The origin of Covid

7 September, 2021

The origin of Covid

The Anglo-Saxon press keeps the origin of Covid’s virus -SARS-CoV-2- as an open question. Scientists however realized long ago that the theory of “escape from the laboratory” has no material basis. The theory of animal origin, defended in the WHO report, strengthens and, far from excusing Chinese capitalism, reveals its most anti-human contradictions… and those of capitalism in general.

Table of Contents

The Wuhan laboratory leak theory

The P4 lab in Wuhan claimed by conspiracy theorists to have been the origin of Covid.
The P4 lab in Wuhan claimed by conspiracy theorists to have been the origin of Covid.

The theory that Covid originated in a lab was originally floated by Trump with no apparent basis. After some initial skepticism, the Anglo-Saxon mainstream media gave it some traction and even Science published some brief articles paving the way for it. The resistance of most scientists and the association with Trumpism kept it relatively sidelined. But then, with Biden securely in office, it resurfaced after the “revelations” of a group of amateurs published by Newsweek magazine under the title: “How amateur sleuths broke the Wuhan lab story and embarrassed the media.”.

This resurgence under the Biden presidency, supposedly purified of its Trumpist origins, shifted it from a subject of derision about Trump and his love of self-serving conspiracy-mongering, into a veritable mandatory article of faith. In Biden’s official speech it is the basis for keeping “open questions” and denouncing Beijing’s government’s concealment of supposedly key information. The reality: keeping the shadow of a Chinese conspiracy seems to be at this point the main ideological banner of imperialist tensions in Asia even for the EU.

So much so that in the US Dr. Fauci, the consensus epidemiologist among Republicans and Democrats who led the US scientific collaboration with China at the beginning of the pandemic, has been subjected to a rapid and forceful ostracism and disappeared from the public spotlight after asserting to the New York Times that he had seen no evidence to justify the laboratory theory nor did he believe such evidence existed. It did him little good to partially recant later and go on to say that “further research is needed“. Full acceptance and more zeal are required.

The reality is that Fauci, in the face of political pressure, wanted to play both sides, and say something about the origin of Covid that was acceptable for propaganda yet without denying what the vast majority of scientists see at a glance: that the lab leak theory is incoherent and the NewsWeek story is a non-starter.

The conspiratorial account of the origin of Covid has all the hallmarks of war propaganda. In fact, it looks like a sophisticated version of one of the most successful disinformation campaigns of Russian military intelligence during the Cold War: the supposedly artificial origin of AIDS.

For instance, the argument published by Newsweek would have you believe that storing in your computer the RNA sequence of a virus which has never been isolated is the same thing as working with the infectious virus in the laboratory. But storing a sequence of bits on your computer is not going to cause a pandemic.

It is said that the miners died after a coronavirus infection was suspected, but they omit mentioning that any viral infection was medically ruled out as a cause of death. The statement “miners died after a coronavirus infection was believed to be present” is technically correct but leads to a false interpretation… intentionally.

The origin of Covid, wildlife and the plight of China’s peasantry

Game meat in Wuhan's "wet market". These markets, likely the origin of Covid, sold not only game meat but also live wild animals.
Game meat in Wuhan’s “wet market”. These markets, likely the origin of Covid, sold not only game meat but also live wild animals.

Since the start of the pandemic, the dominant hypothesis about the origin of Covid has been an animal origin and indeed scientific articles and WHO research have corroborated it. These were not domestic animals either. Although environmentalists attempted to turn things to their own advantage by pointing to mega-farms and the industrial exploitation of tropical rainforests, the origin of Covid clearly seems to lie in the trade of wild species by farmers.

The mega-farms and the plundering of the environment by concentrated capital are real and well-known symptoms of the contradiction between economic growth and human development characteristic of decadent capitalism. But they are not the origin of Covid.

The origin of Covid was not some alleged intrinsic need to extract and commodify rainforests inherent to the late capitalism of the Global North as environmentalism claims and Andreas Malm picks up on in “Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency”. It was a marginal consequence, mediated by the class struggle, of Chinese domestic capital’s need for accumulation of Chinese domestic capital.

Environmentalism neglects the fact that underlying the expansion of this type of business in China lies the politically orchestrated pressure on an impoverished peasantry. Chinese capital was aware at all times since its bid to become the factory of the world, that in order to maintain competitive wages and attract investment it needed to maintain very low prices for staple foods. The peasantry paid for much of this industrialization through hunger. And to maintain social peace, that is, to dampen class struggle, the Chinese state encouraged peasants to bring wild animals to market.

Environmentalism, Corona, Climate. Chronic Emergency and Andreas Malm, 10/3/2021

The details and background on how these conditions came about for the pandemic to occur are gradually becoming known. The most comprehensive research on the specific mechanisms which converged at the origin of Covid was published this past August in Nature.

The research recounted how the African swine fever virus (ASFV) pandemic, led to the slaughter of 150 million pigs in China and produced a reduction in pork supply of 11.5 million tons in 2019. Although production of alternatives grew, they did not grow sufficiently, which coupled with restrictions on pork transportation and industrial relocations “reduced pork availability in the eastern and southern provinces, resulting in much steeper price increases in these regions.”

The result was at the same time the ruin of a mass of small farmers who were already very poor and a “market opportunity” which they seized, encouraged by bureaucrats who had no other relief to offer to an economically desperate situation. This is the true origin of Covid.

As a result, police turned a blind eye not only to the sale of live wildlife meat and live wildlife in markets, but to the use of cold chain and refrigerated transport for animals that fell outside of food health and control mechanisms. The investigators recall that the WHO report “recorded carcasses of wild animals, in particular badgers, abandoned in freezers in Huanan market, as well as their sale as frozen products at the end of December 2019”. All the conditions for the emergence and spread of an epidemic were in place.

The reality of hunting and the useless patches of bureaucracy and ideology

In Europe, game hunting is subject to mandatory veterinary controls.
In Europe, game hunting is subject to mandatory veterinary controls.

Aware from the start of where Covid came from – and its responsibility for it – the Chinese bureaucracy banned the sale and slaughter of wild animals in February. That same month it added more than 500 species to the list of protected animals in an attempt to deter the peasantry through repression. This is the usual repressive spring of the state in general and the Chinese bureaucracy in particular.

The reality however is that the ban is little more than a band-aid if the underlying causes are not addressed. But once again the dominant ideology appears in order to make matters worse.

A study published this week in Nature Ecology & Evolution, a scientific journal born out of Nature, studies the “demographics” of wild meat consumption in Hong Kong, Japan, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam. The researchers conducted 5,000 interviews with people from different social classes during the month of March 2020, in the early stages of the pandemic’s explosion. The timing is no coincidence; at that time, the origin of Covid was already quite clear.

What they found is that in the higher classes, also more informed then about Covid, the consumption of game was only affected by 11 to 24% by the discovery of the origin of Covid. And from there on down. The authors claimed that with demand so robust, the ban would likely only shift the most dangerous consumption to the black market.

The Chinese press, commenting on the study, cynically said that although the researchers claimed that reducing consumption of wild animals could prevent new pandemics, “trying to influence consumers is complex and [how to do so] is poorly understood”… which is truly outrageous. By focusing the causes on the existence of a demand, that is, on individual consumption – a perspective derived from the commodity religion – the determinant character of social organization disappears. The individuals and their freedom take responsibility …and social factors become invisible.

It is true that in Asia there is an established and solid demand for game meat consumption. The same as in, say, Europe. Only some of the species on the menu change. And yet the marketing of partridge, quail, roe deer, red deer, fallow deer, wild boar and even wild bear meat is not considered a danger in Europe because the meat is centralized in companies and industrial slaughterhouses and the vast majority of captures are inserted in the sanitary control mechanism. In addition, when any species for food use has been placed under protection and hunting prohibited, such as the grouse, no black market has arisen.

What would make hunting different in Asia? The only material difference is that hunting there and now is not, as it has been for decades in Europe, a regulated and industrialized sporting activity generating meat as a by-product to be marketed by a highly capitalized and regulated meat industry. In Asia, as happened in Mediterranean countries until almost the 1980s and in Eastern European countries for several additional decades, hunting is a survival activity for day laborers and poor peasants.

If a black market arises almost necessarily it is because the situation of the countryside, made hellish by capitalism in the countries of concentrated capitals, in the semi-colonial countries of weaker capitals produces dramatic conditions and chronic famines among the peasants. We see it again and again from India to Central America. We can look for the origin of Covid in secret laboratories or in aliens, but the reality is much less glamorous: the origin of Covid lies in the peasantry’s misery.

This misery and its periodic peaks is a constant in the Chinese state capitalism established in 1948 but also in the development of exporting national capitals in much of Asia because without low food prices and surplus labor power leaving the countryside industrialization cannot be undertaken. If the British press is shaking its fists because Chinese growth keeps millions of peasants in abject misery it is because it neglects the history of capitalism in general, starting with Britain itself.

Future zoonotic epidemics

Grave diggers rest next to a mass grave of Covid victims in São Paulo.
Grave diggers rest next to a mass grave of Covid victims in São Paulo.

The main lesson from the origin of Covid is that zoonotic epidemics are born neither from a conspiracy nor from an incomprehensible and indomitable demand for bushmeat.

It is entirely consistent with what we learned from the experience of the zoonotic epidemics that emerged in the last century. The origin of these diseases lies again and again in the conditions of the livestock – food, overcrowding and proximity to wild environment – and in the absence of control over game meat destined for consumption. In other words: in the conditions that capitalism imposes on livestock production and, as in the origin of Covid, on the survival of the peasantry.

Biden insists that the origin of Covid must be known in order to avoid new pandemics. He is as right as he is disingenuous in the goal he claims to be aiming for. The origin of Covid, like that of all these zoonotic pandemics, is but another face of capitalism and the imposition of its needs over universal human needs in food production.