Where did coronavirus originate?

Plus, a question about gun control.
Isaac Saul Apr 5, 2021

Today’s read: 11 minutes.

Reviewing the World Health Organization’s report on COVID-19. Plus, a reader writes in with criticism about my gun control stance.

Secretary-General António Guterres (left) with Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (right) Director-General of World Health Organization during strategic briefing on COVID-19 at Strategic Health Operations Centre ( SHOC ) in the headquarters of WHO in Geneva. 24 February 2020. UN Photo / Jean Marc Ferré

Happy everything.

For those of you who celebrate, I just wanted to wish you a happy Easter. I know many families have spent the last year apart, and I hope some of you got to spend time with parents, grandparents and family that you otherwise haven’t seen. I’d like to extend that wish to my fellow Jews, who just wrapped up Passover, and Ramadan Mubarak to all the Muslims out there who will begin their holiest month next week. Here’s to some light at the end of the tunnel, where our holidays and observances can once again be enjoyed together.

Quick hits.

  1. A U.S. Capitol police officer was killed and another was injured when a suspect rammed his car into them and then into a barrier outside the Capitol building on Friday. The officer who died was identified as William “Billy” Evans, an 18-year veteran of the force. (CNN)
  2. U.S. hiring surged in March and the latest jobs report was the best since August, with a seasonally adjusted 916,000 jobs added. The unemployment rate fell to 6%, a pandemic low. (The Wall Street Journal, subscription)
  3. Former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has caused a stir by releasing an excerpt from his new memoir where he offers a scathing and surprising rebuke of right-wing media and some of his more radical Republican colleagues. (Politico)
  4. Republican Study Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) released a letter criticizing President Joe Biden for exploiting tax loopholes he used to avoid paying taxes on $13 million of income but is now attempting to close. The letter could be a preview of Republican opposition to Biden’s proposed tax increases. (Fox News)
  5. Major League Baseball announced it was moving its all-star game out of Atlanta in response to the state’s latest voting law (Tangle covered the law here). The decision came after executives from more than 170 companies joined a corporate push to punish Georgia for the passage of the law. (The Washington Post, subscription)

What D.C. is talking about.

The World Health Organization report. Last week, over one year after the coronavirus pandemic began, the World Health Organization released its long-awaited report laying out its best theories on how the virus first began to spread among humans. But in a bizarre twist, the report seems to be causing even more confusion and raising more questions.

The 319-page document was put together by a 34-member team of Chinese scientists and international experts who went on a mission to Wuhan, China, to investigate.

It identified one theory as the most likely: that the virus spread from bats to humans through another mammal species like a mink, ferret, badger or raccoon dog, either on a farm or in the wild. Other viruses have jumped species in the same way. The report said it was less likely that the virus jumped directly from a bat or other host animal to a human. It also said the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, originally thought to be the source of the outbreak, was not actually where the virus began spreading.

The report also acknowledged — but downplayed — other theories: Chinese officials have suggested the virus was introduced to Wuhan via frozen food imported from abroad, which the report said would have been “extraordinary” given the virus was not well-circulated at the time. It called for more research into the theory. It also said that the theory that coronavirus was leaked through a laboratory incident “was considered to be an extremely unlikely pathway.” There are three high-security virology labs in Wuhan, China.

Officials in China have also suggested that the virus originated outside of China. Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, asked when the World Health Organization would be allowed to visit the U.S. to investigate coronavirus’s roots there, alluding to a theory floated by Chinese officials that the virus began in a U.S. military laboratory and was brought to Wuhan by an American delegation during the World Military Games in October of 2019. In the report, scientists say “nothing resembling COVID-19 had been seen” at clinics during the military games.

On the whole, the report has inflamed already tenuous political relationships. The team investigating the origins of coronavirus was limited by China, which secured veto rights over participants and resisted pressure to conduct the inquiry to begin with. The Wall Street Journal reported that the team had little power to complete a thorough investigation. Even Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the W.H.O.’s director-general, took the unusual step of raising concerns about a lack of access to raw data on the early COVID-19 cases.

“I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough,” he said. “Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions.”

Below, we’ll look at some reactions to the report’s findings.


There is some common ground on this issue. Both conservatives and liberals have criticized the validity and value of the report, while each side has voices that have aligned behind specific theories.

What the left is saying.

The left is divided on the origins of COVID-19, with some suggesting the lab theory is more likely than people think and others saying it has always lacked evidentiary support.

In a CNN op-ed, Matthew Kavanagh wrote that “if the US and Europe want more, they need to engage in smarter global health diplomacy than they have so far.”

“No country likes outside prying,” he wrote. “Imagine US politicians' reaction to an international investigation of Covid-19 outbreaks connected to spring breakers in Miami. There are far higher stakes for China, a rising authoritarian power where information is tightly restricted and the government is working hard to avoid reputational damage from this pandemic. The Chinese government controlled the itinerary of the scientific team who, according to the WHO, also reported difficulties in gaining access [to] raw data on thousands of patients. This lack of transparency does not, of course, prove a cover-up, but neither does it convince the world China has nothing to hide.

“American, European and other governments did little to strengthen the WHO's hand,” he added. “Then-President Donald Trump's xenophobic ‘China virus’ rhetoric built China's mistrust of the motives of US and Western governments' intentions. Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross overtly talked about how the outbreak in China could bring jobs to the US. Trump's very public claims that the virus came from a Chinese lab, without offering evidence, heightened tensions between Beijing and Western governments at the same time WHO was trying to negotiate terms for the research. At the height of tensions, the US government knee-capped the WHO by moving to withdraw from the organization as Trump tried to redirect blame for the weak US Covid-19 response.”

In The Washington Post, Josh Rogin called the report “fatally flawed,” saying that the report “places the WHO further at odds with the U.S. government and the Biden administration.”

“Unsurprisingly, the report promotes the theory the virus spilled over to humans in nature, perhaps from a bat through an intermediate animal host, and dismisses the possibility of a lab accident-related origin as ‘extremely unlikely,’ and therefore unworthy of further study,” he wrote. “Of course, we already knew this because all the results were previewed in China’s state propaganda media two weeks ago by the lead Chinese scientist. The Chinese government received the report in advance and had tightly controlled the investigators’ visit to Wuhan, where the outbreak originated and where labs hold the world’s largest collection of bat coronaviruses. Even before the report was issued, the Biden administration publicly questioned its objectivity and credibility…

“Specifically, declassified U.S. intelligence, confirmed by Blinken’s own State Department, alleges that the WIV [Wuhan Institute of Virology] was conducting undisclosed research on bat coronaviruses, had secret research projects with the Chinese military, and failed to disclose that several lab workers got sick with covid-like symptoms in autumn 2019,” Rogin added. “The Biden administration is not claiming the lab-accident theory is correct, but it is calling for China to disclose more information about the labs.”

What the right is saying.

The right is very skeptical of the report and, like the left, critical of China for refusing access to data to better assess all the theories about COVID-19’s origins.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said “the result wasn’t worth the wait.”

“The document is best understood as a whitewash heavily influenced by the Chinese Communist Party and Westerners with conflicts of interest,” they wrote. “Most telling is that the team concludes it is ‘extremely unlikely’ that the virus leaked from a lab such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). The report simply asserts that WIV facilities ‘were well-managed, with a staff health monitoring programme.’ The report suggests ‘regular administrative and internal review of high-level biosafety laboratories worldwide’ and following up on new evidence.

“Yet enough already is known about the WIV to suggest this lacks credibility. In 2018 U.S. officials warned in diplomatic cables about safety and management issues at the WIV that could lead to a pandemic. This is especially troubling because the WIV conducted ‘gain of function’ research on coronaviruses that theoretically can enable them to infect a new species. The U.S. State Department warned in a January fact sheet that WIV researchers had developed ‘symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses’ in autumn 2019. The WHO report nonetheless takes the Chinese government at its word when it says there was ‘no reporting of COVID-19 compatible respiratory illness during the weeks/months prior to December 2019.’”

In The New York Post, Betsy McCaughey said “mankind is desperate for the truth, but the Chinese Communist Party is giving the world the runaround.”

“The United States and 13 other countries, including Japan, the UK and Canada, immediately discredited the WHO-China report. China had barred international scientists from collecting data, inspecting labs, scrutinizing medical records and having unmonitored talks with Chinese scientists,” McCaughey wrote. “The report argues the virus probably spread from bats to another animal species (yet to be identified, despite testing thousands of species) and then naturally leapt to humans living in the city of Wuhan. A fluke of nature that coincidentally occurred in the only city in China with a maximum-security research lab investigating viruses. Dr. Robert Redfield, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, doesn’t buy it. The most likely scenario, he says, is that the virus escaped from the Wuhan lab. A mountain of circumstantial evidence supports that idea…

“The WHO-China report dismisses a lab leak as ‘extremely unlikely,’ calling lab accidents ‘rare.’ That’s laughable. Our own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has had several near misses. Viruses can leak out of labs on workers’ clothing or accidentally infect a worker. In 2018, US embassy personnel in Beijing alerted the State Department of safety problems at the Wuhan Institute, but China resisted international monitoring… The WHO-China report tells us almost nothing. But the information coming out about China’s bioweapons research is a wakeup call our political leaders should heed.”

My take.

Look: there are certain things that are a bit above my pay grade. Whether COVID-19 started in a lab or a bat is probably one of those things. Scientists are analyzing DNA sequences, protein spikes and the evolution of the virus. The last time I looked through a microscope was in high school biology. I’m not going to pretend to “know.” But what I can reflect on is the politics of this moment and, given everything I’ve read about this, point out a few things that I think are worth noting.

On Friday, I released a subscribers-only post that analyzed some of my predictions from the past year. One of those predictions was about my initial writing on coronavirus, when I said this:

Still, right now, the Tom Cottons of the world [Sen. Cotton had suggested early on the virus came from a lab in Wuhan] 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. The most convincing story I’ve read about this was the FiveThirtyEight article where virologists and biologists talk about the anatomy of the virus, and they seem fairly confident this did not come from a lab — in any form.

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.

The best piece I’ve seen about the lab theory came from Nicholas Baker, who wrote a riveting 50-minute read in New York Magazine about it. I think this line sums up his position well:

A lab accident — a dropped flask, a needle prick, a mouse bite, an illegibly labeled bottle — is apolitical. Proposing that something unfortunate happened during a scientific experiment in Wuhan — where COVID-19 was first diagnosed and where there are three high-security virology labs, one of which held in its freezers the most comprehensive inventory of sampled bat viruses in the world — isn’t a conspiracy theory. It’s just a theory. It merits attention, I believe, alongside other reasoned attempts to explain the source of our current catastrophe.

Is it the most likely theory? Again, I don’t know. It’s hard for me to imagine that the coronavirus escaped from a lab without researchers noticing and containing it first. It seems more likely that an uncontrolled global pandemic that has killed nearly three million people happened because scientists did not have a watchful enough eye over it in the early stages of this thing. It’s harder still to imagine that U.S. intelligence wouldn’t be able to confirm the lab-leak theory yet if it were the case.

But it’s absolutely true that this report does nothing to quell concerns about that being a possibility, and that framing of the lab theory as a “conspiracy” — as many people did in the early months of COVID-19 — has not aged well. Even the loudest and most reputable voices calling the lab theory bunk have conflicts of interest: Peter Daszak, a British disease ecologist who was part of the investigative team, has worked with the WIV lab for years and supports their gain-of-function research. Dr. Fauci’s institute financed work at the WIV. Both would obviously have incentives to play down the idea that the lab was responsible for this outbreak.

Still, there continues to be a unified and consistent chorus of scientists who say their experiments and research indicate this happened naturally and who rightly point out that we’ve observed this kind of thing in nature before. That can’t be dismissed either, even if the lab theory is more enticing to talk about. The reality, for now, is that we just don’t know. More investigations and more research are needed, and the world deserves an answer — however long it takes.

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Your questions, answered.

Q: I'm very critical of your stance on gun control policy. You correctly state that the definition of an assault rifle is ambiguous but you leave something out of your stance that I believe is a huge elephant in the room. Other countries such as Australia and the UK have had complete weapons bans and have dramatically reduced rates of gun-associated deaths. Why can't we do that here in America, and why don't you consider that in your stance?

— Jameson, Charlottesville, Virginia

Tangle: It’s a fair question, but the answer is rather simple: the law. Australia and the United Kingdom do not have a constitutional right to bear arms. In the United Kingdom, handguns were banned after a mass shooting in 1996 — and the government collected 162,000 handguns. In Australia, an assault weapons ban came alongside a gun amnesty where 57,000 guns were turned in by Australians. Neither of these are outcomes that seem remotely plausible to me in the U.S.

For one, we have over 300 million guns here. So getting even a few hundred thousand weapons to be turned in would hardly make a difference. Two, any all-out bans on handguns would be challenged immediately, and the courts would never hold such a ban up. The only real option would be a constitutional amendment to change the second amendment, but that is the least likely of all the scenarios (if we can’t even make background checks more robust, what makes you think we’ll amend the constitution?)

I think what we can learn from Australia and the U.K. is that there is a clear relationship between how many guns are on the street and how much gun violence there is. Which — hey — that’s an important though hardly shocking insight, especially when our own data and research on gun violence has been stymied at every turn by the gun lobby. But the law and culture around guns in those countries is so vastly different from here in the U.S. that I’m not sure it’s worth entertaining ideas that wouldn’t have a chance here. As I wrote, we need to be more innovative and more piecemeal in our efforts, and be sure we’re addressing the root causes that apply here in the states.

If you have something you want to be answered in the newsletter, you can simply reply to this email and write in or fill out this form to submit a question.

A story that matters.

There’s a new movement brewing to abolish party primaries altogether. In a piece in The Atlantic, Nick Troiano, the executive director of Unite America, lays out the case for why party primaries are making our politics more toxic. “A small minority of Americans decide the significant majority of our elections in partisan primaries that disenfranchise voters, distort representation, and fuel extremism––on both the left and, most acutely (at present), the right,” he writes. Troiano and his organization — which is made up of Democrats, Republicans and independents — are advocating that more states do what Alaska did and adopt a sweeping election reform to put all candidates in a single, nonpartisan primary before a general election. (The Atlantic)


  • 73%. The percentage of school districts who said their need for substitute teachers was more dire in 2020 than in 2019, according to an Education Week survey.
  • $1.6 billion. The amount of money the Interior Department is set to spend to upgrade and restore public lands in the National Park Service.
  • 6 in 10. The number of Republicans who believe the claim that the election was “stolen” from Donald Trump, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll.
  • 18%. The percentage of American adults who are now fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.
  • 32%. The percentage of American adults who have had at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.
  • 222. The total number of coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S. yesterday, the lowest since March 20th, 2020.

Have a nice day.

Alright, I have to admit this isn’t your standard “have a nice day” story, but it made me laugh. I just got done reading a story about Andreas Flaten, a Fayetteville, Georgia, man who worked at A OK Walker Autoworks. Flaten put in his two weeks notice to leave his job, and a few days later his final check arrived: in the form of 90,000, greased-up pennies that were dumped into his driveway.

The “paycheck” was apparently payback for quitting, though Flaten’s boss was coy: "I don't know if I did that or not. I don't really remember," he said. "He got paid, that's what matters...he's a weenie for bringing it up." Flaten apparently quit the job because of a “toxic work environment” which, I must say, is easy to believe. Either way, he got a hand from Coinstar this week, a company that helped him cash in his pennies by converting them to crisp, $100 bills. (Inside Edition)


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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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