After more than a year of the media holding it in utter disesteem, the theory that COVID-19 came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China has been picking up steam.
WASHINGTON (Substack // Alex Rubinstein) — Now that the dust has settled, Donald Trump is no longer president, and the United States has demonstrably handled the virus poorly, a need for a new scapegoat has arisen, and China is the perfect pretend culprit.
This narratives’ power has the potential to ignite major conflict between the world’s greatest two powers. Comparisons to Iraq’s non-existent WMDs have been made by both critics and promoters of the lab leak theory.
With this theory’s power it is understandable that it was less popular under Trump for many, as the liberal elite of the United States saw him as an unqualified steward of their empire.
As the US begins to recover from this economic and health calamity, its desire for retrospection increases. But rather than focus on the failure of US authorities, which have overseen more than 600,000 deaths from coronavirus, nearly 130 times greater than deaths in China despite its smaller population, the US government and foreign policy hawks are seeking to use the origin of the virus as yet another cudgel against China in the New Cold War.
Thus the re-emergence of a not-so-novel narrative despite the non-emergence of new tangible evidence. ‘China is what killed many good American men and women.’
While we are no longer in the War on Terror era, we are in another WMD scenario. It’s an even more potentially powerful narrative because the lab leak theory fits nicely into the new foreign policy doctrine of the United States: Great Power Competition.
These unique factors have primed the public to seek better answers to questions about what led to mass housing uncertainty, widespread unemployment, the collapse of small business, and the death of education for more than a year. But their Virgil in this hellscape is feeding them fake tales of Boogeymen.
There are two main variants of the lab leak theory, one in which China’s incompetence is to blame and another in which it’s China’s malfeasance.
The first strain of thought is that the virus was unleashed on the world following an accidental leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and the second that it was a deliberately discharged bioweapon from the villainous Chinese Communist Party. Whether the virus was accidentally leaked and there was a coverup, or whether it was made by man and unleashed on purpose, the message of the lab leak theory is clear: China is the bad guy.
Theoretically speaking, if Covid-19 was a genetically engineered bioweapon, it is not a very effective one, with a mortality rate in the single digit range.
Scientifically speaking, it’s not appropriate to completely discount any potential origin theory.
But this is not a scientific debate: it’s an information war being fought between two superpowers, and many of the main promoters of the Wuhan lab leak theory have well documented records of pushing disinformation that benefits the US government’s agenda.
And so a supposedly scientific debate is, in essence, not a scientific debate but a theory alleging a conspiracy (I believe there is a term for this) that is being weaponized against a strategic foe of the United States. It would therefore serve the American public to be critical of the motives driving coverage of the lab leak theory or risk being dragged further into confrontation.
Origins of the lab leak theory
It did not take long for the “lab leak theory” to get mainstream attention, even if dismissive in the beginning.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former President Donald Trump, and Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), who even prior to any confirmed cases of the coronavirus was branding China an “evil empire,” were the first politicians to promote the idea. Cotton first raised the lab leak theory with an allusion at a Senate Armed Services Committee on January 30, 2020: “Wuhan has China’s only biosafety level-four super laboratory that works with the world’s most deadly pathogens to include, yes, coronavirus,” he said. Cotton has since called for “economic war” on China.
Less than a month prior, the first accusation that the virus was created by China had appeared on the internet, according to the Washington Post. A British Hong Konger who calls for Hong Kong independence and labels the mainland government Nazis tweeted that the “evil regime strikes again.”
The first US publication to report on the lab leak theory was the Washington Times, a right-wing paper founded by the South Korean Unification Church, an anti-communist cult. To underscore the significance of the Wuhan lab, the Washington Times noted that Radio Free Asia had the week prior re-broadcast a report declaring the Wuhan lab the only lab in China capable of working with deadly viruses. Radio Free Asia was created by the CIA.
Josh Rogin, a self-poclaimed neoliberal who has called for the assassination of foreign leaders, through his column at the Washington Post, spills most of his ink attacking foreign governments that are considered enemies of the US and has consistently pushed the lab leak theory for the paper.
Rogin ignited a media firestorm from both liberals and conservatives alike when he reported on documents seemingly selectively leaked to him by US authorities which said there was a staff shortage at the Wuhan lab. Critically, the diplomatic cables did not suggest the lab’s research on bat coronaviruses posed any threat. Nonetheless Rogin ran with the headline “State Department cables warned of safety issues at Wuhan lab studying bat coronaviruses.” At The Grayzone, Max Blumenthal has chronicled Rogin’s history of relying on intelligence sources, some of which have proven completely false.
At the Wall Street Journal, the theory has been pushed by Michael R. Gordon, who relied solely on “US intelligence reports” and anonymous current and former intelligence officials for an article claiming workers at the lab grew sick in November 2019. By allowing them to remain anonymous, intelligence officials are given free space from journalists to launder propaganda through the press without fear of repercussion should their narratives prove false. China’s top coronavirus scientist at the lab has also disputed this claim.
Previously, Gordon co-bylined the infamous New York Times article with Judith Miller in 2002 that claimed Saddam Hussein was seeking materials to build weapons of mass destruction, an article widely credited for lying the American public into war with Iraq. That article also relied heavily on intelligence sources.
Meanwhile, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has also made some waves pushing the lab leak theory through science writer Nicholas Wade, who has authored a book promoting racist eugenics entitled “A Troublesome Inheritance.” Through this article and on his Medium blog, Wade has near single-handedly popularized the “gain of function” narrative which amounts to the singular scientific claim underpinning the lab leak theory, despite it being disputed whether the grant to the Wuhan lab in question actually funded such research.
These key nodes in the information pipeline pushed by writers with dubious agendas have propelled the lab leak theory from being considered a fever dream of the far right to being dubbed “credible” by legacy newspapers in advertisements they are paying to promote.
Now, a whopping 58 percent of Americans believe the virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and as the theory continues to rack up new endorsements from mainstream voices, it’s likely that number will only grow.
Demonstrating the viral potential among a public keen on revenge over the catastrophic virus, liberal paragon and eponymous former host of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart threw his weight behind the lab leak theory, calling the virus “more than likely caused by science” in an interview with his former sidekick Stephen Colbert on his nightly news show. That clip now has more than 5 and a half million views.
“There’s been an outbreak of chocolate-y goodness near Hershey, Pennsylvania. What do you think happened?” Stewart quipped. “Maybe it’s the f–king chocolate factory!”
The clip began with Stewart praising scientists but quickly devolved into a mockery of science when Stewart made an absurd summary of natural origin theories: “Maybe a bat flew into the cloaca of a turkey and then it sneezed into my chili.”
Ignoring Scientific Basics
Most deadly viruses in human history have affected humans through animal transmission: the bubonic plague, the 1918 influenza epidemic, swine flu in 2009, ebola, HIV, the list goes on.
Stewart, like the overwhelming majority of media figures, also ignored evidence that the virus did not even come from Wuhan, even if the city was the site of the first epidemic in December 2019.
Studies by the medical journal The Lancet, and another by the World Health Organization, say that the first onset of symptoms of Covid-19 occurred in early December 2019. Studies conducted in March 2020, May 2020, September 2020, and more recently March 2021 estimate that the virus was first born in either October or November of 2019. Remember that Michael Gordon’s smoking gun is sick Wuhan lab staff in November that year.
Had the virus come from the Wuhan Institute, this timeline is tough to reconcile with a study from Italy which showed the virus was circulating there in September 2019, findings of the virus in human sewage in Brazil in November 2019, and antibodies in American citizens that indicate the virus was spreading in the United States in December 2019. The first known case of coronavirus was discovered on December 8 in Wuhan.
Even more at odds with the lab leak theory is the finding of Covid-19 traces in sewage samples from March 2019 in Spain — well before when the virus is alleged to have emerged in China.
Meanwhile, the closest virus to COVID-19 that was studied at the Wuhan Institute shares only 96% of its genome with the pandemic virus. To put that in perspective, humans and chimpanzees share 98.8% of their DNA. Maybe our genome is more complex than the virus’ but small percentage points matter a lot.
While most have chosen to ignore this conflicting data, some have not fully endorsed the lab leak theory, opting instead to push a line that they are just asking questions, and that all options should be explored. If that’s the case, there are other origin theories which are being conveniently ignored.
The Double Standard of the Debate
Lab leak theory promoters point to the reports by Josh Rogin and Michael Gordon which relied on US intelligence that claims that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology went to the hospital in November 2019 with flu-like symptoms, and that US diplomats who visited the lab in 2018 warned of “inadequate safety at the lab.”
These are the main pillars of the lab leak theory, so it’s ironic that they are more or less present in the under-discussed theory that it may have come from the United States, which some Chinese officials have suggested.
The US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Maryland was forcibly shut down in August 2019 due to “safety concerns.” This is the same location where the US based its bioweapons program until the famously honest president Richard Nixon stood in front of it in 1969 to promise the United States would never engage in biological warfare. It’s also where the Ames strain of anthrax, which is the strain that caused the anthrax scare in 2001, was first studied.
In July of 2019, a retirement community less than an hour away experienced what local media called a “mysterious” respiratory virus that infected 63 people and killed three.’
Meanwhile, the Wuhan Military Games in October 2019 drew military athletes from 140 countries, including the United States. Fort Detrick leak theorists suggest that the virus may have entered Wuhan that way.
As we can see, the pillars of the Wuhan lab leak theory are also present in the Fort Detrick theory, yet it has been totally ignored by mainstream writers and the US government.
The White House has told media that there are “no credible reasons to investigate” the Fort Detrick origin theory, yet it has tasked the intelligence community with investigating the Wuhan lab leak theory – not the National Institutes of Health, not the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, not the World Health Organization, which has already investigated and called the lab leak theory “extremely unlikely.”
So was it China or the US that is responsible for the coronavirus? Personally, I think the answer is neither, but if I had to pick one, it would be the country that was using biological warfare with smallpox-infected blankets before it even became a country, and which has a pretty dark history of testing bioweapons on non-military populations.
This theory may make the United States government look comically villainous to some, and it may be flawed, but it is worth remembering how the White House under George W. Bush claimed “Iraq is seeking to purchase chemical weapons agent precursors and applicable production equipment, and is making an effort to hide activities at the Fallujah plant, which was one of Iraq’s chemical weapons production facilities before the Gulf War,” only to then invade the country and deploy white phosphorous, a chemical weapon, over the city of Fallujah.
But as the lab leak theory reaches a fever pitch, scientists are increasingly warning that such talk is getting in the way of international cooperation on the response to the pandemic and inciting racial hatred towards Asian-Americans.
During the first Cold War the KGB promoted the idea that HIV was created at Fort Detrick. They did this because it was an effective part of a hybrid warfare against the US It’s for this same reason that the US government and its obedient press are promoting the lab leak theory.
Information warfare may not be a new phenomenon but as the US public grows more wary of conventional warfare, it is playing an ever-more-present role in international relations. If we are to avoid senseless confrontation that can only benefit the ruling elite, it is imperative that we be critical of the shady cast of characters hyping up unproven allegations against other world powers regardless of how sexy the headlines may be.
Feature photo | Credit | Alex Rubinstein
Alex Rubinstein is an independent reporter on Substack. You can subscribe to get free articles from him delivered to your inbox here, and if you want to support his journalism, which is never put behind a paywall, you can give a one-time donation to him through PayPal here or sustain his reporting through Patreon here.
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