19 March 2023

Skeptical of the lab leak theory? Here’s why you should take it seriously.

Robert Wright

It is understandable that many Americans on Team Blue are deeply skeptical, if not completely dismissive, of the lab-leak hypothesis.

The idea that the covid-19 virus escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, China — and, in most versions of the story, had been genetically engineered there — got much of its initial impetus from not-very-reality-based Trumpists, such as the famously inventive Stephen K. Bannon. And the hypothesis fit suspiciously well into their long-standing agenda of demonizing China. Peter Navarro, who served as an adviser to President Donald Trump, went so far as to suggest that the Chinese had developed covid as a bioweapon.

One place Navarro made that suggestion was on Bannon’s podcast, where commercial breaks were ushered in with snippets of a song called “Take Down the CCP” — written by Guo Wengui, the Bannon-backing billionaire Chinese exile who seeks regime change in Beijing (where he is under indictment for bribery and fraud among other things).

So, yes, there is reason to doubt the lab-leak hypothesis. But, strangely, this particular reason — the ideological motivation that helped propel it to prominence — is also a reason that left-of-center Americans need to take the hypothesis seriously.

The lab-leak scenario is having a day in the sun — both because of last month’s report that the Energy Department has weighed in on its side and because House Republicans are holding hearings that will give it airtime. This will naturally lead to discussions about how to prevent future lab disasters, especially ones involving genetically altered pathogens. And if far-right Chinaphobes dominate that discussion — because they’re the ones taking the lab-leak scenario seriously enough to dwell on its implications — then the policy discourse will be skewed in their direction.

We got a glimpse of this direction when Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) greeted the Energy Department’s report by tweeting that “what matters is holding the Chinese Communist Party accountable so this doesn’t happen again.”

The problem isn’t just that Cotton’s prescription isn’t an especially sophisticated response to the challenge highlighted by the lab-leak scenario. The problem is that it’s in a way the opposite of a sophisticated response.

For decades, we’ve seen the proliferation — at home and abroad — of increasingly powerful biomedical technology. More and more labs, in more and more countries, are places where well-meaning research could go catastrophically awry. And that emphatically includes the “gain-of-function” research that might have taken place in Wuhan — genetic engineering that adds potentially dangerous functionality to a pathogen so scientists can assess future threats.

Given that pathogens don’t respect national borders, an effective response to this challenge will have to come under the rubric of “global governance.” It will have to involve, for example, agreement among nations to make their labs more transparent and international collaboration on a monitoring system that ensures that transparency.

Global governance is something the Cottons and Bannons of the world don’t generally like and something that is undermined by the antagonistic policies toward China that they favor. The quest for wise and effective biotechnology policy is, among other things, a struggle against hardcore nationalists, and right now they have the floor pretty much to themselves.

Strictly speaking, you don’t have to take the lab-leak hypothesis seriously to engage in debate over its policy implications. Even if we knew for sure that covid arose through “natural spillover” — that it went straight from a bat or some other animal to humans — the fact would remain that some sort of massively lethal lab leak is a looming and expanding threat. So is the development of a genetically engineered bioweapon, whether by a national government or a nonstate actor.

So, you could, in principle, dismiss the Wuhan lab-leak possibility while still considering it urgent to craft policies that address the threat of new pathogens arising in laboratories — urgent to enter the Tom Cotton discourse and try to elevate its quality. But some Americans who are susceptible to the senator’s simplistic takeaway won’t be open to an alternative view if it’s espoused by someone who dismisses the premise they share with Cotton — that some kind of lab leak probably happened in Wuhan.

To put it another way: This is a rare and possibly momentous teaching opportunity. Regardless of what happened at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the possibility that there was a globally consequential mishap has raised interest in the subject of biosafety. And turning that interest into illumination will be easier if we take that possibility seriously. Doing the opposite — casually rejecting the lab-leak scenario as if it were a fringe conspiracy theory — will just make it easier for the Tom Cottons of the world to keep the illumination low.

I’m not recommending that people on Team Blue, in order to seize this teaching moment, disingenuously claim to share some of Cotton’s premises.

I’m suggesting that people who still reflexively dismiss the lab leak possibility take a look at the evidence. I think they’ll find that (1) there’s no way of knowing for sure what happened in Wuhan; but (2) lab leak is a possibility. Or just consider the fact that two of the six U.S. agencies that have reached a verdict on the question — the Energy Department and the FBI — consider lab leak more likely than natural spillover. And the CIA considers the arguments on both sides strong enough to have withheld judgment.

If embracing the possibility of lab leak is uncomfortable, believe me, I feel your pain. I initially dismissed the lab-leak scenario as a concoction of my ideological adversaries, and if there’s one thing I find more unpleasant than admitting I might have been wrong, it’s admitting that Bannon and Cotton might have been right.

But I find consolation in this underappreciated fact: There’s a tension within the worldview of Bannon and Cotton that can, in a sense, be used against them.

On the one hand, they like to depict the lab-leak scenario as an indictment of the sneaky and perfidious Chinese. But they and many other Republicans also see possible Western complicity. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has lambasted Anthony S. Fauci, former head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for having funded research at Wuhan that, in Paul’s view (though not Fauci’s), qualifies as gain-of-function research. (No knowledgeable observer is suggesting that this particular research could have produced the covid virus.)

And then there’s the EcoHealth Alliance — an American nongovernmental organization that collaborated with the Wuhan lab on some past U.S.-funded research. One piece of evidence in support of the lab-leak scenario is that EcoHealth, in concert with the Wuhan lab and several other institutions, had in 2018 applied for a grant to insert a “cleavage site” into a SARS-related coronavirus. And the covid virus that emerged in late 2019 did feature such a cleavage site at the position envisioned in the grant proposal — a feature that made the virus more infectious.

The grant application was turned down (by the Pentagon’s research arm DARPA), but this doesn’t mean that all of the institutions that collaborated on it gave up their hopes of pursuing such research. And it doesn’t mean that no funder — government or private, American or foreign — wound up supporting such research.

Though including U.S. scientists and institutions on the list of lab-leak suspects may blunt the nationalist right’s indictment of China — that’s part of the internal tension I was referring to — it still, in a way, fits cozily into their ideology. One big Trumpist theme, after all, is that an international network of shadowy elites makes decisions that hurt the common people.

Let’s face it: International networks of elites do bear watching. It’s possible that, as the covid hearings proceed, House Republicans will use their subpoena power to turn up evidence that’s embarrassing to Fauci or EcoHealth. But whether they do or not, that 2018 grant application is reason to think that both Wuhan and EcoHealth warrant more scrutiny than they were getting — that their research aspirations, however well intentioned, were too risky to stay under the radar.

And that’s the point: Whatever the truth about covid’s origins, the fact that a lab leak could have happened in Wuhan illuminates a regulatory challenge that is international in nature. Meeting that challenge would be hard in any event, but it’s made harder by the fact that the United States and China have been sliding into a Cold War. One thing that will make it even more difficult is if debate over that challenge is left to Cold War enthusiasts who are also global governance skeptics.

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