Absence of Competence: the Systemic Downplaying of Animal-to-Human Covid Transmission

It is safe to say that the deficiency of basic reasoning ability on full display in most of the world’s experts and media since the onset of the COVID19 pandemic now far surpasses what a mere few months ago would have seemed a ruthlessly cynical imagining. But it is interesting to note that much of this mental incapacity assumes a very consistent pattern.

Take the vital issue of animal transmission of COVID19. As of this writing, the CDC website reassuringly tells us:

“At this time there is no evidence that companion animals, including pets, can become sick with or spread COVID-19”.

The implication here seems to be that the assertion of “no evidence yet” singlehandedly disposes of the well-known principle that animals are often prime disease vectors. (Remember rodents and the Black Death, for just one example?)

In a similar vein, the UK Independent recently had this quasi-reassurance to offer:

“Several global health organisations have issued advisories saying there is no any [sic] evidence that pet animals can spread coronavirus or indeed be infected with it in the same way as humans. ‘Therefore, there is no justification in taking measures against companion animals which may compromise their welfare,” the World Organisation for Animal Health has said.’ “

Once again: “no evidence”, so no justification for even the least precaution.

Regarding Covid transmission by cats, in response to the discovery of a cat in Belgium that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID19), had high viral levels in its vomit and feces and showed clear signs of respiratory illness, we see the same pattern:

“Should we now be concerned about the virus spreading to cats? To be succinct – not yet. Several key questions need to be answered before any conclusions can be drawn from this case.”

Here the implication seems to be almost laughable: the virus, despite being extremely contagious and having just been shown to be capable of infecting and sickening one of the most widespread domestic animals in the world, will just have to wait its turn for “key questions” to be answered, before it will be permitted to spread from Covid-infected cats to humans.

Another news article on COVID19 in cats, happy-go-luckily titled “Cats, dogs, ferrets and coronavirus: What’s to worry about?” purports to inform us about new research showing that cats in adjacent cages are “able to infect each other”, and that cats in general “can catch coronavirus and maybe carry it”.

But we are instructed not to worry, because apparently cats “…are dead ends when it comes to transmitting to people, experts say.”

Next we are treated to the now-boilerplate “no evidence” refrain (never mind that we are actually being confronted by a pile of evidence):

“…infectious disease experts and multiple international and domestic human and animal health organizations agree there is no evidence at this point to indicate that pets spread COVID-19 to other animals, including people”.

To cap things off, the writers offer this bit of helpfully homicidal advice: “Yes, people should embrace their pets.”

So: we widely acknowledge that cats can contract the SARS-CoV-2 virus, get sick with it, pass it in their excretions and sneeze it out—but don’t worry folks, experts say there’s “no evidence” they can actually give it to you!

In the age of Covid, “evidence”, apparently, is not really evidence—until experts and the media tell you it is.

* * *

Such glib, misguided, and indeed intellectually insulting dismissals from expert bodies and media outlets on the question of SARS-CoV-2 animal transmission are disturbingly reminiscent of the recent debacle in which experts at CDC and elsewhere bizarrely maintained that N95 facemasks confer no protection against respiratory diseases, despite their obviously existing and being widely used by medical staff for that exact purpose. (A few experts—no doubt associating knee-jerk inversion of reason with a rugged “contrarian” image—even insisted that wearing such masks actually increases risk of infection.)

But even more, the dismissals of possible animal-to-human transmission of Covid closely resemble the WHO’s flatly disastrous and already-infamous January 19 assurance that

“Not enough is known to draw definitive conclusions about how [Covid] is transmitted, the clinical features of the disease, the extent to which it has spread, or its source, which remains unknown.”

In fact, by that time, Taiwan had already informed the WHO that this was false—that human-to-human transmission was almost certainly occurring. The WHO, likely captured by powerful Chinese backers who wished to downplay the threat, instead parroted the same “no evidence” line anyway.

The WHO’s decision to dismiss the possibility of human-to-human transmission, of course, proved utterly catastrophic. But the widespread expert failure to appreciate the potential of animal-to-human spread of SARS-CoV-2 until there is “definitive proof” seems to be closely mirroring the WHO’s failure on human-to-human spread, and it could prove nearly as calamitous.

* * *

Assuming there is not actual malice at play, we can only conclude that there is an astounding form of magical thinking in control behind all of these falsely-confident denials. For in all these cases we are, in effect, being told that the Covid could not possibly spread from a cat or other animal to a human (or, in the WHO case, from a human to a human) until our scientists establish definitively that it can.

In an oddly postmodern twist, the concept of “discovering” or “proving” a thing seems in this way to have subtly mutated into permission for that thing to exist or happen. We also see here exposed the modern belief in the occult potency of expert opinion; it is as if we have all along put aside scryers, priests and shamans merely in order to take up augury by “expert consensus”.

Notice also that in all the above statements downplaying the threat of SARS-CoV-2 animal transmission, a completely invalid form of inference is being deployed, and deployed blatantly: since we have “no evidence of spread” as yet, we therefore should act as though there can’t be any spread, and should take no precautions.

Our supposedly brilliant and erudite international disease experts are happily falling face-first into a basic logical error: to them, it now seems that absence of evidence really is evidence of absence. The burden of proof has thus been so wildly misplaced that even 95% conclusive evidence of a serious danger must be treated as if it were 0% conclusive; until it reaches 99.9% confidence, it should be ignored.

It is striking that the “precautionary principle”, so widely invoked on regulatory matters like saving the environment, suddenly goes out the window when the issue is instead the likelihood of people contracting a mass-murdering plague from their pets.

Perceptively, some have drawn a connection between this dysfunctional reticence and the essential character of “rule-by-experts”. Whereas crises such as pandemic or war demand rapid and intuitive decision-making where one must risk being wrong rather than do nothing and be routed, the modern academic is trained instead at all costs not to be wrong, leading him to delay and defer:

“That the sciences reject intuition minimizes their utility when the moment calls for haste (…) While the academic must cultivate doubt in order to test his theories, the wartime leader must dispel doubt.”

But even this interesting distinction cannot explain why, just as in the case of the WHO and human-to-human spread, so many of our experts are conspicuously misplacing the burden of evidence even when evidence is not absent by a long shot. A gift for “intuition” is hardly needed to see that a cat shedding large quantities of an exceptionally contagious virus very probably can transmit it to humans as well as cats.

It is instead as if our experts are either intellectually unable to infer simple consequences from the ample evidence they already have, or are so afraid to make such inferences that they simply refuse to try. (This may incidentally explain why, despite the extreme “carefulness” of academic culture, vast portions of scientific and notably biomedical literature have turned out to be false anyway.)

As John Ralston Saul once said: “not only do we not reward thought, we punish it as unprofessional”.

In this sense, the scientific embrace of skepticism and uncertainty, though seemingly a method of error-proofing, has increasingly come at the expense of reasoning ability and clarity of communication and thus become an epistemic blight in its own right. In order to eliminate all “false positives”, the expert refuses to draw even a tentative conclusion, even when such a conclusion is both obvious and urgently needed. She thus feels reassured that she has avoided any serious error. But the result of this unreasoning hyperconservatism is not a higher level of truth, but simply a higher rate of “false negatives”.

Yet the false negative, by implying normality where there is none, is typically far more dangerous than the false positive, which merely produces worry when there is no threat. Unfounded worry can be frustrating. Unfounded complacency can be deadly.

* * *

Evidence continues to come in: aside from the already-mentioned research on Covid spread between felines, and the case of the cat in Belgium, which contracted COVID19 and suffered similar symptoms to those of human patients, there have so far been a number of reports of dogs testing “weakly positive” for SARS-CoV-2, as well as another cat in Hong Kong which tested fully positive (though without symptoms so far). Even the tigers at the Bronx Zoo have contracted the coronavirus now, through contact with an asymptomatic Covid-positive human trainer.

It is worth noting that none of this was unexpected from a biochemical perspective, or at least not to those who maintained a sliver of an open mind to the possibility. In fact, there has been clear genetic evidence available for at least the past 3-4 weeks that human ACE2—the cellular receptor through which SARS-CoV-2 attaches itself and gains entry to cells—is highly similar to the ACE2 of a number of other species, and that therefore these other species are very likely also susceptible to infection. To quote one recent publication:

“On the basis of structural studies and biochemical experiments SARS-CoV-2 seems to have an RBD that binds with high affinity to ACE2 from humans, ferrets, cats and other species with high receptor homology”.

Fortunately, it appears that dog and rodent ACE2 binds SARS-CoV-2 only poorly if at all, reducing—though not eliminating—the risk that these animals will readily transmit the virus in Black Death style. But cats (and possibly pigs) are another story.

Not only do we now have ample evidence that felines can catch SARS-CoV-2 and get sick from it, we have also just learned that approximately 15% of all cats tested in the city of Wuhan carry antibodies to the virus—strong evidence that the virus will have already spread widely among domestic animals wherever many infected humans have been present.

And yet how do media outlets report this news? Can you guess? By telling readers that “pet lovers have ‘no cause for alarm’”, and reassuring them that there is “no evidence to suggest the coronavirus can pass from cats to humans”.

That’s right—the “no evidence” refrain, all over again. And as if to compound the absurdity, the main concern apparent in more and more reports of feline Covid actually seems to be about pets getting the virus from people, rather than people getting it from their pets!

So again we see the extraordinary transformation from “discovery of truth” to “permission to be true”. Your cat may be carrying the same exact virus as has killed tens of thousands of people, you see, and that virus is extremely transmissible, of course, even between cats—on all that we agree—but if the virus comes out of cat rather than a person, until a scientist proves otherwise, why, somehow it magically becomes non-transmissible to humans. After all—there is “no evidence” to the contrary!

Welcome to the crowning glory of decades of epistemological disintegration in the sciences, education, and society at large, peremptorily brought to its ultimate fruition by the gruesome arrival of the Covid. And so long may the triumphant, carefree motto of our new Covidian era ring brightly through the body-strewn streets:

“No evidence—no problem!”

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