Physician Joel Zinberg joins Brian Anderson to discuss the success of the vaccine rollout in beating back the pandemic, the lab-leak theory of Covid-19’s origins, and the Biden administration’s push to waive intellectual-property protections for vaccines.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Joel Zinberg. Joel is a senior fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute and an Associate Clinical Professor of Surgery at the Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine. He was a Senior Economist and General Counsel at the White House Council of Economic Advisers from 2017 to 2019.

He's been writing regularly for City Journal throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. His latest article, Following the Politics, Not the Science, discusses the lab leak theory of the virus' origins, which has been a hot topic of late. So, Joel, thanks for joining us again on the podcast.

Joel Zinberg: My pleasure.

Brian Anderson: Before we get to that hot topic, the pandemic's origins, I think it makes sense just to start with a general discussion of where we are in the pandemic in the US. I think the last time we had you on 10 Blocks was in January. Things seem very different now. The vaccination effort in the US, I think most people would say, has been a big success with more than half of all Americans now having received at least one dose. The cases and deaths are way down. There's some concern still with variants of the virus, but so far anyway, the vaccination drive seems to have kept ahead of the spread of new variants. So where do you think we are with the pandemic? Is that too rosy a view that I'm picturing or not? What's your view of what the next months will look like?

Joel Zinberg: I don't think it's too rosy a view at all. In fact, you may recall, I wrote an article for City Journal back at the beginning of April suggesting that between vaccine immunity, in other words the people who've gained it through vaccination and natural immunity, people who've become immune through getting COVID-19 and then recovering, we might be approaching herd immunity. What we've seen since that time, since early in mid-April, is that cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have steadily declined. So I think we were already approaching it at that point, and we're in an even better position now.

You refer to the total numbers of people as a percentage of the population vaccinated, but I think it's more important to look at adults, meaning 18 or older. There you have more than 50% are fully vaccinated, and almost two-thirds have gotten at least one dose, which is pretty close to as effective as getting fully vaccinated. So that's the population that's at risk because people 17 and younger have really a very minimal risk from COVID-19. They form 0.1% of all deaths of COVID are in that 17 and younger population. So we've got the population that's most vulnerable to COVID has gotten pretty well vaccinated.

In fact, if you look at the people who are far and away the most vulnerable people, 65 and older, who form 81% of all COVID deaths, there you have more than three-quarters are fully vaccinated and 86% have gotten at least one dose. So we're really well on our way to one, full herd immunity, which is probably meaning 70 to 75% of the population has immunity. And we've done a good job protecting those folks who are most vulnerable. Even for the remaining people who are unvaccinated, most of them are in a very low-risk group.

Brian Anderson: Well, it's very encouraging to see for sure. The vaccine rollout elsewhere globally has obviously not been quite as successful. The UK and Israel are in good shape, but other countries are not. India has, of late, had a terrible rise in cases and deaths, although I think that has leveled off somewhat now and is declining. But other countries are struggling as well. They just don't have enough vaccine doses or because the vaccines that they are relying on are aren't as effective as the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or the Johnson & Johnson used in the US. The Biden administration recently did announce that it's going to send vaccine doses abroad. That's obviously something that will be helpful, but it also recently signaled support to wave intellectual property protections for vaccine technology. So I'm wondering what your view of that IP waiver is, and whether that's likely really to accelerate the vaccination of the globe, or is it more likely to endanger biomedical innovation, which other critics are saying it will do.

Joel Zinberg: I think it's the latter. That it's going to endanger the innovation that really in an unprecedented manner brought us three approved vaccines within the space of about a year after this new disease was first described and the new virus uncovered. That has just never happened. It usually takes many years and tens of billions of dollars to develop new vaccines, and now we're in a situation where you have this incredible achievement. Giving away that intellectual property is going to discourage any manufacturer going forward from making that kind of investment and commitment.

Moreover, you have a situation where this is not an easy vaccine, particularly the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and from Moderna. These are not easy vaccines to manufacture. Just giving someone the intellectual property doesn't mean they can set up the specialized manufacturing facilities to make it. So this is really not the way to go.

The way to go is to take our excess vaccine. So for example, we have millions of doses of AstraZeneca vaccine still not approved in this country, and we can give those away to other countries. We can give away Johnson & Johnson vaccine because of the unfortunate pause that the Biden, FDA and CDC undertook, I think has undermined confidence to some extent in that Johnson & Johnson vaccine. But it's highly effective, it's safe, and it's actually perfect for developing countries because it only needs a single dose rather than the two-dose regimen that you have with the Moderna and the Pfizer vaccines. So the way to go is to give the excess surplus vaccines away, and if necessary buy vaccines here, because these are not expensive vaccines. These are life-saving drugs, first in their class, the mRNA vaccines, yet they're selling for about $30 for the vaccination. That's a really pretty cheap price. Rather than cripple the US industry, maybe take some money with a small investment and help folks overseas with it.

Brian Anderson: How do you see the pandemic unfolding around the world in the near to medium term? What's the rest of the year look like to you in that situation?

Joel Zinberg: A lot is going to depend on what happens with variants. Thank goodness that to date the variants all seem to be susceptible to the vaccines that are available. That may not always be the case, and we may get new variants. But as long as these vaccines remain effective against the circulating viruses, we will eventually reach herd immunity worldwide. And that, as I said, I have to reiterate that is a combination of vaccine immunity and natural immunity from people who recover from COVID.

One thing that has become clear and which I think many of our media colleagues were not terribly clear on over the past year, is that COVID-19, as bad as it is, does not have an infection fatality rate that is anything on a par with something like Ebola or even the first SARS. The first SARS-1, which was from about 17 years ago, there you had a 10% fatality rate if you got infected. Ebola, you have about a 50% fatality rate. In the case of COVID-19, your fatality rate, it's less than 1%. It's probably on the order of 0.2 to 0.3% all told, which is more than influenza, but it's maybe twice as much more than influenza. It's not that terrible. So for young healthy people, where the fatality rate's probably even lower than that, this is not a disease that most of them are going to have to worry about. Hopefully we'll see the evolution of this take place over the next several months where more vaccines gets sent overseas and people recover from the disease and we obtain herd immunity worldwide.

Brian Anderson: On to this lab leak theory, the possibility that the pandemic was borne from research that was being conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, there's been a flood of information in recent weeks. Scientists are now calling for further investigation into the theory. The media, which had written the theory off as a conspiracy story in the pandemic's early stages, is now acknowledging that it's at least a real possibility. So could you just discuss the lab leak theory a bit? How would the virus have escaped, practically speaking, from the Wuhan Institute of Virology? What kind of research was being performed there?

Joel Zinberg: There are basically two outstanding theories about the origins of COVID-19. The first theory is that, as has happened with other coronaviruses, like the original SARS and MERS, that there was an animal intermediary, and that this was a natural jump from a reservoir of coronavirus in bats through another animal and into humans. The second theory is that this was a virus that was in the Wuhan Laboratory, either because it was found elsewhere and was brought into the laboratory to study, or it was found elsewhere, brought into the laboratory to study and was manipulated while it was there, so what's known as gain of function research where the virus is altered to make it more infectious to human beings. But in any event, whether it was altered or not, that it escaped from the laboratory probably by accident and probably via infecting lab personnel, who then went out into the community and infected other people.

That's why the revelation from some Wall Street Journal reporters that there were three lab workers from that laboratory who were hospitalized in November 2019, which is the month prior to the first reported case in Wuhan in December 2019 is so important. It would provide an explanation as to how it got out of the laboratory and into the community.

I would add that that Wall Street Journal report echoed a January 15th State Department fact sheet that said that they had information that some of the lab workers had gotten sick with COVID-like symptoms. So no one knows 100% if those people were infected and had COVID back in November, but it's certainly highly suggestive, particularly when you consider that Wuhan in China is the home of their foremost Virology Institute, which is known for conducting coronavirus research. It's known that they send out researchers throughout China hundreds of miles away to collect bats and to collect the viruses from the bats to study. It's also known that they engage in gain of function research. So all of those factors, the geography and the now apparent cases back in November, start to suggest quite strongly that there may have been a lab leak.

Brian Anderson: This isn't one of the great moments in media history, the way the pandemic was covered last year. This kind of discussion was viewed as, as I just noted, a kind of conspiracy theory. Public health authorities together with most mainstream outlets in the press manufactured a scientific consensus about the pandemic's origins and then they labeled dissent from that verboten. Eventually this has become untenable. We are all debating this now. But this process played itself out in other areas during the pandemic as well. This kind of censoring of what can be legitimately discussed. Are you optimistic at all that this latest shift will prompt at last a kind of reconsideration on the part of the press of what their priorities have been in covering these public health issues? Or is that just wishful thinking?

Joel Zinberg: Well, I hope you are correct that this will make the press a bit more curious about what's going on because they were remarkably incurious throughout this last year-and-a-half as to what was going on. I mean, there were lots of indications early on in the scientific community through published work from Chinese scientists, from American scientists, there was a group of French scientists from Marseilles that published about certain features of this new virus that made it look like it might be engineered.

Unfortunately, what happened was, even though we now know from some of these leaked ... Well, they're not leaked anymore, they were released emails from Anthony Fauci in his various correspondence that some of these scientists early on were suggesting, "Gee, there are features of this virus that make it look like it might be engineered." I can go into those if you'd like. But putting that aside, some of those same scientists then came out in some very highly-publicized articles and said, "No, this is not a lab leak. This is of natural origin." It was a very peculiar thing now in retrospect why they were doing that. But they provided cover for the journalists who wanted to downplay the possibility of a lab leak.

I think one need only look at who was suggesting that we look into a lab leak, and that was President Trump, and it was conservatives like Senator Cotton to understand that a good part of the media rationale was that if these folks say it, then it must be crazy and it must be wrong, and we have to nip it in the bud. And that's exactly what happened. Unfortunately, the scientists provided cover for that. So hopefully that's going to change. But I don't know, there was a New York Times reporter recently who tweeted, "We should stop talking about a lab leak hypothesis because that's racist." There's still folks who are suggesting that, "Nope, this lab leak stuff, that's just Trump. Don't believe it." I hope you are correct that this is going to change, but time will tell.

Brian Anderson: A final question for today, Joel, would be about what the implications are for the evolution of the virus if it was manipulated, if it was something that was in part created in a lab. Does that, I don't know if anybody knows the answer to this, but I haven't really read anything saying, "Well, this might mean it will mutate in more aggressive ways," or, "It might fall apart after a time because it's not completely borne in nature." I wonder if you've got any thoughts about that.

Joel Zinberg: That's very hard to know what will happen over time. But that's part of the evidence that suggests that this might in fact be a lab leak. Because what was seen in earlier coronavirus pandemics was that you had a virus, it came out from a natural source, and over time you could trace the evolution of that virus and see how it mutated or changed so that it became more infective to human beings, more transmissible.

With this virus, the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, when it first comes out, it appears to be a highly efficient infector of human beings. It has a 12-letter or nucleic acid, really is the correct term insertion in the middle of it that makes it a very highly effective infector of human cells. That 12-letter piece, that segment, includes a central six-letter segment that includes two triplets, really, of nucleic acids that are almost never found in coronaviruses. So it's highly suggestive that something was done to these viruses. They came out being very infectious to humans. We haven't seen tremendous evolution of those viruses, even though we're on a year from the original description of the viruses. So it's hard to know, but hopefully this thing came out highly infectious, and it's not going to get any worse.

Brian Anderson: Well, that's very, very illuminating, Joel. Thanks as always for coming on 10 Blocks. Don't forget to check out Joel's work on the City Journal website, Will link to his author page in the description. He's been writing as I noted at the top, extensively on the pandemic, every aspect of it over the last year-and-a-half for us. You can also find City Journal on Twitter, @Cityjournal and on Instagram @Cityjournal_MI. If you like what you've heard on the show, as always, please give us a five-star rating on iTunes. Joel, thanks again.

Joel Zinberg: You're very welcome.

Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images

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