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On COVID-19 origins and conspiracies

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.


20 thoughts on “On COVID-19 origins and conspiracies

  1. This is such a Ministry of Truth moment…

    Brett Weinstein has had similar discussion on his podcast as well.

  2. Reading the comments to NYMag posting this article to their Twitter feed was dispiriting; all of the usual “why didn’t you talk to ACTUAL scientists”, “‘just asking questions’ is not how science works”, “this was debunked by experts months ago, here’s a link to a WaPo article showing that”, “stay in your lane”, “do you have a citation in a respectable scientific publication for that claim?”, “this is misinformation, why isn’t Twitter getting rid of it?”, and the other usual Science(tm) talking points.

  3. The “lab escape” theory is quite plausible, especially given the Chinese government’s censorship and restrictions regarding this from a recent AP article:

    Particularly sensitive is the mine shaft where the closest relative of the COVID-19 virus — called “RaTG13” — was found.

    RaTG13 was discovered after an outbreak in 2012, when six men cleaning the bat-filled shaft fell ill with mysterious bouts of pneumonia, killing three. The Wuhan Institute of Virology and the China CDC both studied bat coronaviruses from this shaft. And although most scientists believe the COVID-19 virus had its origins in nature, some say it or a close relative could have been transported to Wuhan and leaked by mistake.

    I would not be even remotely shocked if it turned out that SARS-Cov-2 was one of the bat coronaviruses they had samples from at Wuhan, and then it got out through sloppy lab practices or some type of foul-up with cleaning. It would explain why the Chinese government has been so restrictive on their Covid origin research – that would be a huge embarrassment for them internationally.

    That said, the folks I’ve been following on Twitter about Covid (such as Carl Bergstrom) seem rather skeptical that it’s undergone any significant modification in the lab.

  4. I think that the author of the NY Mag piece was Nicholson Baker is important. Baker is an impeccable homme du gauche. He even wrote a novel fantasizing about assassinating George W. Bush. It can be taken as a permision slip to think the previously unthinkable.

    The Boston Mag piece was a a staffer interviewing Chan. Important an informative, but not a signal that it is permissible to entertain such thoughts.

    Deeper cultural issue. The attitude towards communist countries, primarily the Soviet Union, but also Mao’s China and North Vietnam, was an important cultural dividing line between left and right from 1917 to 1991. By then, the Soviet Union had collapsed and China had gone capitalist.

    What is the politically correct attitude towards China now. I feel like it ought to be a recognition that China is now a fascist dictatorship with a system of state corporate capitalism. Their sympathies should be with the Uyghurs and the Tibetans.

    But, since the left has slipped the surly bonds of fact and rationality, this is an observational question.

    Beuller? Bueller? Bueller? Anyone?

  5. it would help if the Right wasn’t teeming with conspiracy theories. the Left is doing bad, so the idea should be to be a better alternative rather than engaging in mass hysteria and trying to steal the election, etc.

    anyway, i thought i remembered Razib posting a piece in an Open Thread a couple of months back saying that the virus was very unlikely to be made in a lab as it’s very close to wild type viruses, then listed other reasons to go with

  6. Seems possible, but if it did escape from a lab, the Chinese will never admit it (certainly not pay reparations or anything of the sort), so what’s the practical relevance?

  7. The relevance is that perhaps Germany and the rest of Europe should consider China’s perfidy before signing any more favorable trade agreements.

  8. For “perfidy” to mean anything you’d have to establish malicious intent (e.g. that China deliberately spread the virus to other parts of the world or that it has been running disinformation campaigns to prevent an effective response). I don’t exclude that something like that happened, but so far I haven’t seen any good evidence.
    The trade agreement is a separate issue. Maybe it’s a bad idea, personally I neither like or trust China, and its one-party system is certainly unappealing. But tbh the tone many Americans have adopted regarding China strikes me as rather hysterical, almost as if there’s a desire for a new Cold war to generate national cohesion against an external enemy. I doubt it will lead to anything positive.

  9. @German reader – Good question. Practical relevance is prevention of recurrence (not just in China – other countries have similar labs which have had leaks in the past), but I’m suspicious that the motivation for all of this truth seeking is political – it is transparent to me that Alina Chan is anti-China and politically motivated, from things she says; it is also obvious she has never been to China, or anywhere in SE Asia for that matter, because she makes dumb remarks about various things*. I would be more convinced that the truth seeking about a lab leak is not motivated by politics/ideology if other possible causes were being explored with equal rigour, but they are not. I am all for truth seeking, if it genuinely seeks the truth, in which case there should be equal rigour applied to examination of other possible causes at the same time.

    (My preferred theory is the one proposed by some scientists from Cambridge University, that the coronavirus infected some humans in Yunnan directly from bats, possibly years ago, and circulated at low level among humans without being noticed (not difficult – cases of atypical pneumonia happen, and pneumonia has many possible initiating agents, including viral, bacterial and fungal, and in the majority of cases it is not possible to identify the initiating agent) for months or even years until it mutated to acquire enough fitness to be easily transmissible human to human, at which point a large enough outbreak occurred to get attention and cause alarm of an impending epidemic -> pandemic.)

    As for reparations: “In the Joint Communiqué of the Government of Japan and the Government of the People’s Republic of China (1972), the People’s Republic of China renounced its demand for war reparations from Japan.” IOW, China doesn’t believe in them, and won’t be making any, whatever the outcome of any investigations. The USA never made any reparations for the ‘Spanish’ ‘flu, did it?

    *Examples: 1. “They have not yet closed all of the wet markets.” No one ever said they would or that they needed to. This is like suggesting that supermarkets in the USA should be closed. What the Chinese did do very quickly was to impose a ban on the trading in wild animals for food, including banning the farming of wild species to be sold as food. 2. “Let’s stop trafficking in pangolins, shall we?” She seems uninformed of the major Chinese government efforts to stop illegal traffickers in pangolins and pangolin scales, which started in 2018. A group of such traffickers have just been sentenced to long prison sentences (14 years) and very heavy fines. The pangolins are poached in the Philippines, Indonesia and Africa in absolutely huge numbers – let’s see some action on the supply side as well. Plus a lot of them go to Vietnam, and I am not aware that they are doing anything to try to stop the trade.

    I realise these comments might not be well received here, and I don’t care. Show me your objectivity and unbiased truth seeking, if you genuinely have any.

  10. As you mention, the unbridled conspiracies around potential kernels of truth from people who know little about the issue except also trying to push their own politics (anti-China, anti-lockdown, anti-whatever) and are sure what they’re pushing is the absolute truth, also harden the other mass of people who know little in strictly following the “orthodox” stances in turn, unfortunately. Obviously this kind of polarization works both ways. Outside the realm of most of us, much more troubling if either academics or politicians are scared of foreign governments.

    For most of us this line “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.” is the important take I think. It’s probably a good idea to be agnostic either way when you basically know jackshit about an issue that’s also still very much ongoing.

    OTOH “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” is something most of us probably believe about our own position even if we’re biased in some way so when someone repeats that kind of statement, however free of bias they themselves are, I have to relegate it to what people call “virtue signalling” these days, as you basically also point out.

    The general conspiracy theory I personally prefer is this first run being a test to see how western countries will respond. It’s over for us.

  11. “this first run being a test to see how western countries will respond” – In the words of John McEnroe: “You cannot be serious.”

    The only truly objective position at this point is: (1) the Huanan Seafood Market was not where the coronavirus jumped from animals to people, although initially Chinese scientists believed it was; they no longer think so; (2) all other possibilities are on the table and should be investigated, including but not limited to an accidental lab leak.

    Things that are not possibilities: (1) this was a deliberate lab leak, and (2) this was the Chinese testing a bioweapon.

  12. @Sandgroper

    I almost want to pretend I was being serious about that comment, that was very obviously meant in jest, now that you took seriously enough to respond like that.

    Nonetheless, I’m sure the western response has been noted either way 😉

  13. Human nature is human nature, and governments are self-protective organizations. It’s not as if a pandemic virus escaped from a US lab or French lab, that either government would admit it. Some of this discussion feels xenophobic to me.

  14. The hypotheses “the virus escaped from a Chinese lab” also becomes more PC after the right-wing orthodoxy crystallized in “the covid-19 is largely an hoax; probably there is not even any virus and all cases are simply ‘false positives’ and/or people with other coronavirus, like the common cold”

  15. Mr. Robert Ford

    Sure, you can start by undoing the cheating of the election, and abandoning your crazy policies. Let’s with together 😉

  16. I haven’t seen anyone point out the possibility that this virus was being studied in the lab, but was contracted independently in the wet market or somewhere else.

  17. Believing that the virus excaped out of the Wuhan lab is not the same as believing that the release was intentional or that there was any other kind malfeasance. The first, a lab accident, is most certainly true. We’ve had similar accidents with our own labs over the years, with Reston 1989 being the most serious. The latter is unfounded conspiracy mongering.

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