The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A rigorous investigation of the coronavirus’s origins will be crucial

With a trustworthy probe and clear communication, the Biden administration can minimize bigotry-fueled rumors and misinformation

Members of the World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the novel coronavirus arrive Feb. 3 at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China. (HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)

The effort to determine whether the novel coronavirus escaped from a laboratory in China has intensified, as has consideration of both the scientific and political implications of such an investigation. While the ramifications of this debate are huge, the desire to identify a specific point of origin for a viral outbreak is nothing new.

A century ago, in the early weeks of the 1918 influenza epidemic, American newspapers circulated reports that germs had been unleashed on the United States by German submarines. With Germany at war with the United States, there was a strong popular impulse to blame the enemy power for the pandemic. Yet instead of encouraging such conspiratorial thinking, U.S. authorities and the press initially acknowledged the limited evidence for these charges and the government soon issued a public denial. This history suggests that what is needed today is a transparent investigation and clear communication from political leaders, lest xenophobia and heightened tensions fuel runaway allegations.

On Sept. 19, 1918, the Washington Times and other newspapers published the alarming charge that “the epidemic was started by Huns sent ashore by boche submarine commanders.” (“Boche” was a derisive term used for Germans.) The claim came off as plausible, given the wartime situation and because the tactic seemed feasible. As Lt. Col. Philip S. Doane of the Health and Sanitation Section of the U.S. shipping board explained, it would be “quite easy” for agents coming ashore from German U-boats “to turn loose the germs in theaters and other places where large numbers of people are assembled.”

Newspapers across the United States republished these charges. While the text was almost always identical wire service copy, the range of headlines illustrated the sense of danger associated with the allegations: “German U-boats Blamed for Germ of New Influenza” in the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, “Foe is Blamed for Spread of Plague in U.S.” in the Detroit Free Press, “Huns Ashore Here Seen as Cause of Epidemic of ‘Flu’” in the Oklahoma City Times and “Believe Huns from U-boats Scattered Influenza in U.S.” in the Seattle Star.

Yet while Doane’s official position and accusatory statements seemed to lend credence to these allegations, a closer look at his actual words suggests an effort to qualify claims about the German origins of the epidemic. Doane used phrases such as “it is quite possible,” “there is no way of proving” and “it is well within the range of possibility,” indicating a level of caution. Crucially, most newspaper accounts reproduced these qualifications.

And this caution seems to have had an impact: No government officials at the federal, state or local level repeated the charge that Germany intentionally caused the epidemic as a tactic in the war. Even those newspaper columns — there were at least three — making such claims openly acknowledged the lack of evidence supporting them. In early October, for example, Dr. Gordon Henry Hirshberg published a lengthy explanation of the epidemic in the Washington Times and many other newspapers, which mentioned that the “accusation that the disease has been intentionally disseminated by German U-boats is being investigated.” Using conditional language similar to Doane’s original report, Hirshberg conceded that this charge “is difficult to prove” but claimed the record of German atrocities furnishes “character evidence against them.”

Perhaps the strongest published assertion of German culpability came in a letter to the New York Times by Alfred M. Brooks, an art professor at Indiana University, which ran on Oct. 20. Brooks charged that “the germs of this plague, which has greatly hindered the Liberty Loan and caused much suffering and many deaths in our army — both wished for ends by our enemy, the Germans — are of German sowing.” To support this allegation, Brooks cited the fact that the epidemic has “not swept from place to place,” but rather has “broken out simultaneously, and with deadly virulence, in army training camps, from the Pacific to the Atlantic.” Yet although Brooks appealed passionately for the epidemic to “be called the German plague,” even he conceded that no evidence proved enemy complicity, instead claiming baselessly that “many thousands of Americans” have “good show of reason” to accept these charges.

In contrast to these overheated, jingoistic claims, however, neither the government nor a patriotic press primed to fuel anti-Germany sentiment exploited allegations of the hostile origins of the disease. In fact, days after the Times published Brooks’s letter, the federal government directly disputed claims that Germany was responsible for the epidemic. A report published in the Evening Star of Washington, D.C., on Oct. 24, and republished widely across the United States, made clear that government investigations “revealed no basis” for allegations that “enemy agents, possibly landed on American shores from submarines,” had brought germs to the United States. A review of the evidence by “several government departments” had concluded that “the disease was brought to this country through the natural channels of affected seamen, travelers, or imports and not by malicious methods.”

This finding quickly shut down discussions. Searches of historical newspaper databases reveal no further examples of news articles or editorials blaming the Germans for the epidemic after the government directly disputed the allegations. Tempering claims up front, followed by a quick, thorough investigation, put the issue to rest, despite the wartime atmosphere. Of course, the armistice on Nov. 11 quickly reduced any motivation to use the epidemic to excite anti-German sentiment, but until that point the government had pumped out propaganda designed to keep Americans invested in the war.

This historical example provides important lessons now as we try to make sense of the rumors about the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

First, while the search for a single origin is an understandable impulse when dealing with a catastrophic event, epidemiologists know that viral diseases usually emerge concurrently in multiple connected locations. The tragic experience of real people who become implicated in obsessive searches, including Typhoid Mary and Patient Zero, should provide an additional point of caution when seeking to identify a single origin for a global pandemic.

Second, scientific inquiry into the possibility that the virus causing covid-19 leaked from a laboratory is important for determining how the outbreak became a pandemic and identifying measures to prevent similar outbreaks in the future. It’s also crucial for finality and closure. But achieving such an understanding requires analysis that follows the procedures used to establish causes for other types of catastrophic events, ranging from the Challenger shuttle disaster to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A year ago any discussion of possible laboratory origins of the coronavirus outbreak was inextricably linked to the xenophobic and racist views expressed by President Donald Trump, making it hard to have the sort of trustworthy investigation that took place in 1918. Today, however, it seems possible that the Biden administration will ensure a deliberate inquiry that produces the most reliable answers possible and policy recommendations for the future.

Third, the historical experience in the fall of 1918 illustrates how a misleading statement can “go viral,” but also how it can be stopped, if authorities and the media are consistent in their messages. We do not want to return to the media ecosystem of 1918, with government censorship constraining press freedom and patriotic appeals exacerbating nativist stereotypes, but we could learn a lesson from an instance when an unfounded allegation was corrected and contained.

Coupling an investigation with an appraisal of public health failures over the past year and a half — the shortage of personal protective equipment, inaccurate statements about airborne transmission, inconsistent guidance on masks and uneven distribution of vaccines — offers the best hope of preventing a repeat in the future.