The Wuhan laboratory leak hypothesis deserves tireless investigation
If three million people died in an accident at work, how do you think the public and the press would react?
I am asking the question this way because it is entirely possible that this happened to COVID-19 – in fact, it could be the most likely explanation for the origin of the pandemic. This is the conclusion of the renowned science journalist Nicholas Wade recently in a detailed article on Medium, in which he meticulously examines the hypothesis of the Wuhan laboratory leak and finds the case for it plausible but unproven, while the case against it and for a natural origin is shocking thin.
Wade isn’t the first person with impeccable credentials to come to this conclusion. Nicholson Baker’s extensive history of the laboratory leak hypothesis in New York Magazine was published back in January and carefully guides the reader from a position of skepticism to an incipient awareness of how plausible the hypothesis is. In fact, you could have seriously entertained the idea much sooner; The Washington Post published several articles on the opportunity in the spring of 2020 highlighting the fact that American officials had concerns about the safety of the Wuhan laboratory years before the pandemic.
In other words, for over a year now, well-informed circles have had considerable skepticism about the theory that COVID-19 originated in the wild and originally spread to Wuhan’s wet markets, and suspicions that it actually came about by chance a Wuhan laboratory specializing in coronavirus research. Then why does this view still feel like a fringe conspiracy theory? Why hasn’t it been a relentless focus of mainstream reporting since the pandemic began?
The standard answer is that journalists feared they might fuel anti-Asian sentiment, which in fact has contributed to a surge in hate crimes. But if that was someone’s point, it was poorly thought out. The alternative to the laboratory leak hypothesis is that the world-destroying virus came about because common Chinese people love to eat exotic animals. Which is more likely for hate crimes against Asians walking down the street: a story of poor security in a Chinese laboratory, or a story of Chinese culinary traditions that most Americans are likely to find gross?
Perhaps journalists did not want to play into a Cold War mentality or cover a Trump administration that wants to blame China. However, if the laboratory leak hypothesis is correct, Washington implies it, as does Beijing, since the coronavirus research conducted in Wuhan was largely funded and overseen by Americans, including the US government.
Even if the laboratory leak hypothesis is false, the evidence is overwhelming that the Chinese government denied the severity of the outbreak for weeks and silenced Chinese voices trying to sound the alarm before the decision to lock down Wuhan made it impossible to dismantle . At this point, however, the pandemic was already in full swing. In other words, the Chinese government’s fault is clear regardless of the truth of the origins of the pandemic.
If the story of how the pandemic started felt like a distraction when the most pressing question was how to contain and defeat the virus, then consider the contrast with disasters like the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents or the Bhopal chemical disaster continue to be covered. The importance of how the accidents happened, not just to assign blame but to prevent recurrence, was evident from the start. Why did that not consistently apply to the origins of COVID-19?
I doubt there is an answer, but what my various hypotheses have in common is a suspicion that questions about how the story would be understood prevent those who treat the story from discovering what the story was. Rather than being driven by the desire to know the truth and tell that truth to power (whether that power was in Washington or Wuhan), I fear that even if a brake has been applied to serve a poorly defined social interest this is the only interest backed by the health authorities we all relied on to get us through the pandemic and who were quick to confirm the story that the virus was of natural origin.
But that’s public relations, not journalism, and public relations is not the way you build trust, either in journalism or in the authorities. Good journalism is driven by fundamentally antisocial forces: skepticism about conventional wisdom, distrust of authority, a determination to ask awkward questions and refusing to accept comforting answers. These anti-social forces only have a pro-social effect if they are applied universally – not because all authorities equally deserve skepticism, but because everyone deserves it to a certain extent and playing favorites does not increase the public’s trust in the preferred authority improves, it only decreases the public’s trust in professional journalism.
You can see the consequences of the opposite approach in the mainstream media coverage covering the laboratory leak hypothesis. Since the subject was included in the American culture war Borg, writers must be careful with their audience’s perception that only haters and fools would believe such a thing. This is a perception that the mainstream media has helped shape. It’s no surprise that they are reluctant to challenge it directly. But it is their job to do so.
We still need to know what happened in Wuhan because this is the only way to apply pressure to prevent it from happening again. If you think nuclear power has an important role to play in combating climate change (as I did), then you should have safety issues investigated as aggressively and thoroughly as possible so that the public will have confidence when a reactor is declared safe. If you think virology research has an important role to play in improving human health (as I did), you should get the origins of COVID-19 investigated as aggressively and thoroughly as possible for exactly the same reasons.
The same is true if you are hoping for a more cooperative relationship between the US and China, or between the American public and its media.