A virus hunter’s plan for China and Covid – Politico


Everyone knows !

With help from Kate Irby, Joanne Kenen and Renuka Rayasam

CRACKING THE MYSTERY OF COVID’S ORIGINSThe search for Covid’s source is stuck. The intelligence community’s report was an unclassified shruggy emoji, split on whether the virus was spread to humans from an infected animal or from a laboratory accident. Chinese obfuscation and lack of data transparency continue, alongside a two-way street of Sino-American distrust. There’s plenty of pressure in Washington for President Joe Biden to get tough diplomatically.

But playing hardball with China is unlikely to work, Michael V. Callahan, an infectious disease doctor with two decades of experience in global disease outbreak operations, writes in a new POLITICO Magazine article appearing first in Nightly. Instead, there’s a successful model to imitate: “a little-known 25-year U.S. government effort to root out bioweapons in dangerous parts of the world, and to secure dangerous pathogens in foreign laboratories.”

The Soviet roots of “glove-to-germ”: The idea, started in 1991 as a program called Cooperative Threat Reduction, emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of American concerns over biological weapons stockpiles, facilities and experts. CTR built “a field corps of U.S. experts skilled in … sleuthing out human factors that contribute to an accident, a lab infection or an outbreak,” Callahan says.

“To counter the risk of laboratory leak or infection, the U.S. didn’t turn to security forces, satellites or spies. It used infectious disease experts.”

Covid successes already: In recent years, the program was adapted to disease surveillance, including bird flu and bat viruses. In 2020, the CTR playbook and its emphasis on doctor-to-doctor contacts “helped preserve communication links between American and Chinese physicians after the Wuhan cases became an embarrassment, and the risk of Chinese government censorship made communication with U.S. doctors dangerous.”

New target for Covid source hunt? CTR work, Callahan says, shows that “in many cases, infections attributed to biocontainment laboratory activities actually occurred outside the lab, often during field collection of viral samples.” His suggestion on a new contact-tracing target for the research into the virus’ origins: “Focus on hospital lab data from anyone who came in contact with the Wuhan field virologists up to four weeks following their return from field collections.”

A competitor we’ll need: “Given China’s vast animal and human population, extensive surveillance network, unparalleled virus sequencing capabilities and its massive manufacturing capability,” Callahan writes, “we’ll need China in the future, both to investigate and to help fight the next one, and the one after that.”

“China is a far more sophisticated, and more resistant, government than most of our previous collaborators,” Callahan writes, “but that only argues for more sophisticated forms of collaboration.”

Read the rest of his proposal in POLITICO Magazine.

Welcome to POLITICO Nightly. Reach out with news, tips and ideas for us at [email protected]. Or contact tonight’s author at [email protected] and on Twitter at @tweyant.

— Democrats grapple with faltering filibuster push: Anti-filibuster advocates are preparing a last stand to gut the Senate’s supermajority requirement by spotlighting a sweeping Democratic election reform bill. The effort is uphill and potentially impossible, given several Democratic moderates’ entrenched opposition to changing the 60-vote requirement for most legislation. All 50 Democratic votes would need to get on board for a change to the Senate rules, and Sen. Joe Manchin said on Tuesday that he’s focused on finding 10 Republican votes for a new elections compromise that he helped shape.

— Claims that Milley made ‘secret’ calls to Chinese leaders exaggerated, sources say: Claims in an upcoming book that a frantic Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley made secret calls to his Chinese counterpart are greatly exaggerated, according to two people familiar with the discussions. A forthcoming book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa claims that Milley grew concerned about then-President Donald Trump’s instability and the possibility that he might spark a war with China, prompting him to arrange a pair of secret phone calls with Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army. The first was on Oct. 30, just four days before the presidential election, and the second on Jan. 8, two days after a mob of pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol. In today’s White House press conference, press secretary Jen Psaki reasserted Biden’s confidence in Milley.

— Biden announces joint deal with U.K. and Australia on advanced defense-tech sharing: Biden announced a new working group with Britain and Australia this afternoon to share advanced technologies in a thinly veiled bid to counter China. The trio, which will be known by the acronym AUKUS, will make it easier for the three countries to share information and know-how in key technological areas like artificial intelligence, cyber, underwater systems and long-range strike capabilities.

— FDA sounds skeptical note on Pfizer booster shot ahead of key vote: The FDA refrained from endorsing a Covid-19 booster shot from Pfizer and BioNTech in an analysis posted today ahead of a crucial advisory committee meeting. The agency appeared skeptical about the companies’ assertion that an apparent drop in immune protection conferred by their Covid-19 vaccine is likely due to the passage of time, rather than the emergence of the hyper-contagious Delta variant.

— Pope: No place for politics in Biden Communion flap: Pope Francis said today that Catholic bishops must minister to politicians who back abortion with “compassion and tenderness,” not condemnation, and warned that they shouldn’t let politics enter into questions about receiving Communion. Francis was asked en route home from Slovakia about the debate in the U.S. church about whether Biden and other politicians should be denied Communion because of their stance on abortion. U.S. bishops have agreed to draft a “teaching document” that many of them hope will rebuke Catholic politicians, including Biden, for receiving Communion despite their support for abortion rights.

— First Jan. 6 rioter sentenced for a felony seeks to unwind plea deal: The first Jan. 6 rioter sentenced for a felony charge began mounting a desperate bid today to unravel his plea agreement, claiming through a newly retained attorney that his signature on the deal was forged. But the federal judge in the case, Randy Moss, expressed skepticism about the claim and noted it could even put Paul Hodgkins at legal risk, since he said under oath that he had reviewed and accepted the plea deal.

TWEET SUIT — Deputy Congress editor Kate Irby emails Nightly:

Rep. Devin Nunes has suffered court loss after court loss in his nearly dozen defamation lawsuits, but in one important way he’s succeeding: by making it more difficult to cover him.

Nunes explicitly argued in a suit against POLITICO reporter Ryan Lizza (the lawsuit is over a story Lizza wrote for Esquire in 2018, and was dismissed by an Iowa court in 2020) that he wants to overturn New York Times v. Sullivan, which established the longstanding legal standard of “actual malice”: To win a libel suit, public figures must prove not only that the news media published false information, but also that the publication did so knowingly, or with reckless disregard for whether it was true.

An appeals court ruled today that a Lizza tweet after Nunes sued him constitutes a republication of the Esquire story, as our Josh Gerstein reported. That has wide implications for the actual malice standard but it also has immediate implications for how reporters talk about Nunes on social media.

Overturning NYT v. Sullivan seems unlikely. But rulings like these show that judges are open to smaller adjustments that affect reporters who cover Nunes, and therefore what the public reads about him.

Republishing an article, especially after a lawsuit is filed, can be taken as a sign of actual malice. So Lizza, by tweeting a link to his story after Nunes sued him, engaged in “the purposeful avoidance of the truth,” Judge Steven Colloton wrote.

Taken on its face, this means that lawmakers who sue reporters over a story could then be reasonably confident that neither the reporter nor the publication will promote the story again until the lawsuit is resolved, which easily takes years.

Other lawmakers haven’t followed Nunes’ lead into tweetsuit territory, yet. But his message clearly resonates with a certain pocket of Republican voters — just look at the $11.5 million he already has in cash on hand for his 2022 reelection.

INTRODUCING THE GLOBAL INSIDER PODCAST Nearly all U.S. ambassador posts are unfilled. As the Biden administration struggles to get nominees confirmed, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., has been thrust into the spotlight while leading presidential delegations around the world. In the inaugural episode of Global Insider, she talks to host Ryan Heath about the possibility of the U.S. recognizing the Taliban, the Ted Cruz holdup, and what “gumbo diplomacy” means.

NEVER TWEET — Health care editor at large Joanne Kenen emails Nightly:

Nicki Minaj’s Monday night tweet that a friend of her cousin suffered severe testicular swelling after his Covid shot took vaccine misinformation to a place that it has probably never gone before.

Lots of medical experts have of course said it’s nonsense that the Covid vaccine was the cause of her cousin’s friend’s symptoms — damaging nonsense that feeds vaccine hesitancy.

But I did wonder what could in fact cause such severe swelling. I asked some other urologists for some guidance, but they apparently didn’t want to touch this with a … never mind. So I checked out some reputable medical sites, particularly the Mayo Clinic and the Merck Manual. And I learned there are quite a few possible reasons for the pain and inflammation.

Some go away on their own, but others are quite serious and require prompt medical attention. Among the possibilities: There’s a fluid build-up called hydrocele (more common in babies, but it can happen to adults). An inguinal hernia, when a loop of the intestine gets through a weak spot in the abdominal wall and into the scrotum. A “testicular torsion,” meaning a blocked blood flow in a twisted testicle. It can be an abnormal growth, cancerous or benign. There could be widening of the veins, a cyst, edema (a fancy word for excess fluid) or a collection of blood called a hematocele. Infections — sexually transmitted or otherwise — can cause swelling or the inflammation known as orchitis, as can an insect bite (although a Washington Post headline on chigger bites that caught our eye turned out to be irrelevant.)

The New York Post (where we do not normally turn to for medical insight) reported on something called Fournier’s gangrene, but we’ll spare you.

After Minaj’s tweet, Nightly’s Renuka Rayasam tracked down Robert Dean, a professor of urology at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Dean said he called three military doctors to ask them if they had seen any patients report Covid vaccine side effects like those described by Minaj. Neither Dean nor the other doctors he called said they had. The most likely explanation for the symptoms, Dean said, is an injury to the area or an infection.

Let’s just wish Minaj’s cousin’s friend a swift recovery.

Tyler adds:

Yes, It was a tweet that launched a thousand tweets. Or, more accurately, two tweets.

Because while the most viral of Minaj’s tweets involved a Trinidadian cousin’s friend, a swollen bathing suit area and a called-off wedding, there was another a tweet: In it, Minaj said she wouldn’t go to the Met Gala because of its vaccine requirement — and then used a phrase you may have heard before.

“if I get vaccinated it won’t be for the Met. It’ll be once I feel I’ve done enough research. I’m working on that now.”

“Research”: Melanie Kornides, an epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, told Nightly the “do your own research” trope has existed for a long time in anti-vax circles, even before Covid.

“It is part of their agenda that the scientific and medical community cannot be trusted,” Kornides said, “and that by ‘doing your own research’ and presumably finding non-scientific, anti-vaccine-sponsored material, you will come to the conclusion that vaccines are not safe.”

Minaj’s message, alongside those from other celebrities voicing vaccine worries, contribute to an atmosphere of wariness in Black communities, which already have concerns about medical advice and treatment, Kornides said: “In this case, because Nicki Minaj is a person of color, it will further promote mistrust among persons of color who identify with her.”

Research, if you actually attempted to do it for yourself on a high level, would involve poring through peer-reviewed studies, scanning complex CDC reports compiled by top scientists. Few NFL quarterbacks, pop stars, or POLITICO journalists possess the medical or scientific background to conduct actual research.

Even so, Kornides said, “We know in our vaccine hesitancy work that celebrities and other ‘influencers’ have an outsized impact on individuals beliefs and behaviors.”

Put another way: Celebrities matter, and people listen to them, even people who say they don’t. Still don’t believe it? Minaj tweeted this evening she’s been invited to the White House. (Though our Alex Thompson notes the White House has poured some cold water on this.)

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    • Renuka Rayasam @renurayasam
    • Chris Suellentrop @suellentrop
    • Tyler Weyant @tweyant
    • Myah Ward @myahward

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