Feb 27, 2023 - Podcasts

The rekindled debate over the origins of COVID-19

The Department of Energy over the weekend concluded in a "low confidence" assessment that COVID-19 most likely originated from a laboratory in China. But government agencies remain largely split on where the pandemic came from.

  • Plus, new data shows the rise in sexual violence against girls in America.
  • And, Black artists you love in honor of Black History Month.

Guests: Axios' Tina Reed and UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh's Elizabeth Miller.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Naomi Shavin, Fonda Mwangi and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Monday, February 27th.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what we’ve covering today: new data shows the rise in sexual violence against girls in America. But first, the divisive debate around the origins of COVID-19. That’s today’s One Big Thing.

The divisive debate around the origins of COVID-19

NIALA: The Department of Energy has concluded in a "low confidence" assessment that COVID-19 most likely originated from a laboratory in China. The Wall Street Journal first reported that yesterday.

Government agencies remain largely split on where COVID-19 came from…and Axios’ Tina Reed has been covering how the conversation is changing around the origins of the disease?

Tina, what does this “low confidence” Dept. of Energy assessment really mean in the grand scheme of things?

TINA REED: So that's actually the question that I heard from experts over the weekend. They were having trouble making heads or tails of it, particularly because the Department of Energy did not specify to The Wall Street Journal what new intelligence they were basing this assessment off of.

NIALA: And so government agencies are split on the origins of COVID-19. The Energy Department and the FBI say the virus was likely spread via a lab leak, but others say it was likely the result of natural transmission. What are you hearing from medical experts about this debate?

TINA: Most of the folks that I spoke with were saying that they have seen no additional evidence that would leave them to believe that this came from a lab leak and they've been fairly well convinced by the evidence that this did come from a natural spillover from animals to humans. But as they said it, we probably won't actually definitively get enough evidence to say either way.

NIALA: Tina, can you remind us what's at stake here, understanding the origins of Covid-19?

TINA: So if one of the worst pandemics in history was created by humans, that's obviously incredibly scary for people and it obviously would come with some serious diplomatic issues, um, between the U.S. and China, between the rest of the world and China. One of the things I think is important to point out, again, from The Wall Street Journal's reporting, is that the consensus of these federal agencies remains that this was not the result of any biological weapons programs in China, and that if anything, it was accidental. But again, there is no consensus on whether or not it was from a lab leak or from natural spillover. And while reports like this don't seem to offer a lot of new information, that obviously will not stop the flurry of speculation in this vacuum.

NIALA: So Tina, if medical experts think we may never have a definitive answer, why do government agencies continue to look into this?

TINA: So obviously there are a lot of people who still really want to know the source of this outbreak because it would've huge implications if it had human origins. It's also very much a political grenade. Some Republicans have insisted that the virus originated in a lab and have raised questions about NIH backed research into dangerous pathogens. The bottom line, in my opinion, is that regardless of whether we have a definitive answer, I'm not sure it would change much in terms of what is already being considered when it comes to preventing the next pandemic.

NIALA: Tina Reed is a healthcare editor for Axios. Thanks, Tina.

TINA: Thank you, Niala.

NIALA: Coming up – a new CDC report that says teen girls are "engulfed" in sadness and violence.


New data shows the rise in sexual violence against girls in America

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo.

Research from the CDC earlier this month found that sexual violence against teenage girls in the U.S. is on the rise.

Nearly one in five teen girls said they'd experienced sexual violence in 2021 and about one in 10 reported having been raped. The same report also found that 57% of teen girls reported depression symptoms like feeling “persistently sad or hopeless.”

Dr. Elizabeth Miller is here to help us sort through this data. She's the director of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at UPMC Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Dr. Miller, thanks for being with us.

DR. ELIZABETH MILLER: Thank you so much for having me.

NIALA: Can we start with your reaction to this CDC data that just came out? Were you surprised by the results?

DR. MILLER: I wish I could tell you that I was surprised, but in fact, this really showed what many of us have been seeing clinically over the last couple years, as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic together. Young women, young people who identify as LGBTQIA+, young people who are unstably housed, all experience profound levels of mental health challenges, and far too few young people actually get the treatment that they deserve.

What the pandemic did was highlight these profound inequities and the major systemic issues that we have in this country in terms of getting access to mental health services and then supporting young people to actually receive those mental health services.

NIALA: Do we have a sense of why sexual violence may be on the rise?

DR. MILLER: There are multiple factors that increase the risk for sexual violence. Probably the most important was the disruption of usual peer-to-peer social networks, as well as safe and supportive environments for young people. With social distancing, with school closures, with after school programs coming to a, you know, screeching halt all of the places that we consider protective and safe and supportive for young people were disrupted.

What we don't know from the CDC study is who was causing harm. And it may be that as we start to untangle and more research emerges, that we will see increases not only in dating violence, but also violence within the home, including childhood sexual abuse. One of the possibilities that we may be picking up in this survey is that more young people are recognizing that what's happening to them is not okay, and actually reporting that on this survey as having experienced sexual violence.

NIALA: What do you think most urgently needs to happen to address this?

DR. MILLER: We actually have a really clear roadmap in terms of what needs to happen. Number one, we need to not treat sexual violence in a silo, experiences of violence are connected to bullying, to identity based discrimination, to community violence, youth violence that we need to think really holistically about what helps support and protect young people. Second, we need to really address attitudes that condone this kind of harmful behavior, attitudes that condone sexual violence, including ideas about and harmful ideas about what's okay to do to another human being.

And then third, we really need to have comprehensive sexual health education in this country starting really early on with conversations from kindergarten on up, about bodily autonomy, about consent, about what's okay and not okay, asking for permission, all of that kind of healthy communication and healthy relationship skills building, which needs to be part of comprehensive sexual health education.

NIALA: Dr. Miller, I'm sure both young people and parents or other adults in these young people's lives listening will wonder about where to find resources on this. Do you have recommendations?

DR. MILLER: We do have some really robust, national hotlines and chat functions available for young people. One of them is loveisrespect.org. The other is through our National Domestic Violence Hotline, and that's easy to remember it's thehotline.org.

NIALA: We will include a link to all of this in our show notes, Dr. Elizabeth Miller is a violence prevention researcher. Thank you, Dr. Miller.

DR. MILLER: Thank you so much.

Black artists you love in honor of Black History Month

NIALA: Before we go today – we’re getting many more of your wonderful recommendations for Black artists you love, in honor of Black History Month. Including from Howie in Durham, North Carolina who wrote to tell us that his favorite Black artist is Clifford Brown, who he calls “an amazing bebop trumpet player from the 1950s that left us tragically at the age of 25 in a car crash.”

Howie says, “His solo on Joy Spring is arguably one of the greatest in music history. It always leaves a smile on my face and puts life in perspective no matter what I'm feeling prior.”

Thanks Howie – here’s some of that solo, and we hope it gives you all some hope and joy heading into the rest of this week. I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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