If three million people died from an industrial accident, what do you think the popular and press reactions would be?
I ask the question that way because it’s entirely possible that this is what happened with COVID-19 — indeed, it might be the most-likely explanation of the origin of the pandemic. That’s the conclusion that acclaimed science journalist Nicholas Wade came to recently in a detailed post on Medium, where he meticulously examines the Wuhan lab-leak hypothesis, and finds the case for it plausible but unproven, while the case against it, and for a natural origin, is shockingly thin.
Wade is not the first person with impeccable credentials to have come to that conclusion. Nicholson Baker’s exhaustive history of the lab-leak hypothesis in New York Magazine came out back in January, and it leads the reader carefully from a position of skepticism to dawning awareness of just how plausible the hypothesis is. Indeed, you might have seriously entertained the idea much earlier; The Washington Post ran multiple articles in the spring of 2020 about the possibility, highlighting the fact that American officials had concerns about the safety of the Wuhan lab years before the pandemic.
In other words, for over a year, there has been considerable skepticism in well-informed circles about the theory that COVID-19 emerged in the wild and originally spread through the Wuhan wet markets, and suspicion that, in fact, it emerged by accident from a Wuhan lab specializing in coronavirus research. Why, then, does that view still feel like a fringe conspiracy theory? Why has it not been a relentless focus of mainstream reporting from the beginning of the pandemic?
The standard answer is that journalists feared that they might fuel anti-Asian sentiment, which has indeed contributed to a skyrocketing increase in hate crimes. But if that was anyone’s reasoning, it was poorly thought out. The alternative to the lab-leak hypothesis is that the world-disrupting virus emerged because ordinary Chinese people enjoy eating exotic animals. Which is more likely to fuel hate crimes against Asians walking down the street: a story about poor safety at a Chinese lab, or a story about Chinese culinary traditions most Americans are likely to find disgusting?
Perhaps journalists didn’t want to play into a Cold War mentality, nor to give cover to a Trump administration eager to blame China. But if the lab-leak hypothesis is true, it implicates Washington as much as it does Beijing, inasmuch as the research on coronaviruses conducted in Wuhan was substantially funded and supervised by Americans, including by the U.S. government.
Moreover, even if the lab-leak hypothesis is false, the evidence is overwhelming that China’s government denied the seriousness of the outbreak for weeks, silencing Chinese voices that tried to sound the alarm, before the decision to lock down Wuhan made dissembling impossible. By then, though, the pandemic was already well underway. The culpability of the Chinese government is clear, in other words, regardless of the truth about the pandemic’s origins.
Meanwhile, if the story of the pandemic’s origins felt like a distraction when the most urgent question was how to contain and defeat the virus, consider the contrast with how disasters like the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima, or the Bhopal chemical disaster, were and continue to be covered. The importance of how the accidents happened, not only in order to assign blame but in order to prevent recurrence, was obvious from the get-go. Why hasn’t the same been true, consistently, for the origins of COVID-19?
I doubt there’s any one answer, but what my various hypotheses share in common is the suspicion that those covering the story let questions about how the story would be understood get in the way of finding out what the story was. Rather than be driven by the desire to know the truth, and to speak that truth to power (whether that power was in Washington or Wuhan), I fear a brake was applied to serve some ill-defined social interest, even if the only interest was backing the public health authorities that we were all relying on to get us through the pandemic, and who had been quick to affirm the story that the virus was of natural origin.
But that’s public relations, not journalism, and doing public relations is not the way you build trust, either in journalism or in public authorities. Good journalism is driven by fundamentally anti-social forces: skepticism of conventional wisdom, distrust of authority, the determination to ask unpleasant questions and to refuse to accept comforting answers. Those anti-social forces have pro-social effects only if applied universally — not because all authorities are equally deserving of skepticism but because all deserve it to some degree, and playing favorites doesn’t improve public confidence in the favored authority but only diminishes public confidence in professional journalism.
You can see the consequences of the opposite approach in the mainstream media stories that do cover the lab-leak hypothesis. Because the subject matter has been assimilated into America’s culture war Borg, authors need to step gingerly around their audience’s perceptions that only haters and cranks would believe such a thing. That’s a perception that the mainstream media helped create; it’s no surprise they are reluctant to challenge it directly. But it’s their job to do so.
We still need to know what happened in Wuhan because that is the only way pressure can be brought to bear to prevent it from happening again. If you believe nuclear power has an important role to play in fighting climate change (as I do), then you ought to want safety questions investigated as aggressively and thoroughly as possible, so that the public has confidence when a reactor is pronounced safe. If you believe that virology research has an important role to play in improving human health (as I do), then you ought to want the origins of COVID-19 investigated as aggressively and thoroughly as possible, for precisely the same reasons.
The same is true if you hold out any hope of a more cooperative relationship between the U.S. and China, or between the American public and its media.