Wednesday, March 01, 2023


David Wallace-Wells of The New York Times wags a finger at liberals:
We’ve Been Talking About the Lab-Leak Hypothesis All Wrong
He wants us to imagine a world that experienced the same pandemic the real world has been experiencing, except this world is devoid of right-wing politics:
Imagine yourself, if you can, in the months before the Covid-19 pandemic. Imagine being told then that a novel virus would emerge in China that would then spread around the world, infecting much of the global population, by some estimates killing more than 20 million people, and upending much of humanity’s social, political and economic life along the way.

Imagine you were then told that some experts believed that this new virus raised questions about the safety of certain kinds of scientific research, in which virologists collected rare viruses out in the wild, brought them to facilities in or near cities and in some cases tinkered with them there to help prevent or better respond to future pandemics.

Imagine that none of this was presented to you in partisan or nationalistic terms. Imagine that Donald Trump had not been president and that nobody used the term “bioweapon.” And then imagine that a question was put to you: What would the chances have to be that a lab accident was the origin of the pandemic to justify a broad and public conversation about the safety of that research?
Wallace-Wells believes -- and, really, I get this -- that even a very small chance that carelessness caused the pandemic should have made us rethink lab safety:
... personally, I think that if I were asked what the chances of an accidental outbreak would have to be to justify a loud and public reckoning over lab safety, I would put the number much lower than full proof. In fact, much lower even than “preponderance of evidence” — as low as 5 percent, perhaps, or 1 percent or less. Truthfully, I’m not sure that it would need to be any higher than zero, given that early in 2020, many of those scientists who would become the most stalwart critics of the lab-leak theory privately acknowledged that the origins of the pandemic were very much up for debate and that a laboratory leak was a perfectly plausible — perhaps even the most likely — explanation for the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan a few months earlier.
But we can't "imagine that none of this was presented ... in partisan or nationalistic terms." We can't "imagine that Donald Trump had not been president and that nobody used the term 'bioweapon'" -- or, more memorably, the phrase "China virus," a name Trump first endorsed on March 11, 2020, when COVID was barely a presence in much of the United States, and then used repeatedly in speeches and on Twitter.

(See also: "Chinese coronavirus," "Wuhan virus," "Wu flu," etc., etc.)

Right-wingers poisoned our COVID discourse from the start, the way they poison our discourse on so many other issues. Writing about our COVID debates as if they can be imagined without right-wing demagoguery is like talking about the real estate market in East Palestine, Ohio, as if the train derailment never happened. The housing stock is wonderful! The schools are first rate! Yes, but there are deadly toxins in the air, water, and soil. The derailment determines what we talk about when we talk about East Palestine, just as right-wing demagoguery sets the terms for how we talk about ... well, pretty much anything these days.

Instead of saying that "we" -- meaning right-thinking liberals -- deserve blame for failing to advocate better lab safety, Wallace-Wells should be angry at the right for making reasonable debate impossible. We're seeing it again as Republican politicians and the right-wing media respond to news that the Department of Energy believes the pandemic resulted from a lab leak, a conclusion the FBI had already reached. Downplayed in right-wing rhetoric -- which is flooding the zone right now -- is the fact that other agencies still dispute this conclusion, as The Washington Post noted on Monday:
... other intelligence agencies involved in the classified update ... were divided on the question of covid-19’s origins, with most still maintaining that a natural, evolutionary “spillover” from animals was the most likely explanation....

The overall view — that there is as yet no definitive conclusion on the virus’s origin — has not changed since the release of an earlier version of the report by the Biden administration in 2021, according to the officials.

“The bottom line remains the same: Basically no one really knows,” one of the officials said.
Moreover, it appears that no agency believes that the virus was altered in the lab.
But the agencies are united, the official said, in the view that the virus was not developed as a bioweapon.

“‘Lab’ does not equal ‘man-made,’ the official said, noting that lab workers could have collected the virus in nature and stored it at the lab from which it escaped. “Even if it was a leak from a lab," the person added, intelligence analysts "still think it would be a naturally occurring virus.”
If even agencies that believe the virus spread via a leak believe it was "a naturally occurring virus," then presumably it was not even the product of "gain of function" research designed to test responses to potential future pathogens.

But the agencies' actual conclusions -- and ongoing uncertainty about whether a lab was involved -- aren't preventing Republican demagogues from proclaiming that (a) it's settled fact that COVID came from a lab and (b) it's certain or nearly certain that the virus was engineered, in all likelihood as a bioweapon:
Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) bluntly asked at the House Select Committee’s hearing about Communist China if the totalitarian regime created the coronavirus as a bioweapon.

Directing his question to former deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger, Banks cited a recent statement from FBI Director Christopher Wray indicating that the coronavirus came from a Wuhan lab.

“The FBI has for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan,” Wray told Fox News. “Here you are talking about a potential leak from a Chinese government-controlled lab.”

... In his question, Jim Banks took it a step further by asking Pottinger if the virus did not simply originate from a lab leak, but if China actually created a bioweapon.

“Mr. Pottinger, less than an hour ago, the FBI Director, Christopher Wray, confirmed that COVID-19 originated in a Wuhan lab. Do you think there is a chance that the Wuhan lab was involved in bioweapons research?” asked Banks.

... “We know for certain that the Chinese military is involved in research in coronavirus,” [Pottinger] said. “We know that they were experimenting using U.S. technology to work on chimeric viruses. That is ones that had been engineered.”

“We know that the Chinese government and military had been involved in trying to develop vaccines for coronaviruses. I think that this is an area that there is still a great deal of information that has yet to come out that will show that there was an enormous amount of interest,” he added.
(Emphasis added.)

Christopher Wray confirmed nothing. But this is how the right dictates the terms of the debate. If the rest of us feel we can't talk about lab safety without feeding right-wing demagoguery, you can't blame us.

Also, please note that the right-wing narrative -- ChiComs deliberately unleashed COVID on the world -- suggests that we don't have a lab safety problem. In the view of the right, the Chinese are evil supervillains. Supervillains don't make mistakes -- every diabolical thing they do is deliberate. So maybe the right deserves even more of the blame for the fact that we're not talking about lab safety.

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