’s one thing to know that China has a separate digital ecosystem. It’s another to no longer be able to use Google Maps, and to know that there’s no point in even trying to use a VPN to connect with websites at home. When I arrived in Shenzhen, I found this card in my hotel. You couldn’t access your files in Google Drive, check Twitter, watch a YouTube video, or see your kids’ posts on Instagram. The Great Firewall of China is  both pervasive and efficient.

While I was in Hong Kong, I also had an opportunity to talk to someone whom I greatly respected. At one point in our discussion they asked me “Do people see what is happening here in Hong Kong? Are they following what is happening here?” I said that no, in my opinion most Americans did not. In the United States people were focused on the new presidency of Donald Trump. She/he seemed very disappointed by my answer, and asked the same question again with slightly different wording. I gave the same answer. In 2017, I don’t think most Americans -and perhaps most Europeans- were carefully following what was happening in Hong Kong. That would change over the next year and a half. …

Privacy & Cookies: This site uses cookies. See our Privacy Policy for details. By continuing to use this website, you agree to their use. If you do not consent, click here to opt out of Google Analytics.