Another reason to take the lab-leak hypothesis seriously
Pondering its implications could help save us from the Tom Cottons and Steve Bannons of the world.
This piece (in slightly different form) is also appearing in The Washington Post.
It’s understandable that many Americans on Team Blue are deeply skeptical, if not completely dismissive, of the “lab leak hypothesis.”
The idea that the Covid virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan—and, in most versions of the story, was genetically engineered there—got much of its initial impetus from not-very-reality-based Trumpists, such as the famously inventive Steve Bannon. And the hypothesis fit suspiciously well into their longstanding agenda of demonizing China. Trump trade adviser and rabid China hawk Peter Navarro went so far as to suggest that the Chinese had developed Covid as a bioweapon.
One place Navarro made that suggestion was on Bannon’s podcast, where commercial breaks were ushered in with snippets of a song called “Take Down the CCP”—written by Miles Guo, the Bannon-backing billionaire Chinese exile who seeks regime change in Beijing (where he is under indictment for bribery and fraud, among other things).
So, yes, there is reason to doubt the lab leak hypothesis. But, strangely, this particular reason—the ideological motivation that helped propel it to prominence—is also a reason that left-of-center Americans need to take the lab-leak scenario seriously.
The lab-leak hypothesis is having a day in the sun—both because of last week’s report that the Energy Department has weighed in on its side and because House Republicans are holding hearings that will give it airtime. This will naturally lead to discussions about how to prevent future lab disasters—especially disasters involving genetically altered pathogens. And if far-right Chinaphobes dominate that discussion—because they’re the ones taking the lab leak scenario seriously enough to dwell on its implications—then the policy discourse will be skewed in their direction.
We got a glimpse of this direction last week when Sen. Tom Cotton greeted reports of the Energy Department’s support of the lab-leak hypothesis by tweeting: