Here’s what I’ve never gotten about conspiracy theories: the world is so messed up without having to look at conspiracy theories that they literally make no sense to me as a thing. Like, all you have to do is look outside. Now, I know there are real reasons why they exist–they explain the world to stupid people in a simplistic and holistic manner and they make it so that you don’t have to do anything about the problems of the world because you can’t.
Anyway, one of the stupidest conspiracy theories around Covid has been the lab leak theory, which Lindsay Beyerstein eviscerates in a New Republic hate review of a bad new book promoting this garbage.
Chan and Ridley are touchy about any suggestion that they are trafficking in conspiracy theories. “As if an accident could be a conspiracy,” they scoff. But all of the scenarios they seem to find significant matter only if they convince us there’s a major cover-up afoot: If the WIV has been deliberately hiding the link between the Tongguan mineshaft and RaTG13 since 2016, for instance, that would indeed be a conspiracy. If the database was taken down to hide something, that too would be a conspiracy. If the WIV is lying about the blood tests that showed that none of its employees had Covid-19 in November 2019, or if the Chinese government has already done all the tests that would establish the lab origin of Covid-19, but it is selectively releasing only the evidence that supports a natural origin—as the book insinuates—all of the above would require the collusion of large numbers of people.
When you raise concrete objections to one theory, lab leakers throw out a slightly different version. If Covid-19 couldn’t be made from RaTG13, what if it was made from some other virus like RaTG13? No social or geographic link to the Wuhan Institute? Well, maybe it was some other lab we don’t know about. No obvious signs of genetic modification? Suppose they used an invisible technique? None of these scenarios is prima facie impossible, and therefore, once raised, none can be dismissed out of hand. But none of them is supported by any evidence whatsoever. And if you don’t like those, they have others. They’re just asking questions, here.
The through line in all of these possible scenarios is that there is no through line. There’s no overarching coherent narrative about when or how this “lab leak” happened. And in making that clear, Viral also shows why the very weakness of the lab leak case is also its greatest strength: The great part about suspicions—from a conspiracy theorist’s perspective—is that they don’t have to gel into any coherent theory. You can just have a bad feeling that becomes someone else’s job to resolve for you.
This is why the lab leak theory will never die, no matter how much evidence virologists are patiently accumulating on the side of natural origin. It’s all about suspicion and innuendo. And when one supposedly suspicious event is unpacked, it’s usually a long and boring explanation nobody wants to hear. Meanwhile, the theorists have already found 10 more things that seem spooky to them. Conspiracy theories, we’re learning, are even harder to eradicate than infectious diseases.