Toward Ground Zero of Zoonoses: Book Review of “Dead Epidemiologists”

On the Origins of the Origins Discourse

On May 3, 2020, then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proclaimed, “there is a significant amount of evidence that [COVID-19] came from that laboratory in Wuhan.”1 His statement, which was more or less a rehashing of Senator Tom Cotton’s comments from February 2020,2 came as Trump’s cabal was deflecting from the administration’s ineffectual response to the pandemic by baselessly scapegoating the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

This “lab leak” theory sparked massive uproar from epidemiologists and establishment politicians alike, and the response from the public health community was to correctly ridicule it as chauvinistic. Skeptics would demand evidence for the exaggerated claims, believing that it was far more likely the virus emerged from live animals at a wet market. Media outlets righteously broadcasted these pushbacks to correct the record and restore international collaboration.

Meanwhile, Peter Daszak, director of the wildlife conservation organization EcoHealth Alliance – who in 2018 had warned the WHO of an imminent pandemic caused by a novel pathogen – fell under scrutiny for his group’s ties to WIV and allegations  that his research involved gain-of-function mutations to study pandemic potential in live bats.3

The Back-and-Forth of Lab Leak Theory

Over the past two and a half years, the lab leak theory would continue to resurface – with notable peaks and valleys. In a few of these peaks, it seemed that maybe there was just enough evidence to take it seriously – such as during the absolute slew of lab leak articles mid-way through 2021.45678

Google Trends search result of “covid lab leak” from January 2020 to present showing a peak around May 2021

Still, counter arguments would continue to pop up in a never-ending loop. Soon thereafter, a June 2021 paper in the Journal of Clinical Infectious Disease found that the virus may have been circulating in the US as early as December 2019; this was prior to the first identified case in Wuhan in January 2020, further pointing away from the lab leak theory.9 And finally, a July 2022 paper showed via spatial analyses that COVID-19, in all likelihood, originated at the Huanan wet market in Wuhan.10

However, something was underwhelming about these rebuttals that essentially progressed from “No, it happened here, not there,” to “Here is where it happened; end of discussion.” The discourse could make any lay person weary of the noise and yearn for a more robust discussion on COVID’s true origins.

It is troubling that after the past two decades of SARS, H1N1, MERS, and Zika, viruses are thought of as chance phenomena, spattered randomly across the globe and not a result of complex systems at play. Every time the media reports on viruses passively as spectators, it is a colossally missed opportunity to discuss the political, economic, and social structures that actually produce and propagate novel disease outbreaks.

The Fallacy of Absolute Geography

As the late evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin once said, tubercle bacillus is not the cause of tuberculosis, nor is asbestos the cause of cancer.1112 Industrial capitalism is the underlying cause of both. Along the same vein, it is not the zoonotic spread itself at a particular time or location that caused COVID-19 but, rather, what came long before. 

In 2016, epidemiologist and phylogeneticist Rob Wallace penned the book Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Influenza, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science. Not many general audience books exist whose entire thesis is spelled out in the title alone – but this is one of them. In short, it laid out the case for looking beyond isolated pathogenic strains as the mere causes of disease but the social forces that engender them. Through a collection of essays and interviews, Wallace elegantly framed the industrialization of animal-based food systems as the culprit behind pandemics such as SARS-1 and MERS.

Wallace’s 2020 sequel Dead Epidemiologists continues where he left off, aiming to focus the discussion away from absolute and toward relational or relative geography in the context of the then-emerging pandemic. Equipped with a political-economic and agroecological lens, he delves into society’s deep interconnectedness to show that the particular point on a map from which a virus originates distracts from the upstream circuits of capital.13

The topics of interest he poses are not only how a country’s crumbling public health infrastructure leaves its population vulnerable in pandemic response, but also how such a reality lays fertile ground for future pandemics. Dead Epidemiologists, then, is a book about prevention, not clean-up. Once the outbreak has already begun, it is too late, and the patchwork interventions that are deployed ex post facto may redirect the conversation away from what should have been done initially.

Agroecology in Distress

The raison d’être of this book is to illustrate how the erasure of buffers between human civilization and wildlife is fueled by an economic system that aims to commodify anything and everything. So, it is not simply that humans have come into contact with a species that they normally would not — it is the conditions that abet this. Namely,

“Commodity agriculture serves as both propulsion for and nexus through which pathogens of diverse origins migrate from the most remote reservoirs to the most international of population centers…where novel pathogens infiltrate agriculture’s gated communities.”

As he explains, forests are complex ecosystems. Normally, a single pathogen in a given host would likely not even leave the confines of the forest under a neutral ecological state. But forests are also fragile ecosystems (and ones that are worthless to multinational corporations until the trees are plundered for logging). Thus, any project of large-scale deforestation kills off much of the biodiversity and creates conditions ripe for zoonoses.14

While extractivist agribusiness carries out that regime, farm animals are selectively bred in genetic monocultures, making them highly susceptible to infections. To compensate, over 70% of all antibiotics are given to farm animals just long enough for them to stay alive before slaughter, contributing to global antimicrobial resistance (arguably a budding pandemic of its own).1516

These are all the logical outcomes of said economic system motivated by a relentless pursuit of profit. Indeed, in the early days of the pandemic, state leaders followed the lead of whatever capital demanded, no matter the human toll, by refusing to release incarcerated people from prisons, for example, running counter to public health.17

Meanwhile, meat processing plants insidiously crafted a narrative of “meat shortage,” requiring workers to work while sick all while downplaying case counts and failing to provide them with adequate PPE.1819 There was something tragically poetic about the categorization of slaughterhouses as “essential” and the ensuing fallout of meatpacking workers forced into grueling conditions — the very forces that contribute to pandemics in the first place.

“Dead” Epidemiologists

The first word of the book’s title does not literally mean that the epidemiologists have died. The descriptor more so points to, at best, their obliviousness to the above phenomena, or worse, their mischaracterizations of pressing problems.

Original meme combining the “El problema es el capitalismo” and Domino Effect meme templates, the latter of which shows a man believing in a simplistic, unidimensional mechanism of zoonotic disease propagation
Original meme by author

As Wallace describes, one party that fits the bill is Peter Daszak et al., whose NGO EcoHealth Alliance purportedly stands for the integrative “One Health” approach to conceptualizing zoonotic events,20 yet would instead merely hone in on the localities where zoonoses were found and place onus on indigenous and smallholder inhabitants who live there.21  Quite literally, dead epidemiologists are those who miss the forest for the trees. In addition, EcoHealth’s indifference to the more structural causes can be considered in the light of the group’s partnership with corporate interests and undisclosed funding from the US Department of Defense.2223

In stark contrast to his counterparts, Rob Wallace has been shunned by those in academia for his past work correlating neoliberal land grabs with the 2014 Ebola outbreak, while those around him would continue to fail upward.2425 Though he had hedged his career on a vision that seemingly came out of left field, he was sharply clairvoyant about the inevitable result of unfettered capitalist agriculture, while others would shy away from that paradigm.

As with the crucified–but later revered–antiseptic pioneer Ignaz Semmelweis, Wallace was vindicated after COVID-19,24 but maybe not to the point that “hand-washing kills germs” sounds akin to saying “capitalism causes pandemics.”

Toward a People’s Epidemiology

As for the book’s subheading, “On the Origins of COVID-19,” it is clear that the origin in this case is not so much a physical location as it is what lies far upstream. Even if specific GPS coordinates are found, what next?

Narratives that only focus on nation-states’ mishandling of safety protocols or other technocratic details without considering the broader picture miss the mark. Rather than relitigating lab leak vs. natural spillover, or wet market vs. factory farm, we must zoom out, and we must explicitly define longstanding policy decisions as the main culprit behind COVID-19. In our solutions, we cannot naturalize the virus or sidestep the current social order:26

“If we must partake in the Great Game, let’s choose an ecosocialism that mends the metabolic rift between ecology and economy, and between the urban and rural and wilderness, keeping the worst of these pathogens from emerging in the first place. Let’s choose international solidarity with everyday people the world over.”

Wallace’s group founded Pandemic Research for the People (PReP) early in 2020 in order to crowdsource dispatches on people-centered initiatives for sustainable food systems and regional supply chains.27 This much-needed alternate vision of a people’s epidemiology is essential to a kinder, more symbiotic, future.

Rishab Chawla
  1. Borger, J. (2020, May 3). Mike Pompeo: “enormous evidence” coronavirus came from Chinese lab. The Guardian. []
  2. Stevenson, A. (2020, February 17). Senator Tom Cotton repeats fringe theory of Coronavirus origins. The New York Times. []
  3. Subbaraman, N. (2020). “Heinous!”: Coronavirus researcher shut down for Wuhan-lab link slams new funding restrictions. Nature. []
  4. COVID-19 lab leak theory cannot be ruled out, leading scientists say. (2021, May 14). Reuters. []
  5. Engber, D. (2021, June 10). Don’t fall for these lab-leak traps. Atlantic Monthly (Boston, Mass.: 1993). []
  6. Irfan, U. (2021, June 7). The lab leak hypothesis, explained. Vox. []
  7. Nyce, C. M. (2021, May 27). The Atlantic daily: Why the lab-leak theory matters. Atlantic Monthly (Boston, Mass.: 1993). []
  8. Wehner, P. (2021, June 2). NIH director: We need an investigation into the Wuhan lab-leak theory. Atlantic Monthly (Boston, Mass.: 1993). []
  9. Basavaraju, S. V. et al. (2021). Serologic testing of US blood donations to identify severe acute respiratory syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)-reactive antibodies: December 2019-January 2020. Clinical Infectious Diseases: An Official Publication of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, 72(12), e1004–e1009. []
  10. Worobey, M. et al. (2022). The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan was the early epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Science (New York, N.Y.), 377(6609), 951–959. []
  11. Beal, T., & Ehrenreich, B. (2022, February 7). Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin: ‘the dialectical biologist.’ MR Online. []
  12. Gilbert, M. (2017). An intellectual journey through influenza and food systems. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 17(1), 36. []
  13. Wallace, R. (2020). Dead epidemiologists: On the origins of COVID-19. p. 49. Monthly Review Press. []
  14. Pappas, M. (2021, September 7). Capitalism breeds pathogens: An interview with epidemiologist Rob Wallace. Left Voice. []
  15. Dall, C. (2016, December 22). FDA: Antibiotic use in food animals continues to rise. CIDRAP. []
  16. Stop using antibiotics in healthy animals to prevent the spread of antibiotic resistance. (2017, November 7). WHO. []
  17. (2020 December). Mass incarceration, COVID-19, and community spread. Prison Policy Initiative. []
  18. Kavilanz P. & Wienner-Bronner D. (2022, May 12) Coronavirus committee: Meat companies lied about impending shortage and put workers at risk. CNN. []
  19. Belz, A., Flores, E., & Stanley, G. (2020, May 16). As coronavirus loomed, Worthington pork plant refused to slow down. Star Tribune. []
  20. Coghlan, B., & Hall, D. (2013). The development of One Health approaches in the Western Pacific. Current Topics in Microbiology and Immunology, 366, 93–111. []
  21. Beal, T., & Ehrenreich, B. (2021, June 18). Rob Wallace on the political economy of pandemics. MR Online. []
  22. Corporate Partners (2017, March 13). EcoHealth Alliance. []
  23. Latham, J. (2020, December 16). Peter Daszak’s EcoHealth alliance has hidden almost $40 million in pentagon funding and militarized pandemic science. Independent Science News. []
  24. Whalen, E.(2021, August 30). The unemployed epidemiologist who predicted the pandemic. Nation (New York, N.Y.: 1865). [] []
  25.  Wallace, R. et al. (2016). Did neoliberalizing west African forests produce a new niche for Ebola? International Journal of Health Services: Planning, Administration, Evaluation, 46(1), 149–165. []
  26. Wallace, R. (2020). Dead epidemiologists: On the origins of COVID-19. p. 28. Monthly Review Press. []
  27. Pandemic Research For The People (2020). []

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