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Uncovering Uncertainties

Mar 21, 2023

“Lab Leak Most Likely Caused Pandemic, Energy Dept. Says”

This February 26, 2023 headline in the New York Times is so attention-grabbing that the article’s nuanced conclusion, that the theory is far from being proven but should not be dismissed, is lost in the drama. The fact that the U.S. Department of Energy is just one of a dozen intelligence operations in the Beltway, and its finding is not the majority opinion, needs addressing as well. 

But that attention-grabbing assessment, and a similar statement from the FBI, also couched as being low to medium likelihood, set off a firestorm of Covid controversy that shows no signs of cooling down anytime soon. 

Needless to say, when the U.S. debate about the origins of Covid gets hot, China is not left out of the conversation. 

And unfortunately, the heated rhetoric that’s reemerged along with investigations into the origins of Covid could lead to the incorrect impression that there are only two camps in the world, either “lab leak” or “Zoonotic spillover.”

An inquiry that calls for dispassionate science has been hijacked by politicians into a points-scoring contest. Both theories can be seen as pro or anti China, depending on the politics of the person saying them. 

When trenchant China critic Mike Pompeo, former Secretary of State, smugly concludes “It was a lab leak” on Twitter, it can be understood as part and parcel of his campaign against all things Chinese. 

U.S. proponents of the lab leak theory and zoonotic spillover do agree on one thing though: Wuhan was ground zero of the pandemic. 

The Chinese media, no stranger to top-down political guidance, has reacted to the lab leak discussion with great vehemence and resentment when it touches on the question of Chinese complicity, because the job of China’s media is to present China in the best possible light. 

Perhaps that explains why the Chinese media ran with some colorful theories of its own, ranging from the odd frozen seafood hypothesis to the Fort Dix conspiracy theory and Russian dezinformatsiya about alleged “U.S. bio-labs in Ukraine.” 

According to the Global Times, “ridiculously, anti-China forces in the United States are again hyping the rumors that the coronavirus originated from a lab leak in Wuhan.” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning adds, “Relevant sides should stop hyping up the lab leak theory and stop smearing China and politicizing the origin tracing issue." 

Hot tempers on both sides of the Pacific have clouded the core issues, to the detriment of science and global public health. 

Yet other opinion leaders with scientific credentials make it sound more like a partisan struggle than a scientific process by which theories must be falsifiable, testable, and you follow the results. 

Alina Chan, a junior researcher at MIT who has made a name for herself promoting the lab leak theory, has invested so much ego in her initial position that it’s not clear she has the scientific temperament to follow the facts and let the chips fall where they may: 

“I feel validated that scientific experts at DoE & FBI assessed a lab origin of Covid to be more likely with low to moderate confidence…They weren't suckered by the double spillover market hypothesis.” 

Science proceeds from the unknown to the known in small, demonstrable steps, and something as complex as the origin of a virus calls for investigation of the sort that is best conducted in a way that is cool, calm and collected with factual evidence as the sole criterion of proof. 

There’s been reflexive jumping to conclusions on all sides, exacerbated by big egos, petty nationalism and party partisanship. Additionally, the lives of scientists and doctors have been made difficult, if not dangerous. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases until 2022, is a case in point. Not only is he regularly smeared on Fox News and other Murdoch-owned news outlets, but death threats have been made. 

The drumbeat against Fauci seems to be growing. Fox News's favorite “liberal” Glenn Greenwald says: “It’s an indisputable fact that Dr. Fauci conspired in secret to marginalize and scorn as ‘debunked’ the (lab leak) theory of Covid’s origins.” 

Robert F. Kennedy, a prominent anti-vaxxer, said Fauci was guilty of aiding “a historic coup d’état against western democracy.” 

Ohio congressman Jim Jordan from Ohio has weighed in on Fauci, who it seems is being simultaneously accused of being too pro-China and too pro-U.S. Jordan said Fauci “was trying to cover his backside and everybody knows it…U.S. tax dollars went to a lab in China, a lab that was not up to code.” 

As renowned Canada-based virologist Angela Rasmussen writes: “While the evidence base is incomplete, imperfect, & inaccessible, there *is* still evidence. Quite a bit, actually. And the results were clear: All data points lead back to the Huanan Seafood Market.” 

For U.S. federal agencies to say the lab leak theory should not be dismissed is within the realm of science, but to suggest the mystery has been solved is misleading. 

“A scientist’s job is to kick the tires of a hypothesis — to try to falsify it,” Canadian biologist Michael Worobey recently argued in the LA Times. “I remain open to any and all evidence supporting a laboratory origin of the pandemic. So far, we have no such evidence.” 

“Either origin is equally likely” is just not true, says Rasmussen. “The available evidence still shows zoonotic emergence at Huanan market.” 

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