The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jon Stewart goes all-in on the lab leak theory

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It seems ages ago now, but there was a time in which a comedy show guided a substantial portion of our country’s political debate. “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart cast a spotlight on the absurdities of modern politics like nobody before or since, sharply criticizing the Iraq War, Fox News and the rest of the media, among other pet causes — often with a demeanor that practically screamed, “Are you serious with this stuff?”

Stewart rekindled that posture Monday night in a segment that seems like a potential inflection point in the debate over the coronavirus’s origins.

Appearing on the CBS late-night show of his former Comedy Central buddy Stephen Colbert, Stewart launched into an animated bit, promoting the coronavirus lab leak theory.

“I think we owe a great debt of gratitude to science. Science has, in many ways, helped ease the suffering of this pandemic,” Stewart said, before adding with emphasis, “which was more than likely caused by science.”

Colbert demonstrably sipped from a coffee mug as if he were about to do a spit take.

Stewart quickly made clear he was completely serious. Colbert summarized his argument as there being “a chance” that the lab leak theory was indeed true.

“A chance!?” Stewart responded incredulously. “ ‘Oh, my God, there’s a novel respiratory coronavirus overtaking Wuhan, China. What do we do?’ ‘Oh, you know who we could ask? The Wuhan novel respiratory coronavirus lab.’ The disease is the same name as the lab. That’s just a little too weird, don’t you think?

“And then they ask those scientists, ‘So wait a minute, you work at the Wuhan respiratory coronavirus lab? How did this happen?' And they’re like, ‘Ooh, a pangolin kissed a turtle?’ ”

Stewart continued, comparing the situation to scientists responding to a chocolate outbreak near Hershey, Pa.

“ ‘Oh, my God, there’s been an outbreak of chocolaty goodness near Hershey, Pa. What do you think happened?' ” Stewart said. “Like, ‘Oh I don’t know, maybe a steam shovel mated with a cocoa bean?’ Or it’s the [expletive] chocolate factory! Maybe that’s it?”

In the absence of crucial evidence of how the new coronavirus began comes many theories — one is that the virus accidentally escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China. (Video: Sarah Cahlan, Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

The segment was practically tailor-made to blow up in the current debate over the lab leak. It’s funny and good viewing and features a guy who often lampooned conservatives promoting a theory they have warmed to more than the other side. Even Jon Stewart is saying the theory Donald Trump once (briefly) espoused but was dismissed by scientists and the media was right about the lab leak!

The conventional wisdom on the validity of the lab leak has changed in recent weeks, but Stewart goes even beyond that new conventional wisdom that holds the theory is suddenly more valid. Scientists still generally regard the theory that the virus emerged naturally as more plausible than a lab leak, although that thinking is definitely evolving.

But if there’s one thing Stewart was often criticized for — especially by conservatives — it’s in oversimplifying complex issues to land a joke. (He often shrugged off that criticism by saying he was a comedian, not a newsman. But his show was the news to many young people, and it clearly had a political bent to it.)

And his summation of the argument for the lab leak theory suffers from some of that. Stewart pitches it as an irreconcilably massive coincidence that that virus emerged from a place with a high-level virology lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, that worked on novel coronaviruses.

There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg issue, though. There’s a reason the lab in Wuhan studies viruses like the novel coronavirus; it’s because China has a history with those types of viruses emerging. As the science journal Nature summarized in a recent explainer on the lab leak theory:

Virology labs tend to specialize in the viruses around them, says Vincent Munster, a virologist at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories, a division of the National Institutes of Health, in Hamilton, Montana. The WIV specializes in coronaviruses because many have been found in and around China. Munster names other labs that focus on endemic viral diseases: influenza labs in Asia, hemorrhagic fever labs in Africa and dengue-fever labs in Latin America, for example. “Nine out of ten times, when there’s a new outbreak, you’ll find a lab that will be working on these kinds of viruses nearby,” says Munster.

Wuhan is also extremely populous with many marketplaces, including “wet markets,” where animals who could carry such viruses are brought.

Indeed, the Wuhan Institute began studying such viruses after they were found in animals sold in those markets, as the New York Times recently reported:

That lab’s research began after another coronavirus led to the SARS epidemic in 2002. Researchers soon found relatives of that virus, called SARS-CoV, in bats, as well as civet cats, which are sold in Chinese markets. The discovery opened the eyes of scientists to all the animal coronaviruses with the potential of spilling over the species line and starting a new pandemic.

None of that means it’s truly a coincidence that the virus emerged near a lab that studies similar viruses, and many scientists now regard that confluence as bolstering the lab leak theory. It just means that the coincidence is perhaps more plausible than Stewart’s presentation let on.

Colbert even pressed him on that, noting the history of coronaviruses in the area.

“It could be possible that they have the lab in Wuhan to study the coronavirus diseases because in Wuhan there are a lot of novel coronavirus diseases because of the bat population there,” Colbert said.

Stewart said, “Sure,” but then doubled down.

“I understand,” Stewart said, taking on a more sarcastic tone. “It’s the local specialty, and it’s the only place to find bats. You won’t find bats anywhere else. Oh wait, Austin, Texas, has thousands of them that fly out of a cave every night at dusk? Is there … an Austin coronavirus? No, there doesn’t seem to be an Austin coronavirus. The only coronavirus we have is in Wuhan.”

Again, this ignores the history of the area and what Wuhan does with bats, which isn’t exactly comparable to Austin.

Colbert punctuated things by pointing to a Republican senator from Wisconsin who has promoted conspiracy theories about the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

“And how long have you worked for Senator Ron Johnson?” Colbert asked jokingly.

Stewart responded that it wasn’t a conspiracy theory. And he’s right to the extent you regard “conspiracy theory” as something that is implausible. (I would still argue it applies to a situation in which the Chinese government would have spent a year and a half covering this up.) It was just perhaps an oversimplification — the same kind of oversimplification for which the kinds of people promoting Stewart’s segment once pilloried him.

That said, it will very likely push that seeming coincidence even more into the debate over the lab leak, which might ultimately be a healthy thing.