Opinion

The COVID lab-leak debate is asking the wrong question

Knowing COVID-19's origins is important. So is what we do with that knowledge.

Did the novel coronavirus escape from a Chinese lab? Was the wet market theory of COVID-19's origin always wrong? Is this whole pandemic the result of an accident — a tipped vial, a contaminated glove, some small oversight or carelessness or confusion?

Hell if know. I'm not a virologist. The zoonotic origin story, which posits that the virus jumped to humans from an animal sold in a Chinese market, is plausible enough. That's apparently what happened with the early 2000s SARS outbreak, in which the first superspreader was a fishmonger.

But the lab leak theory seems plausible too, particularly the mundane human error variant: Perhaps a team of scientists made a mistake, unrecognized in the moment, then realized weeks or months later while they watched in horror as their slip-up killed millions. Perhaps there was a high-level cover-up, or perhaps, all too aware of their government's totalitarianism and torture, the scientists kept quiet. (This scenario is compatible with the World Health Organization conclusion that the virus was likely not man-made; it could've had a natural origin before being studied in the lab.)

Either of these stories might be true, and maybe we can discover which one — if we can stop having the wrong debate about the lab-leak hypothesis. The proper discussion here is not whether it's politically acceptable or advantageous to investigate this but rather how we should respond to what investigation finds.

A lot of the focus on acceptability and advantage is the fault of former President Donald Trump and some of his allies, who tied the pandemic's origin to domestic political battles and a hawkish stance toward China. Trump ginned up anger over the "plague from China" which Beijing "could have stopped" but instead "allowed." Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has long pushed the lab story, which would be fine had he not made unsupported allegations of intentional Chinese wrongdoing and issued vague warnings of looming Chinese "bioweapons and bioterror" (mentioning "weapons" suggests their existence; mentioning "terror" implies we're at real risk of their use).

But it's also the fault of their less judicious critics, who threw out the lab leak theory entirely in the process of rejecting Trumpy misuse of it. At the popular level and in the press, a comparatively staid suggestion from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) that there remained unanswered questions about origins of the virus was interpreted as an endorsement of the "deliberately released bioweapon" narrative. Cotton called that reading unfair — but a month later he was tweeting his eagerness to make China "pay" for "inflict[ing]" the pandemic on the world. The accident theory and the deliberate weapon theory were thus linked early last year, and mainstream news coverage usually branded the former a fringe GOP conspiracy theory just as much as the latter.

That started to shift in the past six months. The first serious consideration of the accident hypothesis in a major outlet I can recall was New York magazine's longform report on the possibility in January. It published two days before the storming of the Capitol, timing which probably resulted in much less discussion of the thesis — that the virus "began its existence inside a bat, then it learned how to infect people in a claustrophobic mine shaft, and then it was made more infectious in one or more laboratories, perhaps as part of a scientist's well-intentioned but risky effort to create a broad-spectrum vaccine," then it accidentally escaped — than we'd otherwise have seen.

Since then, it has become increasingly apparent many people more knowledgeable than me — and less politically motivated than Trump, Pompeo, and Cotton — see the ambiguity. A letter from more than a dozen prominent scholars to Science last week called for more investigation because "[t]heories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable." The same proposal was explored, with expert input, in a March story at Undark, a nonprofit science outlet. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which publishes on science and security topics, has taken the accident idea seriously from the beginning, distinguishing it from the bioweapon theory when few others did. A new Bulletin piece by science writer Nicholas Wade last week worked through how an accident could've happened and been concealed.

The Wade article caught the eye of neoconservative commentator David Frum, whose resultant Tuesday piece for The Atlantic typified the problems with our lab leak debate. After rehearsing some history of Trump's malfeasance here, Frum said "the responsible American press" wrote "reports denouncing and rebutting" the lab leak hypothesis last year. He bemoaned the Bulletin story, accusing Wade, with his "thick scientific detail," of offering comfort to anti-science, McCarthyite Trump supporters and deploring Wade's criticism of insufficiently nuanced media handling of this subject.

Then, without explaining why those "responsible" denunciations were right or wrong, without offering any factual pushback to Wade's arguments, Frum pivoted. On explicitly partisan grounds — condemning Republican culture war fixation while rejoicing in President Biden's opportunity to score a culture war victory — he enthusiastically backed a Biden administration investigation of the lab leak theory. Acceptability and advantages seem to be Frum's chief concern.

This is all wrong. The value of investigating the origin of this virus stands regardless of political victories and the reckless, self-serving rhetoric of Trump et al. We should want to know the truth irrespective of its political benefit or spite to Trump supporters. We should get on with this investigation so we can get on with the far more necessary question: What do we do with what we learn?

Maybe we'll never have a concrete answer here. But maybe we will, and if the lab leak theory is correct, that could have big policy implications. It could raise questions about federal research spending, some of which is sent abroad to facilities like the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It could enormously effect U.S.-China relations — and not necessarily for the worse. A proven lab accident isn't good, but it also excludes the deliberate bioweapon fears that could dangerously escalate tensions. And, crucially, "[k]nowing how COVID-19 emerged is critical for informing global strategies to mitigate the risk of future outbreaks," as the Science letter said.

We need to stop bickering about the politics of investigating this pandemic so we have a better shot at preventing the next one.

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