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COVID Conspiracy Theories

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Lindsay Beyerstein explores an issue that has vexed many of us recently: why is it so hard for people to believe that COVID-19 came from bats and instead have all sorts of conspiracy theories for the disease’s origin. The conclusion is what I will excerpt, but you want to read the entire thing, which shows just how shaky the logic is for the idea that COVID came from a lab leak.

What we’re left with is this: If the WIV had a secret strain (or strains) at least 99 percent similar to Covid-19, it got that raw material from the wild. That would mean there’s at least one wild virus that’s at least 99 percent similar to Covid-19 somewhere in nature, where humans had contact with it at least once. So far, it hasn’t been found, but it’s got to be out there, whether Covid is 100 percent natural or human-tweaked. So, given that Covid (or its direct ancestor) must exist in nature, it’s more likely that it got out naturally (like SARS and MERS) than that it took an undetectable detour through a secure biolab.

If Covid-19 were bioengineered, that would mean the WIV lab found the now-untraceable Covid-19 precursor strain(s), and even though its main job is publishing about the cool viruses it finds, it never published it or talked about it, not even to the small army of American and international scientists it collaborates with. Then it embarked on a painstaking process of undetectably tweaking the Secret Ancestor into Covid-19, its manipulation succeeded, and then multiple layers of biosecurity failed, and Covid-19 escaped.

It’s not impossible. But it involves a number of exceptions to rules—a number of carefully designed systems failing. Meanwhile, the natural origin theory just involves countless bat roosts with millions of bats doing what they do best: generating new viruses like the world’s most chaotic supercomputer.

All theories of the origins of Covid-19 should be investigated, including lab origin theories. We should go wherever the science takes us. In mid-May, 18 respected scientists with relevant expertise published an open letter in the journal Science arguing that both zoonotic and laboratory origin hypotheses “remain viable.” This letter was seized upon as additional grounds to support the lab leak theory, seemingly by people who hadn’t read it very carefully. The authors didn’t offer any new evidence, or even an argument, for why the lab leak theory deserves to be taken more seriously. Their focus was criticizing China’s stranglehold over the raw data on the origins of the pandemic and calling for a more transparent investigation. 

These are entirely valid criticisms, but on their own, they don’t move the needle on the likelihood of a lab leak. The fact that China is being secretive about Covid-19 isn’t evidence for any particular theory. China is a totalitarian regime that is notoriously secretive about everything. It should be noted that the origins of both SARS and MERS were shrouded in troubling official secrecy before they were confirmed to be natural phenomena.

Maybe it’s comforting to think that Covid-19 was carelessly released or even deliberately engineered by a handful of hubristic scientists. That seems like a relatively easy problem to control. We could ban risky research or tighten up biosecurity protocols and the problem would be solved.

By contrast, in order to deal with the ongoing natural virus threat from bats and other animals, we have to deal with much tougher problems. We have to deal with deforestation, climate change, and the international wildlife trade. We’ll need to address agricultural practices, including at home (which, after all, is where swine flu began). All this will require massive scientific and social cooperation, domestically and internationally. In the absence of hard evidence, careless lab leak speculation or overstating the case for a lab leak relative to other origin stories amounts to the casual slander of distinguished Chinese scientists. Reckless allegations undermine the research, the international relationships, and the policymaking we need to fight this pandemic and future pandemics effectively. 

I find conspiracy theories so frustrating because if you really want to see bad stuff happening, you just have to pay the first bit of attention. There’s been lots of interaction between humans and animals that have spread disease before. It will happen again too. The need for people to believe it’s those damned Chinese–exacerbated by overconfident and underintelligent people such as Nate Silver pontificating that they are pretty well convinced it is a lab leak–is much more telling about the psychological needs to people to cast blame where it does not belong than anything about the virus. And yet, nothing can get through the morass of conspiracy theories. After all, you must then be part of the conspiracy or just brainwashed. Meanwhile, what this all very much does not help is getting support for the resources to mitigate these problems in the future, whenever they inevitably arise.

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