A new intelligence report lends support to the idea that COVID-19's roots lie not in a seafood market but with researchers at a scientific lab. But officials, scientists, and the media are still bitterly divided over what to make of it.
From the earliest days of the pandemic, the prevailing theory about the new coronavirus's roots was that it migrated from animals to humans at a "wet market" in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Yet doubts about that explanation have abounded, too, with others suggesting that it was accidentally leaked from a nearby lab facility that did research on coronaviruses. Now, evidence in a newly revealed U.S. intelligence report lends credence to the lab leak theory.
According to the previously undisclosed report, three scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) were hospitalized due to illness in November 2019—a.k.a., right around the time when COVID-19 is thought to have started spreading. The first documented case of the new coronavirus was on December 8, 2019.
How to interpret this revelation is up for serious debate.
U.S. headlines provide a good glimpse of this divide. "The 'Wuhan Lab Leak' Theory Looks More Credible Than Ever," asserted the New York Post editorial board over the weekend. "No, Science Clearly Shows That COVID-19 Wasn't Leaked From a Wuhan Lab," says Forbes.
Media ambivalence echoes that from scientists and public health authorities.
"Current and former officials familiar with the intelligence about the lab researchers expressed differing views about the strength of the supporting evidence for the assessment," notes The Wall Street Journal.
Top White House COVID-19 adviser Anthony Fauci—who said last year there was no scientific evidence that the virus was made in a lab—has recently been less convinced.
Fauci was asked at the United Facts of America: A Festival of Fact-Checking earlier this month if he was still confident that the virus must have developed naturally. "No actually," Fauci said. "I am not convinced about that."
"I think we should continue to investigate what went on in China until we continue to find out to the best of our ability what happened," he added.
Meanwhile, Chinese authorities continue to vehemently dispute the lab leak theory, along with the idea that the virus even started in China at all. They suggest that perhaps it originated in a lab at Fort Detrick in Maryland, though there is little to back this up.
The WIV team also dispute that COVID-19 came from their work and reject the idea that the hospitalized researchers are a smoking gun. From the Journal:
Shi Zhengli, the top bat coronavirus expert at WIV, has said the virus didn't leak from her laboratories. She told the WHO-led team that traveled to Wuhan earlier this year to investigate the origins of the virus that all staff had tested negative for Covid-19 antibodies and there had been no turnover of staff on the coronavirus team.
Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist on that team told NBC News in March that some WIV staff did fall sick in the autumn of 2019, but she attributed that to regular, seasonal sickness.
"There were occasional illnesses because that's normal. There was nothing that stood out," she said. "Maybe one or two. It's certainly not a big, big thing."
It isn't unusual for people in China to go straight to the hospital when they fall sick, either because they get better care there or lack access to a general practitioner. Covid-19 and the flu, while very different illnesses, share some of the same symptoms, such as fever, aches and a cough. Still, it could be significant if members of the same team working with coronaviruses went to hospital with similar symptoms shortly before the pandemic was first identified.
U.S. research into the lab leak hypothesis and statements about it seem to have been stymied by political tension and posturing. The Trump administration was accused of being open to the theory because it made Beijing look bad, while the Biden administration seems reticent to take the theory more seriously precisely because it was pushed by Trump. One Biden administration official told the Journal that the Trump-era intelligence report first discussing sick Wuhan researchers was an attempt "to put spin on the ball."
And the World Health Organization (WHO) has attempted to investigate but has been thwarted by a lack of transparency from China:
Members of the WHO-led team said Chinese counterparts had identified 92 potential Covid-19 cases among some 76,000 people who fell sick between October and early December 2019, but turned down requests to share raw data on the larger group. That data would help the WHO-led team understand why China sought to only test those 92 people for antibodies.
Team members also said they asked for access to a Wuhan blood bank to test samples from before December 2019 for antibodies. Chinese authorities declined at first, citing privacy concerns, then agreed, but have yet to provide that access, team members say.
Protesters are increasingly getting hit with "civil disorder" charges. "In the last year, the Justice Department has turned extensively to civil disorder, a once rarely used law, to crack down on crimes they say were committed during protests and other unrest," reports NPR.
Civil disorder was criminalized as part of the 1968 Civil Obedience Act. It can carry a prison sentence of up to five years for interfering with police or firefighter duties during a protest or civil unrest in a way that "adversely affects commerce" or disrupts the "conduct or performance of any federally protected function." In other words, it gives the feds a lot of leeway to charge protesters and people practicing civil disobedience.
"There's overtly racist sentiments of the drafters of this statute," Lisa Hay, a federal public defender for the District of Oregon, told NPR. "The statute was written during a time when senators were concerned with the civil rights movement and they wanted to stop the civil rights movement by arresting its leaders."
These days, it's been turned against racial justice protesters and protesters on the far right.
"During the last 30 years, civil disorder was used in roughly a dozen cases nationwide," notes NPR. But "in the last 12 months, the Justice Department turned to the charge more than 125 times."
Why are cryptocurrency prices falling? Bitcoin dropped 29 percent last Wednesday alone, and other cryptocurrencies have seen prices fall as well. "Bitcoin has lost about 40% of its value since April 13 when it hit a high of more than $64,606 per coin," notes CBS News. What gives?
In part, it's threats of government regulation that are causing the decline:
Before Wednesday, Tesla's decision to not accept the digital currency as payment for cars, along with concerns about tighter regulation of digital currencies, were major factors in the decline. The price is still up about 31% in 2021 and nearly 300% from a year ago.
• The app Citizen is experimenting with privatizing policing.
• Introducing the world's first 3D printed commercial housing project.
• "Of Course California Should Decriminalize Magic Mushrooms," says the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board.
• How did UFO investigations become a serious matter?
• Officials roll back guidance on COVID-19 testing:
U.S. health officials say most fully vaccinated Americans can skip testing for COVID-19, even if they are exposed to someone who is infected. Experts say testing vaccinated people can lead to unnecessary worry and disruption at work and school.https://t.co/ZcQMwhnMZG
— The Associated Press (@AP) May 23, 2021
• An Americans for Prosperity parade showcases the major divide in the 2021 Republican Party:
"This event is not about Trump," said Annie Patnaude, the Michigan director for AFP, explaining why the Trump display had to move away from the live band and full buffet tables she had set up. "This is about pork."
Rob Cortis, the float's owner, hails from the now dominant part of the Republican Party, in which the former president is still celebrated by many as the rightful winner of the 2020 election, a debunked claim. A list of Trumpian priorities — from "infrastructure" to "Stop the Steal" — were bolted to his trailer, with no mention of the old conservative traditions of limited government or lower debt….
A new generation of Trumpist acolytes — such as Missouri attorney Mark McCloskey, who became famous for drawing a gun on Black Lives Matters protesters — have announced their intention to run for high office with a set of Trump issues that motivate them. McCloskey has announced plans to run for the Senate.
The moves pose a threat to the party's efforts to reclaim moderate, largely college-educated voters who were turned off by Trump, while muddying an attempt to shift the national focus to the less popular parts of Democratic policies.