Feb 28, 2023

The Covid lab-leak theory.

The Covid lab-leak theory.
Photo by JC Gellidon / Unsplash

Plus, a reader asks about staying optimistic.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

Today, we're exploring the new report that Covid-19 originated in a laboratory. Plus, a reader question about staying optimistic in times like these.

From today's advertiser: Financial analysts who attempt to decrypt why exactly this irrational machine we call the stock market is doing what it does have cited every potential reason in the book over the last 12+ months to explain the market’s erratic behavior. And none of it makes sense.

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Quick hits.

  1. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today on two challenges to the Biden administration's student loan forgiveness plan (The arguments). Separately, the Court is also going to hear arguments about the legality of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. (The case)
  2. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen made a surprise visit to Kyiv and announced the transfer of $1.25 billion in economic and budget assistance to Ukraine. (The visit)
  3. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a bill that revokes the Walt Disney Company's private control of its 39-square-mile district in Orlando. (The bill)
  4. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) says she is going to run for the U.S. Senate in Michigan to replace retiring Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D). (The bid)
  5. In a new deposition released Monday, Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch testified that several hosts on his network promoted false theories about the 2020 election being stolen and that he could have stopped them, but didn't. (The admission)

Reader feedback.

Nick from Arlington, Illinois, thanked us for a "Great, unbiased article" on East Palestine, but also added some interesting context I didn’t know, so I wanted to share it.

"As a railroad employee, I'm a little biased, but wanted to give a little more clarification on the 1,044 derailments in 2022. The number sounds a little worse than it actually is. Derailments are required to be reported if they cause damage greater than $12,000. Given the extreme cost of railcars and their parts, this is an extremely low barrier. Also, 732 of the 1,044 derailments in 2022 were in Class 1 yards, which means the train was going under 10 mph.

"Class 1 yards are generally switching yards and customer sidings, meaning these weren't actual train movements people think of when they think of trains on the track," he added. "So a little more fair number to report is approx. 312 derailments involving actual train movements en route. Now, we can still debate whether or not this number is too high (I think at a little less than 1 per day, it probably is), but I just wanted to add a little more context to the number."

Separately, a few readers wrote in about the photograph from East Palestine of the locked-up school water fountain in our initial coverage, noting that covering school drinking fountains has been a common measure in some high schools over the pandemic to prevent Covid-19. As it turns out, that was also the explanation the school gave (not water quality issues) and we have updated our initial piece accordingly. I appreciate our eagle-eyed readership!

Thank you.

Yesterday, dozens of readers made the jump to paying subscriptions as a sign of support after some folks unsubscribed following our Fox News piece. Many of you also dropped something in the tip jar. I just wanted to say thank you. Even though we recently launched some ads in the newsletter, subscriptions and donations still make up more than 90% of our revenue, and none of this is possible without you!

Today's topic.

The coronavirus lab leak theory. On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) concluded the Covid-19 pandemic most likely arose from a laboratory leak, according to a classified intelligence report recently given to the White House. The Department of Energy had been undecided on how the virus likely emerged, but updated its 2021 determination and made its conclusion with "low confidence."

Several federal agencies and sectors of the intelligence community have now arrived at different judgments on how the pandemic began. The DOE and the FBI have both concluded the virus began with some kind of leak from a Chinese laboratory. Four other agencies, as well as a national intelligence panel, believe it was the result of natural transmission from animals to humans. Two others have said they are still undecided on its origin.

The DOE's ruling is especially notable because of its heavy scientific background and the fact it oversees a network of several national laboratories in the U.S., including some that perform "advanced biological research," according to WSJ. Because the DOE also works on sensitive projects like nuclear weapons, it has an Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, one of 18 offices and agencies that make up the intelligence community.

U.S. officials have not yet released or commented on the new intelligence that led the Department of Energy to update its position, and they noted that it and the FBI came to their conclusions for different reasons. The New York Times reported that each of the agencies investigating the pandemic origins had access to new intelligence, but only the DOE changed its assessment.

The National Intelligence Council and four other as yet unidentified federal agencies conversely assess with "low confidence" that the virus came through “zoonotic transmission,” or natural transmission from an infected animal. The CIA and another unnamed federal agency remain undecided. There is a consensus among all the agencies that Covid-19 was not a part of a Chinese biological weapon, as some members of Congress have suggested.

Covid-19 first began circulating in Wuhan, China, no later than November 2019. There have been 675 million global cases since, and 6.87 million people have died from or while testing positive for Covid-19 since the pandemic began. In America, over one million people have died from or with Covid-19.

The dominant view early on in the pandemic was that the virus had arisen naturally, as several other coronaviruses had in the past, by moving from animal to human. But no animal host has been identified, and as time has passed more skepticism about that view has arisen in the scientific community. On the other hand, Wuhan is the center of China's extensive coronavirus research, and in 2018 U.S. State Department cables and internal Chinese documents show there were safety concerns about laboratories in Wuhan.

U.S. intelligence reports have also indicated that in November of 2019, three researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough that they had to seek hospital care, though subsequent intelligence reports left open the possibility that the researchers may have just been sick with the seasonal flu.

Coverage of the debate about Covid-19's origins has been a contentious point throughout the pandemic. Early on, several social media companies, including Facebook, censored or took down content suggesting Covid-19 originated in a lab. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) was lambasted as a "conspiracy theorist" by major news outlets for suggesting Covid-19 may have escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan. The view was scorned for a long time by politicians and academics, but has slowly become more acceptable.

China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning responded to the report by dismissing the findings and saying the issue should not be politicized, pointing to a World Health Organization-China joint study that concluded the lab leak theory was very unlikely.

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions to this Wall Street Journal report from the right and left, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right say the report adds even more credence to the idea Covid-19 came from a lab.
  • Some frame it as "proof" of the lab leak theory, and say there should be harsh consequences for China.
  • Others criticize the media coverage of the theory and the way it was so easily dismissed.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board called it "another turn in the Covid lab-leak story."

"The Journal scoop Sunday that the U.S. Department of Energy has concluded that the Covid-19 virus leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China, doesn’t mean the case is definitive. But it is more evidence that the media and public-health groupthink about Covid was mistaken and destructive," the board said. "China has covered up whatever evidence it has about the virus’s origin, and it refuses to let the World Health Organization conduct a more thorough probe than it did in 2021. News reports say the WHO recently abandoned the second phase of its investigation. China’s behavior is prima facie evidence that it fears what an independent inquiry might find.

"On April 22, 2020, we published Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton’s op-ed pointing to the possibility of the lab leak and raising doubts about Beijing’s claim that it had originated in an animal 'wet market.' The media conformity caucus immediately derided Mr. Cotton for peddling a 'conspiracy theory' that had been ‘debunked,' as the Washington Post put it at the time. We have since learned that public-health officials wanted to hide that U.S. financial aid to the Wuhan lab may have contributed to the 'gain-of-function' research that could have led to the leak," the board said. "It is a disgraceful episode, like so much of the initial Covid dogma. Given China’s coverup, we may never know for sure how the virus first struck humans. But Americans deserve to know the facts about the relationship of the U.S. National Institutes of Health to the Wuhan lab and to promoting gain-of-function research."

In Fox News, Vivek Ramaswamy suggested holding people accountable.

"Retrospectively, key U.S. officials and leaders in the private sector should publicly admit their mistake over the last two years in suppressing discussion of the lab leak hypothesis. This starts with the censors-in-chief at social media companies. Elon Musk has done a good job at Twitter in lifting the veil on government tech censorship, but Facebook and Google need to admit that they suppressed the fact that COVID-19 leaked from a lab and share the details. Even more importantly, tech companies and the mainstream media need to apologize for labeling as ‘racist’ everyone who dared to question the official narrative and said that China was responsible for the pandemic," he wrote. "This had nothing to do with racism; it was about attacking President Donald Trump. In the name of stopping misinformation, leaders in the public and private sectors created misinformation.

"Prospectively, the U.S. must hold the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) accountable for the origin of the deadliest pandemic in over a century that wreaked hell on the U.S. and the rest of the world – or else we can rightly expect even worse from the CCP in the future," he said. "The U.S. must pursue damages through international courts for the financial and nonfinancial losses incurred by the U.S. government and its citizens. We must go further to extract reparations from the CCP using every available financial lever. The U.S. president should impose sanctions on CCP officials who played a role in covering up the origin of the pandemic and in obstructing international investigations into the origins of the pandemic. At long last, China should be expelled from the World Trade Organization unless and until it has paid due recompense to other WTO members."

In Mediaite, Isaac Schorr called out the many journalists who smeared anyone that suggested Covid may have come from a laboratory.

"Tom Cotton wasn’t just wrong, they said, he was a conspiracy theorist and quite possibly a racist... [The report is] not definitive proof that the lab leak theory is correct... but it does demonstrate that the contrived disgust with Cotton’s tentative suggestion of a connection between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and Covid-19 was the product of ignorance as well as partisan interest," Schorr wrote. "And while Cotton has been magnanimous, it’s important for news consumers to remember the names of those who misled them. Two they might be familiar with are the New York Times and Washington Post... On February 17, 2020, the day after Cotton’s interview on Fox, both ran a variation of the same headline.

"'Senator Tom Cotton Repeats Fringe Theory of Coronavirus Origins,' lamented the Times, before accusing Cotton of contributing to an 'infodemic.' 'Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked,' explained the Post, which later issued a correction that still characterized the theory as 'fringe.' The Daily Beast declared that he was promoting a 'Coronavirus Conspiracy Theory Dismissed by Actual Scientists.' ... Anne Applebaum, also a staff writer for The Atlantic as well as a member of the advisory panel for the Global Disinformation Index, compared Cotton’s comments to those of 'Soviet propagandists who tried to convince the world that the CIA invented AIDS.'"

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left argue that the report is not at all definitive.
  • Some say the number of intelligence experts, agencies and scientists who believe Covid-19 originated naturally still outnumbers the lab-leak theorists.
  • Others argue we may never know the origin, and focusing on prevention is more important.

In MSNBC, Hayes Brown said this "isn't the smoking gun" the right has been looking for.

"The prevailing theory is that the coronavirus that causes the disease known as Covid-19 first emerged in a Wuhan market where live animals were sold," Brown wrote. "This thesis has been published in multiple credible sources, including the journal Science last year. The lab leak theory, on the other hand, posits that the virus was a version of the SARS coronavirus that was studied and/or manipulated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology before escaping. There is substantially less evidence available to back that theory, but the U.S. intelligence community still cautions that 'there is not a definitive answer,' as White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN on Sunday.

"It’s very much worth noting that the department lab leak determination was made with 'low confidence,' according to NBC News reporting. According to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, that rating 'generally means that the information’s credibility and/or plausibility is questionable, or that the information is too fragmented or poorly corroborated to make solid analytic inferences, or that we have significant concerns or problems with the sources.' Importantly, while new information reportedly caused the Energy Department to change its views, The Wall Street Journal reported, other agencies aren't following suit. It and the FBI are reportedly now the outliers among those that have looked into the pandemic's origins with the latter determining with 'moderate confidence' that the lab leak theory is the most likely source."

In The Washington Post, Leana S. Wen said we're "asking the wrong question" about Covid-19.

"Unsurprisingly, Republicans have latched onto the news as confirmation of their beliefs and are clamoring to use it against perceived enemies, including China and scientists such as Anthony S. Fauci. But the department’s conclusion, which is at odds with other intelligence assessments that support animal-to-human spillover, answers the wrong question," Wen wrote. "The main reason getting to the truth has been so difficult is that the Chinese government has actively obstructed international investigations, refusing to disclose key data and going so far as to block a WHO team from entering China. This behavior is reprehensible, but because it’s unlikely to change, I believe we need to shift our primary question from 'what caused the coronavirus?' to 'if either hypothesis can be true, then what?'

"In the meantime, the world must be on guard for more zoonotic diseases," Wen said. "It’s estimated that 3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals. The Marburg virus, now causing an outbreak in Equatorial Guinea, is believed to be spread by fruit bats to monkeys and humans. Mpox, formerly known as monkeypox, has been transmitted to humans from nonhuman primates and pet prairie dogs. And avian influenza, which has spread like wildfire in wild and domestic birds in recent months, has caused 458 human deaths over the past 20 years. Regardless of whether the coronavirus also jumped over from an animal host, much more needs to be done to address the root causes of interspecies pathogen transfer."

In The Atlantic, Daniel Enberger wrote about how we may never know.

“If you’re keeping count—and, really, what else can one do?—the matter still appears to be decided in favor of a zoonotic origin, by an updated score of 5–2. The lab-leak theory remains the outlier position," he said. "Are we done? No, we aren’t done. None of these assessments carries much conviction: Only one, from the FBI, was made with 'moderate' confidence; the rest are rated 'low,' as in, Hmm, we’re not so sure. This lack of confidence—as compared with the overbearing certainty of the scientists and journalists who rejected the possibility of a lab leak in 2020—will now be fodder for what could be months of congressional hearings, as House Republicans pursue evidence of a possible 'cover-up.' But for all the Sturm und Drang that’s sure to come, the fundamental state of knowledge on COVID’s origins remains more or less unchanged from where it was a year ago.

"The central ambiguity, such as it is, of COVID’s origin remains intact and perched atop a pair of improbable-seeming coincidences: One concerns the Huanan market, and the other has to do with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where Chinese researchers have specialized in the study of bat coronaviruses. If COVID really started in the lab, one position holds, then it would have to be a pretty amazing coincidence that so many of the earliest infections happened to emerge in and around a venue for the sale of live, wild animals … which happens to be the exact sort of place where the first SARS-coronavirus pandemic may have started 20 years ago. But also: If COVID really started in a live-animal market, then it would have to be a similarly amazing coincidence that the market in question happened to be across the river from the laboratory of the world’s leading bat-coronavirus researcher … which happened to be running experiments that could, in theory, make coronaviruses more dangerous."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. If you're a subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • It's never been a conspiracy theory, but just a theory — and a plausible one.
  • I don't think we'll ever know with certainty where Covid-19 originated.
  • There are still plenty of lessons and takeaways given what we do know.

One of my favorite bits about the Covid-19 lab leak theory actually came from Jon Stewart in 2021. During an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert that went viral, Stewart delivered the kind of simplistic, funny argument that tends to move the dialogue.

“‘Oh, my God, there’s a novel respiratory coronavirus overtaking Wuhan, China. What do we do?’ ‘Oh, you know who we could ask? 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? ... And then they ask those scientists, ‘So wait a minute, you work at the Wuhan respiratory coronavirus lab? How did this happen?' And they’re like, ‘Ooh, a pangolin kissed a turtle?’"

Stewart’s diatribe, which went on for a few minutes, drew a lot of headlines and a lot of scorn on the left. The Washington Post's Aaron Blake said he was going "all-in" on the lab leak theory, and noted that Stewart is often criticized for "oversimplifying complex issues to land a joke." In Slate, Matthew Dessem asked in a concerned tone, "Was he joking?" Meanwhile, many on the right celebrated Stewart pointing to the absurdity of dismissing the idea.

The lesser-seen part of that now-viral clip, which has been viewed tens of millions of times, is how Colbert responds.

“It could be possible that they have the lab in Wuhan to study the coronavirus diseases because in Wuhan there are a lot of novel coronavirus diseases because of the bat population there,” Colbert said.

And he's right. I've always been open to the lab-leak theory. In May of 2021, about a month before that Stewart moment, I actually interviewed Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin about the lab leak theory. A month before that, I had covered a World Health Organization report on the Covid-19 origins that created more questions than answers. Writing then, I said this:

Since my initial writing about this over a year ago, the lab theory has become far more plausible than I initially expected it to be. The most damning pieces of evidence are still circumstantial, but they’re worth noting: 1) We know that lab accidents happen regularly. 2) We have U.S. intelligence that pre-dates the coronavirus, warning about safety protocols at the lab in Wuhan. 3) We have the Trump and Biden administrations both confirming intelligence about COVID-like infections occurring in WIV researchers in autumn of 2019.

Isaac Schorr helpfully listed many of the journalists who smeared people like Cotton for asserting something that was always plausible. The list of news outlets who aired those smears is damning: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, CBS, NBC News, CNN, and Vanity Fair, just to name a few. Mentioning the theory made you anything from a tin foil hat lunatic to a racist (I was called the latter by a few Tangle readers several times for emphasizing the plausibility of the lab leak theory).

Obviously, this DOE report does not settle the question, nor does it make it official, or a “fact,” as Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy has claimed. Scientists behind two of the most regularly cited studies on the origins of Covid still state quite confidently that the evidence is overwhelming for zoonotic origins. We know, in the past, viruses like this have regularly jumped from humans to animals, including in Wuhan. We know wet markets like the ones in Wuhan are just the kinds of places these things happen, and we know the virus behaved similarly to a lot of naturally occurring viruses, too.

But three years later, we still have no species pegged for the zoonotic origins of Covid-19, and very little in the way of a consensus. Meanwhile, we have the circumstantial evidence of the virology institutes in Wuhan, the sick laboratory workers in November of 2019, the U.S. cables showing concerns about the safety of those labs, and China's refusal to allow anything approaching a comprehensive investigation (of course, there are plenty of non-cover-up reasons China would not want to open its doors to international investigators).

The uncomfortable and frustrating truth is that I can't say with any degree of confidence where Covid-19 originated. There are, however, still plenty of helpful takeaways and lessons. The lab leak theory has never been a “conspiracy theory” — it's just a theory. And it's a rather plausible one. It's a great example of why we should stop calling everything we don't like a conspiracy theory. It's also a great example of how "stopping the spread of misinformation" often turns into censoring important debates. And it's a reminder that we should always be willing to accept the fact there are a lot of things we just don't know — and might never.

Your questions, answered.

Q: I've got a question for you, and it might be a little personal: how do you stay optimistic (if that's the right word?) with your career and life so entrenched in political reporting? I know if you look hard enough there are good stories in the world, but I feel like the political scene is so overwhelmingly negative and discouraging the more I read about it everyday... At 24, I feel like I'm too young to be this discouraged and upset about the country/world, and a lot of my friends and peers seem to share similar sentiments.

— Emmalee from Fort Collins, Colorado

Tangle: Well, bluntly, I think this is fundamentally the best time ever to be alive. By any measure I can think of — poverty, violence, suffering, equality, education, etc. — I'd rather be living now than at pretty much any point in human history (especially as a Jew!). Really think of it for a moment... what time period would you transport yourself to, if you could? My answer would be to stay here, or to go back to 2019, just before the pandemic.

And if your answer is like mine, which is that I'd ultimately prefer to stay right here in this era to pretty much any other time I can think of, what's the implication? To me, it's that things are on a constantly positive trajectory over the long term. Even if there are some large bumps in the road (see: the year 2020), I still believe this is true. My editor Ari Weitzman explored aspects of this question in a piece he published in Tangle titled "Is it still ethical to have kids?" That piece was focused mostly on climate change, but in it Ari argued that our ancestors persisted to raise their children in much darker time periods than ours, which also applies broadly to the current state of things.

Yes, there is still a lot of war, suffering, famine, greed, corruption, violence, illness, and so much more. Of course, there is a lot of political division. But there is also a lot of peace, wealth, collectivism, generosity, optimism, scientific advances, and measurable happiness (even in the face of Covid-19). In short, there is a lot — from my perspective — to be optimistic about.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

The U.S. Marshals Service suffered a major security breach this month when hackers stole data from a computer system that included a trove of personal information on investigative targets and agency employees. The service, which is a division of the Justice Department, carries out some of the most sensitive work in government: Protecting judges, transporting federal prisoners and operating the witness protection program. It says the witness protection program was not breached, but the hackers did get access to information about fugitives sought by federal authorities. The New York Times has the story.


  • 800. The number of cases in U.S. labs, between 2009 and 2013, where workers received medical attention for incidents involving "select agent pathogens."
  • 2004. The year in which one person died in China after a small outbreak of SARS that started in the National Institute of Virology Laboratory in Beijing.
  • 18. The number of labs, in nine states and South Korea, which were accidentally sent live anthrax in 2015.
  • 6 of 10. The estimated proportion of known infectious diseases in people that can be spread from animals.
  • 3 of 4. The number of new or emerging diseases in people that come from animals.

The extras.

Have a nice day.

It's become a trope these days that young Americans don't care enough about politics, their country, or even to vote. We seem to think they are too busy playing around on TikTok or constantly staring at their phones. But Jaylen Smith is turning that stereotype on its head. The 18-year-old just became mayor of Earle, Arkansas, making him the youngest mayor in the United States, and the youngest Black mayor in U.S. history. He ran on a platform of public safety, reopening a local grocery store, and tearing down abandoned buildings. Now, he has a reputation for constantly being on the phone and working on something for his community at all hours. The Christian Science Monitor has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.