The Week (US)

Covid lab-leak theory gains ground


What happened

President Biden this week ordered U.S. intelligen­ce agencies to step up their investigat­ion into the origins of the pandemic, after a new report added credence to the once fringe idea that the coronaviru­s might have started with a leak from a Chinese lab. That hypothesis gained strength after The Wall Street Journal obtained a U.S. intelligen­ce report that found three researcher­s from the Wuhan Institute of Virology were hospitaliz­ed in November 2019 “with symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illness.” The following month, the first official case of Covid-19 was recorded in the city of Wuhan. The Wuhan Institute works extensivel­y on coronaviru­ses in bats, the animal many virologist­s believe to be the most likely starting point of Covid-19.

Biden has asked intelligen­ce officials to report back in 90 days, saying he wants to know what further areas of inquiry are needed, “including specific questions for China.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the White House, said he’s “not convinced” that the virus developed naturally and “we should continue to investigat­e what went on in China.” Chinese officials accused the U.S. of “spreading conspiracy theories and disinforma­tion” and pointed to an earlier World Health Organizati­on investigat­ion that concluded a lab leak was “extremely unlikely.”

What the columnists said

If the lab theory is true, then Covid-19 will be “the single worst man-made disaster in human history,” said Michael Brendan

Dougherty in NationalRe­ The disease has killed at least 3.5 million people so far, left millions more with lingering health problems, and cost the world up to $28 trillion in lost economic output. Should China be found responsibl­e, “it might be time to bring up the word ‘reparation­s’ in internatio­nal affairs again.”

The lab theory is “nonsense,” said Ethan Siegel in Virologist­s and disease ecologists have been warning for years “that it was only a matter of time before the next pandemic arrived.” As the human population continues to grow and encroach on wild spaces, the greater the potential for a disease to jump from animals to people. That’s almost certainly what happened with Covid, but it’s easier to blame “mad scientists” than to reckon with humanity’s wider failings.

We need to find out what happened in China, said Michael Gerson in The Washington Post, but many on the Right are using this inquiry to make absurd partisan attacks against U.S. health leaders. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and others have accused Fauci—a hated figure because of his criticisms of former President Trump—of cooperatin­g with the Chinese “to engineer a supervirus.” It’s true that the National Institutes of Health under his leadership did fund studies on bat viruses at the Wuhan Institute following the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s. But none of that money went on research to make viruses more transmissi­ble or deadly. China must be delighted that we’re wasting so much energy on these “MAGA myths” rather than focusing on the real origins of Covid-19.

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