Abcarian: Mask mandates? COVID origins? Why are we still having these debates?

FILE - A sign requiring masks as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus is posted on a store front in Philadelphia, on Feb. 16, 2022. The Biden administration will significantly loosen federal mask-wearing guidelines to protect against COVID-19 transmission on Friday, according to two people familiar with the matter. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
Continuing — and ridiculous — debates over masking are just another symptom of our political dysfunction. (Matt Rourke / Associated Press)
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On Monday, the White House announced there is no consensus in the Biden administration about whether COVID-19 sprang from a leak in a virus laboratory in China or was the result of a leap from another species to humans.

The announcement was prompted by a Wall Street Journal report that the Department of Energy, one of several federal entities in the intelligence community that has weighed in on the origins of the virus, had “low confidence” that the pandemic started when a novel coronavirus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Some trumpeted this as proof the virus was a Chinese leak. But other parts of the intelligence community disagree.

There are, however, areas of consensus among the agencies investigating COVID's origins, according to a declassified 2021 assessment by the director of national intelligence:

The first cluster of COVID-19 cases emerged out of Wuhan, China, at the end of 2019. The virus was not developed as a biological weapon, and it probably wasn't genetically engineered. Chinese officials knew nothing about the virus before the pandemic emerged. And no one can say with a high degree of certainty whether the virus was the result of animal-to-human transmission or a terribly unfortunate laboratory incident.

Was a lab worker in a highly secure setting inadvertently infected while collecting unknown animal specimens? Or is it more likely that an infection occurred among the many human beings who have frequent, natural contact with animals — hunters, farmers, merchants?

Bottom line: We may never have a definitive answer to the virus’ origins. Beijing has refused (mostly) to cooperate with the world scientific community. It has resisted sharing information and has blamed other countries for the outbreak, including the United States.

As a regular old civilian, I can live with the uncertainty. We know that lab accidents will occur from time to time because human beings and their safety systems are fallible. We also know that diseases can leap between animals and human beings — plague, rabies, Lyme disease, West Nile virus, to name a few.

I reserve my anger for the way the government under former President Trump bungled its response to the disease, the way that some conservative ideologues still push bogus theories, dismiss proven science about the effectiveness of masks and vaccines, and generally demonize experts like Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who devoted a long career to protecting the health and lives of his fellow Americans.

Experts warned for years that the world was overdue for another pandemic. In 2019, the "Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community" included this admonishment: "The United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support.”

Instead of a coordinated response, confusion and conflicting proscriptions reigned, abetted by an American president who took too long to admit the obvious, shot from the hip and seemed to view the pandemic as a personal foe to vanquish using blustery, nonsensical pronouncements. Trump exploited scientific uncertainty about the new virus and, out of fear of being seen as failing, gagged the government’s top scientists, then tried to make them into scapegoats.

Did some health officials overreact? In hindsight yes, but not out of incompetence or malice.

Fauci, who changed his mind about masks, has compared fighting a new disease to “the fog of war.” In an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow last year, he explained his changing outlook: “It really was the evolution of science.” Once it became clear there was not a mask shortage, that asymptomatic infections were common and that the virus spread through breathing particles, or aerosols, Fauci urged people to cover their faces. For this, Republicans want to investigate him? Give me a break.

These continuing — and ridiculous — debates over masking are just another symptom of our political dysfunction. People with absolutely no background in science or medicine decided that they were experts on whether masks and mask mandates were effective. Or, horrors, an infringement on American liberty. It took then-President Trump seven months to wear a face mask in public, because in his warped view, masking was a sign of weakness.

Of course masks are effective in preventing disease transmission. Would you opt for surgery in an operating room full of bare-faced doctors and nurses?

Just last week, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens proclaimed that a new meta-study on masking concluded that “Mask mandates were a bust…. The mainstream experts and pundits who supported mandates were wrong.” Masking, he allowed, should always be a personal choice, not a requirement.

Not so fast, wrote my colleague Michael Hiltzik, who accused Stephens of failing to actually read the study he was quoting. “The two studies in the meta-analysis that actually measured the effect of mask mandates in the COVID-19 pandemic, from Bangladesh and Denmark,” wrote Hiltzik, “showed that mask mandates did reduce infections and the spread of the virus — quite the opposite of a conclusion that they ‘did nothing.’ ”

One thing we can all agree on (I pray) is that vaccines are more effective than masks in preventing serious disease and death. But I daresay there is a large, Venn-diagram overlap of people who refuse to don masks and those who refuse to be vaccinated.

For the latter, especially if they've had COVID, at least a part of their skepticism was recently reinforced by research. A meta study, published in the Lancet, found that natural immunity after COVID-19 infection can be as protective as vaccines. It took nearly three years to substantially confirm the claim, though it is still unclear exactly how long the protection lasts. (It will wear off eventually, so you should still take the vaccine.) Early on, experts downplayed natural immunity because there was no solid evidence for it. Now there is.

I am always going to put more faith in health experts, vaccine developers and doctors than in politicians and right-wing cable TV hosts. When it comes to COVID's prevention and treatment, we didn't know very much at first, and now we know a lot. That’s how science works, folks.


This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.