The Politicized Virus
To most on the political left, the spectacle of Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan demanding the truth about any subject is galling. The right-wing politician voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election, called a 10-year-old rape victim seeking an abortion a liar, mocked the use of face masks while hiding his own COVID-19 diagnosis, and has been accused of falsely denying knowledge of a sexual abuse scandal in the Ohio State University wrestling program.
But like it or not, Jordan is one of the leading voices in Congress calling for a full investigation into the origins of a pandemic that has killed more than a million Americans and at least 6.5 million people worldwide (the actual toll could be three times higher.) And with Republicans taking over the House of Representatives on January 3, there will be little to stop him and like-minded legislators. Already, on December 14, Jordan issued a demand for documents and testimony on COVID-19 origins, including details about U.S. taxpayer funds granted to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV.) Many Americans — and not a few scientists — suspect the Wuhan Institute might have been the true source of the pandemic, perhaps when a genetically modified virus leaked from its laboratories.
Those on the witness list include Anthony Fauci, retiring director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), with whom Jordan and other Republican members of Congress — including, notably, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky — have clashed repeatedly over COVID-19 origins and pandemic mitigation policies. Many Republicans accuse Fauci and NIAID (a branch of the National Institutes of Health, NIH) of having funded the research they suspect led to the creation of the COVID-19 virus.
The so-called “lab origins” or “lab leak” hypothesis for COVID-19 origins is one of two primary competing scenarios that scientists consider plausible. The other is the “natural origins” or “zoonotic transmission” hypothesis, which holds that the pandemic — caused by the virus called SARS-CoV-2 — began when the virus jumped from exotic wild animals on sale at the Huanan “seafood” market in Wuhan to humans selling the animals or shopping there. Despite repeated declarations from some scientists that there is a “consensus” around the natural origins hypothesis, other researchers insist that there is too little evidence to know one way or the other.
Indeed, just before Christmas, World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu supported that neutral stance in a statement looking back at the health challenges of 2022, noting that “all hypotheses about the origins of this pandemic remain on the table.”
Even Fauci, who in the past has strongly supported the natural origins hypothesis, now concedes that we just don’t know. “I have a completely open mind about that, despite people saying that I don’t,” Fauci said on “Meet the Press” in November. While some may find that statement disingenuous, Fauci’s new found agnosticism on COVID origins will likely make it more difficult to oppose a Congressional investigation. According to a recent Rasmussen Reports poll, some 68% of likely U.S. voters think the virus originated in a laboratory in China. Even correcting for Rasmussen’s well-known conservative bias, it seems clear that a significant percentage of Americans favor the lab origins hypothesis.
Where the debate over COVID origins will go next remains to be seen, although the coming year promises to be eventful. One thing, however, is clear: The politicization of the origins debate has greatly hurt the search for the truth, even though most everyone involved agrees that knowing the origins of this pandemic can help prevent the next one. If COVID-19 was caused by a lab-leak or other lab accident, those who have argued for stricter biosafety regulations — including an end to so-called “gain-of-function research” that can make human pathogens even more dangerous — will have new arguments for making research safer. And if the virus jumped to humans from wild animals sold at a market, it will be more clear that the wildlife trade — which many scientists and journalists have warned about for decades — must be brought under control, not only by China but many other countries as well. Simply put, humanity cannot afford another pandemic, nor can it afford not to understand how the current one came about.
So how did what should have been a strictly scientific question become so tangled in politics?
Certainly, a critical early factor in the politicization was Donald Trump’s deliberate attempts to stir up racism against the Chinese and other Asians as a way of deflecting from his failures as it began to ravage the United States, leading to a death toll higher than that of any other country. But Trump was not the first politician to point the finger at China. In reality, there is plenty of blame to go around among politicians of both parties, scientists and the media, including science journalists.
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The first official case of COVID-19 was reported by China on Dec. 31, 2019, and the first U.S. case appeared on or about Jan. 18, 2020. Even by Jan. 5, accusations that China somehow created the virus began to circulate on social media. Two key articles — one in the Daily Mail on Jan. 23 and another in The Washington Times on Jan. 26 — amplified those accusations, particularly among right-wing readers. (A good timeline of events has been published by The Washington Post.) Trump acolyte Steve Bannon featured the author of The Washington Times story, veteran reporter Bill Gertz, on his “War Room” podcast; and by Jan. 30, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas famously began pointing the finger at a Chinese lab as well. Cotton would make similar statements repeatedly over the following weeks, although he quickly walked back suggestions that the virus stemmed from bioweapons research in China, insisting that he was simply asking questions and that a lab leak could also have been possible.
Meanwhile, journalists quickly condemned the lab origins hypothesis as a “conspiracy theory,” although some outlets later changed that to “fringe theory” — a phrase supposedly less definitively negative — in their coverage of the issue and Cotton’s statements in particular. Over a period of two days in Feb. 2020, The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN carried very similar headlines along those lines; a Feb. 18 CNN story, by former Editor-at-Large Chris Cillizza, was headlined “Tom Cotton is playing a dangerous game with his coronavirus speculation.” The message was clear: The lab origins hypothesis was toxic, not to be discussed in polite company.
Then the scientists, or at least some of them, weighed in, to great effect. On Feb. 19, a group of 27 scientists published a letter in the British medical journal The Lancet. They expressed solidarity with scientists and public health workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in China, and condemned all suggestions that the virus had anything other than a natural, zoonotic origin.
“The rapid, open and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins,” the group wrote. “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.”
It would later turn out, as revealed in emails uncovered by journalists using Freedom of Information Act requests, that the Lancet letter was instigated and organized by one man: Peter Daszak, president of the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, which funneled NIH funds to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for research that included genetic engineering of so-called SARS-like viruses. Yet Daszak, who the emails show explicitly sought to hide his involvement — along with other signers of the letter, some of whom had close connections with this viral research — declared no conflicts of interest; it would take more than a year before The Lancet published the truth about these conflicts. Similarly, it would turn out that a seminal paper published the following month in Nature Medicine was authored by a group of scientists who had consulted closely with Fauci, former NIH head Francis Collins and former Wellcome Trust chief Jeremy Farrar; many of these authors had changed their views from leaning lab origin to definitively ruling it out over just a few days. (It’s important to credit the activist group U.S. Right to Know, The Intercept, the dissident scientist group DRASTIC and other independent investigators who uncovered emails and other documents most mainstream media never sought.)
Some think that the politicization of the pandemic origins question by Daszak and others — including Fauci, who, FOIA emails show, found out quickly that his own NIAID had funded research at the Wuhan Institute — represented a sort of personal politics, designed in part to mask their indirect responsibility for a possible lab accident or other event that may have led to the pandemic. But the use of the term “conspiracy theory” took on a much larger life among scientists, politicians and the media. As often happens, the epithet was used to deflect attention from the fact that there may well have been a conspiracy to cover up the origins of the virus.
In her new book, “They Knew: How a Culture of Conspiracy Keeps American Complacent,” the journalist Sarah Kendzior argues that “the sneering dismissal of conspiracy theories in favor of uncritical acceptance of institutionalist narratives is aimed at protecting the powerful, bolstering the reputation of the disdainful as a ‘rational actor,’ and…directing people away from the search for accurate information.”
No one did more to bolster the characterization of the lab origins hypothesis as a conspiracy theory than the country’s conspiracist-in-chief, Donald Trump. In early March, faced with an epidemic that was clearly out of control in the United States — one that Trump had called a Democratic Party “hoax” in late February — Trump associates began using explicitly racist terms to describe the virus. On March 7, 2020, appearing on “Fox and Friends” and CNBC, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to it as the “Chinese virus,” and the following day, far-right Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar called it the “Wuhan virus” in a tweet.
These politicians knew that, the previous month, WHO had called for an end to the use of “stigmatizing” terminology for the pandemic, and named the disease COVID-19 to avoid blaming any particular country or people. On March 13, after several months of alternating between blaming China and praising its leaders for their handling of the pandemic, Donald Trump finally joined the racist chorus, referring to the “China virus” in a public statement. Over the following months, Trump would intensify his use of such stigmatizing language, including the particularly offensive term “Kung flu,” despite calls for him to stop and open opposition by former Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway to the use of the smear.
A number of research groups have studied Trump’s use of such terms, including “Kung flu.” One such study, reported by Germany-based communications researcher Robin Kurilla in Frontiers in Communication, found that between March 13 and Sept. 15, 2020, Trump used the terms “China flu,” “China plague,” “China virus,” “Chinese plague,” “Chinese flu,” “Chinese virus,” “Wuhan virus” and “Kung flu” in public a total of 319 times in speeches, rallies, presidential events, interviews, press conferences, tweets and retweets. Other studies have found that, as might be expected, Trump’s use of these terms led directly to an increase in anti-Asian bias among some Americans. Researchers found that anti-Asian tweets followed a spatial distribution in the United States, with identifiable clusters. For example, Ross County in Ohio logged a proportion of hateful tweets more than 300 times higher than the national average. (The researchers did not speculate on why that county, which leans heavily Republican but sometimes elects Democratic Party officials, should have been an epicenter of anti-Asian hate, although it is only a couple of counties over from Jim Jordan’s own Ohio district.)
During the same time period, as has been recorded by the group Stop AAPI Hate, the incidence of harassment and actual assaults — including murder — of Asians increased dramatically. While it can be difficult to attribute any particular act of hate to what might have triggered it, experts have little doubt that there is a close connection.
In fostering and encouraging racism against the Chinese people and Asians more generally, Trump and his associates helped to harden the positions of those scientists and journalists who — either based on their evaluations of the evidence, their own political biases, or both — continue to consider the lab origins hypothesis a fringe “conspiracy theory,” motivated at least in part by racism. This has been a notable pattern among many of the U.S.’s leading science journalists, especially at The New York Times, but also at science journals with news departments, like Science and Nature. For example, Times star science reporter Carl Zimmer is on record as calling the lab origins hypothesis “dangerous,” and in May 2021 Times COVID reporter Apoorva Mandavilli tweeted that the theory had “racist roots,” although she quickly deleted that tweet after fellow Times journalists reportedly objected. (Disclosure: Both Zimmer and Mandavilli are former colleagues of mine.)
Although Mandavilli does not cover COVID origins, Zimmer has continued to do so. Likewise, Nature reporter Amy Maxmen has taken a strong anti-lab origin position on Twitter, and in the journal’s pages has warned that the hypothesis is damaging to the West’s relations with China. The New Republic and The Guardian, both left-leaning publications, have also published numerous articles dismissing the lab origins idea. That makes The Intercept, which has broken a number of stories about documents showing collaboration on virus genetic engineering studies between Western scientists and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, an exception among left-leaning publications to actually report on possible evidence for a lab origin.
Sometimes this apparent bias in reporting leads the mainstream media into ignoring important stories. For example, the decision in Aug. 2022 by the NIH to cut funding for the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which had received around $600,000 from a sub-grant from EcoHealth Alliance, was not reported in the Times, the Post or most other legacy media. But as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and other “alternative” media reported, NIH made that decision because the WIV refused to turn over records of what it had done with the NIH money, despite repeated requests from the agency over at least a year. That means that neither Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance, Anthony Fauci of NIAID/NIH, nor anyone else outside China can state with any confidence whatsoever whether the Wuhan Institute was doing genetic engineering that could have led to the development of the pandemic virus. What we do know, however, is that they were doing genetic engineering and creating chimeric viruses. Why? Because they published some of that work in the scientific literature, a number of times.
Fortunately, since last year there have been increasing signs that the media, and a growing number of scientists, are beginning to take a more even-handed view of the origins debate, given the lack of solid evidence on either side of it. One remarkable development came just last November, when The Washington Post editorial board published an opinion piece asking “What is China hiding?” The piece featured a study by data scientist Gilles Demaneuf — a prominent lab origins proponent — that found serious deficiencies in data used by two studies published in Science last summer. Those papers had been widely touted as supporting the hypothesis that COVID-19 arose in a market in Wuhan. (An additional six studies taking issue with various aspects of the Science papers have been posted online as “preprints” and are in various stages of submission at scientific journals.)
Despite the best efforts of some actors in the debate to declare it over, three years after the pandemic arose and changed all our lives, we may finally be getting down to seriously investigating how it started. The Rasmussen Reports poll cited above also found that most Americans support just such an investigation, and endorse Congress carrying it out.
Democrats and scientists are faced with a choice: Either cooperate with a bipartisan inquiry into COVID origins, with hopes of blunting the excessive rhetoric of Jim Jordan and other demagogues, or circle the wagons and make defending Fauci and the scientists he funded the main goal.
In the Senate, there are already signs that Democrats understand the importance of a bipartisan approach. Senators Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, and Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, have been jointly pushing for a 9/11 style bipartisan commission; and the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which Murray chairs and on which Burr is the ranking member, is itself currently engaged in a long-running investigation of COVID origins.
Some say we may never know the true origins of this killer pandemic. At the very least, we can and should prevent that worry from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.Wait, before you go…
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