The Morning Jolt

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‘Conspiracy Theories’ and China’s Full-Court Press in American Media

People wear masks at the Nanjing Pedestrian Road, a main shopping area,, in Shanghai, China, January 24, 2020. (Aly Song/Reuters)

On the menu today: a deep dive into how American media are falling over itself to cheer China’s “success” against the virus, faulty materials sent from China are harming our personnel, and thoughts on Joe Biden’s TV appearance this morning.

Stop Praising China’s “Methods” 

The Washington Post offers a top-of-the-web-page “Fact Checker” column with the headline: “Chinese lab conducted extensive research on deadly bat viruses, but there is no evidence of accidental release” and much to my surprise . . . I don’t have a lot to complain about. Give the Post credit — they’re much more evenhanded than NPR was. In my coverage, I have tried to emphasize that all we have is circumstantial evidence — although it is a stack of circumstantial evidence that is starting to pile up.

A lot of media institutions cite a quote from a virologist expressing skepticism of the theory, or touting the professionalism of Chinese scientists, and more or less conclude, “case closed.” I think the only way this will be definitively ruled out is if some biologist can determine, beyond any conceivable doubt, that SARS-CoV-2 had to pass through a pangolin before jumping into humans. We know other untreatable SARS-like viruses can jump directly to humans, thanks to research by the University of North Carolina in partnership with (ahem) the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The Post fact-checkers acknowledge that the honest answer to questions about the origins of this virus are “we don’t know,” and thus the lab-accident theory can’t be ruled out — even if one thinks that Chinese virologists are among the best and most diligent in the world:

Records of accidents in U.S. labs reveal multiple inadvertent infections and exposures to lethal microbes, including the pathogens linked to anthrax, Ebola and the plague. While no comparable records are available for Chinese labs, a Chinese scientific paper last year described widespread systemic deficiencies with training and monitoring of high-security laboratories where disease-causing pathogens are studied.

“Maintenance cost is generally neglected; several high-level BSLs [biological safety level labs] have insufficient operating funds for routine, yet vital processes,” said the paper by Yuan Zhiming, a chief scientist at Wuhan, published in the Journal of Biosafety and Biosecurity. Most laboratories “lack specialized biosafety managers and engineers,” he wrote.

While the source of the outbreak ultimately may be unknowable, the claim that the laboratory could not have been involved in the virus’s release “is not credible,” said Richard Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University.

David Relman, a Stanford University professor of microbiology, said the outbreak at a minimum underscores the need for more stringent standards and comprehensive monitoring of research involving pathogens with the ability to inflict widespread harm on human health and economies.

“There are far too many examples of lab accidents. Our own CDC and everyone else has had accidents, even with very dangerous agents,” Relman said. “There is simply no way around it, since humans are flawed — inconsistent, distractible — creatures.”

As noted yesterday, we have confirmed cases of high-level Chinese scientists selling off lab animals on the black market, and dumping biohazardous and infectious material into the sewers . . . a sewer system where wet market cooks go hunting for “gutter oil.”

I’ve got no beef — no pun intended — with someone who looks at all the evidence and says, “I think the virus originating from an animal brought to the market is more likely.” That’s a very reasonable suspicion — scientists have been worrying about new viruses coming out of wet markets for years! I do have a problem with people who insist that any suspicion of human error in a laboratory in Wuhan amounts to a conspiracy theory.

It doesn’t help that there are genuine conspiracy theorists out there arguing that this was a bioweapon, and that China was willing to expose many of its own citizens in order to harm the rest of the world. It also doesn’t help that a lot of people, in the general public and media alike, keep using the term “made in a lab” — meaning deliberately engineered — and “originated in a lab” — meaning came from an animal or sample being used for testing — interchangeably.

But by and large, the people touting the theory that this is a deliberately engineered and deliberately released bioweapon are easily spotted conspiracy theorists. No, it is not surprising that Alex Jones thinks SARS-CoV-2 is a bioweapon. Jones also claims the virus can be cured by toothpaste. (“Crazy man says something crazy” is not news. If you turned to the medical advice of Alex Jones to protect your health, you essentially sent an engraved, calligraphed invitation to trouble to come your way.)

I’m not that worried about those conspiracy theorists, who are mostly on the fringe and preach to the already converted. I am much more worried about prominent Americans who look at this ongoing global calamity — more than 3.3 million cases and 234,000 deaths worldwide, as of this writing — and conclude that the Chinese government is the hero in this story. Right now, a surprising number of prominent Americans are loudly insisting that China has handled this virus outbreak correctly, and the United States has not. The U.S. federal, state, and local governments have made their share of mistakes in this crisis. But that doesn’t make Beijing the good guys or role models.

In The Atlantic, Jack Goldsmith, formerly of the Bush administration-era Department of Justice and currently with Harvard Law School and Andrew Keane Woods of the University of Arizona Law School, contended, “In the debate over freedom versus control of the global network, China was largely correct, and the U.S. was wrong.”

Bill Gates insists “China did a lot of things right at the beginning” and insists that criticism of China’s regime is “a distraction, I think there’s a lot of incorrect and unfair things said, but it’s not even time for that discussion.”

Our Jack Butler noticed an “analysis” piece over at CNN declaring, “China’s model of control has been blamed for the coronavirus crisis, but for some it’s looking increasingly attractive.” Griffiths concluded, “China, despite being where the virus first emerged, has coped with the ensuing pandemic far better than many other countries, even though those countries had a longer warning time and greater chance to prepare.”

Back on March 26, NBC News declared, “as U.S. struggles to stem coronavirus, China asserts itself as global leader.” The network later tweeted out: “U.S. reports 1,264 coronavirus deaths in over 24 hours. Meanwhile in China, where the pandemic broke out, not a single new coronavirus death was reported.

Foreign Affairs ran an essay with the headline, “Xi Jinping Won the Coronavirus Crisis.” CBS News and ABC News ran uncut Chinese state-run media footage, touting the defeat of the virus in Wuhan. CNN literally reran a Chinese state-run news agency’s story claiming the Chinese Navy had done a better job of controlling the virus than the U.S. Navy.

Even coverage of the regime’s draconian steps to contain the virus are spun as demonstrations of toughness and resolution. USA Today declared, “This is what China did to beat coronavirus. Experts say America couldn’t handle it.” Er, no, we wouldn’t “handle” state authorities dragging people out of their homes and welding doors closed to keep the infected trapped in their homes.

From this coverage, you would have no idea that the Chinese government lied about the contagiousness of the disease for three to six weeks, that the official numbers on cases and deaths from Beijing aren’t even close to the truth, that almost all of the wet markets — allegedly the source of this virus — remain open, or that vast swaths of the medical equipment Chinese manufacturers are shipping out don’t work.

Just what on earth is going on here?

There is this weird wave of pro-Beijing cheerleading going on right now, and I can’t tell whether it’s anti-Trumpism run amok, it reflects the parent companies of media institutions having extensive business interests in China, or whether some American elites look at the stability and social control of authoritarian China and see a system they would like to emulate. It may not matter that much; these are all bad reasons to echo the propaganda of a regime that has at least a million, and perhaps as many as 3 million, ethnic minorities in concentration camps.

The Chinese Did Not Help Massachusetts Personnel

Let us close the week by taking a second look of that much-covered and much-praised account of masks from Chinese manufacturers being brought to Massachusetts on the New England Patriots plane. You probably saw the coverage; it was the sort of event that forced even me to say “Good job, Patriots owner Robert Kraft”:

Gov. Charlie Baker, who came up with the idea to get the Patriots’ team plane involved, praised the Krafts, two other governors and even numerous Chinese officials and government agencies for getting the respirator masks to front-line health care workers.

“We all know this pandemic is being fought across the globe and we couldn’t have accomplished what we’ve done here without willing partners in China that worked with us to bring this to fruition,” Baker said. “Ambassador Huang Ping at the Chinese consulate in New York was instrumental with the success of this effort.”

Now fast-forward to this week, after the masks have been used by police on patrol for a while:

When the Brockton Police Department received hundreds of protective respirator masks from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency earlier this month, they came as a welcome gift to officers increasingly worried about exposure in the line of duty. The masks were soon distributed to each of the department’s 200 sworn personnel. More were packed into kits and placed inside cruisers.

But on Friday, the department received notice from the agency that new tests showed the masks to be severely deficient, filtering just 28 percent of airborne particles — far below what is considered safe for front-line workers. The department immediately recalled the masks.

“We had the masks out there for quite some time before we found out about the deficiencies,” said Brockton Police Chief Emanuel Gomes. “They were in daily police use. . . . Officers were using these on every call.”

. . . And many health care workers in Massachusetts have been wary; earlier this month, several questioned the quality of the KN95 masks the state received from China in an April 2 shipment brought by the New England Patriots team plane.

At the time of that shipment, Governor Charlie Baker repeatedly described the masks as N95s, but many turned out to be KN95s. State officials said they have received additional masks from the federal government that are also KN95s.

Sharon Torgerson, a spokeswoman for the state’s COVID-19 Response Command Center, said this week that the masks in that shipment were “a combination of KN95 and N95.”

She did not directly respond to a question about whether Massachusetts officials knew some of the masks they were buying from China were KN95. “Most of the masks available from China are KN95,” she said.

Massachusetts spent about $2 million for the masks in the Patriots’ shipment, Torgerson said.

China sent defective masks and received $2 million and received a gushing press conference with profuse expressions of gratitude in return. God knows how many cops, first responders, and other personnel have been walking around the state of Massachusetts thinking they were adequately protected when they were not.

It turns out that the claims of a great achievement of an endeavor involving the New England Patriots plane were overinflated and that good people got cheated out of something they deserve.

ADDENDUM: Joe Biden appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe this morning. When asked by Mika Brzezinski why he would not allow a search for Tara Reade’s name in his official Senate records and papers being kept at the University of Delaware . . . Biden simply didn’t answer and stared at the camera, in one of the more awkward silences you will ever hear.

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