The lab leak theory — and what it means

Our discourse is broken.
Isaac Saul May 27, 2021
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 12 minutes.

The winner of the Tangle raffle, the debate over the lab-leak theory, a question about Majorie Taylor Greene and some interesting numbers.

File:Wuhan Institute of Virology main entrance.jpg
Wuhan Institute of Virology is a research institute by the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Jiangxia District, south of the Wuhan city, Hubei province, China. Photo: Ureem2805 / Wikicommons

Memorial Day.

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Quick hits.

  1. President Biden is eyeing Democratic allies, rather than major donors, for ambassadorships abroad: former Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill is being considered for a post in Western Europe; former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is headed to Japan; Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is headed to India; and Tom Nides, former deputy secretary of state, to Israel. (Axios)
  2. Senate Republicans made a new infrastructure offer of more than $900 billion, which includes new spending that would add to the national debt. President Biden previously pushed for a $2 trillion bill that would be paid for by raising taxes on corporations and wealthy Americans. (The Wall Street Journal, subscription)
  3. Separately, the White House is set to propose a $6 trillion budget plan on Friday — encompassing all of the administration’s priorities — that will include an overhaul of the welfare system. (The Washington Post, subscription)
  4. A gunman in San Jose, California, killed nine people before killing himself. It’s the 232nd mass shooting (at least four people wounded or killed) in America this year. (CNN)
  5. Former President Trump is confiding in allies that he intends to run again in 2024, so long as he has a good bill of health. (Politico)

Winner, winner.

Congratulations to Russ, the Tangle reader who won the $50 raffle this morning. 89 people entered the raffle via email, Twitter, Facebook, text message and our Instagram (which you should check out if you haven’t). I didn’t get a chance to reply to everyone, but if you sent something in I can promise you it was entered. I appreciate everyone participating, and given how easy it was, we’ll be doing stuff like this more often!

Reader feedback.

On Monday, I shared reader feedback from Paul in Minnesota, who contested that it was “absurd” to claim there was a Constitutional right to abortion. Yesterday, I got the liberal rebuttal to Paul’s argument from Brent in Columbus, Ohio.

I'd like to say that I found Paul's abortion rebuttal at least well-reasoned, even if I didn't agree with it, but unfortunately I can't. His foundational premises are faulty, grounded in the juvenile notion that the Constitution requires amendment and/or explicit mention of any individual right for that right to be given legal consideration.  That is, of course, patently false. It isn't just myself saying so, either. In 1943, Justice Robert Jackson wrote, ‘...the very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities... fundamental rights may not be submitted to a vote, they depend on the outcome of no elections.’

While Paul argues that abortion was ‘explicitly rejected’ by the same people who adopted the 14th Amendment, it clearly wasn't. The initial wave of laws ‘against’ abortion were merely the product of states regulating the practice of medicine. The majority of them were vaguely worded restrictions that left abortion available to women if doctors felt an abortion to be ‘therapeutic.’ They didn't eliminate the practice, they codified it, which is quite a bit different from Paul's statement that they ‘explicitly rejected’ the practice.

As I did with Paul’s feedback, I have published Brent’s response in full in a Google doc that you can read here.


What D.C. is talking about.

The origins of coronavirus. Yesterday, President Joe Biden ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to investigate the origins of the coronavirus. In a new statement, President Biden made it clear intelligence agencies were investigating competing theories, including the idea that the virus leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan. The prevailing theory, currently, is that the virus jumped from animals in the wild to humans.

The president’s unusual public disclosure about the intelligence agencies’ investigation — and the lack of a consensus — have added to the controversy over how the coronavirus originated. China’s embassy responded by saying that politicizing the issue would hamper investigations. China supports “a comprehensive study of all early cases of COVID-19 found worldwide and a thorough investigation into some secretive bases and biological laboratories all over the world,” the embassy said in remarks it attributed to a spokesperson.

In early April, Tangle covered the World Health Organization report on the origins of coronavirus. The report was written by global scientists, including some from China, who spent four weeks in and around Wuhan. Their report was not conclusive, but said the most likely theory was that it had been transmitted from bats to humans, and that “introduction through a laboratory incident was considered to be an extremely unlikely pathway.”

For much of the pandemic, the “lab theory” has been dismissed by mainstream news outlets and reputable scientists as a conspiracy theory. In recent weeks, however, the conversation has shifted. The Wall Street Journal reported on a classified U.S. intelligence report that three researchers at China's Wuhan Institute of Virology became so ill in November of 2019 they needed to be hospitalized. Then, Dr. Anthony Fauci affirmed that he was “not convinced” that coronavirus developed naturally.

Below, we’ll examine some arguments from the right and left on this latest news.


What the left is saying.

The left is becoming more open to the lab theory, arguing that new evidence has changed the paradigm. But many still believe it’s far less important than preparing for the next pandemic.

The Washington Post editorial board said China needs to “solve the mystery” of the earliest cases of COVID-19.

“So far, no one has identified ‘patient zero’ or the other early patients,” they wrote. “Basic questions about where these individuals lived, worked, traveled, shopped and socialized might explain how they got infected — and from where. Were any associated with the multiple laboratories in Wuhan that worked with bat coronaviruses? The early cases may have been puzzling to Chinese doctors; the underlying cause might not have been known. But by late December, according to Ms. Ma’s article and other accounts, they had identified the source as a coronavirus.

“Those at the highest levels of the Chinese government knew by early January that the virus was spreading, yet irresponsibly continued to cover it up until late that month, while tens of thousands of travelers left Wuhan on trains and planes for destinations beyond, potentially spreading it further,” it added. “Perhaps it will be proved eventually that the virus jumped from animals to humans and did not first pass through the Wuhan Institute of Virology or another laboratory. That would be extremely important to know, as would evidence of a laboratory leak. Much depends on China, but it has refused to even consider the kind of rigorous probe that is necessary. That only deepens the suspicions it has something to hide.”

In The Atlantic, Daniel Engber wrote that the origins of coronavirus only matter at the margins.

“What information, really, would we get from a ‘proper investigation’?” he asked. “At best, we’ll have identified one more place to look for natural spillovers, or one more type of catastrophic accident: useful data, sure, but in the broader sense, just another case study added to a paltry set. Of the smattering of pandemics in the past century, one—the 1977 Russian flu—has been cited as the possible result of a laboratory accident. Whatever we might discover about the genesis of COVID-19 (and whether we discover anything at all), this historical record is bound to look more or less the same: Nearly all pandemics appear to have a natural source; possibly one or two have emerged, and more might do so in the future, from research settings.

“Instead of calling for a new and better inquiry into origins, let’s stipulate that pandemics can result from natural spillovers or from laboratory accidents—and then let’s move along to implications,” he added. “One important question has already gotten airtime (from right-wing media, at least): Should scientists be fiddling with pathogenic genomes, to measure out the steps they’d have to take before ascending to pandemic-level virulence? Should the National Institutes of Health be funding them?”

In a Medium post, former New York Times science reporter Donald G. McNeil explained how the lab leak theory got dismissed early on — and why he’s coming back around to it now.

“The ‘lab-leak theory’ migrated back to the far right where it had started — championed by the folks who brought us Pizzagate, the Plandemic, Kung Flu, Q-Anon, Stop the Steal, and the January 6 Capitol invasion,” McNeil wrote. “It was tarred by the fact that everyone backing it seemed to hate not just Democrats and the Chinese Communist Party, but even the Chinese themselves. It spawned racist rumors like ‘Chinese labs sell their dead experimental animals in food markets…’

“China retorting to Trump administration nonsense with nonsense of its own — such as suggesting that U.S. military officers planted the virus during a visit to Wuhan in October 2019 — did not help,” he wrote. But since then, more and more information has leaked out, McNeil argued. “We still do not know the source of this awful pandemic. We may never know. But the argument that it could have leaked out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology or a sister lab in Wuhan has become considerably stronger than it was a year ago, when the screaming was so loud that it drowned out serious discussion.”


What the right is saying.

The right is arguing that it has always been a viable theory, and criticizes the left for not considering it more seriously earlier.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said that Biden was making a “reversal after he reportedly ordered a State Department investigative unit shut down.”

“Mr. Biden is trying to cover for his embarrassing closure of the investigation because the dam has finally broken on the evidence that the virus may have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV),” it wrote. “The shame is that it took so long because the suspicious facts have been apparent from the start… On Feb. 6, 2020, Botao Xiao of the South China University of Technology posted a paper concluding the virus ‘probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan.’ But the Chinese government strictly controls research into Covid-19’s origins, and the molecular biomechanics researcher withdrew his publication.

“The Communist Party then went on offense, with Beijing’s ambassador to the U.S. declaring that lab-leak theories were ‘absolutely crazy’ and could ‘fan up racial discrimination, xenophobia,’” the board wrote. “After Mr. Cotton responded by calling on China to ‘open up now to competent international scientists,’ the media chose denial: ‘Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked’ (Washington Post) and ‘Senator Tom Cotton Repeats Fringe Theory of Coronavirus Origins’ (New York Times)… No one has discovered a natural origin for Covid-19, and new information is making a blanket denial of a lab leak indefensible.”

In Bloomberg, Eli Lake said China can squash the Wuhan lab-leak theory by being more transparent, noting that its “resistance to the World Health Organization’s inquiry into the virus’s origins was such that even the China-friendly director-general of the WHO found his organization’s report lacking.”

“It’s China’s government that has failed to grant researchers and scientists unfettered access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the blood samples of those who were first infected,” he wrote. “It’s China’s government that first targeted the doctors, nurses and journalists who tried to warn their own country and the world about the outbreak. And it was China that initially denied in January 2020 that the virus could be transmitted between people. With that in mind, Biden should make an offer to Chinese President Xi Jinping: If you want to put an end to all this talk about Covid-19 originating in a government lab, then hand over the data the world’s scientific community has been demanding for nearly a year. If you continue to stonewall, then we will have to assume you have something to hide.”

The New York Post editorial board said the lab-leak theory is looking “more credible than ever.”

“The turn began when 18 top world scientists challenged the World Health Organization’s superficial investigation that called the lab-leak scenario ‘extremely unlikely,’” The board wrote. “They called for ‘a proper investigation,’ noting that zero evidence supports the theory that the virus simply jumped from bats… ‘Jumps’ across species require time for a virus to adapt, and it would likely infect at least one intermediate species before transmission to humans. But tests of 80,000 animal samples in the first infected areas of China all came back negative for COVID-19. And the bat species most likely to carry coronaviruses dwells 1,000 miles away from Wuhan and would have been in hibernation when the first cases appeared.

“That this particular coronavirus showed up seemingly out of nowhere, perfectly suited to attack humans, would be quite the mystery if it hadn’t first popped up in a city with two virology institutes that were studying bat coronaviruses,” it added.


My take.

I wish it wasn’t necessary to start this way, but I think it is: it’s worth reiterating that there is a difference between the Chinese government and the Chinese people. At a time when anti-Semitic attacks on Jews are ramping up, seemingly tied to the conflict in Gaza, I’m even more sensitive to the fact that many Chinese people (and Asian-Americans more generally) are experiencing racism domestically thanks to the perceptions about the Chinese Communist Party’s failure to contain the coronavirus early on in the pandemic.

With that out of the way, it’s worth noting how illustrative early responses to the lab theory are of a larger issue in our discourse now, especially on the left and in the mainstream press. Many people, indeed many reputable newspapers, pushed back on questions about the Wuhan lab by labeling it a “conspiracy theory” and disparaging anyone who floated it. Some even claimed questions about the Wuhan lab were tied to “good old fashioned racism.” Others, like New York Times reporter Apoorva Mandavilli, are still calling it racist.

Tech companies went even further. Facebook blocked the sharing of a 2020 New York Post column that first raised the question of the Wuhan-lab-leak theory. It was only yesterday, after months of “experts” legitimizing the idea, that Facebook lifted its ban on posts calling coronavirus man-made. Twitter also suspended the account of a Chinese virologist who suggested that the coronavirus was made in a lab. Dozens of other writers, scientists, and news outlets have also experienced varying degrees of censorship across Twitter, Facebook and YouTube for asking some smart questions about the Wuhan lab.

This entire episode is precisely why I have repeatedly railed against social media companies throttling stories. I made the same case when Twitter and Facebook blocked The New York Post’s story on Hunter Biden’s laptop, which (to Jack Dorsey’s credit) Twitter has now admitted was a mistake. In May of 2020, around the time most mainstream outlets were dismissing the lab theory as conspiracy nonsense, I first dug into it in Tangle. I’m proud to re-read that edition now:

It’s important to parse these things: “escaped from a lab” doesn’t mean the virus is man-made. It also doesn’t mean it was a bioweapon or intentional or is a kind of virus that was genetically modified. The idea that the virus “originated in the Wuhan lab” seems to translate to “was designed to kill Americans” in the brains of a lot of people.

Or, was designed at all. If this virus came from the Wuhan lab, and if an outbreak started there, it seems far more likely that it was accidentally transmitted to a researcher from a subject of one of their studies than anything else. Is this possible?

Apparently, it is. I didn’t think so a few months ago and I said as much. Dr. Fauci has also shot down the theory that someone found the coronavirus in the wild, brought it to the lab and then it escaped, though it was not immediately clear what evidence he had that made that theory unlikely. Still, right now, the Tom Cottons of the world seem to be operating on common sense and connecting the dots, while the people who understand how viruses are built seem pretty convinced this did not come from a lab. I find Cotton’s theory enticing and attention-grabbing, but after a few deep breaths, I’d bet this is all a horrible naturally occurring accident.

All of this has held up fairly well. Yet, at the time I wrote it, my inbox was inundated with people leveling the same accusations I had seen elsewhere: I was “giving oxygen to a conspiracy” or “perpetuating the racist idea that China’s labs were unsafe.”

It turns out none of that was true. And guess what? The lab leak theory still may not be the answer. We shouldn’t overcompensate here. It probably isn’t even the most likely theory. But it’s a theory — and there are plenty of reasonable, non-racist, valid scientific reasons to think it’s plausible. That mainstream reporters, social media companies, liberal politicians and a collection of vocal scientists spent more than a year dismissing it as a conspiracy theory, censoring debate over the theory online and labeling people “racist” who inquired about it speaks to how polluted our discourse has become. But it’s a good reminder of why handling controversial topics that way is almost always a bad idea.

I’m not sure we’re any closer to an answer today than we were a month ago or even six months ago. But at the very least, we’re back to considering all possibilities: the stigma of conspiracy has been eroded and the president is calling for a full report and genuine transparency from the Chinese government. That’s a step in the right direction.


Your questions, answered.

Q: What do you think about this phenomenon of people just wanting attention however they can get it? Majorie Taylor Greene sees that behaving like a lunatic and saying outrageous things advances your political career in this country. Positively or negatively, it does not appear to matter.

— Ron, Pawleys Island, South Carolina

Tangle: I know “it’s why I started Tangle” is a common refrain in this newsletter, but… it really is why I started Tangle.

If politicians and pundits have proven anything in the last few years, it’s that the best way to get everyone’s attention is to be as controversial as possible. One of the things I noticed as a political reporter and analyst is that the worst arguments are always the ones reiterated the most often. There’s a simple reason for that: it’s good politics!

If a Republican says something about the need to reduce immigration because so many immigrants are criminals, liberals will elevate that argument so they can dunk on it with statistics about immigrants having lower crime rates than native born citizens. There are other, better reasons to limit immigration in America (even if I don’t agree with them), but elevating those would be bad politics. So liberals choose the worst arguments Republicans are making, then ensure they’re the loudest arguments being attributed to them.

And the right, naturally, does the same thing in reverse. The result is that people on the left are more familiar with Charlie Kirk than Thomas Sowell, and people on the right are more familiar with Joy Behar than Catherine Rampell.

As for Greene: what’s there to say? I generally just try to ignore her. But as I said on Twitter yesterday, she talks about Jews, Nazis, Hitler and the Holocaust way too much. It seems as if it’s all she thinks about — both before her political career (when she was asking questions about Jewish space lasers) and in the midst of her political career (now that she’s comparing everything to Nazi Germany). It’s bizarre, unsettling, and disturbing that she’s actually a member of Congress. But I’d prefer not to make the same mistakes other news outlets do by giving her unnecessary airtime, so I’ll do my best to continue to ignore her unless it’s truly important not to.

Want to ask a question? Just reply to this email and write in. Or, if you want, you can fill out this form.


A story that matters.

Specific language about the QAnon conspiracy theory has all but disappeared from social media platforms, according to Axios. New research shows that the volume of QAnon content online plummeted after major moderation efforts from Google, Facebook and Twitter. Along with the moderation, “Q,” the figure who inspired the QAnon movement, has gone silent. Some QAnon believers have also masked their phrases in order to evade being moderated. But the drop in QAnon chatter speaks to the power — and real world ability — of social media platforms to slow the spread of certain discourse when they ramp up moderation efforts. (Axios)


Numbers.

  • 101 million. The number of Americans who were fully vaccinated as of April 30th, 2021.
  • 10,262. The number of “breakthrough infections” among vaccinated Americans, as of April 30th, 2021.
  • 1 in 10,000. The approximate number of fully vaccinated people who have tested positive for coronavirus.
  • 29%. The percentage of Americans who believe COVID-19 was created in a lab, according to an April Pew poll.
  • 43%. The percentage of Americans who believe COVID-19 came about naturally, according to an April Pew poll.
  • 23%. The percentage of Americans who believe COVID-19 was created intentionally in a lab, according to an April Pew poll.
  • 6%. The percentage of Americans who believe COVID-19 was created accidentally in a lab, according to an April Pew poll.

Remember.

If you’re not yet a subscriber, we’ll see you Tuesday (after Memorial Day). If you want to receive our special Friday editions, you can subscribe by clicking here.


Have a nice day.

16 years ago, Judge Bruce Morrow gave Edward Martell a second chance. At the time, Martell was a 27-year-old high school dropout with a lengthy rap sheet who was facing 20 years in prison for dealing drugs. But instead of throwing the book at him, Judge Morrow gave him three years of probation and challenged Martell to return to court next time with an achievement to speak highly of. On May 14th, Martell returned to Morrow’s courtroom to fulfill the judge’s challenge and be sworn in as a member of the State Bar of Michigan. (The Washington Post)

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Isaac Saul

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

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