A team of experts is currently trying to track down the origin of COVID-19. Last week, the group from the World Health Organization announced that it’s “highly unlikely” the virus came from a lab in Wuhan China.
The theory spread early on in the pandemic, with some saying that the virus was manufactured or accidentally released from a lab. It’s a theory experts have largely brushed off, but WHO now says it warrants no further study, according to NBC News. Although experts are starting to rule out places of origin (lukewarm at best), the question remains: are we likely to ever know the exact origin of COVID-19? We’re a lot farther along in the investigation than with past disease outbreaks. According to historians, it took years to collect similar information on HIV and it took about 20 years to figure out that what’s known as the “Spanish Flu” is caused by a virus. So history does not look promising, but it offers some interesting tidbits on how our attempt to find “patient zero” or the origin of past epidemics has evolved. Today on AirTalk, we talk with a historian of medicine and epidemics about what we can learn from history. Do you have thoughts or questions? Feel free to give us a call at 866-893-5722.
Dr. McKay shared additional resources for anyone interested in diving further into this history:
- Archer, Seth, Sharks Upon the Land: Colonialism, Indigenous Health, and Culture in Hawai‘i, 1778-1855 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018)
- Gostin, Lawrence O., Global Health Law (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2014)
- Green, Monica, “The Four Black Deaths,” American Historical Review 125 (Dec. 2020): 1601-1631
- Kassell, Lauren, Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London: Simon Forman - Astrologer, Alchemist, and Physician (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)
- Lloyd, G. E. R. [Geoffrey Ernest Richard], Adversaries and Authorities: Investigations into Ancient Greek and Chinese Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)
- Milne, Ida, Stacking the Coffins: Influenza, War and Revolution in Ireland, 1918-19 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018)
- “Infectious Historians,” a podcast hosted by two historians, Merle Eisenberg and Lee Mordecai, which explores how a focus on past diseases can help us think about our present-day experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic
With guest host Libby Denkmann
Richard McKay, historian of medicine and epidemics and Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, author of “Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic,” (University of Chicago Press, 2017); he tweets @RAMcKay