Origin stories: The P4 laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology
Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: The great lab leak U-turn

A theory dismissed as ‘disinformation’ has suddenly gone mainstream

“Viable”. That was the word chosen by 18 senior scientists last week to describe the idea that the Covid-19 virus didn’t jump from an animal to a human in Wuhan’s wet markets but somehow escaped from a lab in the city’s Institute for Virology. In a letter in the most recent issue of Science magazine, the group said that “we must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data.”

The experts’ note was one of a series of developments that means the lab leak hypothesis has, almost overnight, become an acceptable opinion among polite company in America. At the start of the pandemic, prestige US media outlets were quick to dismiss the hypothesis as a Dangerous Republican Lie. “The claim is inaccurate and ridiculous. We rate it pants on fire,” ruled the Poynter Institute’s notionally nonpartisan, Pulitzer Prize winning fact-checking operation, Politifact, on the lab leak hypothesis. The Washington Post accused Senator Tom Cotton of spreading “conspiracy theories” for wanting to investigate the theory. NPR enthusiastically “debunked” the claim.

You cannot make sense of the firmness with which the lab leak hypothesis was dismissed without appreciating how Trump changed American media. After the 2016 election, the top tier of American media traded objectivity for opposition. As the New York Times has more or less admitted, normal standards no longer applied. Success was now defined by the extent to which you made Donald Trump’s life difficult. This mattered when it came to the origins of the pandemic.

Anyone entertaining the possibility that lab negligence caused the pandemic wasn’t just peddling “misinformation”, but worse: misinformation that might have played into Trump’s hands in an election year. At a time when the only honest answer to the question of how the pandemic started was “I don’t know”, the most highly-regarded outlets in American media had decided that the answer most convenient to the president should be vigorously discredited.

But the more we learn, the less outlandish the lab leak theory looks. Don McNeil, a science reporter at the New York Times and one of the best journalists covering the pandemic until his recent firing, published a lengthy Medium post this week in which he explains his initial reservations about the lab leak theory as well as why the argument has become “considerably stronger” as time has gone on. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control under Trump, recently said he believes that a lab leak is the most likely explanation of how the pandemic started. In March, the WHO’s Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the matter required further investigation. President Biden’s Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, says he wants to get to the bottom of the matter.

Articles are edited, tweets are deleted, excuses are readied and yet there is little evidence of any soul searching

And so the outlets that were swift to discredit any discussion of the Wuhan lab have been forced into an embarrassing about turn. But even the climbdown bears the stench of self-satisfaction and dishonesty. The New York Times’s Ben Smith congratulated his former colleague McNeil for an “attempt to depoliticise” the lab leak hypothesis (it was liberal outlets like the New York Times that politicised it in the first place.) Matthew Yglesias, the recently departed co-founder of Vox Media, patted (Vox Media-owned) New York magazine on the back for “bringing the lab leak hypothesis into the mainstream”. No credit, then, for those outside what Yglesias defines as the mainstream who took the lab leak theory seriously months earlier and were often dismissed as cranks for doing so.

Nor is there any credit to those few dissenting voices inside liberal newspapers who took the lab leak theory seriously. One such voice is Josh Rogin at the Washington Post, who last April reported on safety issues at the Wuhan lab raised in diplomatic cables two years earlier. (If you’re interested in US-China relations or the geopolitics of the pandemic, Rogin’s new book Chaos Under Heaven is essential reading.)

Meanwhile, as National Review’s Jim Geraghty (who has been evenhandedly weighing the evidence on Covid’s origins from the start) noticed, Vox has quietly edited its coverage of the lab leak theory. A year ago, a sentence on their website read “The emergence of the virus in the same city as China’s only level 4 biosafety lab, it turns out, is pure coincidence”. Now it reads: “The emergence of the virus in the same city as China’s only level 4 biosafety lab, it turns out, appears to be pure coincidence.”

Articles are edited, tweets are deleted, excuses are readied and yet there is little evidence of any soul searching. Because they know they’ll get away with it. The big liberal newspapers have loyal readerships and partisanship inoculates them against too much criticism from their own side. The fact checkers and anti-disinformation hucksters have cushy endowments and powerful cheerleaders. But for more circumspect Americans, there are two clear takeaways from the lab leak about turn. First: they must think we are stupid. Second: they aren’t nearly as smart as they seem to think they are.

I can think of better reasons to establish the truth about the origins of a plague that has killed millions and upended the lives of billions than winning an argument with Trump supporters

Even after the reversal, the prestige media still struggles to see the lab leak discussion as anything more than a proxy battle over the former president.

In The Atlantic, David Frum argues that the Biden administration should get to the bottom of how the pandemic started to “deny the Trump dead-enders the culture-war weapon they want”. Frum writes that the Biden administration should be “acting fast and tough to take possession of the truth about the virus.”

Frum seems to think that the primary reason Democrats should take the lab leak hypothesis seriously is to avoid giving the right a win. You have to be very lost in the discourse to come to that conclusion. I can think of better reasons to establish the truth about the origins of a plague that has killed millions and upended the lives of billions than winning an argument with Trump supporters. Foremost among them: trying to stop this from happening again, establishing culpability for all the suffering. And isn’t the truth a good enough end in itself?

Representative Mike Gallagher, a Republican from Wisconsin, is as committed to investigating the origins of the pandemic as anyone else in Washington. He has described understanding the cause of the pandemic as the “most important question facing the world today” and, contrary to Frum’s claims that the GOP are only interested in a culture-war fight over the virus’s origins, has said “we cannot afford to settle for a limited, blinkered, or politicised understanding of the origin of this terrible disease.”

This week, Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee released a report that finds “significant circumstantial evidence” that the pandemic started in a lab in Wuhan. The White House maintains it supports an “independent, transparent investigation” and that it doesn’t have enough information to “make an assessment” on how the pandemic started.

The origins of the pandemic — including that the possibility that the virus escaped a Wuhan lab — may yet be the subject of constructive good-faith bipartisan investigation. Let’s hope so. A question of such importance should be something that America’s major parties can agree is worth investigating. If they can’t, the gatekeepers in America’s liberal media, who shutdown debate on one of the most important unknowns in the world today, will deserve much of the blame.

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