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What a proven coronavirus lab leak theory would mean

President Biden visits the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda on Feb. 11. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The mainstream media is engaged in some very warranted soul-searching when it comes to the possibility that the coronavirus leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China, rather than occurring naturally. Reporters often wrote about the theory dismissively, citing scientists who backed that up. There is still no real proof the theory is true, but scientists now regard it as increasingly plausible, as The Post’s Glenn Kessler detailed this week. And the Biden administration says it’s redoubling efforts to get to the truth.

But beyond media accountability, it’s valid to ask: What’s really at stake here? If the theory were somehow proved, what would it change, including for the U.S. government, its top officials, including the current and former presidents, and China?

A big part of the appeal of the theory right now — beyond the chance to apply egg to the face of the popular boogeyman (particularly on the right) that is the media — lies in how intriguing it is. A deadly worldwide pandemic originating from a lab accident — or worse — is basically a Hollywood script. That it would involve a nefarious and powerful foreign government that also happens to be communist is almost a bit too over the top.

As for what it would mean for China’s culpability? We already know the virus came from China and that the Chinese government has been anything but transparent. This began on its watch, and its lack of transparency cost the world valuable time in preparing for and combating the spread of the virus.

China's foreign ministry hit back at the United States on May 27 after President Biden ordered an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. (Video: Reuters)

If the virus came from one of its labs, that would mean China was even more negligent (at best) than previously known and that its coverup was even worse. It’s possible that even the Chinese government might not truly know what happened. But regardless, it has balked at admitting outside scientists who might be able to shed light on this and many other subjects.

Some have wagered that if such a theory proves true, it might turn China into something of a pariah state, given how angry other countries would be. There would be calls for extensive sanctions, particularly from the United States. But much of the world, including this country, relies upon trade with China, making such efforts fraught.

It would also raise questions about just how it leaked from the lab. We know scientists engage in sometimes-controversial “gain of function” experiments on viruses, but the most severe theories go quite a bit further: They involve the idea that China was engaging in even more dangerous conduct and possibly experimenting with a deliberate bioweapon. Proving such a thing would be even more difficult than proving a lab leak, and there are many more reasons to doubt the bioweapon theory than the lab leak theory. But it would force some very tough conversations — and pressure — to determine just how it leaked from the lab and how negligent or potentially nefarious China’s actions were.

The prospect of even greater Chinese culpability, of course, is a big reason this idea initially caught on in many parts of the American right. President Donald Trump’s and his party’s efforts to shift blame away from their own response and toward China was politically convenient, which led to too much initial skepticism of the lab leak theory. Trump also, as I noted earlier this week, engaged in plenty of conspiracy theorizing with little or no evidence to back it up. When you combine that with what scientists were saying at the time, it was easy — too easy, it turns out — to be overly dismissive of the lab leak theory.

But is the increasing prominence of the lab leak theory suddenly proving Trump right? He certainly says so and has plenty of backup from his allies. In a statement earlier this week, he claimed: “Now everybody is agreeing that I was right when I very early on called Wuhan as the source of COVID-19, sometimes referred to as the China Virus. To me it was obvious from the beginning but I was badly criticized, as usual. Now they are all saying ‘He was right.’ Thank you!”

The statement doesn’t actually cite the lab leak theory — everyone agrees the virus launched in Wuhan — but Trump’s meaning seems clear. As for whether he’s vindicated, that’s far less clear.

For one, despite latching on to the lab leak theory in late April 2020, Trump actually initially vouched for China and its coronavirus response, including its transparency. This was despite other parts of his White House and his administration believing quite the opposite. Trump’s evolution on this particular issue came at an entirely convenient time, when the virus was emerging as a big liability for both his efforts to reopen the economy and his 2020 reelection bid.

Trump also spoke with much more certainty about the issue than virtually anyone is professing even today. He said in late April that he had a “high degree of confidence” that the virus came from a Wuhan lab, contradicting an on-the-record statement from his own intelligence community which was more circumspect. The same week, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that “there’s enormous evidence that [the Wuhan lab] is where this began.”

The problem is that evidence was never actually produced, nor was the “high confidence” label applied elsewhere — even though Trump had every incentive to produce it and generally showed little compunction about making such information public. Even in the administration’s final week, Pompeo’s State Department released a report raising the lab leak as a valid theory but not really leaning hard into it.

It’s possible the media was too dismissive of the lab leak; it’s also possible that Trump and Pompeo had plenty of reasons to play this up beyond the evidence. And they also had months to try to back up their statements and/or push for a fuller accounting. That never arrived. Given the full year during which it could have taken place, that certainly raises questions about just how much they were going on, beyond wishful thinking and innuendo.

This also has huge implications for two other players who are more relevant right now: President Biden and the scientific community.

While such a revelation would surely reflect poorly on China, it would also create some very difficult decisions for Biden. Sanctions would be fraught for economic reasons, but a proven lab leak theory would be virtually impossible to ignore. It would also create the challenge of a potential worldwide response, a process that would consume much of the administration’s energy.

Biden has very notably tried to talk tough about China, conspicuously raising it repeatedly as a very capable and determined, autocratic competitor in his speech to Congress last month. Imagine a situation in which China isn’t just responsible for the launch of the virus, but responsible for it through its own negligence — or worse. Nearly 600,000 dead Americans would seem to call for a much more serious response, and dealing with that situation would be a massive challenge for the administration.

Perhaps the entity with the most at stake in all of this, though, is the scientific community. The media coverage of the lab leak theory was very skeptical in large part because the scientists who spoke to reporters expressed deep doubts. Many utterly dismissed the idea, pointing to the genome sequence of the virus as essential proof that it wasn’t something humans contributed to. Among those who dismissed the lab leak theories early on was Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s lead coronavirus expert. But he was hardly alone. Voices validating the lab leak theory were very few and far between around this time last year.

Some degree of skepticism of the theory is still very much warranted, but if the theory were somehow proven, there would be a massive reckoning when it comes to just how much the scientific community knows what it’s doing — and how much it’s letting external factors such as politics cloud the certainty of its judgments.

And that reckoning would probably involve more gusto from the conservative movement and others even than the campaign to question the media. Scientists such as Fauci, after all, have been turned into totems of all that is wrong with the scientific community guiding public policy on things like coronavirus mitigation and climate change. It would also have serious implications for what kind of research the United States chooses to fund and how much money would be sent to places like the Wuhan Institute of Virology, likely drawing many who aren’t currently so critical of the scientific community into the fight.

The most frustrating aspect of all this is that the increasing focus on this theory doesn’t necessarily increase the likelihood that we will ever know the truth. At best, it’s creating pressure to get to the truth and to create much-needed accountability for plenty of those involved (including those currently covering this story). At worst, it’s fueling still-unproven theories that might well be false but won’t ever be disproven — and thus will live on as a political football for years to come.