The Morning Jolt


Even Xavier Becerra Jumps on the Lab-Leak Bandwagon

Xavier Becerra during his nomination hearing for HHS secretary, Washington, D.C., February 24, 2021 (Greg Nash/Reuters)

On the menu today: Sorry folks, I really tried, but I can’t contain my internal tsunami of “I told you so.” The crowd of prominent figures who are open to the lab-leak theory now includes Health and Human Services secretary Xavier Becerra! And on a lighter note, let’s contemplate if Marvel Studios is about to hit a wall.

No, Really, Last April, I Really Did Tell You So!

WHAT THE HECK: “Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told an annual ministerial meeting of the World Health Organization that international experts should be given ‘the independence to fully assess the source of the virus and the early days of the outbreak.’”

Oh, now the Biden administration is willing to openly state that this whole pandemic might trace back to someone not being careful in a Chinese state-run lab working on dangerous viruses.

Okay, I didn’t want today’s newsletter to be all about the lab-leak theory again, when I wrote about it Monday, and last Tuesday, and before that, I wrote that Corner post about the evidence of the Chinese government’s secret bioweapons-research programs, and the NR editorial board welcomed Dr. Fauci to those open to the theory, and Charlie wrote about how the skeptics have been guessing this whole time, and Michael wrote about the ramifications, and I’m sure I’m forgetting other recent pieces. Oh, and I’ve got another long examination of the evidence on the editor’s desk that will probably be before your eyes sometime this week. Maybe you’re sick of hearing about the lab-leak theory, and if so, skip down a little further to read about Marvel movies.

But it is so weird that it seems like every day, another allegedly respectable, even-tempered, non-lunatic government official or public-health expert or writer who had absolutely nothing to say about the lab-leak theory for almost any day of the past 17 months, now publicly states some version of, “Sure, this virus’s origin is still unknown, a lab leak can’t be ruled out, and a much more thorough investigation is needed.”

Jonathan Chait wrote a piece titled, “How the Liberal Media Dismissed the Lab-Leak Theory and Smeared Its Supporters.” Matt Yglesias’s most recent newsletter is titled, “The media’s lab leak fiasco.” The Washington Post’s chief fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, wrote that “the Wuhan lab-leak theory suddenly became credible.” (Suddenly!) CNN’s Zachary Wolf writes “scientists are suddenly more interested in the lab-leak theory of Covid’s origin.” (Suddenly, again!)

Where the hell were all of you guys last April?

Where the hell was all of this when The New Republic wrote that I was “peddling an outlandish theory,” that I was the “media personality who jumped farthest down this rabbit hole,” and “when mainstream news outlets reported that most experts considered the Wuhan facility to be secure”?

You morons. Idiots. Schmucks. You all sat there, so smug and confident that you guys were the smart ones, and that knuckle-dragging little old me, with my YouTube video from an expat, Google Translate versions of Chinese-state health agency websites, and old medical-research papers, had to be chasing Bigfoot and Elvis and UFOs. Set up the buffet table of crow, because I want to watch all of you eat a lot of it.

This gif, this gif, this gif.

All I did was take three incontrovertible forces in human life seriously: the capacity for human error in a laboratory, the universal temptation to try to cover up a consequential mistake once it’s made, and the far-reaching power of a totalitarian government when attempting to enact that cover-up.

The only reason the Soviet Union admitted what happened at Chernobyl to the world was because radiation detectors 700 miles away in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway were going off. For decades, the Soviets successfully covered up an anthrax spill from a biological-weapons facility that killed 64 people. Modern Chinese society is full of allegations of official screw-ups with deadly consequences and attempted cover-ups: the worst space-launch accident in history at Xichang in 1996, a high-speed train crash in 2011, the coverup of flood deaths in 2012.

Authoritarian governments, and those who work within them, are terrified of ever admitting a mistake. Authoritarian governments need to look all-powerful and always-competent, lest the citizenry get ideas about changing who’s in charge.

If I had a quarter for every time I was told I wasn’t a scientist, I could play Pac-Man at the arcade for the rest of my days. I never claimed to be a scientist, nor that I played one on TV. You know what I have spent a good chunk of my adult life studying? Government bureaucracies. This is a story of viruses, yes, but it’s also a story of what human beings do when they make a mistake.

The first time a person is given a complicated and detailed series of instructions for handing a dangerous and contagious virus, they’re going to be exceptionally careful and follow every step to the letter. They’re justifiably terrified of the consequences of failure. They’ll be really careful the first ten times. Maybe even the first hundred.

But the 500th time? Or the 1,000th time? Or the 2,000th time? Familiarity breeds complacency. People shift into mental autopilot. We see this phenomenon in fields far from laboratories handling dangerous pathogens: “Accidents on the job or in the home occur when people get too comfortable in doing their tasks and they no longer fear the hazards around them. This is why 52 percent of all car accidents are within five miles of the home — drivers are less focused and more lackadaisical as they get closer to their house and comfort zone area.”

The dumbest argument I encountered in the past year and a half was the insistence that the researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan Centers for Disease Control were too careful, too diligent, and simply too professional to ever have an accidental leak. A statement like that was a clear, flashing neon sign that I was dealing with someone who didn’t really know what they were talking about.

The best laboratories in the world, with the most respected scientists and researchers in the world, still have accidents. In June 2014, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that it had unintentionally exposed personnel to potentially viable anthrax. A month later the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found samples of smallpox, dengue, and spotted fever just sitting in a storage room. If our guys can make mistakes, their guys can make mistakes.

And as I laid out back on March 23, 2020, as this pandemic started, the Chinese government lied, and lied, and lied some more. It is less plausible to contend that the Chinese government would not try to cover something like this up than to contend it would.

I’ve got a theory about the sudden shift on thinking about the theory: A lot of these folks placed an early bet on skepticism, assuming that at some point, researchers would find bats in nature that had SARS-CoV-2. Or pangolins. Or a group of animal smugglers who suffered from intense respiratory infections in November 2019. Or some other evidence to support the theory that this virus came into the city of Wuhan through some path unconnected to the labs. That evidence hasn’t emerged, 18 months into the pandemic, suggesting that maybe it never will.

If the argument is, “President Trump floated the theory, thus it had to be false . . .” well, that’s stupid. Broken clocks are right twice a day.

If the argument is, “Discussion of the lab-leak theory seemed like an attempt to get the Trump administration off the hook for their mistakes and bad decisions during the early months of the pandemic,” here’s the beautiful thing about blame: It’s a renewable natural resource! We’re never going to run out of it. Being mad at the Chinese government over its decisions leading up to and during this pandemic is not an endorsement of every U.S. government decision!

For the First Time in a Long While, Marvel Faces Some Risks

Our Jack Butler had a good piece over the weekend, asking whether the Marvel Cinematic Universe had peaked, both financially and creatively. Sure, the movie studio that grew out of the beloved comic books has a slew of projects coming down the pike, including a backlog of ideas delayed by the pandemic. And the first two Marvel television series on Disney Plus, WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, generated plenty of buzz. (WandaVision might be the most spectacularly unpredictable, what-the-hell-is-happening, what-does-that-clue-mean mystery series since Twin Peaks.) It’s very hard to believe that every Marvel offering in the next year or two or three will strike out.

But a larger-than-life central personality like that of Robert Downey Jr. isn’t easily replaced, and Avengers: Endgame marked the end of some of the series’s most popular characters. We’re going to have to see how well Wakanda-based stories work without the magnetic charisma of Chadwick Boseman. And Marvel is transitioning to newer characters with less-established fanbases; I collected comics back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and I haven’t heard of some of the new characters. Then again, most of the general public hadn’t heard of the Guardians of the Galaxy before 2014, and audiences fell in love with a talking racoon and a giant, gentle, sentient tree even so.

First, that Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings trailer looks fun — very Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — but the trailer doesn’t feel that much like a Marvel movie, at least not yet. It looks like a spectacular, large-scale kung-fu movie, not a movie about superheroes — but we’ll see.

As for that Eternals trailer . . . eh. It’s very odd for a Marvel movie’s first trailer to not show, mention, or make any reference to the film’s villain. As far as we can tell, the Eternals mostly stand and pose dramatically in slow motion. And the voice-over declaration, presumably from the team’s titular heroes: “We have watched, unguided; we have helped them progress and seen them accomplish wonders. Throughout the years we have never interfered . . . until now.” Really? Thanos didn’t warrant a little intervention? Y’all just watched when the Chitauri invaded New York City? What, is this the United Nations Human Rights Panel of Superheroes?

This is an all-star cast — Angelina Jolie, Gemma Chan, Salma Hayek, Kit Harrington — and a story about a bickering team or family of super-powered beings should be really hard to screw up.

But if Marvel does screw it up and really goes into a slump . . . they’ve still got the rights to the X-Men back from 20th Century Fox.

ADDENDUM: Our Jay Nordlinger has a spectacular story about the late senator John Warner, who passed away at 94 this week: “On one occasion, the Senate was pulling an all-night session. The guys were sleeping on cots. [Senator George] Mitchell was grumbling about this and feeling a little sorry for himself. Then he stepped over a sleeping John Warner and thought, ‘Well, ordinarily he’s sleeping with Elizabeth Taylor, so . . .’”


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