Some will find comfort in Wednesday’s news that Joe Biden has ordered the intelligence community to complete a review of COVID-19’s origins in the next 90 days. They should not. While a U.S.-led inquiry is an improvement on the prior approach of farming out the inquiry to the hopelessly compromised World Health Organization, the new Biden effort smacks of damage control. The choice of investigative tools is aimed at controlling what the public learns and how it is framed, rather than at exposing the truth.
The Lab Holds Its Secrets
If the pandemic was the result of human negligence rather than an uncontrollable act of God, it would be the largest accident in human history. As my colleagues have detailed, more than a few people have feared to follow this to its conclusion, because of where it might lead and who might end up having been right. That goes double if the virus itself was created or enhanced by scientists.
To briefly summarize a much longer story: From the outset, there have been two major theories of how the virus entered the population of Wuhan, China, where the pandemic began. Over a year after COVID-19 turned the entire world upside down, both theories remain just that — unproven hypotheses meant to explain the available circumstantial evidence. But the world deserves to know the whole truth, wherever it leads.
One theory is that the virus has a natural origin: It existed in animals and jumped to humans who came in contact with them. The initial official Chinese Communist Party theory of natural origin was that infection began at the Huanan Seafood Market, a “wet market” in Wuhan, where live wild animals (including bats) were sold for food. The wet-market theory has been decisively disproven, given evidence that the virus was circulating in the population of Wuhan before the outbreak that was traced to the wet market; even Chinese authorities have abandoned it. There is, currently, no evidence identifying an alternative, earlier point of natural origin, nor even a commonly accepted theory of one.
The second theory is the “lab leak” hypothesis. The focus of this theory is the fact that the Wuhan Institute of Virology, located in the city where the pandemic erupted, is known to have been conducting experiments with coronaviruses, and doing so with precautions so lax that outside observers became alarmed. The case for a lab accident, and the stonewalling of the Chinese government that has thus far prevented us from nailing it down, is summarized by Jim Geraghty, who has been all over this story for more than a year. In multiple ways (detailed at great length in a must-read essay by respected science writer Nicholas Wade), the available circumstantial and scientific evidence makes the lab-leak hypothesis very simple, while the natural-origin theory is extraordinarily complicated and improbable. Wade also walks through why the supposed “debunkings” of the lab-origin theory in the spring of 2020 should never have been taken as authoritative or impartial.
As with the natural-origin theory, there are multiple possible ways in which COVID-19 could have made it from a lab to the general population. As Jim also notes, Biden’s statement blurs the lines by suggesting that “human contact with an infected animal” would be classified as something other than “a laboratory accident.” But one of the most likely methods of transmission in a lab accident would be contact between lab workers and infected laboratory animals.
If COVID-19 escaped from a lab in Wuhan, that raises an additional question: Was the virus in some sense man-made? Wade makes a persuasive case that it was — perhaps not in the sense of being fabricated by humans, but at least in the sense that “gain of function” research on viruses involves accelerating the natural-selection process by repeatedly exposing laboratory animals to a virus to develop its capabilities, and that SARS CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is adapted to humans in ways not present in any coronavirus found in nature.
The fringier question, which Jim discusses, is whether the Wuhan Institute of Virology is treated as such a sensitive subject by the Chinese government not only because it would be embarrassed if a leak became public knowledge, but also because the lab was tied to Chinese bioweapons research. That question is highly speculative, and one that we’re unlikely to get an answer to any time soon. (Intelligence on foreign WMD programs has been rather notoriously unreliable dating back to the 1940s, and for good reason.) In fact, purposely conflating the lab-leak theory with accusations that the pandemic had been a deliberate Chinese bioweapon attack was at the heart of how the press got the story disastrously wrong last year, mainly by misrepresenting remarks by Tom Cotton and then using “Cotton’s right-wing conspiracy theory has been debunked” as an all-purpose excuse to dismiss any and all lab-leak theories. That effort discouraged journalists such as former New York Times reporter Donald McNeil, who is now much more convinced of the lab-leak hypothesis.
But again, talk of bioweapons is beside the immediate point. The much, much more probable answer is that well-meaning medical research, which may have been tied to funding grants from our own National Institutes of Health, was being conducted at the WIV, and that the virus escaped into the world as a result. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci has now backed off his prior denials on that score, as well as openly entertaining the lab-leak theory more broadly. Eminent scientists have called for investigations. Facebook, always a lagging indicator, has agreed to stop blocking “made in a lab” theories as “fake news.”
The Black Box
As things currently stand, there is a consensus building from the right to the center-left that the plausibility of a lab-leak origin is strong enough to warrant further investigation. But what kind of investigation?
Consider the characteristics of the intelligence probe that Biden is asking for. It does have some advantages: Our intel agencies have access to tools that can probe deeper than any legal process. If they can find a Chinese defector, for example, they might be able to learn things that the Chinese Communist Party very much wants us not to learn. On the other hand, it is hard to picture a U.S. intelligence probe gaining any cooperation from the CCP. (Diplomats might have more success, but that remains a long shot).
And consider the disadvantages. The intelligence business works in rumor and shadow, and does so for what are often very good reasons as it assesses ongoing and future threats. It is not, however, the proper tool for retrospective accountability. All fact-finding will take place out of public view. We may never know who was interviewed or investigated. Testimony may not be taken under oath. Methods may not be disclosed. We will not know how we know, and that should lead us to question what we know.
Look at the key sentence in Biden’s proclamation: “I have now asked the Intelligence Community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion, and to report back to me in 90 days.” There are two key elements here. One is that Biden is asking the intelligence agencies to prepare a report for him, a report that no one but he and those in his inner circle will see. Biden alone will then decide how much, if any, of the report should be made public, and how much should be left undisclosed. In a typical intelligence briefing, that is fine. When a matter of public accountability is at stake, it’s not.
Second, Biden wants “a definitive conclusion” — in other words, a bottom-line, authoritative “consensus” finding, rather than a detailed report of the facts. Presumably, we will then be handed a black box and told what the consensus is, rather than allowed to judge and weigh the evidence for ourselves. But listening to a supposed “consensus” was how we got misled away from the lab-leak theory in the first place. The liberal and media preference for authoritatively pronounced “conclusions” of “reports” by gatekeeping experts is, as I have warned before, a bad habit, and one that only gets worse as the public loses trust in the authority of institutions:
The desire to prioritize official reports with a “bottom line” is understandable, especially in political communications, but too often it obscures rather than clarifies, as it places the conclusions of “experts” – often, themselves, political actors – over facts and evidence. This becomes even more problematic in the case of scientific controversies or legal disputes. If you want an informed take on these kinds of events, you will often need to look beyond the headline.
The point of investigations of events of public importance, whether by a congressional committee or an independent commission, is not to deliver conclusions, but to detail facts and evidence so that free citizens can judge for themselves the strength of the conclusions on offer.
It is not as if we live in an era in which there is strong bipartisan trust in the findings of the U.S. intelligence community. From the Iraq-WMD controversies of the Bush years to Russiagate and the Afghan-bounties story, there is plenty of mistrust to go around. If Biden thinks he can simply unveil a conclusion, have it accepted, and sweep any lingering controversy under the rug, he is more out of touch with the world of 2021 than he already appears.
Where to Look, What to Ask
There is a better way. Congress can hold more hearings, as it has already done with Dr. Fauci. Or it can delegate fact-finding to a commission with subpoena powers. In either event, questioning should be done under oath, carrying penalties for perjury, and questions should be asked by lawyers, not just by bloviating politicians content to paste a question mark at the end of their speeches and ignore the answers.
Questioning scientific experts and researchers who want to obscure the truth beyond a fog of jargon is hard work, but lawyers do this all the time. I’ve deposed experts. You need to be prepared, you need to get the expert to define the terminology early on, and you need your own experts in the room to let you know when you’re being snowed and how to cut through it.
True, a U.S. investigation will not be able to question Chinese personnel or enter the WIV’s lab. But there are figures in the U.S. who clearly had a good deal of knowledge of what was going on in the WIV, and they should be put on the record under hostile questioning. Chief among those is Dr. Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance, who plainly knows more than he is telling and who was an early ringleader of efforts to preempt investigation into the lab-leak hypothesis. Another, Dr. Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina, might be expected to be more cooperative than Daszak: He’s a respected virologist who signed the recent open letter to Science magazine calling for an investigation. While U.S.-based scientists may not be able to give direct evidence of any lab accidents in Wuhan, they could shed more light on exactly what research on coronaviruses was being done there in the first place.
Lessons to Learn
A thorough, public probe of the WIV and any American role in helping fund its research is warranted whether or not a lab leak was the origin of the pandemic. If it was, then “gain of function” research clearly poses a grave risk of touching off another viral pandemic in the future, and we should ask ourselves what benefit could possibly outweigh that risk. As Wade rather pointedly notes, all the gain-of-function research in the world was useless in fighting the pandemic once it actually broke out.
There are two obvious lessons we might yet learn from all this. One is that we should not be trusting such potentially explosive research to China or other hostile, authoritarian nations resistant to transparency. A second is that any such research in the future ought to be conducted far from populated areas. It was the height of insanity to locate a facility studying extremely contagious diseases in the center of a city of 8 million people. Virologists may not like having to move to Antarctica or St. Helena or some other remote outpost to do this kind of research, but if it is to continue at all, that may be necessary.
But if we want to draw out and debate those and other lessons, we first need to establish the facts. Just asking us to trust that Joe Biden will fully and truthfully report the intelligence community’s findings to the world is not going to cut it.