The COVID lab-leak debate is asking the wrong question

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 I 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 …read more

Source:: The Week – Science


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