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A woman checks her son's forehead on January 27, 2020 in Wuhan, China.

A woman checks her son's forehead on January 27, 2020 in Wuhan, China. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Coronavirus Lab Leak Theory: Not Disproven, But Unlikely

The “illusory truth effect” and the track record of the theory’s supporters warn us to be skeptical.

Mike Lofgren

The past month has proven that right-wing ideas supported by little or no credible evidence are like the Terminator: they rise time and again from seemingly certain death. They even gain currency in the mainstream, due to their proponents parroting them over and over until they achieve the illusory truth effect. There are several historical precedents.

The claim that Shakespeare was not the real author of Hamlet or Macbeth has been widely believed for more than 150 years; it has even penetrated some academic circles. By doggedly spreading innuendo that there has been a centuries-long conspiracy to hide the truth about Shakespeare’s plays, proponents have converted a segment of popular opinion and even pressured some credentialed experts to consider it an open question. We have seen this tactic more recently in climate science denial.

False or unproven assertions constantly repeated are more likely to be taken as true by the bulk of the population than prosaic truths that do not achieve the same amount of retelling. This explains the success of Republican talking points: the GOP’s disciplined, machine-like reiteration of false but simple and confidently stated propositions carries the day against scattered, desultory statements describing a messy and complicated reality.

The most recent example of the illusory truth effect is the hullabaloo over the origin of the COVID-19 outbreak that has ravaged the world. It is now claimed that this catastrophe resulted from a leak, or accident, or perhaps malfeasance, at a biological research lab in Wuhan, China.

An early example of the lab theory transferring from the ideological fever swamps to the mainstream media came from Washington Post contributor Matt Bai, who leaned heavily on his desk reporter experience to conclude that if there was a research lab in Wuhan, then the coincidence of a viral outbreak in the city was just too strong.

Bai appears to have fallen prey to the superstitious human tendency to over-ascribe a causal relation between two possibly unrelated facts, and he produces no supporting evidence.

He also asserts (offering no reason why he thinks so) that he “never found it terribly persuasive that the virus infected its first human by way of a meat market.” But this ignores a pervasive history of infectious disease jumping from animals to people, as lethal influenza strains have repeatedly leapt from Chinese swine farms to humans.

Bai’s overarching thesis is that Trump’s mendacity damaged all his political opponents’ capacity for critical thinking, so that they embraced the zoonotic (animal to human disease transmission) thesis out of a kneejerk reaction. But the Trump administration had nearly a year to produce evidence of a lab leak and showed the public nothing; former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, when recently challenged, still had nothing to offer besides bluster.

Faulty logic like Bai’s now threatens to dominate the debate, but on an even more debased level. Comedian Jon Stewart publicly stated that coronavirus was “more than likely caused by science.” Pantomiming a snarky schoolmarm drilling two-plus-two into slow learners, Stewart wondered why no one but he had noticed that it was “the Wuhan novel respiratory coronavirus lab! The disease is the same name as the lab. That’s just a little too weird, don’t you think?” As for zoonotic transmission, he offered this strained argument from incredulity: “Ooh, a pangolin kissed a turtle?”

An actual virologist, Dr. Peter Hotez, refuted Stewart’s claims about the unlikelihood of zoonotic transfer and criticized the comedian’s diatribe against science. He also pointed out that it was perfectly natural for China to have labs studying coronavirus, given that conditions there often give rise to such outbreaks.

Regarding the real name of the lab (Stewart to the contrary), it is the Wuhan Institute of Virology. And there are many different types of coronavirus besides COVID-19, including the common cold. The lab is no more implicated in the pandemic by empirical evidence than Rocky Mountain Labs in Hamilton, Montana, is a prime suspect for cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

The evidence for an actual lab leak remains thin compared to the evidence favoring the previously prevailing hypothesis that the Wuhan “wet” market, which sold all manner of animals caught in the wild (and kept them in confined, appalling conditions) was the source of the outbreak. It was a perfect petri dish for potential mass infection. U.S. public health authorities, including CDC surveillance teams in China (which President Trump slashed) have been warning of this type of zoonotic transmission for years.

Exhibit A for the accusers is the fact that three lab workers contracted COVID early. But this proves nothing. They could have had contact with patrons of the market, or been customers of the market themselves. We still don’t know who Patient Zero is, as the first infection might have occurred weeks earlier than the commonly accepted late November-early December 2019 timeframe. The persons in question being lab personnel, they were far more likely to be tested and identified at that early stage of the pandemic than, say, pangolin-hawkers.

"The lab theory is retailed by the same political faction that believes all kinds of preposterous notions, whether the QAnon hallucination, or an Italian satellite changing the results of the U.S. election in 2020, or that Anthony Fauci was somehow personally tied to the Wuhan institute."

There is an obvious “qui bono?” angle to the lab story. Conservatives will do anything to vindicate themselves, and Trump’s behavior. They are also accomplished at “working the refs,” meaning incessantly complaining about their treatment by the media, a performance art that can trigger feelings of guilt by journalists eager to be seen giving all parties a fair shake.

Pinning the pandemic on a lab makes a more attractive scapegoat, as it puts the Chinese government front and center. It also feeds into the right-wing habit of transmuting every serious natural threat into the machinations of foreigners. (An extreme example is Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene’s attributing wildfires in the western United States to “Jewish space lasers”).

Conversely, the zoonotic transmission via the meat market theory doesn’t fly with them because it is more complicated and difficult for the conservative base to grasp (just as Jon Stewart and Matt Bai couldn’t grasp it). The Right will downplay it the way they downplay climate change. Equally, giving credence to the zoonotic transmission theory would require taking environmental destruction seriously. Human exploitation of wildlife is a perfect vector for novel disease transmission.  So is the relentless clearing of forests for agricultural or other use, which forces animals into close contact with villages and towns.

The lab theory cannot, of course, be definitively ruled out at this point, given the inability of neutral researchers to see all the evidence. But a caveat is required: we still have not pinpointed the origin of the 1918 influenza, or AIDS, or SARS, or MERSA (the “Spanish flu” moniker for the 1918 virus stuck because neutral Spanish media reported early on cases, while the warring powers generally censored such news until the flu became widespread).

There is no reason to believe COVID-19s origins will be easier to find.

Knowing the precise origin point of a fast-mutating RNA virus amid a vast sea of host organisms may (unusual luck aside) be as difficult as pinpointing the exact event that triggered a cyclonic storm—could it have been the fabled butterfly flapping its wings, or might it even have been a quantum fluctuation?

The people who are insistent on an answer oddly tend to be indifferent as to whether the United States has sufficient hospital capacity for the next pandemic, or improved early detection and warning, or adequately funded vaccine research. They seem equally nonchalant about the highly transmissible Delta variant of COVID, rapidly becoming the dominant strain of active cases.

The lab theory is retailed by the same political faction that believes all kinds of preposterous notions, whether the QAnon hallucination, or an Italian satellite changing the results of the U.S. election in 2020, or that Anthony Fauci was somehow personally tied to the Wuhan institute.

The latest China-related conspiracy comes from U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). He believes we shouldn’t participate in the upcoming Winter Olympics in China because the hosts will harvest the DNA of US athletes to create a race of super-soldiers.

His view is seconded by purported Sinologist Gordon Chang, who also believes China deliberately spread COVID. He wrote a book in 2001 titled The Coming Collapse of China. This expert who deemed that China should have already collapsed simultaneously believes the Chinese are on the verge of taking over the world with an imagined DNA heist, a caper that resembles the plot of a rejected James Bond movie script.

By contrast, Chang praised the Trump administration for acting “very, very quickly” to contain the pandemic at the same point in early 2020 when Trump pointedly told Bob Woodward that he had deliberately downplayed coronavirus in order to prop up the stock market. Chang is one of many self-appointed China experts who influence our debate over coronavirus and other aspects of U.S.-China relations.

Coronavirus infection arising from eating snakes, bats, and monkeys is just as damning of China as a lab leak, if not more so, because it exists on a deeper cultural level than science projects directed by Beijing. And it is objectively more serious than a lab leak, because poaching, the destruction of plant and animal habitats, and the consequent zoonotic transmission of diseases are more insidious and harder to combat.

(This should in no way be construed as “racist.” Dangerous behavior is dangerous behavior. And our own skirts are hardly clean: we endured needless catastrophe from the pandemic because many Americans displayed a pathological level of selfish stupidity camouflaged as freedom or rugged individualism, abetted by Trump’s potential criminal malfeasance. And our factory farms are hardly models of cleanliness, humaneness, or safety: antibiotics need stricter controls, and government agricultural inspection, which the Trump administration gutted, is perennially underfunded).

There is plenty to condemn China for even if the global pandemic arose from capturing wild animals, just as China never receives proper condemnation for the destruction of rare and endangered species in Africa because of the bounties it is willing to pay for lunatic nostrums like rhino horn aphrodisiac. But conservatives are too blinkered to recognize that, and if they did, the awareness would be nullified by their own ideologically-driven disdain for the conservation of nature.

One could just as easily construct a hypothesis that the Wuhan lab affair was concocted out of whole cloth by the Right to act as a distraction from Trump’s deliberate sabotage of protective measures against the pandemic due to his vanity, desire to keep power, and malign nature. The empirical evidence for this is more compelling.

Given the total politicization of all such issues in the United States, “truth” will entirely be determined by the political orientation of the observer. As for President Biden’s order to the U.S. intelligence community to investigate the lab theory, the eventual assessment will likely be sufficiently hedged that readers will see what they want to see, in the manner of a Rorschach test. (This occurred with the intelligence estimate as to whether Iraq possessed WMD, and also in William Barr’s mendacious misrepresentation of the Mueller report).

After all this public uproar and political reaction, the last foreign scientist to work at the Wuhan lab has just come forward. Danielle Anderson, an Australian virologist, says that the picture commonly painted of the lab is a negative caricature that bears no relation to what she saw. She says the bio-containment structures and protocols were first-rate, and the scientists were very competent. What’s more, she worked there until November 2019, a potential timeframe for the first human infection, and did not get sick.

As for the actual truth, the ever-increasing tendency in Beijing of extreme secrecy towards anything that might hurt its image means the likelihood of an impartial and transparent investigation is roughly zero. For a regime which refuses to acknowledge the crimes it has committed in Xinjiang, and which shuts its citizens behind an internet firewall lest they learn embarrassing facts, it is no leap to believe it would be just as touchy and secretive about a viral outbreak that arose from a culinary practice as from an accident in one of its labs.

The United States and China will experience rocky relations for the foreseeable future; there are so many legitimate bones of contention that hyping speculative theories is both a diversion from more critical issues and damaging to US credibility. Barring a miracle, there will be no resolution of the precise origin of coronavirus. Given current political reality in America, it is probable that half-formed suspicions about the lab theory will, as it was said about questions whether Alger Hiss was a Soviet agent, “hang in the air like an incubus."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Mike Lofgren

Mike Lofgren

Mike Lofgren is a former congressional staff member who served on both the House and Senate budget committees. His books include: "The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government" (2016) and "The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted(2013).

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