Wuhan lab leak theory needs to be fully explored
For more than a year, the Wuhan lab-leak hypothesis was treated as a pure conspiracy theory by major U.S. news organizations and social media companies.
Facebook and Instagram, for example, aggressively censored references to this hypothesis — and even suspended accounts for repeatedly sharing the claim. Newspapers, instead of investigating the story, dismissed it as a crazy idea or fringe fringe theory.
Suddenly, without any new evidence, mainstream media have embraced the theory as credible: that the greatest global health calamity in more than a century was possibly caused by a virus that escaped after being engineered in a Chinese lab. And those aforementioned social-media giants, no less abruptly, have stopped removing posts claiming that COVID-19 is human-made.
Liberal critics have termed the reversals a “fiasco” resulting from American “groupthink.” Actually, the about-turn reveals something more deep-rooted — the political bias of putatively independent institutions and their readiness to be guided by what then-President Donald Trump called America’s “deep state.”
Mike Pompeo said earlier this month that, as U.S. Secretary of State, he faced an uphill task to get to the truth on the virus’s origins. Even the U.S. intelligence community, according to him, “did not want the world to know the Chinese Communist Party was in the process of covering up several million losses of life.”
Indeed, the concerted effort to obscure the truth also extended to U.S. scientific and bureaucratic institutions, largely because U.S. government agencies funded dangerous experiments on coronaviruses at the military-linked Wuhan Institute of Virology, and also because several American labs are still engaged in similar research to engineer super-viruses. Some of the scientists that took the lead to kill off the COVID-19 lab-leak hypothesis hid their conflicts of interest, including their ties with Chinese scientists.
Today, the new international spotlight on the lab-leak theory may signal greater pressure on the world’s largest autocracy to come clean on COVID-19’s origins. But the long suppression of a free and open discussion on the lab-leak story has cast an unflattering light on institutions in the world’s most powerful democracy that control the dissemination of information that shapes public debate.
It has also underscored the pervasive impact of the polarization of U.S. politics: just because the Trump administration promoted the lab-leak theory, left-leaning news and social media organizations almost intuitively sought to debunk it.
It speaks for itself that the reversals by these organizations began days before President Joe Biden’s May 26 statement that a lab leak was one of “two likely scenarios” on how the virus originated. Biden’s admission came after China closed the door on allowing further investigation by the World Health Organization.
Viruses leaking from laboratories are not uncommon. In 1979, anthrax escaped from a Soviet laboratory in Yekaterinburg, formerly known as Sverdlovsk, killing 64 people. The 2004 SARS outbreak in Beijing also resulted from a lab leak.
Yet, despite the globally disruptive COVID-19 pandemic originating in the city that is the center of Chinese research on super-viruses, as well as the fact that international scientists noticed early on that the virus’s genetic makeup was somewhat different from natural coronaviruses, the lab-leak theory was consistently dismissed until Biden became president and weighed the evidence. Sen. Lindsey Graham contends that such dismissal “played a prominent role in the defeat of Trump in the 2020 presidential race.”
If there is any silver lining to all this, the widespread death and suffering — coupled with increased public pressure — could force the U.S. and other countries to halt lab research aimed at genetically enhancing the pathogenic power of viruses. But do not count on it: the horrors of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended up setting off a nuclear arms race.
Biden would do well to fully disclose the extent of U.S. government funding of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The U.S. National Institutes of Health funneled $3.4 million to this institute through the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance, whose largest source of funds is the Pentagon. But the Pentagon has yet to unequivocally deny that any of the almost $39 million it gave to EcoHealth Alliance ended up in Wuhan.
A fact-sheet released by the Trump administration in its final days expressed concern over “whether any of our research funding was diverted to secret Chinese military projects at the WIV” (Wuhan Institute of Virology).
More fundamentally, the prolonged silencing of an open international discussion on whether the pandemic was triggered by the escape of a functionally enhanced virus from an American-funded Chinese lab in Wuhan could keep the truth hidden forever. The loss of valuable time has greatly aided China’s cover-up of the virus’s origins.
If in the one-and-a-half years since the pandemic began, the U.S. has failed to find definitive intelligence in support of either hypothesis — zoonotic spillover or lab leak, new solid evidence is unlikely to emerge within the 90-day deadline set by President Biden. U.S. intelligence has yet to recover from China’s crippling elimination of its network of spies across the country a decade ago.
By now, China has likely destroyed any incriminating evidence of its negligence or complicity in the worst disaster of our time. If no conclusive evidence emerges about the genesis of the pandemic, that would amount to letting China off the hook.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
© Nikkei Asia.