At present, my main contribution to Lab Leak Discourse is making fun of it. I say this operating on the distinction provided to us by TPM Reader JS a couple weeks ago, noting that Lab Leak Discourse is now entirely autonomous from the actual ongoing research into the origins of COVID-19. Indeed, I noticed yesterday that it has now taken a new turn focusing on public opinion surveys showing that a majority of Americans believe COVID began with a laboratory accident at the virology lab in Wuhan, China. The “wisdom of crowds,” one Lab Leak advocate told me, should be given its own weight along with the judgments of those with domain expertise in virology, genomics and other fields.
In any case, I want to go back to the beginnings here to look at some context for how this all got started. One key event for those who say the original discussion of a lab leak was suppressed was a joint letter published in The Lancet all the way back in February 2020, before COVID had even arrived en masse in the U.S., standing in support of Chinese scientists to “strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” (For more on the never-ending controversy about this letter you can Google the name of one of the signatories, Peter Daszak.) That letter has been a source of controversy ever since and The Lancet later revised the letter with a note that Daszak had worked with the researchers at the Wuhan lab in question.
But there’s another important moment in this drama I want to note.
The wave of lockdown orders that ushered in the COVID pandemic in the U.S. began on March 16th in San Francisco, about a month after the aforementioned letter. While public crises usually drive up public support for political leaders, President Trump’s mix of lies, denial and incompetence quickly created a political disaster for him running parallel to the public health disaster. Less than six weeks after the beginning of the pandemic Trump began hinting and then outright claiming that China was behind the creation of COVID as a way to shift blame away from his disastrous management of the unfolding catastrophe.
On April 30, Trump told reporters he’d seen evidence that convinced him that COVID was the product of a Chinese lab accident, but refused to give specifics: “I can’t tell you that. I’m not allowed to tell you that.”
It was a full court press across the administration. Days later, on May 3, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said there was “enormous evidence” that COVID was the product of a Chinese virology lab.
As Politico explained in a June 2021 article, there were official administration talking points which attempted to push back against Chinese claims that the virus may not have originated in Wuhan at all but may have come from the United States. Those talking points focused on China’s own statements which acknowledged that the pandemic originated in Wuhan. But as Politico noted, one group of administration officials wanted to go “on the diplomatic offensive” with claims that a Chinese lab accident had spawned the disease.
Subsequent reporting from Politico and other sources makes clear the U.S. had no such intelligence. The most the U.S. had seen suggested that a lab leak was possible and couldn’t be ruled out — not any clear probative evidence. Indeed, if you look at reporting at the time — quite understandably — the real state of knowledge is best characterized as one of chaos and uncertainty. It’s difficult to capture, though we all lived through it, how much was uncertain in those early weeks, how much that we thought we knew ended up being wrong. But administration claims of clear evidence for a lab leak origins were clearly bogus and borne of President Trump’s domestic political needs and from hawkish NSC and State Department staffers in an attempt to gain geopolitical advantage.
“I really wasn’t sure exactly what [evidence] they were talking about,” one former senior national security official later told Politico about Trump’s and Pompeo’s comments. Other administration officials worried that in the absence of any positive evidence for a lab leak the White House’s aggressive posture was complicating still critical efforts to gain more cooperation from the Chinese about all aspects of the virus.
There’s no smoking gun that White House officials had showing there wasn’t a lab leak precisely because there was simply no clear evidence either way. Indeed, as the Politico article notes, circumstantial evidence that did lead some administration officials to believe a lab leak was “plausible and even likely” only came after Trump, Pompeo and others were already saying publicly they had damning evidence.
We still simply don’t know how COVID made it to humans. We knew much less three years ago. But the Trump White House, with its megaphone and ability to lean on secret information, was happy to claim otherwise for its own self-interested purposes. This is an important context for understanding how fraught and freighted discussion of this topic would soon become.