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NPR’s Complete About-Face on the Lab-Leak Theory

Members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus arrive at Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, February 3, 2021. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

On the menu today: A really good interview on NPR, detailing the evidence supporting the lab-leak theory, is welcome — but also illuminates how dramatically the institution’s conventional wisdom has flipped; China blames the global COVID-19 pandemic on a bunch of vapors in Milwaukee; and all the Supreme Court analysis you could ever need.

NPR Does a Lab-Leak Theory 180

Terry Gross of NPR did a lengthy interview with Katherine Eban about her Vanity Fair article, “The Lab-Leak Theory: Inside The Fight To Uncover COVID-19’s Origins.” It’s a great interview, and Eban offers detailed answers to every question, admits uncertainty where we simply don’t have answers yet, and lays out a coherent and logical potential sequence of events.

But it’s mind-blowing how drastically and dramatically the perspective on this has changed, particularly at NPR. Back in late April 2020, NPR interviewed “half-a-dozen scientists familiar with lab accidents and how research on coronaviruses is conducted” and concluded “there is virtually no chance that the new coronavirus was released as result of a laboratory accident in China or anywhere else.”

And the first person quoted in that NPR story in April 2020 was . . . Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance: “The real risk is in the wild in the way people interact with wildlife around the world. That’s where we need to be focused if we want to really do something about preventing the next pandemic.”

This illuminates a big reason why so many big media institutions pooh-poohed the potential of a lab accident from the start, despite a long and unnerving history of lab accidents all over the world. Perhaps part of the problem is that the sources which NPR instinctively turned to and trusted the most had the most to lose in acknowledging the possibility of a lab accident.

Back in April 2020, I pointed out that the NPR report had some odd omissions in its discussion of lab accidents — mentioning one accidental release in Singapore, but not mentioning that two others occurred at the Beijing CDC. This is the same report that offered the almost-nonsensical assessment from Lim Poh Lian, a consultant at Singapore’s National Centre for Infectious Diseases, “While there is always some risk for lab accidents, risk is not reality.” Tell that to your insurance company.

Earlier in the week, we discussed how there’s now a massive pile of evidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology kept live bats within its laboratories, a fact that Peter Daszak vehemently denied until almost the end of 2020. It seems extremely odd for Daszak to be misinformed about this kind of basic fact concerning what was happening in those labs — labs his organization was receiving U.S. taxpayer funding to help support! — which raises the possibility that Daszak did know and simply lied about it.

The not-merely misinformed-but-lying option is further strengthened by other lies of omission that Eban details in the NPR interview:

EBAN: Peter Daszak, who is president of an organization called EcoHealth Alliance, had taken government grant money and given it in sub-grants, parts of it, to the Wuhan Institute of Virology and had collaborated quite closely with Shi Zhengli.

GROSS: Who’s the head of the lab that was doing the virus research.

EBAN: That’s right, the lead coronavirus researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. A number of the signatories on that letter were either on EcoHealth Alliance payroll or had gotten funding from EcoHealth Alliance. But really what sort of framed this as an issue was that a Freedom of Information group got emails from Peter Daszak which basically said, we’re going to try to put out this statement without linking back to us so it looks like, you know, there’s a kind of unanimity and our fingerprints won’t be on it, which will give it sort of more authority and power.

So the problem is there was not disclosure of his role. There was not disclosure of his conflicts. And there was a claim that there were no conflicts at all. So in retrospect, that statement, which had such a chilling effect on the scientific community, looks orchestrated and much more questionable than it did at that time.

Eban properly notes that Daszak was the only American whom the Chinese government approved to be part of the World Health Organization’s investigation team in Wuhan, and lays out how oddly unmotivated and credulous he was during his trip:

When Peter Daszak was later questioned, did the team ask, you know, to see this database? — he said, oh, no, we didn’t need to ask because we essentially know what’s in that database — no need. And Shi Zhengli, the main researcher, told us that due to hacking attempts, the database was taken offline, and that’s perfectly reasonable. You know, in light of 3.5 million deaths worldwide from COVID-19, you know, it’s a sort of strange attitude to take that this is all perfectly fine to be run on an honor system and there doesn’t need to be any independent corroboration of this.

Even aside from Daszak, there seems to be a “mirror-image misperception” effect among scientists in free countries when they look at scientists in authoritarian countries. Scientists in free countries think of themselves as honest and willing to tell the truth even when it’s not comfortable, so they think their counterparts in China operate under the same mindset. But the scientists and researchers in China operate under completely different circumstances, as the experience of Dr. Li Wenliang demonstrates. In December 2019, he tried to warn other doctors in Wuhan about the contagiousness of the new virus — and the police brought him into the station to charge him with spreading rumors. Chinese doctors, scientists, and researchers operate under dramatically different standards, with life-threatening consequences for deviating from what the government wants people to hear. The idea that Chinese doctors, researchers, and scientists could or would openly admit to the world that a government-run lab was responsible for a global catastrophe is unthinkable.

And Eban puts the vehement denials of Shi Zhengli in that context:

EBAN: Well, one of the real problems here is that, you know, you have to ask, is she free to be candid? I mean, she is — you know, has the — she is living within an authoritarian system that closely monitors what its citizens and its leading scientists say. You know, a number of people early on who raised questions, their voices were brutally suppressed. So, you know, this is not — she is not operating in a system where she would be free to talk about a possible lab accident, you know, even if she wanted to. So it’s hard to just say, sure, we trust what she’s saying.

At this point, it appears exceptionally unlikely that a second team of international investigators will be allowed to get to Wuhan, much less venture within the walls of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. As far as Beijing is concerned, that first much-delayed and -abbreviated WHO team visit cleared them of any suspicion — and now it’s time for attention to turn to the regime’s cockamamie theory that SARS-CoV-2 is a U.S. bioweapon.

The state-run Global Times writes today that:

If the Biden administration wants to project itself as a responsible government that respects science, it should dispatch scientists and allow a WHO team to investigate the origins of the coronavirus on US soil, instead of repeating his predecessor’s tactic of milking this subject to throw mud on China or serve its other political purposes, said Chinese epidemiologists . . . But the US better watch out. Maybe before it hurls any stones at China, it will be obliged to check the virus origins story on its own soil, said Chinese observers . . . Many people are also asking, did outbreaks of a respiratory disease in northern Virginia in July 2019, and the e-cigarette (vaping) associated lung injury outbreak in Wisconsin, have any connection with COVID-19?

Yes, instead of the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s research into novel coronaviruses found in bats, the Chinese assessment is that this novel coronavirus — that is most similar to those found in bats — might trace back to vapors in Wisconsin.

Around here is where most writers would state, “We may never definitively know the origins of SARS-CoV-2,” and that’s true enough as far as it goes. But the Chinese government’s reaction to all of this should represent a tipping point of sorts. If this horrible pandemic had a natural zoonotic origin — say, some farmer stepping in bat feces and inhaling a virus — and SARS-CoV-2 never entered the Wuhan Institute of Virology, then the Chinese government would have every incentive in the world to let other countries’ virologists and experts look through its databases, look at the raw data from the first COVID-19 patients, and look at every possible avenue of investigation until the origin is determined. A Chinese government that wasn’t hiding something huge would be extremely motivated to determine the virus’s origin. Even if you believe the official CCP statistics, more than 4,600 Chinese people died of COVID-19. (Some studies calculate that the actual caseload of infections is perhaps ten times higher than the official figures, and a calculation of the number of cremation urns used in Wuhan suggests the death toll is ten times higher as well.)

The variants are still out there. Just across the border, India is reporting more than 60,000 new cases a day, almost all of China’s wet markets are still open, almost all of the conditions that existed before the outbreak of COVID-19 are still in place . . . and the Chinese government wants to mess around with an investigation of vapors in Milwaukee?

Does that look like the behavior of a government that is highly motivated to determine the origin of the virus? Or does that look like the behavior of a government that already knows the origin of the virus, is terrified of the consequences of that origin being discovered, and that wants suspicion cast in every possible direction except its own?

When does the Biden administration, American media, other governments, and international institutions stop giving the Chinese government the benefit of the doubt?

ADDENDUM: If you want to get caught up on all the decisions announced at the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday, Ramesh Ponnuru writes how the recent decisions demonstrate the court is moving in a “moderate conservative” direction; Dan McLaughlin lays out how Democrats’ accusations against Amy Coney Barrett were proven wrong; Robert VerBruggen explains how this particular challenge to Obamacare was legally dumb; Andy McCarthy illuminates how the court left health-care policy to Congress; Kathryn Lopez shows how the Fulton decision will help foster families; Roger Severino explains why the unanimity in the Fulton case was so important; and John McCormack demonstrates how Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is taking credit for preventing a scenario that was always highly unlikely.

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