How America fuelled a conspiracy theory
The first known human to be infected with Covid-19 hasn’t been named, but we do know this: he was over 70, suffered from dementia and lived “four or five buses” from downtown Wuhan.
He seldom went out. He certainly had no connection with the Huanan Seafood Market that until last month was the focus of most scientific efforts to find the origin of the coronavirus pandemic.
And we can keep counting. Three of the first four patients went nowhere near that market. Twenty-seven of the first 41 did have a connection with it, but 13 didn’t. Which is why Dr Filippa Lentzos, a biosecurity expert at King’s College, London, says it’s “valid to look for other plausible explanations”.
These are the dispassionate words of a scientist. They’re also the kind of words that feed a rumour mill that’s being fed and used by a panicky US administration in a state of permanent crisis.
For nearly three months, senior US officials and their chief executive have sought to use uncertainty about the origin of the pandemic to shift the blame for America’s response to it. The result is extraordinary: faced with one of the most urgent scientific mysteries in history, with more resources to help solve it than any other country, the world’s leading superpower has headed down a series of blind alleys, heedless of the damage to its most important international relationships and its reputation.
For Lentzos, plausible explanations for the Covid-19 outbreak include the idea that humans brought the virus to the market from elsewhere. They might have encountered it in or near any one of hundreds of caves in central and southern China that host bat colonies studied by virologists. They might have encountered it in other markets or while working on farmland.
And then there are the labs. Wuhan is home to two big virology labs – the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control, which is not a “high containment” facility built for work on dangerous pathogens, and the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which is.
The current occupant of the White House would like, almost more than anything, to pin the whole pandemic on the WIV. If the outbreak could be blamed on avoidable Chinese error that Beijing tried to cover up, so could 20 million jobs and 100,000 deaths. It would be worth a try, at any rate. As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo likes to remind reporters, a recent Pew survey found that two thirds of Americans already have a negative view of China’s handling of the pandemic.
Like the administration’s standoff with the World Health Organisation – and indeed with millions of Americans over the legacy of George Floyd, the murdered Minneapolis security guard – this positioning is all about the third of November; about whether or not Donald Trump will be re-elected for four more years.
“If you can’t run on the economy any more and you can’t run on competence because you’ve bungled the response to Covid, you need to run on something else,” says a former senior US diplomat. “Running against China appeals on several layers. They bungled the response too. They deserve to shoulder a great deal of responsibility and blame. And Trump’s 2016 campaign appealed to nativist impulses and that worked out for him quite well.”
At first the Trump administration pushed a theory that the virus was manufactured in the lab.
“Those narratives are plainly mis- or disinformation,” says Lentzos. “But it is possible that it could have originated as a result of basic safety lapses in the course of scientific research. It could have been leaked through poorly incinerated research animals, like cats or rats. That research wouldn’t necessarily have had anything to do with the lab’s own work. [The virus] could have been brought in from field work. Accidents happen. They happen at very reputable institutions. So it is possible that it happened at the WIV.”
So the search is for a “spillover event” – back through epidemiological records and down pathways mapped by complex genetic trees to the moment the SARS-CoV-2 virus first leapt from animal to human.
There is no evidence that it happened at the lab and plenty that it happened somewhere on the front line between human habitat and what remains of the natural world. But no one has pinpointed it yet and until they do, anything is theoretically possible.
In political terms we are between the Kennedy assassination and the Warren Report; between the dodgy dossier and the invasion of Iraq. We are at a moment when it’s as hard as ever to prove a negative but easy to dress up expedient theories as statecraft.
Team Trump has proved adept at seizing this sort of moment to sow uncertainty, spread their alternative facts. Thus, on 30 April, the president said he had a “high degree” of confidence that the virus came from a lab. Five days later, Pompeo said there was “enormous evidence” for it.
Between those two dates the first of two reports that at first seemed to support the administration appeared – in Australia. On the front page and five inside pages of the (Australian) Daily Telegraph, the award-winning Sharri Markson wrote about a 15-page dossier she’d seen describing the disappearance of Chinese doctors, the destruction of Chinese virus samples and a broader “‘assault on international transparency’ that cost tens of thousands of lives”.
The second report emerged a week later via NBC News in the US. It was produced by a Pentagon subcontractor called MACE and floated a theory that there had been a “hazardous event” at the WIV in October 2019.
Both reports were quickly dismantled. The first was traced by a former Australian foreign minister, Bob Carr, to the US embassy in Canberra, which he accused of inflating baseless claims about the lab. (Lentzos, who has also seen it, says it contained “no real evidence at all”.) The second based its case on a cancelled conference and suspicious traffic diversions near the lab, but the conference wasn’t cancelled and the traffic was diverted because of roadworks.
In a sense, to the Trump administration and its outriders, none of these collisions with reality mattered. By the time the claims were exposed to proper scrutiny they had been fed through pro-Trump media in the US and achieved their goal of shifting the lab theory from the fringe to the conservative mainstream. A third of Americans now believe it to be fact, and many will have absorbed the idea promoted by Tucker Carlson, one of Trump’s favourite Fox News hosts, that the pandemic has become part of President Xi Jinping’s grand plan for a “Chinese century”.
Converting thoughts into threats requires authoritative-sounding voices, and there are plenty of China hawks willing to speak for the administration. They include Peter Navarro, a senior assistant to the president and author of Death by China; John Huntsman, a former US ambassador to China; and retired Air Force General Robert Spalding, who has flown B-2s and B-52s and served as both defence attache to the US embassy in Beijing and a national security advisor to Trump.
Spalding is genial and worldly on the phone, but it feels like I’m dialling back to the 1980s. He refers to the crimes and ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party six times in a 25-minute conversation and his preferred historical analogy for Hong Kong in 2020 is Berlin in 1948.
As the lab theories took a beating last month, people like Spalding moved on. “The relevant issue now is why the pandemic came from China,” he says. “It clearly came because of deliberate action by the Chinese Communist Party.” He lists familiar talking points about Chinese withholding of information about early human-to-human transmission of the virus and hoarding protective gear – talking points which may turn out to be true but remain unconfirmed – and then effectively accuses Beijing of weaponising Covid by continuing to allow international flights while grounding domestic ones around the time of Chinese New Year.
“They definitely caused the pandemic,” he says. “It doesn’t matter where the virus came from. Once it’s out, it’s out.”
Except that it does matter where the virus came from. Enormously.
Back in the real world, horseshoe bats living in caves in Yunnan province (1,500 km from Wuhan) have been identified as a likely natural reservoir of SARS-CoV-2. There could be others, but a study in Nature on 3 February found a 96 per cent genetic match between a coronavirus in the bats and the one that by then had travelled round the world.
The former could be progenitors of the latter. The virus in the bats could have mutated into the one that causes Covid-19, jumping directly to humans or via an intermediary species such as the pangolin. Scientists need to track back to the original spillover event and the animal population from which it came – not to satisfy their curiosity, but to head off the next pandemic.
Earlier this month another study, not yet peer reviewed but co-authored by leading virologists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reported that SARS-CoV-2 was very similar to the original SARS virus in the late stage of the 2003 epidemic. By that time the SARS virus “had developed several adaptations for human transmission”, the authors wrote.
They continued: “Any existing pools of SARS-CoV-2 progenitors would be particularly dangerous if similarly well adapted for human transmission.”
Translation: this could easily happen all over again. In fact, as Lentzos, the biosecurity expert notes, it could have happened all over again already: “It’s hugely important to understand how this happened because we need to find out if there were one or multiple spillover events.”
And there’s another thing. Scientists need to be able to set the record straight because of the old cliché. This is a global problem needing a global solution, which in turn has to rest on the best possible information. And that information is extremely hard to assemble when the world’s dominant bully pulpit prefers conspiracy theories.
There are two reasons for this, and the first is a paradox. The lab theory needs to be properly investigated if only to rule it out, but many mainstream experts won’t go near it for fear of being tainted by association with Trump.
“The way the Trump administration is pushing this theory means we almost can’t look into it because we’re seen as in league with Trump,” says Lentzos. “There are researchers who should know better who wrote it off as a possibility because it was [seen as] disinformation. We weren’t allowing ourselves to be the sceptical researchers that we should be.”
The second reason Trump’s fetish for the lab theory is slowing down the search for the spillover event is more practical. It has led directly to funding being cut to a vital joint venture between the Wuhan lab and a New York research institute called the EcoHealth Alliance.
The route by which misinformation led to this absurd and dangerous decision is an object lesson in how the present US administration not only doesn’t function properly, but actively jeopardises the public good for personal and political goals.
On 14 April, apparently after browsing the Mail on Sunday’s website, a Republican congressman from Florida named Matt Gaetz went on Fox News to claim that $3.7 million of US taxpayers’ money was being funnelled to the WIV through the EcoHealth Alliance.
It wasn’t true. $3.7 million was the alliance’s total budget for grants to other institutions. Only about $100,000 a year went to the WIV, to help fund brave work on bat-borne viruses led by Professor Shi Zheng-li, better known, even beyond scientific circles, as the Bat Woman.
Trump saw the Gaetz item and mentally filed it away. Three days later a reporter from the deeply conservative One America News network asked him about the allegedly misspent $3.7 million in one of his marathon coronavirus press conferences. Trump said he’d been looking into it. The following week, all public funding to the EcoHealth Alliance was cut.
Last week Professor Shi and the alliance’s director, Peter Daszak, published their fullest analysis yet of bat-borne virus genomes from the caves of Yunnan province. A critic of their work pointed out that it analyses only 440 of the roughly 15,000 “bases” (steps in the RNA sequence) in each genome, and doesn’t get us much closer to knowing which could leap to humans.
“We were planning to get full genome sequences from these samples,” Daszak told Science magazine last week. “We won’t be able to do that work without the funding, unfortunately.”
It was a little pat, but it made the point.
In the convulsions following the murder of George Floyd by a white policeman in Minneapolis, Trump has glimpsed a new way to define himself to voters – as “your president of law and order”. Ostensibly it is a turn inward after his campaign to drag China, the Wuhan lab and the WHO into domestic American politics as scapegoats. But the doctrine of Trump First means he is unlikely to let those scapegoats lie.
When the tear gas clears, he still has a colossal tragedy to explain away to American voters. In this context, his antics are all of a piece and the sound they make, like the sound of water rushing through the shingles on Dover Beach, is the long, withdrawing roar of America’s retreat.
Photographs by Feature China, Barcroft Media, Getty Images