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New evidence on the Wuhan lab

Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Last March lots of sensible people, including me, agreed that talk of the pandemic originating in a laboratory, rather than directly from animals, was “pseudo-scientific nonsense”, says Matt Ridley in The Spectator. It seemed “almost on a par with UFOs and the Loch Ness monster”. No longer. It has now emerged that US intelligence believes three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were hospitalised in November 2019, just before the world first heard about the coronavirus. President Biden has announced an inquiry.

It seems the turning point was in February. During a press conference with WHO scientists who were looking into the outbreak, Chinese officials claimed the virus probably came from frozen rabbit meat, and that no further investigation was needed. WHO officials “sat meekly” during this “propaganda session”, but the brazenness of the Chinese claim, for which there is a “total lack of evidence”, got everyone thinking. It brought the lab-leak theory back from the dead, “like Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein”.

Left-wing media outlets – including The Guardian, The New York Times and The Washington Post – have long dismissed the lab-leak hypothesis as a conspiracy theory, says Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine. They did so despite some glaring circumstantial evidence. We knew the Wuhan lab, which does research into zoonotic diseases, had created more than 100 coronaviruses designed to infect humans. We knew, too, that the lab’s biosecurity wasn’t up to much – one expert has compared its standards to those of a local dentist. Donald Trump didn’t help by floating the preposterous idea that China might have started the pandemic on purpose. But many mainstream journalists took the bait, “answering his dissembling with false certainty of their own”.

The media aren’t the only ones with “Trump derangement syndrome”, said the New York Post. Biden initially shut down his predecessor’s inquiry into the Wuhan lab, only to now reverse course. He should have seen the obvious: the WHO investigation was “a farce” and China was stonewalling. Let’s hope the inquiry now gets the resources it deserves.

That’s all well and good, says Ian Birrell in unHerd, but many months have passed, and the Chinese state is so “ruthless in its efficiency” that we’ll probably never know the truth. Even if a whistle-blower were to produce a smoking gun, what then? Some say the “entire Communist apparatus of control might crumble”, but that’s unlikely in our “post-truth world”. If millions of free Americans believe the nonsense of QAnon, then “a sustained Chinese propaganda campaign” would probably convince most of its citizens to disbelieve the truth. Instead, let’s be thankful that some of the lazy assumptions of the past year are being upended – “and reflect on the lessons that can already be learned”.

British parasitologist Dr Peter Daszak was behind an influential statement by scientists published by The Lancet in February last year condemning “conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin”. “We declare no competing interests,” it said. Which is odd, says Matt Ridley, because his American not-for-profit foundation, EcoHealth Alliance, claws in $17m a year from the Pentagon and other US government agencies to hunt for viruses – and works with, among others, the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Daszak has collaborated with, provided funding for “and shared karaoke sessions with the boss of” the very lab that is under suspicion once again.