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I don’t know who’s right or wrong. But I am as sure as I ever have been that this site’s greatest resource is its rich store of incredibly knowledgable readers. From TPM Reader PL …
Now that the lab leak theory has been back in the news, the fact that one of the first identified clusters was at a Wuhan wholesale food market is being discussed again. This happens to be an area where I have some understanding, and I’ve been frustrated with the degree to which everyone is reading things into it without context. Lab leak enthusiasts suggest that because it popped up in the same city as a virus lab it is evidence for the leak, whereas other people just used it to focus on racist “Chinese people eating weird things” stories. But the more likely explanation strikes me as a lot less interesting.
When I was in grad school I spent two years doing field research on design and business strategy in Chinese businesses. As part of this I researched China’s wholesale market system, and, as fate would have it, did ethnographic research on consumer electronics wholesale markets in and around Wuhan as well as other sites across China.
From TPM Reader JF …
As someone who has lived in Hong Kong for 15 years and what passes here for a passing familiarity with Chinese politics (but would probably be a more than passing familiarity for the average American), I agree with you about COVID and the PRC secrecy culture. It’s especially strong around things that make China look bad, and the instinct to censor and clamp down has only gotten stronger since Xi consolidated power. His shift from a term-limited supremo to a for-life supremo is underappreciated in the US, where I think most people just see a the same generic dictatorship, but it was a major change. The Chinese leaders Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin served two five-year terms, in and out, and then retired after a decade (both are still alive).
The last supremos to wield power until at or near death were Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. By the time of Deng’s departure, China had moved to a system where, power was negotiated among the party elite. There was rotation at the top, governed by the incumbent leader, other politburo members, aspiring leaders, etc, and there were constitutional term limits (of course the PRC constitution can be changed, and was to allow Xi to stay on). All this constrained Hu and Jiang. They made all the real decisions, but their decisions could be overridden by the next guy, who everyone understood would be in power eventually.
From TPM Reader MN …
First of all, for credibility’s sake, I am a computational biology postdoc at [*******]. I’ve done some research on the SARS-CoV-2 genome but it hasn’t been my main focus the way it has for many people. Nonetheless, I’m acquainted with at least the discussion of genomic mutations and evolution, although the nitty gritty web lab virology is not my area.
From TPM Reader JB …
For what it’s worth, I think most of the discussion in the US political world about the origins of COVID-19 has been about ephemera, driven by Republicans flopping around like fish in a boat as they try to devise a winning post-Trump (but Trump-friendly) political issue and media people fretting about whether media coverage is giving adequate weight to the things Republicans claim to be upset about today.
From TPM Reader AJ …
While in general I agree with your take on the Lab Leak hypothesis, I would point out that the evidence is not as balanced as you suggest.
There are strong empirical suggestions that this is a natural event – specifically to do with genetic structure and the distribution of initial cases.
From TPM Reader MT …
I have been following your conversations on the lab leak theory for Covid, and how the perception has changed in the near absence of the facts changing. I am a biomedical scientist (soon to be retired!) and my reaction to the lab leak possibility when I first heard about it early during the pandemic was to dismiss it out of hand. But I quickly changed my mind when I realized what the Wuhan labs had been doing with bat viruses and that the Chinese government was, at best, not being forthcoming with information.
From TPM Reader HC …
I’ve been reading your posts on the lab leak, and while I agree with your assessment that the “media failure” has been overblown, I think you overstate a few things yourself and perhaps aren’t comparing the lab leak and natural spillover theories on an equal basis. Couple points:
1. You say several times that there is “no evidence” for the leak theory. That’s true, at least in public. But the Chinese government has sealed all the records of the lab in question! So there’s kind of a situation where we know that any evidence that would be there isn’t available to us. It also raises suspicion, rightly or wrongly.
Probably unwisely, I have waded back into the ‘media got it wrong about a lab leak’ debate with my friends Matt Yglesias and and Jon Chait. They’re not the worst on this. But as is often the case in life you’re most ticked by people you think should know better but apparently don’t. As I’ve noted, it’s a complicated question because the informed consensus has shifted a bit. Just not that much. The best informed discussion of the state of play is here.
To the extent there’s a problem with the media coverage on this topic from last year it’s that some commentators went from saying this was a claim with zero evidence, that actual experts didn’t agree with it, that it was very unlikely to calling it a ‘conspiracy theory’ which had been ‘debunked’. These aren’t the same things. But they aren’t terribly far apart either. That is especially so when the people making the claims have a history of being chronic liars.
Still, they’re not precisely the same.
There’s a great trend piece to be written on how most of the big wig journalism organizations got bamboozled into thinking it’s more or less certain that COVID originated in a lab in Wuhan, China. Here’s yet another example from The Washington Post, emphasizing how it’s essentially a media story about how journalists too quickly dismissed the wild claims of Donald Trump and Tom Cotton which included no evidence and transparently political motivation.
Are you having trouble keeping up on the press discussion of a ‘lab leak’ theory of the origins of COVID? Here are a few pointers.
Broadly speaking, there’s seldom been an example of a more rapid shift in public opinion or rather elite conventional wisdom in the face of so little changing evidence. A bunch of right wing or right-adjacent columnists are running around high-fiving each other and patting themselves on the back about how “the media” got it wrong.
On balance, this isn’t true. What happened is that from the outset China-hawks who were largely out to defend Donald Trump made a series of baseless accusations about COVID either being a bioweapon or the accidental release of a Chinese biological warfare weapon. When that got shot down (there’s strong genomic evidence against this), they retreated to a more conventional lab accident as their pet theory. The best one can say is that most journalists became reflexively skeptical to all such claims since they were mainly coming from people who are professional liars with obvious axes to grind.
In December 2019, the British Labour Party suffered its worst defeat since 1935. Last Thursday, with a spate of local races and a parliamentary bye-election as the result of a resignation, Labour under its new leader Keir Starmer had a chance to redeem itself. But Labour lost the bye-election in Hartlepool decisively and seems to have been drubbed in local elections outside of London and university towns. These sorry results suggest that Labour may in for a long-term decline similar to that which it endured after Margaret Thatcher and the Tories’ victory in 1979.