The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The vexing ‘lab leak’ theory on China and the coronavirus

Security personnel keep watch outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology during the February visit by the World Health Organization team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus, in Wuhan, China. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
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It has been said many times that Donald Trump’s presidency was a stress test for democracy. And that’s certainly true. (It’s a reality that very much persists to this date.)

But it was also a stress test for those charged with covering it. What do you do when someone bulldozes so many political norms and unwritten rules of political discourse? How do you cover unfounded and specious allegations lodged not from some random Internet commenter, but from the most powerful man in the world? You can fact-check, but do you in the process inadvertently lend them credence? Do you call the claims “baseless” or “conspiracy theories?” Do you call them “lies,” even if you can’t 100 percent disprove them, or even if you don’t know for sure that the person promoting them actually knows better?

It has become evident that some corners of the mainstream media overcorrected when it came to one particular theory from Trump and his allies: that the coronavirus emanated from a laboratory in Wuhan, China, rather than naturally.

It’s also true that many criticisms of the coverage are overwrought and that Trump’s and his allies’ claims invited and deserved skepticism.

Evidence has increasingly pointed to the plausibility of the “lab leak” theory, which most scientists and the media (often citing those same scientists) originally downplayed or, in some cases, dismissed. The latest example is a Wall Street Journal report that cites U.S. intelligence that three workers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology became so ill in November 2019 — shortly before the virus was unleashed not just on Wuhan but eventually the world — that they required hospital care. This is unverified intelligence, but leading infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci, who downplayed the lab leak theory in the past, was asked recently whether he was still confident about that, and he said, “No, actually.” He urged further investigation.

The Washington Post editorial board, among others, have in recent weeks upped the demands for a fuller accounting of just how the virus began. In an instructive piece last week, former New York Times health reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr., who covered the virus extensively, wrote about his early skepticism of the lab leak theory and how he has warmed to it. Here are some relevant parts of his post on Medium:

We may never know. But the argument that it could have leaked out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology or a sister lab in Wuhan has become considerably stronger than it was a year ago, when the screaming was so loud that it drowned out serious discussion.
I had been skeptical of the “lab leak” theory because animal spillover is such an obvious answer. Genetics has proven that almost every disease mankind has faced jumped from animals: bubonic plague from rodents, measles probably from cows, whooping cough maybe from dogs, and so on.
Also, the leak idea was just too conveniently conspiratorial.
But the Occam’s Razor argument — what’s the likeliest explanation, animal or lab? — keeps shifting in the direction of the latter.

As McNeil notes, this is very much an open question. Many people are talking about the new evidence as if it comes close to proving the “lab leak” theory. It doesn’t; it just renders it more plausible.

As for the allegations that this was underplayed? There is plenty of grist for that mill.

Media reports often referred to the idea that the virus leaked from a lab asdebunked.” Others described such theories as “conspiracies” or “conspiracy theories.” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) was criticized in February 2020 for playing up the possibility of a lab leak, with reports citing the scientists who disbelieved or dismissed the theory. A CNN story cited a poll showing 30 percent of Americans believed a theory about a lab leak that was “almost certainly not true.” Others, including some from The Washington Post, described the theories as “unsubstantiated.”

One thing you’ll see if you click on some of the links above or similar articles is that the text of the articles is often more circumspect. Few of them described the idea as definitively disproved, but rather cited the then-overwhelming scientific views at the time that there was little to no evidence to back them up.

In addition, the words “conspiracy” and “unsubstantiated” would indeed seem to apply, given such a leak would necessarily involve some kind of Chinese government coverup or a lack of actual, public evidence to prove the theory. The phrase “conspiracy theory” became something of a fallback for covering Trump’s and others’ wild claims during his presidency; it doesn’t rule out that there was indeed some kind of conspiracy involved that we might not know about.

Which brings us to Trump and his administration. For them, this wasn’t some kind of conspiracy theory; they leaned into it — hard. They also did so while declining to provide evidence to back up their claims.

Trump began the process shortly after the virus made its way to the United States, as this helpful thread from The Fix’s J.M. Rieger shows.

By late April and early May 2020, this became something amounting to the party line. Trump said at a news conference that he had a “high degree of confidence” that the virus originated in a Wuhan lab. This didn’t jibe with a report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, though, which said that while that was a possibility, it needed further examination. When pressed on what evidence he had, Trump responded, “I can’t tell you that. I’m not allowed to tell you that.”

Trump at many other points suggested such a thing, without backing it up.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also leaned in. He told ABC News around the same time that “there’s enormous evidence that this is where this began.” He added: “I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.”

Except the “enormous” evidence wasn’t produced by the Trump administration, for some reason. Nor was even piecemeal evidence.

And that’s despite Trump very badly wanting to reinforce China’s status as a boogeyman not just during the 2020 election, but also as the culprit for a coronavirus that was spreading and imperiling him politically. The conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote an editorial shortly after both Trump’s and Pompeo’s comments calling for evidence of their claims. “If they don’t want the issue to be dismissed as an anti-China campaign ploy, they should make the evidence public,” the WSJ editorial board said.

Pompeo last week highlighted that ABC interview, claiming the interviewer, Martha Raddatz, “stopped just short of offering me a tin hat.” The reality of the interview was very justifiable questioning about something for which we had seen little to no evidence. Raddatz merely pressed Pompeo about exactly what he was claiming might have happened.

Given how the Trump administration handled intelligence, there is very little doubt that, if some kind of proof had existed, Trump would have pushed hard for its release. Trump could have done so whenever he wanted. It never happened. The best evidence for it has emerged a year later, with Trump out of power.

Trump had every reason in his book to lay this at China’s feet even more than the available evidence dictated. And that’s not just because the “lab leak” theory more directly implied wrongdoing by China, but also because it was a necessary predicate to an even-more-conspiratorial theory: that this was some kind of bioweapon engineered by the Chinese. (Even if the virus did come from the Wuhan lab, that doesn’t mean it was deliberately released. Doubts about the latter remain significantly greater.)

Given everything we know about how Trump handled such things, caution and skepticism were invited. That (very much warranted) caution and skepticism spilled over into some oversimplification, particularly when it came to summarizing the often more circumspect reporting.

The problem in all of this is that we might never truly know the truth.