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Biotechnology and health

It’s been two years since covid-19 became a pandemic

And we still don’t know where it came from.

March 11, 2022

Today, March 11, 2022, marks two years since covid-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. We’ve had lockdowns, vaccines, and arguments about how to move forward and live with this virus. We’ve watched the pandemic through numbers and data and memorials to the many lives lost, officially now over six million. It is likely this figure is a vast undercount. A study published in The Lancet this week estimated that the true number may be three times higher, at 18.2 million. 

And, in a statement marking the two-year anniversary, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned: “Although reported cases and deaths are declining globally, and several countries have lifted restrictions, the pandemic is far from over—and it will not be over anywhere until it’s over everywhere.”

In some parts of the world things look like they may be turning a corner. Vaccines have significantly reduced the worst effects of covid-19, with over 10 billion doses delivered worldwide. And after omicron’s increased infectiousness led to a vast wave of new cases, infection rates are finally falling in the US.

However, vaccine distribution remains starkly uneven, and unequal. While many of the world’s richest countries have vaccinated and boosted most of their population, poorer countries have been left to fall far behind. Across vast swaths of Africa, most people have yet to get even their first covid-19 vaccine dose. Some countries are still battling vast and growing case rates, especially in Asia. The situation in Hong Kong is grim right now. 

That means there is little cause for complacency. With the virus still circulating widely, the risk of a dangerous new variant remains very real. 

Two years on, we’re also still arguing over where and why covid-19 started in the first place, because scientists are still hunting for the definitive clues.

Welcome to Curious Coincidence. A five-part podcast that tells the story of the hunt for those clues. Hosted by our senior editor for biomedicine, Antonio Regalado, it’s a detective story about the genome of the virus, about people in labs doing sensitive research on dangerous germs and the crisis they’re in now. 

It’s a story about why people remain silent and why they speak out. It’s about the sheer power of biotechnology, the science that allowed us to develop vaccines quickly—but also might be what got us into trouble in the first place.

Why is it so hard to find out its origin story, and why does the search matter?

As Natasha Loder, health policy editor at the Economist, says in the podcast: “You can’t learn from history if you don’t know what your history is, if your history is buried.” 

Listen to Curious Coincidence on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you usually go to listen to podcasts.<

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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