“With President Trump out of office, it should be possible to reject his xenophobic agenda and still ask why, in all places in the world, did the outbreak begin in the city with a laboratory housing one of the world’s most extensive collection of bat viruses, doing some of the most aggressive research?”
That piece, published last by week by Katherine Eban, is the most thorough look yet from a mainstream publication at the the possibility that the COVID-19 virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It’s also the most courageous in attempting to figure out why U.S. scientists, with the help of Washington, were so hellbent on insisting—with dubious evidence—that it was natural in origin.
Still, I’d like to amend the question: Why couldn’t you ask that question while Trump was in office? Nobody in science wants to be associated with crackpots and nativists, but since when does that very political concern matter more to the scientific community than uncovering the truth? And if politics do override the practical search for The Thing That Really Happened—if the fear of a negative association renders only one conclusion acceptable—then what is the scientific community but another ministry of propaganda?
In other words, the next time you’re arguing with an anti-vaxxer, and you bring up science, and they bring up the fact that science essentially lied when it came to the origins of the coronavirus because it more neatly fit their political agenda, what do you say next?
“Yes, but that was just that one time.”
Not very convincing, is it?
Things are happening fast in the COVID-19 origin search, but we should also note that we may never know the truth. If the virus leaked from the lab in Wuhan, China will have covered it up and it will be almost impossible to prove anything. If it was of natural origin, we can’t find an example of a bat that transmitted it, and even if we do, it doesn’t necessarily prove anything. The change, then, is not in our definitive proof, but in exactly what discourse has become permissible among the mainstream. Today, more than ever, it’s finally become possible to hold the opinion that the virus was likely adapted by scientists before escaping by accident from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV, from now on), and not be dismissed as the scientific arm of Q-Anon. The fact that the transformation has happened, after a year of suppression, is remarkable on its own, and came about due to a few factors:
1. It turned out the “Lancet statement,” which came out in late February 2020, and in which 27 scientists avowed in that influential medical journal that any claim that COVID-19 might not have a natural origin (i.e. that it came from the WIV) was bogus and conspiratorial, was organized by a zoologist named Peter Daszak who had a huge financial interest in pushing this conclusion. The importance of this can’t be understated, because that particular statement effectively put the clamp on the concept that, gee, maybe the bat virus came from the bat virus lab. After that, any scientist who flirted with that idea was risking everything, including association with anti-scientific cultural groups. You can immediately see how it was safer to just say nothing; it’s the definition of a chilling effect.
Meanwhile, as we know now, Daszak was writing to scientists arguing that they should leave their names off the statement so that “it has some distance from us and therefore doesn’t work in a counterproductive way.” He eventually signed, but not before rallying the troops to his cause—a lab leak would seriously endanger his funding—and then trying to hide his own role. (Later, astonishingly, Daszak was chosen to lead a fact-finding mission to China when they finally opened up to other investigators. You’ll be shocked to know they didn’t find many facts…at least of the kind they didn’t want to find.)
2. Nicholas Wade, a former New York Times writer, wrote a compelling essay on Medium in which he argued that the structure of the virus, particularly the “furin cleaveage site,” made it likely that this had been genetically engineered, and thus came from a lab. The fact that he had the support of other experts opened the floodgates to other pieces from other experts.
3. Meanwhile, despite the Lancet statement, other scientists who weren’t intimidated by the attempt to end discussion before it had really started worked together to pursue the truth of the virus’ origin, and both inside and outside the U.S. government, they slowly but surely began to gain more influence and to be taken seriously, even as other bureaucrats in government tried to silence them.
4. In China, scientists whose efforts go beyond the descriptor “courageous” released a paper arguing that the likely explanation was a lab origin. Needless to say, the paper vanished almost as soon as it appeared. But other bits of evidence began flooding in from that country, based on past and current incidents in virus research.
5. Finally, in January, the State Department released a “fact sheet” with information that included the WIV researchers who had become ill with COVID-like symptoms all the way back in 2019, and the collaboration between the WIV and the Chinese military.
6. There’s also this, which may be the most pertinent of all: “In one State Department meeting, officials seeking to demand transparency from the Chinese government say they were explicitly told by colleagues not to explore the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s gain-of-function research, because it would bring unwelcome attention to U.S. government funding of it.”
This short summary doesn’t do justice to Eban’s article, which deserves to be read in its entirety, but it hopefully shows how the premature conclusion that the virus came from nature and not a lab was agenda-driven, propagandistic, and corrupt from the beginning.
All of which, of course, does incalculable harm to the institution of “science” as a whole. One of the main shortcomings of our nation is the legion of Americans who legitimately believe in pseudo-scientific conspiracies, and who, by believing, endanger the public health of everyone else. Our inability to handle COVID-19 was a symptom of that recklessness, and the only obvious antidote is to build up trust in our scientific leaders.
This does the opposite of that; it erodes trust in people who were already predisposed to believing that rather than being objective, “science” as it’s espoused by the government is biased and conforms to acceptable ideology. I happen to think they’re wrong on almost every account, and yet, in this case, they’re dead right. We don’t know if COVID-19 had a natural origin, but we know definitively is that they didn’t know either, and in effect they were lying to us for political expediency.
I thought this tweet from Nate Silver was very interesting, in that it reflects what a lot of people are thinking:
Imagine having to speculate as to what scientists would say “if you gave them truth serum,” rather than just assuming they’d tell you the truth because they’re scientists!
There is no way to reconcile this. The very best-case scenario is that the government covered it up on purpose because they thought there would be a negative societal impact if large swaths of the public believed COVID-19 came from a Chinese lab. That seems far-fetched, especially for a government led by Donald Trump. Likelier is the concept that a scientist with a conflict of interest rode the crest of liberal orthodoxy to manufacture consent very early during the pandemic, the government saw the utility in it, and it took more than a year to untie the knot.
Belief in the rightness and the ethical goodness of science writ large is a goal that would detoxify certain dangerous aspects of American life; this is a major step backward, and in terms of the deleterious effect it will have on scientific credibility, it’s unforgivable.