Wuhan Lab Leak Moves from Hoax to Theory

The fact-checkers blew this one and blew it big.

For more than a year, the notion that the virus behind COVID-19 was concocted in a Chinese laboratory rather than occurring naturally in an animal market was derided as a wild conspiracy theory. Those who espoused it were ridiculed and even banned from social media platforms. Perhaps the most famous of the cottage industry of fact-checkers, WaPo’s Glenn Kessler, explains “How the Wuhan lab-leak theory suddenly became credible.”

How and why did this happen? For one, efforts to discover a natural source of the virus have failed. Second, early efforts to spotlight a lab leak often got mixed up with speculation that the virus was deliberately created as a bioweapon. That made it easier for many scientists to dismiss the lab scenario as tin-hat nonsense. But a lack of transparency by China and renewed attention to the activities of the Wuhan lab have led some scientists to say they were too quick to discount a possible link at first.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) from the start pointed to the lab’s location in Wuhan, pressing China for answers, so the history books will reward him if he turns out to be right. The Trump administration also sought to highlight the lab scenario but generally could only point to vague intelligence. The Trump administration’s messaging was often accompanied by anti-Chinese rhetoric that made it easier for skeptics to ignore its claims.

[…]

In some instances, important information was available from the start but was generally ignored. But in other cases, some experts fought against the conventional wisdom and began to build a credible case, rooted in science, that started to change people’s minds. This has led to renewed calls for a real investigation into the lab’s activities before the coronavirus emerged.

He provides a timeline, that I will not reproduce here, of what we reasonably knew and when. But perhaps most noteworthy is that the earliest version of the claim, made way back on January 5, 2020, came from a Hong Kong activist who even today has only 873 Twitter followers and who refers to the PRC as “Chinazis.” Most of the other early claims came from conservative politicians and media outlets, leading to a group of scientists publishing a letter in the Lancet on February 19 declaring, “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that covid-19 does not have a natural origin.” Yet, the theory did not die and credible scientists continued to push back. But it did not help that President Trump finally glommed onto it on April 30.

This is too much for Matt Taibbi, who combines good points and vitriol in his essay “‘Fact-Checking’ Takes Another Beating.” After a longish defense of traditional media fact-checkers—who work behind the scenes to ensure journalists like him don’t get over their skis—he contrasts them with Kessler and his new breed.

Unfortunately, over the course of the last five years in particular, as the commercial media has experienced a precipitous drop in the public trust levels, many organizations have chosen to trumpet fact-checking programs as a way of advertising a dedication to “truth.” Fact-checking has furthermore become part of the “moral clarity” argument, which claims a phony objectivity standard once forced news companies to always include gestures to a perpetually wrong other side, making “truth” a casualty to false “fairness.”

[…]

[O]bjectivity was never about giving equal time and weight to “both sides.” It’s just an admission that the news business is a high-speed operation whose top decision-makers are working from a knowledge level of near-zero about most things, at best just making an honest effort at hitting the moving target of truth.

Like fact-checking itself, the “on the one hand and on the other hand” format is just a defense mechanism. These people say X, these people say Y, and because the jabbering mannequins we have reading off our teleprompters actually know jack, we’ll let the passage of time sort out the difficult bits.

The public used to appreciate the humility of that approach, but what they get from us more often now are sanctimonious speeches about how reporters are intrepid seekers of truth who sit next to God and gobble amphetamines so they can stay awake all night defending democracy from “misinformation.” But once you get past names, dates, and whether the sky that day was blue or cloudy, the worst kind of misinformation in journalism is to be too sure about anything. That’s especially when dealing with complex technical issues, and even more especially when official sources seem invested in eliminating discussion of alternative scenarios of those issues.

From the start, the press mostly mishandled Covid-19 reporting. Part of this was because nearly all of the critical issues — mask use, lockdowns, viability of vaccine programs, and so on — were marketed by news companies as culture-war narratives. A related problem had to do with news companies using the misguided notion that the news is an exact science to promote the worse misconception that science is an exact science. This led to absurd spectacles like news agencies trying to cover up or denounce as falsehood the natural reality that officials had evolving views on things like the efficacy of ventilators or mask use.

When CNN did a fact-check on the question, “Did Fauci change his mind on the effectiveness of masks?” they seemed worried about the glee Trump followers would feel if they simply wrote yes, so the answer instead became, “Yes, but Trump is also an asshole” (because he implied the need to wear masks is still up for debate). By labeling whatever the current scientific consensus happened to be an immutable “fact,” media outlets made the normal evolution of scientific debates look dishonest, and pointlessly heightened mistrust of both scientists and media.

Fact-checking was a huge boon when it was an out-of-sight process quietly polishing the turd of industrial reportage. When companies dragged it out in public and made it a beast of burden for use in impressing audiences, they defamed the tradition.

While the piece is a bit over-the-top, I think this is mostly right. But it misses a rather crucial bit of context. “The last five” years is a rather unique period in the history of American journalism, coinciding with the rise of Donald Trump as the face of the Republican Party and, arguably, the most important American political figure. While the rise of PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, and Kessler’s Fact Checker predate this period, the focus shifted and quite reasonably. Whereas the presumption in American journalistic coverage was that Presidents and their spokespeople were telling versions of the truth with some “spin” to manipulate press framing, elite outlets soon decided that was dangerous when the administration would boldly and routinely issue bald-faced lies.

Jonathan Chait gets at that, albeit gingerly, in “How the Liberal Media Dismissed the Lab-Leak Theory and Smeared Its Supporters.”

Many mainstream journalists, though not all, dismissed the lab-leak hypothesis out of hand as a conspiracy theory. In part, they were deceived by some especially voluble public-health experts. In part, they simply took Donald Trump’s bait, answering the former president’s dissembling with false certainty of their own.

It is not too early to grapple with the failures of the media, which reflect the wider struggles of trying to fairly convey the truth in an atmosphere deformed by misinformation. Rather than meet lies with truth, the media often met it with other lies.

I agree with all of that except the last bit. There’s no reason to believe the reporters dismissing Trump, Cotton, et. al. were intentionally dishonest. Rather, the fact that a group of scientists published a letter debunking the theory early on framed it as Trumpers vs. Truth Tellers and cognitive dissonance did the rest. Even though credible evidence that the virus could indeed have been developed in a lab continued to trickle in, it was simply dismissed because the debate had been framed early and Evil Couldn’t Be Allowed to Win.

But here’s the key problem:

The confusion surrounding this issue was sown in no small measure by Trump, who used China as a transparent gambit to distract from his failure to respond to the pandemic. His messages characteristically contained a mix of unproven, false, and irrelevant statements. Trump said China was withholding information about the pandemic’s origins, that it might not have started in a market, and that China may have intentionally started the pandemic or allowed it to spread in order to harm him […]

Obviously, the idea China would intentionally start a deadly pandemic inside of China, just so the virus would eventually spread around the globe and kill Americans, is preposterous. In any case, whether it originated in a lab or a wet market is irrelevant to Trump’s decisions — either way, his job was to protect Americans from the virus, and he failed.

However, the charge that the virus began in a lab and China was covering it up was never clearly false. Yet many media reports treated this aspect with the same skepticism as Trump’s other lies on the subject, often blending different aspects of these claims together.

There has been, to the best of my understanding, simply zero evidence that the Chinese government or anyone else deliberately unleashed a virus. And, indeed, as evil as I believe the Xi regime to be, it simply makes no sense as a working hypothesis. The risk-reward calculation means even the suggestion would have been laughed off.

But it’s completely plausible that there was scientific experimentation going on, protocols failed to contain the virus, and the PRC then covered it up. That, indeed, is very on-brand.

To be clear: while this theory is plausible and has some evidence to support it, it remains a theory. The animal market theory remains a viable explanation as well; it simply hasn’t been verified yet. And, hell, given the deliberate cover-up in the early days of the disease spread and the resultant lost time, we may never know.

Regardless, Chait correctly joins Taibbi in condemning media certitude:

In January 2020, the Washington Post wrote a story headlined, “Experts debunk fringe theory linking China’s coronavirus to weapons research.” This piece correctly refuted the claim that the virus was deliberately manufactured as a biological weapon. It did not distinguish the (highly unlikely) bioweapon theory from the related, more plausible theory that the disease escaped from the Wuhan lab without ever having been intended as a weapon. More damagingly, this story treated the Wuhan lab’s security as essentially impregnable, asserting that “the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory is a ‘Cellular Level Biosafety Level 4’ facility, which means it has a high level of operational security and is authorized to work on dangerous pathogens, including Ebola.”

The security level of a lab in China is not something the Western media was, or is, in a position to assess. But this assumption that the lab almost certainly couldn’t suffer a breach became embedded in a lot of the coverage that followed.

But, again, the fact that Trump and his acolytes were on the forefront of pushing the alternative theory likely made WaPo editors more willing to lean forward. Because democracy dies in darkness and all that.

Regardless, Cotton—almost certainly out of raw political calculation rather than regard for the truth—turned out to be right:

In February, Senator Tom Cotton appeared on television to raise questions about what China was hiding. Cotton kept his exact accusation vague, perhaps deliberately. “We don’t have evidence that this disease originated there,” he said of the Wuhan lab, “but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says, and China right now is not giving evidence on that question at all.”

This seems to be the scientific consensus now. But, again, given who was pushing the theory—and the conflation of it and the more sinister variant—it’s understandable why the pushback was so hard. Still, it was brutal:

Reporters immediately began accusing him of promoting the most extreme version of Trump’s charge. The New York Times labeled Cotton’s remarks a “conspiracy theory.” The Washington Post‘s account was headlined, “Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked.” The Post quoted an expert denying the virus “was a deliberately released bioweapon,” but Cotton hadn’t said that.

Not all media handled the controversy this poorly. The New York Times treated the lab-leak hypothesis as an open question. A report that Trump officials were pressuring intelligence staffers to substantiate the lab-leak theory presented evidence for both sides. Another report a few days later noted, “Some officials who have examined the intelligence reports, which remain classified, say it is possible an animal that was infected with the coronavirus in the laboratory was destroyed, and a lab worker was accidentally infected in the process. But that is just one of many theories still being examined.”

But other reporting spread the same confusion. One April NPR report asserted, “Virus researchers say there is virtually no chance that the new coronavirus was released as result of a laboratory accident in China or anywhere else.” But if you read the story closely, you can see the gaps between what the experts say, and the conclusions of the authorial voice.

[…]

More liberal news sources went even farther. The Guardian covered the issue through the prism of Trump’s habit of spreading conspiracy theories, with headlines like ”Trump fans flames of Chinese lab coronavirus theory during daily briefing” and ”Trump claims to have evidence coronavirus started in Chinese lab but offers no details.”

In March, Vox (whose parent company also owns New York) reported, “In some right-wing news outlets and on social media, a dangerous conspiracy theory about the origin of the health crisis won’t die.” It scolded New York Post columnist Steven Mosher for having “stoked the leakage rumor, using an array of circumstantial clues that Chinese labs’ handling of deadly pathogens can’t be trusted,” to which the story asserted in response, “The Wuhan lab has the same safety protocols as top biosafety labs in the US and Europe.”

There’s a lot more to Chait’s piece, including the rather strong point that any claims that China was somehow responsible for the virus, rather than simply its first victim, were dismissed as racist.

There are some lessons to be had here about humility in both journalism and the fact-checking industry. But, again, the Trump factor is huge here. One can hardly blame a community who disbelieves the cry of “Wolf!” from a boy who had repeatedly made that claim falsely.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Media, Science & Technology, Social Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Cheryl Rofer says:

    Wow, James. Too long to read, so I’ll just take the punchline.

    1. We don’t have enough information to decide what the origin of the virus was. So I don’t care about Matt Taibibi’s opinion or Jonathan Chait’s. Particularly their opinions. I’ll wait for the virologists to come up with the data.

    2. The arguments around the origin are polarized and getting worse. Some people (Tom Cotton, for one) would like a war with China and see this as a way to get it. Perhaps their humanitarian instincts want only a Cold War, but that’s what they want. So everything they argue is tainted, and others are becoming infected.

    So that’s why I’m not going to spend time on this today.

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  2. Stormy Dragon says:

    Wuhan Lab Leak Moves from Hoax to Theory

    Amongst the terminally gullible, perhaps.

    This seems to be the scientific consensus now.

    As your own immediately following quote demonstrates, this isn’t the scientific consensus at all.

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  3. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    1. We don’t have enough information to decide what the origin of the virus was.

    The problem is the right is turning this into a classic “appeal to ignorance”, basically arguing that since we don’t know for certain, any explanation, no matter how crazy, is equally as likely as the most obvious ones.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: The post is media criticism and about how conversations get shut down, rather than about the origins of the virus.

    @Stormy Dragon: That we don’t have enough evidence to know where the virus originated and need to continue exploring the possibility that it was a product of a lab?

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  5. Cheryl Rofer says:

    @Stormy Dragon: And not only that, the scientists must explain why that crazy explanation is wrong. A standard internet trolling tactic.

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  6. Sleeping Dog says:

    There has been, to the best of my understanding, simply zero evidence that the Chinese government or anyone else deliberately unleashed a virus. And, indeed, as evil as I believe the Xi regime to be, it simply makes no sense as a working hypothesis. The risk-reward calculation means even the suggestion would have been laughed off.

    But it’s completely plausible that there was scientific experimentation going on, protocols failed to contain the virus, and the PRC then covered it up. That, indeed, is very on-brand.

    To be clear: while this theory is plausible and has some evidence to support it, it remains a theory. The animal market theory remains a viable explanation as well; it simply hasn’t been verified yet. And, hell, given the deliberate cover-up in the early days of the disease spread and the resultant lost time, we may never know.

    It is well established that animal viruses can jump to humans, so researching possible viral diseases makes sense. It was always plausible that that China was undertaking such research, because the US does as well. The wet market theory is equally plausible as jumps from animals to people has happened in the past. Reporting on, and evaluation of the source of Covid-19 got caught in the US culture wars and we are the worse for it.

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  7. Cheryl Rofer says:

    @James Joyner: Taibibi and Chait should be shut down.

    The scientific community never shut down any of the hypotheses about origin. The loudmouths, probably, but I haven’t been following them except in the most superficial way. I don’t care “what Twitter thinks” about an issue like this.

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  8. Kathy says:

    Let’s back up a minute.

    There is a vast difference between a virus “being created in a lab,” and a virus “leaking from a lab.”

    Despite movies and TV, we lack the ability to synthesize new lifeforms, even simple ones like viruses, from scratch. We can modify genes in various ways, and apply environmental pressures to change how an organism evolves. This is how we’ve gotten the viral vectors for the AstraZeneca and Sputnik V vaccines, among others. AS far as I know, no one has made a dangerous disease pathogen with these methods.

    It’s possible scientists in Wuhan were researching SARS-CoV-2 in their lab, and somehow let it lose. It wouldn’t take much, considering how highly contagious it is.

    Is there any evidence of this? Is there any evidence they were researching other coronaviruses? It’s not out of the bounds of possibility. SARS and MERS are coronavirus diseases, and the former had an impact on China and Hong Kong once. But were they?

    I’ll await evidence.

    BTW, while China has much to account for, including the delay in communicating person-to-person transmission of COVID, flinging wild accusations, as trump did, doesn’t help one bit.

    And even if Xi himself designed SARS-CoV-2 and let it lose, masks, social distancing, hygiene, and vaccines were, are, and will be the only effective methods to contain it. Where the virus originated changes nothing in how we should handle it.

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  9. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Seriously…who gives a flying fuq?
    I don’t see enough new information to judge. Get back to me when an investigation is complete.
    In the meantime the former guy killed the vast majority of the nearly 600,000 dead Americans through his inaction and incompetency. And yet it’s like that travesty didn’t happen.
    To those dead Americans, does it matter if the virus came from a lab or a bat?
    Today 50% of all Americans are fully vaccinated. That’s what competence looks like.
    Imagine if competent people had been in charge from the beginning.
    >500,000 people might still be alive.
    No matter whether it came from a bat or a lab.

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  10. Modulo Myself says:

    It is telling that the same people who were upset 24/7 about wearing masks also believe that Covid was so contagious that it escaped a lab via a single accident and swept across the world like a zombie virus.

    Honestly, Taibbi sounds like he’s describing how the media killed his family in a war crime. The tone coming off from him is just nuts. There was absolutely nothing to shut down regarding Covid except baseless speculation. The pieces (like Nicholson Baker’s) that tried to say that there was no way Covid had natural origins were shot down immediately. Not being an scientist, I have no way of knowing how China could prove that Covid did not spread from a lab accident. They could definitely prove that it did, by saying we made the error.

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  11. Modulo Myself says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    Seriously…who gives a flying fuq?

    Twenty years from now there’s going to be a faction of Americans still ranting about Fauci and how Florida did marginally better than NY in Covid mortality. These people have been brainwashed to give a thousand flying fuqs.

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  12. HelloWorld! says:

    Maybe the real problem is that news outlets are both providing a platform for misinformation and then being the fact-checkers for said information. Who cares if Tom Cotton says something about COVID’s origins. He is not a virologist. Unless he is publicly exposing something he heard in an intelligence briefing that has secret science behind it then the media shouldn’t be reporting it at all.

    At COVID’s start, the media should be reporting how it got started based on what experts in that field have researched. Allowing politicians to score political points by providing them a platform is no better than the “some people say” type of reporting that you hear. Liberal or not, the media sux at doing their job.

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  13. drj says:

    @James Joyner:

    The post is media criticism and about how conversations get shut down, rather than about the origins of the virus.

    But back then, there was no conversation to be had. (It’s not even clear there is one to be had now, btw.) So, of course, it got shut down. One cannot simply start speculating without any supporting evidence!

    Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) from the start pointed to the lab’s location in Wuhan, pressing China for answers, so the history books will reward him if he turns out to be right.

    This primarily shows what a tool Kessler is.

    Cotton’s was a bad-faith argument from the start. If I accuse a random stranger of murder and it turns out that this person actually committed murder, that won’t retroactively make me a visionary, now does it?

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  14. George says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Amongst the terminally gullible, perhaps.

    Getting a letter published in Science (along with Nature the most prestigious scientific journal in the world) puts it beyond the terminally gullible. That’s still a very long way from saying its become scientific consensus or even probable, but it does suggest that some very respectable scientists have put together a good argument that it is at least likely enough to be worth investigating.

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  15. Barry says:

    James, the situation was that (a) there was no proof, (b) experts looking into this did not believe it, and (c) the accusations were coming from people who lie like they breathe.

    The media looked at (a) and (b), and accused (c) of, well, lying like they breathe.

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  16. Michael Reynolds says:

    Is it impossible that the Chinese deliberately released this virus as a bio weapon? No. But you’d think they’d be clever enough not to start the infection right there in Wuhan. So that, we can dismiss. Not that the Chinese government isn’t perfectly capable of such a thing, but because they haven’t generally been that stupid.

    A leak? Sure. Could be. What are we going to do about it? Yell at them to be more careful next time? I suspect they’ve figured out that the lab needs better security.

    We have a philosophical disconnect when it comes to the truth. The Right believes what it chooses to believe and calls that truth. The Left seems to believe in the dumbed-down notion of subjective truth – your truth, my truth, their truth. Both sides treat truth as a fiction to be re-written when it’s convenient.

    The fact that our perceptions are by definition subjective does not mean that there is no objective truth. 2 + 2 continues to equal 4, and the subjectivity of the observer does not change that. Maybe this was a lab leak, maybe that is objectively true. Maybe it isn’t. But pretending we know when we don’t just makes it harder to get at the truth.

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  17. Stormy Dragon says:

    @George:

    Getting a letter published in Science (along with Nature the most prestigious scientific journal in the world) puts it beyond the terminally gullible.

    The widely believed myth that MSG causes health problems originated in a 1968 letter to the New England Journal of Medicine that appears to have been written by a fictitious Dr. Ho Man Kwok.

    The point being that “it must be valid because it was in a letter to Nature” is the equivalent to saying “it must be valid because it was in a comment on Nature’s website”. Letters to the editor aren’t peer reviewed or even fact checked. All it means is that some editor, who may have no background in the field the letter concerns at all, was sorting through hundreds of similar letters and found something vaguely interesting about it.

    So no, treating something like that as evidence is square in the terminally gullible wheelhouse.

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  18. KM says:

    The reason it was treated like a hoax is because it *is* a hoax they way they rant on about it. Science cannot do what their “theory” claims it can. Seriously, these nuts cases regularly claim human cloning is not only possible but is currently producing age-appropriate copies of people so perfect you can’t tell unless you’re on the Q. They want to blame China because they’re looking for a scapegoat, not a factual point of origin and their “logic” reflects that.

    At worst, they took something existing and mucked about with it to create a more contagious variant. However that would be like the UK variant vs India – infections would already be occurring in the wild so they wouldn’t be the true “source”. Far more likely is that if a lab were involved, they were studying something they’d found and someone managed to get infected, taking it to the outside world to spread faster than it would have. They would have been an careless accelerant to an ongoing issue but not the original or intentional flame. Considering how the USA can easily be seen as doing the same with our lax procedures and anti-intelligent containment movements, China can turn right back around and accuse of intentionally keeping the virus going to re-infect the world to keep the plague going. Funny how QAnon doesn’t see it that way….

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  19. Scott F. says:

    @Barry:
    What Barry says!

    But, again, the Trump factor is huge here. One can hardly blame a community who disbelieves the cry of “Wolf!” from a boy who had repeatedly made that claim falsely.

    The Trump factor is the only thing that matters here. Trump introduced us to unmitigated, unrepentant falsifying at levels never before seen from a public persona (let alone a POTUS) and he didn’t meaningfully suffer for it. The very ideas of fact-finding, evidence, data, expertise, and analysis were undermined by the ceaseless lying spewing from the White House on a daily basis.

    One shouldn’t be surprised that journalists, editors, fact-finders, and opinion leaders were tainted by the tsunami of lying. Remember, everything Trump touches dies.

    3
  20. MarkedMan says:

    Republicans have no credibility. They will say anything, about anything. When they aren’t promoting lies about voter fraud and stolen elections, they are promoting lies about transgender people and immigrants. It’s a waste of time to even process what they are saying. So, while there is an interesting discussion to be had about what went on in the Wuhan lab and why the Chinese Government is stonewalling the investigation, once you bring Republican hacks into it the discussion ends. Words that come out of Tom Cotton’s mouth may occasionally mesh with reality, but that is coincidence, not intent or ability.

    Years ago I happened to be in The French Quarter during Mardi Gras and watched a drunk manage to climb to the top of a light pole, unzip his fly and piss on the crowd below. No doubt some of them deserve to pissed on. But that didn’t make him a hero.

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  21. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    If it were a deliberate outbreak (what for??), it would 1) not have broken out in Wuhan or anywhere else in China (except perhaps in Hong Kong), and 2) China would have had a highly effective vaccine ready to go soon, rather than the mediocre ones it has now.

    Quite frankly, I thought the early vaccines, made in a rush and some with unproven technologies (like mRNA), or recently developed ones (like viral vectors), wouldn’t be very effective, say around 50% efficacy. We’d take them because they’d slow the spread better than even universal N95 usage, but we’d await better vaccines for late 2021.

    The efficacy achieved by the mRNA shots and some of the viral vector ones are nothing short of a modern-day scientific miracle.

    The accidental release hypothesis has too many unknown factors. How secure is the lab, how conscientious the techs and researchers, how well trained in the use of protective equipment and handling protocols, among many other questions.

    If, say, a dozen or so people were exposed to SARS-CoV-2 inside the lab, and no one noticed or did anything about it, that might be enough to cause the outbreak that launched the trump pandemic.

    Now, how likely is it a single person or two people were exposed and they alone launched the outbreak? No idea. We know of super-spreaders who might have swung it.

    BTW, I do know the world over, several virologists and other scientists are doing research not just on the trump virus, but in other coronaviruses and other respiratory ones, as well as hemorrhagic fevers (like Ebola), and various other kinds of dangerous pathogens. it’s what these people do in secure labs, the better to comprehend how viruses cause disease.

    6
  22. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Kathy:

    One thing to note is that the successful COVID vaccine development projects all started out years ago as SARS or MERS vaccines and just got redirected to a different coronavirus target at the last minute due to the pandemic, so they’re not quite as “come out of nowhere” as the media sometimes makes it sound.

    4
  23. Gustopher says:

    When the loudest proponents of a theory are lunatics and bad-faith actors, it’s hard not to dismiss that theory. I blame the Republicans for lying about everything.

    It’s like how if evidence surfaced that Bill Clinton really was a rapist who had people killed in Arkansas, many people wouldn’t believe it because of the decades of Republican lies about it.

    The origin doesn’t really matter at this point. If it escaped a lab, that doesn’t make the wet markets less of a problem in the future for this same thing happening.

    5
  24. George says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    We have a philosophical disconnect when it comes to the truth. The Right believes what it chooses to believe and calls that truth. The Left seems to believe in the dumbed-down notion of subjective truth – your truth, my truth, their truth. Both sides treat truth as a fiction to be re-written when it’s convenient.

    Brilliantly put.

    6
  25. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Gustopher:

    There’s also the fact that the earliest known cases in Wuhan are a cluster centered around a particular seafood merchant at the market and not the area around the lab.

    5
  26. George says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    The point being that “it must be valid because it was in a letter to Nature” is the equivalent to saying “it must be valid because it was in a comment on Nature’s website”.

    Sure, but you’ll note that’s not what I said. What I actually said was that being accepted into a letter to Science (or Nature) means a group of respected scientists put together an argument suggesting its worth investigating. If the writers thought they had a stronger position than that (ie that they had actual evidence it came from a lab) they’d have written an article for peer review etc, not a letter.

    There’s a huge gap between being scientifically shown to be very likely (nothing is ever scientifically true, that’s the realm of formal systems like math or logic) and being something only the terminally gullible might believe (perpetual motion machines are the classic example of this). Near the middle of the gap are things that might well turn out to be false (the aether drift for instance) but are worth investigating (hence the Michelson-Morely experiment and a very significant negative result).

    The whole point of letters to scientific journals is to point out ideas which may or may not be true, but are worth investigating. Prestigious journals don’t bother to print letters that only the terminally gullible might believe (try sending them a letter for a perpetual motion machine if you doubt this).

    The scientists writing the letter argue that the lab origins has moved from perpetual motion machine territory to worth investigating territory — that doesn’t mean they think its true, just that its no longer obviously false.

    4
  27. Scott says:

    Wuhan Lab Leak Moves from Hoax to Theory

    Here’s the problem with this kind of discussion. Bad information always drives out good.

    Looking over the media landscape today, it has not moved to “theory”. It has moved to “fact” and everyone in the media owes Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz an apology. This is how bad faith actors work.

    6
  28. gVOR08 says:

    A few observations:

    Kevin Drum

    covers all this in a lot fewer words.

    As @Daryl and his brother Darryl: notes, what the hell difference does it make? Yes, post mortem and preventative measures in future. But right now?

    Only religion offers certainty, and only because it’s not falsifiable, and despite the contradictions between the numerous religions.

    Conservatives take a simple, moralistic view of everything. As a result their preferred response to all problems is to identify the guilty and punish them.

    Kessler has become a problem, for which see his awarding Pinocchios to Biden for the routine political hyperbole of describing GA’s voting law as “Jim Crow”, thereby facilitating GOPs lying about it. In an era in which GOPs lie a lot more than Ds, Kessler’s goal of fairly calling out lies conflicts with his goal of appearing non-partisan. And my understanding is that media have largely cut their traditional pre-publication fact checkers out of their strained budgets. And they seem to feel that lies in opinion pieces count as opinion.

    3
  29. gVOR08 says:

    No edit function, so I’ll simply apologize for the badly applied blockquote in @gVOR08:.

  30. Stormy Dragon says:

    @George:

    try sending them a letter for a perpetual motion machine if you doubt this

    No, it just means your perpetual motion machines have to be more subtle:

    EmDrive

    3
  31. George says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Fair point. Arguably String theory fits into that category too.

    1
  32. Slugger says:

    In my imagination, the President is surrounded by people who work hard to analyze any possible threat to the US and are willing to entertain far fetched ideas. In January 2020, the Chinese suddenly built a new hospital in Wuhan and went around welding shut the doors of apartment complexes. There was somebody, there had to be somebody whose job it was to notice this and tell the President that a storm is brewing. Instead our government spent time telling us that it was nothing.
    Could this have been inadvertent release from a lab? Sure, bad accidents happen, and governments are not candid; see Chernobyl. Could this have been a malicious act of an individual? Less likely, but I remember the anthrax attacks of 2001. Act of war by the PRC? Very unlikely. Natural spread of a zoonosis? Seems most likely.
    We need to establish a national/international watchdog for infectious diseases. The sheer number of people on earth and the ease of travel from the most remote places to population centers means that this is not the last pandemic.

    3
  33. Stormy Dragon says:

    Another important point here is that this is a motte-and-bailey argument where “naturally occurring virus accidentally leaked from a lab where it was being studied” is the motte and “Chinese intentionally attacked the US with an artificially engineered bioweapon” is the bailey.

    1
  34. Bob@Youngstown says:

    Cyber Ninja’s next gig — investigate the Wuhan lab.

    And on goes the circus

    2
  35. Kathy says:

    @Bob@Youngstown:

    I’d like to see that, if only to watch how they react when they find no bamboo fibers in the lab.

    3
  36. Raoul says:

    What I read was that the intelligence community has seen reports that 3 individuals who worked in the Wuhan Lab got sick with CV-19 symptoms in November 2019. Since coronavirus symptoms can manifest itself in many ways I would like to know exactly what those symptoms were. Before this report there was nary any evidence indicating the Wuhan Lab as being the source. This report is the first hint of any evidence (weak as it is) and I do think the press has reported it as such. So no, there are no press corrections to be issued, no apologia, and I’m not sure what people expect (JJ?)- what does one want, the press to just dawdle in speculation. And btw, we are still no closer to knowing the source and the frankly the animal source would appear more likely as 100% of viruses have originated with animals.

  37. Gustopher says:

    We are still trying to identify the intermediate animal between bats and humans for this virus, as pretty much everyone discounts a jump straight from bats to humans. (Something about the closest know bat coronavirus being a bit too different).

    And this would have significant effects in understanding the threat in the future.

    But, sure, add lab mouse and lab rat to the list of suspects.

    And, if we discover they were working on an army a man-bat hybrid ninjas, that might be a smoking gun. But good ninjas escape detection. It’s why we haven’t heard of the French Ninjas.

    2
  38. Kathy says:

    Just an idle thought. I’m sure this must have been considered and disproved.

    What if SARS-CoV-2 is a human coronavirus that jumped to an animal, mutated, then jumped back at us?

  39. HelloWorld! says:

    @Raoul: See, this is credible. And there was the original whistle blower from Nov 2019 who has since died of CV-19. That’s the story. It’s not Trump blowing his hot air about Ch-i-na. It’s not Tom Cotton saying crap so he can plaster his big nose in the news. It’s not the lab. Follow the real story and we will find out where this virus came from.

  40. Raoul says:

    @HelloWorld!: The whistleblower story has nothing to with the source of the virus. Yes one should follow the leads and we should look into the 3 sick lab workers but as of know all he have is rank speculation.

    1
  41. JohnMcC says:

    @Gustopher: This post sent me searching for MSM reporting that would support the charges of intolerance and jumping to conspiracy conclusions that they’ve been accused of; ‘media criticism’ y’know.

    Didn’t find any in what was presented as ‘reporting’. Lots of that in ‘opinion’ journalism, of course. But did discover that the two candidates for intermediate host are ferrets and rabbits. Both were sold in the wet market.

    The post had quickly bifurcated to MSM-defending and R-party-bashing. Didn’t have anything to say about those.

  42. Kurtz says:

    @HelloWorld!:

    Who cares if Tom Cotton says something about COVID’s origins. He is not a virologist.

    Because you and I think he’s a dishonest broker, but people think that about ‘mainstream media.’

    A politically significant part of the country is primed to hear a politician say one of three or four things that move a public official from being irrelevant to important. And for those who didn’t hear what was said, there’s a whole ecosystem across every information channel ready to play it on repeat and add to it.

    1
  43. Barry says:

    @Slugger: “There was somebody, there had to be somebody whose job it was to notice this and tell the President that a storm is brewing. Instead our government spent time telling us that it was nothing.”

    IIRC, we had a guy in Wuhan, in that lab. Trump pulled him, along with others.

    2
  44. I don’t blame this on “fact checkers.” In fact don’t blame anyone. At the time the science was pointing to exotic animals as the source of the virus.

    The issue is that China was preventing international access to Wuhan and denying the virus may have originated in the lab. They lord and people died.

    What do we do about it?

    3
  45. Jax says:

    @Barry: THIS. We had a person in China whose SOLE job was to inform the US government on potentially pandemic-level viruses, and the Trump administration pulled him or her because Trump was throwing a tantrum about a trade war.

    @Doug Mataconis: What do you propose we do? Diplomatic/research channels would seem to be the best route, but….Republicans and their talking points on the Sunday shows are going to blow that out of the water. Same with working with WHO. Those wells are poisoned, Fox, OAN and Newsmax are all calling for Fauci to be fired, I mean, what working route do we have with the Chinese to get to the bottom of it? IF they’re willing to get to the bottom of it at all.

  46. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    1-) The fact that no one really knows where this virus came from is a huge black eye for China. That’s a huge problem for them, regardless of lab leaks.

    2-) Regardless of what happened in Wuhan we need more regulation and more scrutiny of these virology experiments. One can argue that gain of function experiments are not worth the risk. I think that holding these experiments in a city of the size of Wuhan is careless, but there had been accidents in these labs in Europe and North America in the past.

    It’s not unthinkable to imagine the same type of accident happening in Pune, India or in Rotterdam. Or maybe even Yale or Atlanta. We need a better debate about these experiments, maybe even a ban.

    3-) The Brazilian Hemorrhagic Fever virus has been in my mind in the last few months, for obvious reasons. I ask myself if it would make sense to develop a vaccine for virus where there is no record of human-to-human infection. But I also note that most known human infections of this virus happened inside lab facilities, including in Yale.

    And like, the original human infection of this virus happened in a large suburb of São Paulo.

    2
  47. Crusty Dem says:

    JFC. Actual scientist here (not virology, but neurobiology and I use viruses regularly) – here’s my issues:
    1) the right and media are moving the goalposts. The original claim was intentional release of a bioweapon or accidental release of a “gain of function” virus – both given no credence by virologists – now it’s changed to the more general, less paranoid “lab leak”.
    2) a claim of “lab leak” is unfalsifiable. There’s no way to prove that a virus that was in Wuhan before 11/19 (and liked months before) didn’t start in a lab in Wuhan.
    3) if this virus were collected in the wild, then studied in a lab, it’s unimaginable that it wouldn’t be described in a publication. The Chinese institutes are paid by the paper – they don’t exactly hold back interesting, publishable findings for later.
    4) even if this were a lab leak (it isn’t), there isn’t even reason for nefarious intent, as the RW media hints. In what universe does China release an unknown virus on their own population to harm others. It’s absurd.

    To sum up, “lab leak” is a tool being used by RW media and politicians to try to shift blame onto the Chinese rather than accept responsibility for the deaths of nearly a million Americans. Scientists, curious about the true origin of SARS-CoV2, are making the mistake of giving small credence to a unfalsifiable conspiracy theory.

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  48. Kingdaddy says:

    One of the big problems with science journalism is the “Could it be…?” articles that imply that certain conclusions are more credible than they really are. Could Oumuamua, the strange object that entered our solar system from (dunh dunh dunh!) outside be an alien probe? Could the meteorite Allan Hills 84001 be proof of life on Mars? The answer to both questions was likely no from the get-go, but the possibility of extraterrestrial life was too much for some reporters and editors to resist. Not surprisingly, the articles in question blurred or ignored the basic principle that even though a particular hypothesis has yet to be rejected, it doesn’t make it highly likely that the hypothesis won’t be rejected. Your neighbor’s lawn is full of weeds? Maybe he’s a secret Satanist who wants to undermine all that is good and aesthetically pleasing. Or maybe he’s just lazy. Or unwell. Which is more likely?

    1
  49. Kingdaddy says:

    A great parody of the sort of nonsense that results from “Could it be…” sensationalism:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-9J2P4XZUo

    “Is it bullshit…Or not?”

  50. @Jax:

    I don’t think working with the Chinese is s viable idea. It seems like they’ve been ouing and blocking access to international authorities access to the lab since the start of the pandemic and cannot be trusted.

    2
  51. Crusty Dem says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    It’s completely irresponsible of them to reject our cooperation and obvious, fact-indifferent scapegoating.

  52. Hal_10000 says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    Seriously…who gives a flying fuq?

    I do. Because if it did turn out that this leaked from a lab, that lab needs to be shut down and all US collaboration with the lab needs to end. There is a lot of research done on deadly viruses and it follows very strict protocols. The information we’re getting is that Wuhan was slack in their protocols (eg., using level 2 instead of level 4 biosafety). If that resulted in the deaths of millions of people, someone needs to be held responsible.

    That having been said, we don’t know anything yet. Most of the experts I listen to think the wet market is still the most likely explanation by far. But the leak of a natural virus from a lab is not impossible and it was foolish of the media to treat it like it was so, deliberately confounding the plausible-but-unlikely lab leak theory with the implausible-and-very-unlikely bioweapon theory. All this did was feed the crazies. And, as a scientist, the certainty with which lab leak theories were dismissed in the name of science was infuriating. The whole point of science is that there is a lot we don’t know.

    The gripping hand here is that China’s obfuscation is only making things worse. I don’t think it proves anything; the PRC, like most authoritarian regimes, is reflexively secretive. But it’s not helping. And the best way to put these theories to rest is to cooperate with a full and thorough investigation. It may not prove things one way or the other but it will at least take some of the air out of the debate.

  53. HelloWorld! says:

    @Raoul: Yes, it does. It provides a point on a timeline.

  54. grumpy realist says:

    @Hal_10000: Similar to the original attempted cover-up of Chernobyl.

    I think it’s quite possible that some sloppiness at the Wuhan lab ended up getting out. Problem is, the present Chinese government isn’t going to go open-kimono on this, because the chances of someone official getting embarrassed is too high. (And Trump + his acolytes being eager to jump on any opportunity to embarrass said Chinese government wasn’t helping matters.) Plus, it’s quite likely that the original individual(s) is/are dead by now, courtesy of COVID.

  55. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    An important caveat is that the a leak in a lab in Wuhan doesn’t mean that a leak in lab in Rotterdam or in Pune, India, is less likely. One could point out to the errors of the Chinese government, and to the fact that authoritarian regimes have incentives to hide these type of accident. But one could also point out that these leaks are very common and that we need a better debate about these experiments, and not only in China.