Coronavirus Origins: Can We Handle the Truth of the COVID-Origin Probe?

Customers wearing face masks shop inside a supermarket following an outbreak of the novel coronavirus

Customers wearing face masks shop inside a supermarket following an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, February 10, 2020. (China Daily via Reuters)

On the menu today: The U.S. intelligence community’s investigation of the COVID-19 pandemic’s origins will have long-term consequences for the world, including future scientific research; a tariff proposal that China hawks might find intriguing; and how a temporary problem is creating a new, and likely permanent, entitlement.

The Long-Term Consequences of the Investigation into COVID-19’s Origins

Today is July 15; according to administration sources speaking to the Wall Street Journal, President Joe Biden is due to receive a 45-day update on the U.S. intelligence community’s review of the origins of COVID-19 “in mid-July.”

So far, no significant information about the probe has leaked. The probe can reach one of two plausible answers, or one implausible answer.

Plausible answer No. 1: We cannot prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the COVID-19 pandemic was the result of a lab leak in Wuhan. There is a lot of circumstantial evidence — probably enough for prosecutors to win a case. But we don’t have a smoking gun. We don’t have that rumored high-level Chinese defector telling us all about China’s secret virus-research programs. We don’t have a recording of a phone call between panicked scientists realizing what they’ve done — they’re too careful. We don’t have any hacked memos or emails or texts that definitively declare that this was a lab accident — everyone involved knows the risks of ever typing that into a computer or phone, and everyone involved is used to living under relentless state surveillance. What’s more, because of the psychological consequences of realizing that your mistakes set off a global pandemic that killed more than 4 million people, everyone involved with that lab is in the deepest denial imaginable. It is extremely unlikely that anyone who knows will ever confess. They’ll take this to their graves — if they haven’t already been killed to help the coverup.

Plausible answer No. 2: The outbreak of a novel coronavirus, closest to ones found in bats, started at the metaphorical doorstep of one of the three laboratories in the entire world conducting gain-of-function research on novel coronaviruses found in bats. Those facts have never seemed like a plausible coincidence. From the beginning of the first cases, the Chinese government has lied to the World Health Organization and the rest of the world, blocked outside investigators as long as possible, withheld requested data, hidden previously available data, and made the spectacularly implausible claim that this was an American bioweapon. The most genetically similar, previously existing virus killed three miners in Yunnan Province back in 2012, a site that is about 1,100 miles away. Samples of that deadly virus were taken to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, along with many other samples from bats in the same mineshaft. But no one has found this precise virus, SARS-CoV-2, occurring in animals in nature. No one has found animal smugglers who were sickened by or died from SARS-CoV-2 before the outbreak in December 2019. And three Wuhan Institute of Virology staffers were hospitalized in November 2019 “with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illness.” Any evidence of a lab accident that we cannot find can be plausibly explained by Chinese government efforts to cover it up and destroy it.

Implausible answer: Everything listed under No. 2 is just a big coincidence, and we should trust the assessments of virologists who wish to continue gain-of-function research and who insist that a consequential accident is simply impossible.

There’s a letter to the editor in the San Francisco Chronicle that inadvertently illustrates why the intelligence community is likely to pick plausible answer No. 1, and is likely to strongly resist reaching plausible answer No. 2. The writer warns:

If the American public were to believe that China caused 600,000 Americans to die, more than the World War II, Korea and Vietnam wars combined, there may well be demands for war. Such a war would be far worse than our endless wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, would devastate much of Asia including our allies, cause massive American casualties, and could even go nuclear. Remember the nuclear missile scare in Hawaii during the confrontation with North Korea? We need to tone down the anti-China rhetoric.

For what it’s worth, 52 percent of American adults already believe that the pandemic is the result of a lab leak, including majorities of Republicans and Democrats; 28 percent believe it is the result of human contact with an infected animal. (I don’t like the wording of that poll question, because human contact with an infected animal can occur in a laboratory and be an accident!)

But if you believe, as that letter-writer does, that confirming the lab-leak theory would inexorably lead to war (and possibly to nuclear war), it becomes easy to justify playing along with a Chinese cover-up. The U.S.–China relationship becomes “too big to fail.” The U.S. government would have to help the Chinese government escape scrutiny and accountability — because the consequences of the truth would be catastrophic.

The problem is that what happens with this probe is going to shape how virus research works from here on out. There are almost 60 biosafety-level-4 (BSL-4) labs, which handle the most dangerous, virulent, and contagious viruses out there, located in 24 countries. These countries aren’t just big ones such as China and Russia, but also Belarus, Gabon, and South Africa. (South Africa’s apartheid-era biological-weapons program is the stuff of nightmares: an infertility toxin to secretly sterilize the black population, putting cholera in rivers and anthrax spores in food supplies, and unverified claims of acquiring and studying Ebola, Marburg, and Rift Valley viruses. South Africa has a different, better government now, but we should note that viruses and other pathogens aren’t just studied by good and noble people.)

All of these BSL-4 laboratories are staffed by human beings, and human beings make mistakes. The lesson of the pandemic is not “never do any research on dangerous viruses.” It may well be “don’t do gain-of-function research in the middle of a city.” I suspect it also will be “BSL-4 labs should often have outside visitors and inspectors who point out any flaws in the containment, safety, and security protocols.” You could argue that, in an unexpected way, the Wuhan Institute of Virology had such inspections, but no one acted on the warnings they produced.

Regardless of whether the virus came from a lab leak, it is indisputable that China lied to the world for weeks and has done everything possible to obstruct an independent investigation into the origins of the virus.

If the U.S. intelligence community comes back and concludes, “We just don’t know where this virus came from,” the lesson to the world will be that lies and obstruction work, and that there is no real consequence for responding to a crisis with them. Other regimes around the world are watching — and even the most open, free, and responsible government hates to admit that its scientists made a consequential mistake. Playing along with shameless lies and a cover-up now is a good way to ensure we get more of them in the future.

Okay, Maybe This Tariff Isn’t So Bad

If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, then maybe China hawks will find Senator Ed Markey’s proposal for a “carbon tariff” on Chinese imports useful.

“This legislation will assert American leadership on the climate crisis, but we also can’t be ‘Uncle Sucker’ where other countries, led by China, take advantage of what we are going to ask our country to undertake,” Markey said.

It’s nice to see Markey acknowledge that, without these tariffs, the United States would indeed be “Uncle Sucker” with self-inflicted restrictions on energy use and emissions.

ADDENDUM: You’re going to want to read Dominic Pino’s detailed account of how Congress used an emergency that had already ended to set up a new program to create welfare for web access.