The Morning Jolt


The Wuhan Lab-Leak Scenario Is Still Plausible

Outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, February 3, 2021 (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

On the menu today: NBC reports that U.S. intelligence cannot rule out the lab-leak scenario as the trigger for the coronavirus pandemic, and the evidence is building that the Chinese government is hiding something; President Biden pledges that schools will be close to being open five days a week by the end of April; and Biden is faced with a request for an exorbitant expenditure to help out the highest-educated Americans.

Back to the Wuhan Labs

Late yesterday, NBC News offered this intriguing update on the U.S government’s thinking about the origins of SARS-CoV-2:

A Western intelligence official who has seen classified material told NBC News the U.S. has substantial intelligence that has not been made public about actions the Chinese government took — related to the Wuhan lab and other issues — that were designed to obscure the origins of Covid-19 and conceal its early impact. A former U.S. official who has also seen the intelligence agreed that it was significant, if inconclusive.

Both sources said the material, which they did not detail, did not add up to evidence that a lab accident occurred. But they said it raised enough circumstantial questions that analysts have been unable to rule out the lab scenario. U.S. intelligence officials declined to comment.

The intelligence, which includes documents, paints a picture of a Chinese government initially trying to hide the burgeoning pandemic from the outside world.

Note this detail, way down in the 13th and 14th paragraphs:

Intelligence officials counter that one key lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, removed from public view a database of 22,000 virus samples for security reasons, and has not allowed a detailed look at the lab’s notes or other records.

They say it’s suspicious that the virus outbreak arose in Wuhan, a hub of virus research in China, while the bats that commonly carry coronaviruses are typically found in caves a thousand miles from that city.

I think it is clear that a lot of people in high places would love, or at least prefer to be able to conclude beyond any reasonable doubt that this virus jumped to humans naturally, and that the labs in Wuhan had nothing to with it. And that is still a possible scenario. If biologists can prove, beyond any doubt, that the virus had to pass through an animal such as a pangolin before jumping to humans, it makes the lab-leak scenario much more likely. As far as we know, neither of the two major biological-research labs working on novel coronaviruses found in bats in Wuhan used pangolins in their research. (Then again, no one has found any evidence that pangolins were sold in the Huanan Seafood Market, either.)

In the pangolin scenario, the human villain of this story is animal smugglers, and nobody likes them. The thing is, if you genuinely believed that the killing and consumption of exotic animals in the wet markets was the source of a novel virus that killed thousands of people . . . would you reopen those wet markets in mid-April? Is the Chinese government acting like its wet markets are the most likely source of a deadly pandemic? Or are they acting like someone, at some high level, knows it emerged from someplace else?

Earlier on, that NBC News report states, “scientists say that scenario is unlikely on its face, because animal-to-human transmission of viruses are common, while lab accidents are relatively rare.” If you’ve been reading me for the past year, you know the word “relatively” is doing a lot of work in that sentence. I’ve seen a few people argue that the Chinese government couldn’t successfully cover up something this consequential. That suggests a stunning unfamiliarity with the totalitarian, authoritarian, surveillance-obsessed nature of the modern Chinese government, as well as not-so-distant history.

In 1979, the city of Sverdlovsk in the Soviet Union suffered a sudden and mysterious outbreak of anthrax, sickening 94 people and killing at least 64 of them. The Soviets blamed tainted meat.

It wasn’t until thirteen years later — 1992- that President Boris Yeltsin admitted, without going into details, that the anthrax outbreak was the result of military activity at the facility. During those thirteen years, while an intense debate raged within the international scientific and intelligence communities on whether the Russians were telling the truth, the Soviet Union continued its offensive biological warfare program unabated.

Around the time Yeltsin admitted the military facility was responsible for the incident, Russia allowed a team of Western scientists to go to Sverdlovsk to investigate the outbreak. The team visited Sverdlovsk in June 1992 and August 1993 and included Professor Matt Meselson.

Although the KGB had confiscated hospital and other records after the incident, the Western scientists were able to track where all the victims had been at the time of the anthrax release.

Their results showed that on the day of the incident all the victims were clustered along a straight line downwind from the military facility. Livestock in the same area also died of anthrax. After completing their investigation, the team concluded the outbreak was caused by a release of an aerosol of anthrax pathogen at the military facility. But they were unable to determine what caused the release or what specific activities were conducted at the facility.

Notice that detail about the KGB confiscating hospital records.

Recall that Chinese authorities would not turn over the raw personalized health data from 174 of the first COVID-19 cases to the World Health Organization investigators last month. What could be in there that’s so significant that the Chinese government would refuse to turn it over? Whatever it is, it was serious enough to get a public rebuke from the Biden administration. A regime acting guilty doesn’t necessarily mean that it is guilty. But a regime acting guilty doesn’t strengthen the argument that it is innocent, either.

Some people are genuinely insisting that an authoritarian regime could never successfully cover up the accidental release of a biological pathogen upon an unsuspecting civilian population when this precise scenario happened a few decades ago. (Hell, our own government’s record on releasing dangerous pathogens near civilians in the 1950s and 1960s is appalling.)

Biden: Schools Should Be Close to Open Five Days a Week by the End of April

I’m glad that President Biden does not think that a school being open for one day a week counts as a school being “reopened.” I just wish he had made this clear to White House press secretary Jen Psaki earlier, instead of throwing her under the bus last night during a live CNN town hall:

COOPER: Well, let me ask you, your administration had set a goal to open the majority of schools in your first 100 days. You’re now saying that means those schools may only be open for at least one day a week —

BIDEN: No, that’s not true. That’s what was reported.

COOPER: Uh-huh.

BIDEN: That’s not true. That was a mistake in the communication. But what I’m talking about is I said opening the majority of schools in K through eighth grade, because they’re the easiest to open, the most needed to be open in terms of the impact on children and families having to stay at home —

COOPER: So when do you think that would be K through eight —


COOPER: — at least five days a week if possible?

BIDEN: I think we’ll be close to that at the end of the first 100 days.

Hear that, school districts? That’s April 29.

Rarely Do You Hear a Politician Say, ‘I Will Not Make That Happen’

The U.S. Department of Education began a pause on student-loan payments in March 2020. The Department also stopped collections on defaulted loans, and established a zero-percent interest rate. The Trump administration extended that pause twice, and upon taking office, Biden extended the payment pause through September 30, 2021. Biden has proposed the federal government should forgive $10,000 in student loan debt for each borrower, and also proposed to eliminate all the student debt of those who attended public colleges or universities, private historically black college and universities, and undergraduate tuition.

And yet, some Democrats see this as a timid and unsatisfactory half-measure. Last night, a questioner at the CNN town hall pushed Biden to go much further:

JOYCELYN FISH, COMMUNITY THEATER MARKETING DIRECTOR: Student loans are crushing my family, friends and fellow Americans.

BIDEN: Me too.

FISH: The American dream is to succeed.

BIDEN: You think I’m kidding.

FISH: But how can we fulfill that dream, when debt is many people’s only option for a degree? We need student loan forgiveness beyond the potential $10,000 your administration has proposed. We need at least a $50,000 minimum. What will you do to make that happen?

BIDEN: I will not make that happen. It depends on whether or not you go to a private university or a public university. It depends on the idea that I say to a community, I’m going to forgive the debt, the billions of dollars of debt for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn and schools my children — I went to a great school. I went to a state school. But is that is going to be forgiven, rather than use that money to provide money for early education for young children who are — come from disadvantaged circumstances?

Biden is capable of saying no to the left wing of his party. He just doesn’t exercise those rejection muscles nearly often enough.

ADDENDUM: Joe Biden is the president, but Joe Manchin is the guy who really decides what gets done in Washington:

Manchin has privately informed President Joe Biden that he won’t join any Democratic efforts to force through provisions in his economic rescue package if they are ruled in violation of strict Senate budget restrictions, the latest warning sign for Biden’s push for a hike to the federal minimum wage.

The short version of this: Democrats can avoid a filibuster by passing legislation through reconciliation, but under the Senate’s longstanding “Byrd Rule,” provisions in the bill have to relate to the budget, and the Senate parliamentarian has the final say on what is extraneous. Sixty senators could vote to overrule the parliamentarian, but Manchin is making clear he will oppose that.

In other words, a federally mandated $15 minimum wage isn’t going to happen, unless Manchin changes his mind.


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