The lab leak theory bears a striking resemblance to the WMD hoax of 2002, not only in the fact that one of its key players is literally the same journalist using potentially the same anonymous sources, but also in the bipartisan political and media support it enjoys.
WUHAN, CHINA — The theory that the COVID-19 pandemic began life in a Chinese laboratory is going viral. Once considering it an anti-science conspiracy theory, the corporate press has done a full 180° turn — and many progressive, alternative media figures are following in its footsteps.
Progressive news show “The Young Turks” recorded what was effectively an apology video to their audience, explaining their new direction. “It does appear that there is some indication that a lab leak in Wuhan, China, is the origin of the coronavirus pandemic,” host Ana Kasparian told viewers. Condemning the scientific journal The Lancet, co-host Cenk Uygur explained that he had falsely placed his faith in scientists with political motives who had led him astray. Writing in The Guardian, left-wing commentator Thomas Frank flagellated himself for his “complacency” in believing the idea was a far-right conspiracy theory. The lab leak is “the most likely explanation for the origin of COVID-19,” Saagar Enjeti told his mostly progressive viewership of “Rising,” announcing that, from now on, we should be “ten times more skeptical of the Chinese government.”
This new change in outlook for so many progressive media outlets is not based on new evidence. Rather, it appears to be a result of two new articles and a change in stance from the Biden administration itself. In early May, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists republished a Medium blog post by controversial science writer Nicholas Wade. In an 11,000-word essay, Wade claims that Wuhan itself is simply far too far away from Yunnan Province — where coronavirus-carrying bats make their home — for it to be the natural source of COVID-19. The most logical explanation, Wade asserts, is that the virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Wade claims that the virus’s furin cleavage site — a point on the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 where the protein can more easily divide to better infiltrate and take over human cells — must be man-made, as no such site exists in natural coronaviruses. He also notes the previously undisclosed conflict of interests that zoologist Peter Daszak has. Daszak was an organizer of the 2020 Lancet letter signed by dozens of top scientists calling the lab leak hypothesis a “conspiracy theory.” However, he did not disclose that his company, the EcoHealth Alliance, has links to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Later that month, The Wall Street Journal released a report alleging that three employees of the Wuhan Institute of Virology came down with flu- or COVID-like symptoms in November 2019 and sought treatment in hospital. Although based solely on anonymous accusations from U.S. officials who refused to go on record, the story went viral and was picked up by a wide range of outlets, including Reuters, The Guardian, Forbes, NBC News, Business Insider, CNN, The New York Post, Yahoo News and The Hill.
Adding some intellectual weight to the theory was a letter published in Science Magazine, in which some 20 academics wrote that further inquiry into the source of the pandemic was necessary (although many, including its chief organizer, were at pains to state elsewhere they were highly skeptical of the lab-leak conspiracy). And after Dr. Anthony Fauci said he was “not convinced” of COVID-19’s natural origin, the Biden administration abruptly changed its position, the President ordering an intelligence-services investigation into the idea, launching the lab leak theory from a discredited fringe idea to an official position with surprising rapidity.
Professor David Robertson — Head of Viral Genomics and Bioinformatics at the University of Glasgow, U.K. — told MintPress:
It’s not very clear, given the lack of new (or any) credible evidence for a lab leak, why it’s been getting so much attention. There was a letter published in Science in May that quite sensibly supports the need for further investigation but this seems to have been hijacked by a vocal minority who are essentially advocates for a lab being involved as opposed to looking at the broader range of possibilities, and what the available evidence points towards.”
In addition to mainstream outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, a host of alternative media figures have lent credibility to Wade, basing their new opinions on his work. On the “Bad Faith” podcast with former Bernie Sanders Press Secretary Briahna Joy Gray, Thomas Frank described Wade’s article as an “incredible piece of journalism,” “quite impressive” and “the likeliest explanation.” Gray appeared to agree, the two having a long conversation about the origins of COVID-19 as if Wade’s thesis has effectively been proven correct. Journalist Michael Tracey wrote that Wade’s words prove the theory is “highly plausible.” Current Affairs Editor-in-Chief Nathan J. Robinson praised Wade’s report, agreeing that it is “at the very least, a spectacular coincidence” that COVID-19 exploded so close to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Meanwhile, Enjeti based a segment called “Media’s Lab Leak Failure Is the Next Iraq WMD” on the Wall Street Journal article, telling viewers that the lab leak theory is now “the most likely explanation for the origin of COVID-19.” Popular writer Matt Taibbi also took The Wall Street Journal’s accusations at face value, claiming that “the toothpaste [is] fully out of the tube: there [is] no longer any way to say the ‘lab origin’ hypothesis [is] too silly to be reported upon.”
A theory resting on shaky ground
What is particularly worrying in all this is that there are huge, gaping flaws in the analysis. First, Wade is not some neutral expert but a discredited, racist pseudoscientist. His 2014 book, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History,” contends that humanity could be broken down genetically into three distinct groups — Africans, Caucasians and East Asians — and that each are sufficiently genetically distinct from each other as to qualify as subspecies. He argued that Caucasians’ genes could explain “the rise of the West” and that African nations are poorer because they are inherently more violent and lazy, writing: “Variations in their nature, such as their time preference, work ethic and propensity to violence, have some bearing on the economic decisions [Africans] make.” Laughably, he later speculates that Asian women have smaller breasts because that is what is “much admired by Asian men.”
Perhaps his most controversial claim, however, is that Jewish people have evolved to be genetically predisposed to hoard money, writing:
From a glance at an Eskimo’s physique, it is easy to recognize an evolutionary process at work that has molded the human form for better survival in an arctic environment. Populations that live at high altitudes, like Tibetans, represent another adaptation to extreme environments; in this case, the changes in blood cell regulation are less visible but have been identified genetically. The adaptation of Jews to capitalism is another such evolutionary process.
The book was universally panned by scientists but was acclaimed by a host of neo-Nazi figures. Former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke, for instance, hailed the work as a “fascinating insight into how Jewish Supremacists attempt to guard the gates of scientific debate.” Of all the many alternative media figures praising Wade’s new revelations about Wuhan, only Robinson mentioned his past. Why a respected organization like The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists published such a person remains a mystery; MintPress asked the Bulletin for clarification but has not received an answer.
Wade’s pseudoscientific claims about the coronavirus furin might have been enough to convince progressive media stars who have no background in the field (as Frank wrote: “I am no expert in epidemics”). But they cannot fool trained scientists, who have hit back.
Virologists Angela L. Rasmussen and Stephen A. Goldstein counter that the furin site of SARS-CoV-2 has odd features that no human would ever design, making it “overwhelmingly likely” that it is natural in origin. Its sequence is suboptimal, meaning that it is relatively inefficient, bearing the hallmarks of “sloppy natural evolution.” “Any skilled virologist hoping to give a virus new properties this way would insert a furin site known to be more efficient,” they conclude.
Furthermore, the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s proximity to the outbreak is not inherently suspicious. Wuhan is a gigantic metropolis, larger than any city in the United States. It is an enormous transport and business hub situated in an area well-known for outbreaks of similar diseases and is, therefore, a natural choice for a research facility such as this. Yet there is a tendency in the West to think of it as some obscure village dominated by a virology lab. There is a myriad of laboratories in Los Angeles conducting not altogether dissimilar research. Yet if an epidemic were to break out there, it is unlikely that a natural origin would be so easily dismissed.
The SARS outbreak of the early 2000s was sparked in the markets of Guangdong, a similar distance from Yunnan as is Wuhan, with few at the time raising any eyebrows. Epidemics and pandemics usually begin in large cities as “pathogens often require heavily populated areas to become established,” one scientific study reminds us.
That is why it is particularly problematic that liberal icons like John Stewart and Stephen Colbert can ridicule the zoonotic transfer hypothesis believed by the vast majority of scientists to be the most likely explanation. “There’s been an outbreak of chocolatey goodness near Hershey, Pennsylvania. What do you think happened?” Stewart joked to an audience of millions. “Maybe it’s the fucking chocolate factory!”
If anything, The Wall Street Journal article is more suspect, given that it is based on nothing but anonymous state officials who refuse to share the evidence or go on the record. National security state operatives are among the least trustworthy sources it is possible to encounter, journalistically speaking, as it is part of their job to plant false information in order to alter public discourse. The only group less deserving of blind faith than natsec officials would be anonymous natsec officials. Yet many of the biggest and most embarrassing media blunders in recent years have been based on dodgy data from shadowy spooks feeding dubious intelligence to credulous dupes in the press.
Without a name to match a quote, a story’s credibility immediately drops, as there are no repercussions for the individual if they are untruthful. Sources (or journalists themselves, for that matter) could simply make up anything they wanted with no consequences. Therefore, using anonymous sources is strongly discouraged. The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics insists reporters “identify sources whenever feasible” and that journalists must “always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity.”
Even worse, The Wall Street Journal article’s lead author is Michael R. Gordon, the reporter infamous for co-authorship of a notorious 2002 New York Times article claiming Saddam Hussein was seeking to build weapons of mass destruction, a piece widely credited as a keystone of the push to invade Iraq the following year. For that article, Gordon also relied upon anonymous state officials. That figures in alternative media are blindly repeating his evidence-free assertions while invoking the Iraq WMD scandal, as Enjeti did, is profoundly ironic.
Gordon’s claim — that three virologists were hospitalized with flu or COVID-like symptoms in late 2019 — has been categorically rejected by Dr. Shi Zhengli, a director at the Institute. Zhengli challenged the U.S. to provide the names of those who got ill, but has received no response. It has also been disputed by the only Western scientist working there at the time. “If people were sick, I assume that I would have been sick — and I wasn’t,” said Dr. Danielle Anderson, who says she is “dumbfounded” by the portrayal of the lab in the West: “What people are saying is just not how it is.”
Josh Cho, a media critic at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, told MintPress that embedded in much of the discussion about the lab leak is a distrust of China and Chinese people, explaining:
There is a largely unchallenged Orientalism or Sinophobia among Western progressives that makes them predisposed to think the Chinese government or Chinese scientists could or would hide evidence for a laboratory origin due to an innate and exceptional penchant for ‘authoritarianism,’ ‘secrecy’ or ‘dishonesty.’ This leads to a presumption of guilt, and an interpretation of every action of the Chinese government as suspicious, when it is most likely what any other government would do in China’s situation.”
Even if the anonymous U.S. intelligence proves to be accurate, it may not be particularly surprising or revealing. The Wuhan Institute of Virology is an enormous institution with hundreds of employees. That three people there might develop flu-like symptoms in November is far from suspicious. Furthermore, the implications of going to hospital in China are completely different from in the U.S. In China, healthcare is nationalized and so a hospital visit is not something an individual avoids at all costs — unlike in the U.S., where it can bankrupt you. Moreover, many general practitioners work from hospitals rather than out of small clinics, meaning that “hospital” could simply translate to “sought basic medical consultation.” Thus, if confirmed, The Wall Street Journal scoop still could be completely mundane.
Cold warriors’ favorite theory
As former MintPress staff writer Alex Rubenstein reported late last month, the lab leak theory has been mainstreamed by hackish, hawkish frauds who, for years, have been pushing for war with China. Among its early adopters was Trump advisor Steve Bannon, who claimed in March 2020 that COVID-19 was a Chinese bioweapon unleashed on the world. While advising Trump, Bannon constantly fear mongered about China and declared he had no doubt that the U.S. would be at war with Beijing within a few years. Then-President Trump, who claims that global warming was a “hoax” invented by China to destroy the U.S., insisted he had evidence the virus began in a Chinese lab but refused to divulge it. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, among the biggest China hawks in Washington, also repeated the conspiracy.
While distinctly unfashionable in 2020, the lab leak idea was kept alive by warmongering neoconservative journalists like Josh Rogin of The Washington Post, who is now a regular guest on progressive media platforms like Krystal Ball and Enjeti’s “Breaking Points.” “You almost have to see it to believe how depraved this is. Indistinguishable from ‘Fox and Friends,’” remarked a dismayed Sam Sacks of Means TV.
These neocon talking points have been laundered into alternative media by those critiquing the establishment, Democratic-aligned press for its complete about-turn on the issue. Appearing on Fox News, Glenn Greenwald praised Rogin and condemned corporate media for their groupthink. “Journalists so often judge things not by what is true or not true but by what is politically beneficial to the partisan audience that they’re serving,” he said, even adding that “maybe Trump was right” about the virus’ origins.
Appearing on “The Jimmy Dore Show,” Taibbi was of a similar mindset, stating:
Originally what happened with this story was that, like everything else in the Trump era, the coverage of COVID was heavily politicized from the very start. The idea of a lab origin for COVID was associated with Trump, Mike Pompeo and Tom Cotton, so it was automatically bad and a conspiracy theory. And that’s really how the press treated it for the better part of a year.”
Dore responded that the media were a bunch of “spineless cowards” who pushed a “false narrative” about the lab leak theory being wrong.
Going unconsidered, apparently, is that the Democrats’ change of heart might not have anything to do with new scientific evidence and more to do with the fact that they now control the reins of power and are cynically using the same tactics Republicans used before them to ramp up hostility towards China.
During the Trump administration, Democrats condemned the treatment of immigrants on the border, raising hell about “concentration camps” and “kids in cages.” Yet, as soon as they found themselves in office, the pretense dropped and they pursued largely the same policies on the border. Speaking in Guatemala, Vice-President Kamala Harris sounded positively Trumpian as she warned those listening “do not come” to the United States. “The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our borders,” she added. Meanwhile, immigrant children are still being detained in cages, except that media have rechristened them “overflow facilities” and the camps have the word “bienvenidos” (Spanish for “welcome”) painted on their roofs. Despite this, no one in alternative media claims that Trump was right all along about the kids in cages.
Going further back, Obama and the Democrats condemned the Bush administration’s endless wars. Yet once in office, Obama expanded them, and was bombing seven countries simultaneously by the end of his tenure.
Stopping China’s economic rise is a bipartisan priority, and the Biden administration has proven to be every bit as committed to increasing aggressive actions towards Beijing as Trump was. None of this is to say that criticizing establishment media’s abrupt change of direction on the lab leak theory is not important or noteworthy. But it is all being done from the assumption that now the media are on the right track, that the global scientific community is not to be trusted, and that Bannon, Cotton and the rest were ahead of the curve. What many in alternative media appear not to have considered is the possibility that now that the Democrats are in office, they are attempting to weaponize the same smears as a way of increasing the pressure on China, with the media following suit.
Ignoring the science
A large majority of the public now believe COVID-19 started in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Last month, more than three times as many Americans told pollster YouGov that the theory was true than said it was false. Some 83% of Americans also support punishing China if the lab leak is proven correct, including by sanctioning it and forcing it to pay reparations to the dead or affected — something that could bankrupt the country almost overnight. This is music to the neocons’ ears, who likely can barely believe that so many progressive, anti-war voices are going along with their theory.
What is striking about the tone and outlook of the media coverage of the lab leak theory is how strongly it jars with the opinion of scientists. As Cho told MintPress:
A lot of the progressive commentators who are now giving more credibility to the lab leak theory because they are persuaded it’s more plausible now than before don’t seem to be aware of the latest scientific developments and arguments [and] that most scientists are making for the case that SARS-CoV-2 developed naturally.”
Professor Robertson was of a similar opinion:
At some point the lab-leak narrative seems to have become a story in its own right and has been written about as if it’s an equivalent possibility to a natural origin for SARS-CoV-2, which is simply not the case. The available evidence supports zoonotic spillover similar to the first SARS-virus.”
In March, a large team of international experts from the World Health Organization traveled to China and concluded that a lab leak was “extremely unlikely.” The leader of the team, Danish scientist Dr. Peter Ben Embarek, said that after visiting Wuhan he is more confident than ever that the idea is false. Yet media reporting on the study came away with exactly the opposite conclusion, sowing discord and doubt. “Theory that COVID came from a Chinese lab takes on new life in wake of WHO report,” ran NPR’s headline.
Writing in Wired, scientist and science communicator Adam Rogers criticized much of the coverage. “The evidence hasn’t changed since spring of 2020. That evidence was always incomplete, and may never be complete. History and science suggest the animal-jump is way more likely than the lab-leak/cover-up,” he wrote, comparing lab leak theorists to evolution deniers and tobacco lobbyists sowing doubt by insisting we “teach the controversy” where there is none.
Dan Samorodnitsky, senior editor of Massive Science and a figure who has a background working in virus research, was even more scathing about the return of the theory. “If the question is ‘are both hypotheses possible?’ the answer is yes…If the question is ‘are they equally likely?’ the answer is absolutely not,” he wrote, explaining:
One hypothesis requires a colossal cover-up and the silent, unswerving, leak-proof compliance of a vast network of scientists, civilians, and government officials for over a year. The other requires only for biology to behave as it always has, for a family of viruses that have done this before to do it again. The zoonotic spillover hypothesis is simple and explains everything. It’s scientific malpractice to pretend that one idea is equally as meritorious as the other.
“I would be embarrassed to stand up in front of a room of scientists, lay out both hypotheses, and then pretend that one isn’t clearly, obviously better than the other,” Samorodnitsky concluded.
Confidence in a natural origin of COVID-19 has actually grown over time, as the virus’s evolutionary trajectory has undermined the idea that it was artificially designed, not that one would guess that from listening to media or to politicians. Meanwhile, as more investigation is done into the earliest patients, it is clear that a majority of them — including two of the first three documented cases — were at the Huanan wet market where a wide range of wild animals that could potentially carry the virus were sold. There are still zero confirmed cases of staff falling ill at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a building over 17 miles away from Huanan market, where data mapping shows that early cases were clustered around.
Earlier this week, The Lancet, which came in for considerable criticism for its previous publication condemning lab leak conspiracy theorists, refused to back down, maintaining that the idea “remain[s] without scientifically validated evidence that directly supports it” (It did however, include a conflict of interests section this time, tacitly accepting that this part of Wade’s criticism was indeed valid). Its authors also directly warned of the danger of scapegoating China. “Recrimination has not, and will not, encourage international cooperation and collaboration,” they wrote. “It is time to turn down the heat of the rhetoric and turn up the light of scientific inquiry if we are to be better prepared to stem the next pandemic, whenever it comes and wherever it begins.”
The coming war on China
The backdrop of the Biden administration’s sudden change of heart to parrot its predecessor is the increased U.S. buildup of hostilities against Beijing. President Joe Biden recently stated that the defining struggle of the 21st century will be that of the U.S. against China. Throughout 2020, the President’s team quietly stated that their entire industrial and foreign policy would revolve around “compet[ing] with China,” with their top priorities being “dealing with authoritarian governments, defending democracy and tackling corruption, as well as understanding how these challenges intersect with new technologies, such as 5G, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and synthetic biology.”
Earlier this year, NATO think tank the Atlantic Council published a 26,000-word report laying out its strategy to suffocate the People’s Republic. It advised Biden to draw a number of red lines around the country, past which the U.S. would directly intervene (presumably militarily). These include Chinese attempts to expand into the South China Sea, an attack on the disputed Senkaku Islands, and moves against Taiwan’s independence. A North Korean strike on any of its neighbors would also necessitate an American response against China, the report insists, because “China must fully own responsibility for the behavior of its North Korean ally.” Any backing down from this stance, the Council states, would result in national “humiliation” for the United States. If this could all be established, it noted, regime change in Beijing could be a distinct possibility. Top military officials like Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster have called for the establishment of an “Asian NATO” to achieve this dream. already there are well over 400 military bases encircling the country.
The U.S. is also conducting military operations in the region, readying itself for a potential war. Last summer, American ships sailed to the Chinese coast, the U.S.S. Rafael Peralta coming to within 41 nautical miles of the coastal megacity Shanghai. Meanwhile, American planes, including nuclear bombers, fly overhead, attempting to gain intelligence on Chinese defenses.
In addition to the military buildup, the U.S. has begun an economic and information war against Beijing, the Trump administration placing sanctions on the country and attempting to halt the expansion of the Belt and Road initiative, block Huawei’s global 5G rollout, and force Chinese-owned social media app TikTok to sell to an American company. At the same time, Twitter, under counsel from a U.S.-funded think tank, decided to delete more than 170,000 Chinese accounts in a single day, the think tank having accused them of spreading pro-China narratives.
The result of the increased hostilities has been the meteoric rise of anti-China sentiment in the U.S., along with a similar spike in anti-Asian hate crimes. The number of Americans seeing China as their number one enemy has more than doubled in 12 months. This is not a partisan issue, according to Pew Research, with a similar increase in “get tough on China” attitudes among Democratic and Republican voters.
It is this context in which the return of the lab leak theory should be seen. Lab leaks do happen. But there is precious little hard evidence that such is the case here. That so many of the nation’s top alternative news figures — individuals who stood against U.S. wars and against similar campaigns, such as RussiaGate — are buying into this one is remarkable. This is especially the case in light of the fact that the evidence is so weak and comes from highly discredited sources, while scientists remain highly skeptical of the theory.
The lab leak hypothesis was first pushed by the far-right and signal boosted by President Trump. In recent weeks, the Democrats have appropriated it wholesale, as they have with several other Republican policies. Corporate media’s newfound interest in the theory has nothing to do with its veracity, as many in alternative spaces have alleged.
The lab leak theory bears a striking resemblance to the weapons of mass destruction hoax of 2002-03, not only in the fact that one of its key players is literally the same journalist using potentially the same anonymous sources, but also in the bipartisan political and media support for the project, all while ignoring the opinions of the scientific community. That so many in alternative media who question war and U.S. intervention not only cannot see that, but are invoking the WMD story to bolster their own side, is extraordinary, and shows how badly the need is to build up a healthy media ecosystem.
Between 2001 and 2003, the public was subjected to a constant barrage of pro-war propaganda. But at least nascent alternative media offered a dissenting voice. Anti-war voices pushing the lab leak theory might one day find it is too late to stop the clock on the dangerous drive towards a second Cold War. If there is any conflict with China, it will make Iraq look like a tea party by comparison. But truth, in war, is always the first casualty.
Feature photo | President Joe Biden visits the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. Evan Vucci | AP
Alan MacLeod is Senior Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent, as well as a number of academic articles. He has also contributed to FAIR.org, The Guardian, Salon, The Grayzone, Jacobin Magazine, and Common Dreams.