At NRO Jim Geraghty has a piece, The Wuhan Lab-Leak Hypothesis Goes Mainstream, where he links to the piece in New York Magazine, The Lab-Leak Hypothesis: For decades, scientists have been hot-wiring viruses in hopes of preventing a pandemic, not causing one. But what if …?. Geraghty gets to toot his own horn because he’s been soberly pointing out the possibility of a lab leak since the spring. Of course, back then he was a “conspiracy theorist” who was attacked and dismissed by “Very Serious People.” Now that it’s in NY Mag, well, those editors know their stuff, right? Authority from on high has spoken, and now you can think about this possibility.
This shows the value of outlets like National Review outside of the mainstream media. They can actually break out of the group-think and conformity which has journalists herding together. As an example, Jake Bittle, a climate reporter, in The New Republic on June 15th, 2020, Why Conservatives Believe a Chinese Lab Created the Coronavirus: The conspiracy theory sprung from an amateur YouTube video. Then, the National Review picked it up:
As the United States struggled to contain the initial onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic, a few conservatives peddled an outlandish theory to explain the origins of the disease. The virus, they claimed, did not emerge in the Wuhan market where most experts believed it had appeared, but at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a research laboratory about eight miles away.* In late January, The Washington Times suggested that scientists at the lab had developed the disease as part of China’s biowarfare program. Even after an article in Nature found that the chemical structure of the virus proved it could not be a “laboratory construct,” the theory had no trouble mutating into a new, more durable form: If the virus hadn’t been manufactured, perhaps it had escaped the lab by accident, the product not of biowarfare but of unsanitary Chinese negligence.
The piece has an asterisk in the first paragraph because of this: “This piece has been updated to reflect the Chinese CDC’s belief that the Wuhan market was not the source of the coronavirus, but a super-spreader.” Some of the theories are clearly outlandish. But the idea of lab escape in the generality really isn’t. The consensus is a moving target.
Now the consensus has moved on. Why? This is part of it is because of a change in politics according to the piece in NY Mag:
Everyone took sides; everyone thought of the new disease as one more episode in an ongoing partisan struggle. Think of Mike Pompeo, that landmass of Cold War truculence; think of Donald Trump himself. They stood at their microphones saying, in a winking, I-know-something-you-don’t-know sort of way, that this disease escaped from a Chinese laboratory. Whatever they were saying must be wrong. It became impermissible, almost taboo, to admit that, of course, SARS-2 could have come from a lab accident. “The administration’s claim that the virus spread from a Wuhan lab has made the notion politically toxic, even among scientists who say it could have happened,” wrote science journalist Mara Hvistendahl in the Intercept.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a feature of 2020. It’s ridiculous to talk about rock-hard scientific truths when the science is being discovered, made, and established. The first time I heard about the possibility of lab escape as credible from a person with a Ph.D. in biology whose work related to pathogens was in February of 2020. I didn’t pay much attention because I was focused on other things, like the US’s lack of total response. In the spring a few other people I knew looked into it, but they didn’t have the bandwidth, and it was clear there was going to be political and possible professional risks, and scientists are on the whole institutionalists who aren’t going to take these risks (with a few exceptions).
Additionally, friends in politics were saying that the Chinese government can be quite aggressive in targeting people who point fingers at them, so that was another major risk that people didn’t want to take on. Do you want to get on the government of China’s radar? Do you want your friends thinking you are a kook? Finally, the Trump administration’s aggressive and volatile politicization, along with the cult of “We Believe in Science” on the other side, made things really difficult for anyone who wanted to move provisionally and with some uncertainty. Remember all the grandstanding about how masks were verboten until they were mandatory? (it’s trivial to find the people who flipped one from one smug position to the other, but the media never highlights this because honestly, I think they don’t want to undermine trust in “experts”)
For me, something changed when the Boston Magazine piece that highlighted the theory came out in September. I started hearing from friends that really credible and high profile scientists thought that there needed to be an investigation about the lab escape theory. Even if they weren’t brave enough to say anything in public about it (you become high profile by not rocking the boat outside of your narrow field, so that’s to be expected). In November I did a quick interview with Spanish television. They reached out to me for comment because so many scientists who off the record would credit the idea of lab escape wouldn’t go on the record. The journalist told me he was quite depressed by the difference in how scientists would talk off-camera and what they were willing to say on the record. It basically made him not trust science at all.
I don’t really have much of a positive spin on this. But I figured I should report and tell you what I’ve heard and seen. The first time someone brought up lab escape was on a Zoom call in February, and he was shushed by others. A lot of the orthodoxies related to COVID-19 are bullshit. That doesn’t mean that all ideas are on the table. But you have to be personally critical-rational. Worried that people will make fun of you? Well, it’s not AIDS, but it’s not the flu either (unless you’re 20 or under).
Also, I’m going to drop the Alina Chan podcast later this week (Thursday night/Friday morning) for subscribers. Two weeks later for everyone else. One thing Alina says several times is that the truth is what matters, and we need to investigate the truth, even if it’s not convenient to a particular narrative. This is admirable, but to be frank I find it to be a rare trait in its execution in these days.