Who’s Afraid of the Lab Leak?
With institutional opinion sliding toward the lab-leak theory of Covid’s origins, those who had previously dismissed it are now playing some interesting games. Their most common excuse is that the lab-leak argument was embraced by conspiracy theorists and racists who believed that the virus was a Chinese weapon and that leading scientists didn’t give it any credence as a result. Sorry, but we were all there, and this claim isn’t true. The most common concern about Covid having come from a Chinese lab was always that the scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology conducting gain-of-function research had been catastrophically reckless.
If this is the the best excuse that former proponents of the wet-market theory can muster, it’s no surprise that they’re now ready to forget Covid’s origins altogether. This weekend, intrepid public-health poobah Dr. Leana Wen went on CNN and offered her thoughts on the matter. “I don’t know if we’re ever going to come to a definitive answer because people are so dug in in how they think about the origin of Covid,” she said. “And so what I’m proposing—I just wrote a Washington Post column about this—is that we can think both [theories] are possible. I’m not saying stop investigating but rather we need to move forward. We need to prevent the next pandemic from happening.” She added, “so let’s improve lab safety.”
It’s not only morally perverse to give China a pass on the death of 7 million people; holding China accountable, and making it pay, is exactly how you “improve lab safety” and “prevent the next pandemic from happening.” So long as China acts as a law unto itself, it will continue its shoddy and dangerous work in violation of international norms—and provide an example for others to follow.
In her Washington Post column, Wen lists recent near bio-disasters in Western countries, times when deadly virus samples were left unattended in the U.S. and the Netherlands. “None of these incidents resulted in mass outbreaks. But they could have,” she writes, “Political leaders should consider that the shoe could have easily been on the other foot.” Yeah, probably not. The Chinese Communist Party has a well-documented history of cutting corners, eschewing safety measures, and using counterfeit technology in its effort to beat the West at low cost. This has meant a series of uniquely perilous and deadly projects, from chemical explosions to unstable insta-cities to crumbling bridges to derailed trains. In 2015, long before most Americans knew Wuhan existed, the Chinese novelist Murong Xuecun wrote of these disasters in the New York Times: “They are a result of the government’s love of mega-projects combined with rash planning, endemic corruption and careless construction, supervision and regulation.”
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No matter what Tom Friedman and others say about the admirable efficiency of Chinese authoritarianism, strongmen are as likely to make their bullet trains fall off bridges as run on time. And Xuecun’s chief concern was that, as China deepened economic ties with other countries, it would export this carelessness abroad. “Chinese people have paid the heaviest price for this flawed system,” he wrote. “Now that Chinese-style construction and management are going global, what price is the world prepared to pay?” Prepared or not, if the lab-leak theory is correct, we paid.
Leana Wen may be scared to admit it, but the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t value human life as we do. If it did, it wouldn’t put more than a million Uyghurs in internment camps or impose the kind of inhumane pandemic restrictions that reduced citizens of the Xinjiang region to modern-day hunter gatherers. And the Chinese government can’t be forced to share our values. But through sanctions and other punitive measures, the U.S. can incentivize future Chinese safety compliance whether or not President Xi and his footmen see the world as we do.
Or we can go back to the status quo that got us here. As Xuecun wrote in 2015, “The Chinese authorities have learned nothing from these frequent accidents. The only government competence on show is with information control: hiding facts, forbidding media reporting and rapidly closing social media accounts suspected of spreading ‘rumors.’” If we let Beijing off the hook this time, we might as well start stocking up toilet paper for the rerun.