How Trump’s “Wuhan lab” theory is backfiring

By Robert Wright, Apr 25 2020

The theory that Covid-19 came not from a Chinese “wet market” but from a Chinese laboratory now has the full support of President Trump. This hasn’t been confirmed by Trump himself, but it’s been confirmed by the next-most-official source: a Fox News chyron. During a recent episode of Tucker Carlson’s show, the chyron read, “Sources to Tucker: Intel agencies are almost certain that the virus escaped Wuhan lab.”

In sheerly factual terms, Trump could turn out to be on solid ground. The fringe version of this theory—that the virus came from a bioweapons lab, and may have been genetically engineered—continues to be widely dismissed, but credible people think the virus could have escaped from a less nefarious Wuhan lab, one that studies coronaviruses with an eye to preventing epidemics.

I can see why Trump thinks that publicizing even this watered down version of the lab origin story is a political winner. Though it lacks the cinematic flair of the bioweapon theory, it seems (at first glance, anyway) to corroborate the idea that the Chinese government was engaged in a cover up during the contagion’s crucial early stages. So it reinforces Trump’s blame-the-perfidious-Chinese-communists-not-the-incompetent-American-president narrative—without Trump having to be the one who blames the perfidious Chinese.

But if I were Trump I’d hope that the lab origin story doesn’t pan out. On close examination it turns out to reinforce the blame-the-incompetent-American-president message. In 2018, we now know, the Trump administration had an opportunity to help tighten security at the Wuhan lab that is at the center of the story and failed to do so. 

Earlier this month Trump supporters hailed a piece by Washington Post writer Josh Rogin that seemed to lend substance to the lab origin story. Rogin reported that in 2018, US officials paid repeat visits to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The WIV lab has the highest biosafety rating available—P4—but the US visitors came away with doubts that it was safe enough, given the highly infectious and lethal viruses it was studying.

A cable drafted by US diplomats in China, sent to Washington in January of 2018, and obtained by Rogin reads as follows: “During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they [the Americans who visited the lab] noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.” A second cable, also sent to Washington, carried the same basic message, according to Rogin. 

Trump supporters who amplify this part of Rogin’s story tend not to mention a second part of it. Both cables, Rogin writes, “argued that the United States should give the Wuhan lab further support, mainly because its research on bat coronaviruses was important but also dangerous.”

And China was asking for such support. Notwithstanding the vision of this lab cultivated by conspiracy theorists—a black box where God knows what was going on—it was a lab whose workers had long collaborated with American scientists. Rogin writes: “The Chinese researchers at WIV were receiving assistance from the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch and other U.S. organizations.” And now, “the Chinese requested additional help”—help that the authors of the State Department cables advocated for the sake of America’s, and the world’s, security against a possible contagion.    

And what did the Trump administration do in response to these pleas? Nothing.

Why? Who knows? Maybe the contagion of incompetence that Trump unleashed within the executive branch three years ago resulted in the two cables not getting the attention they deserved. Maybe Trump’s secretary of state read them and deep-sixed them. Maybe they reached Trump and he ignored them. In any event, it’s Trump’s administration and the State Department is run by his appointees—so it’s Trump’s fault.

So if it turns out that the virus escaped from this lab, then the administration’s unresponsiveness to these cables is, by any rational reckoning, a huge political deal.

Two footnotes: 

(1) If indeed the virus escaped from a lab, that wouldn’t mean the Chinese government purposefully misled us in advancing the “wet market” theory. In one scenario apparently leaked by the Trump administration to Fox News so that Trump could conspicuously refrain from denying it, an intern at the lab transmitted the virus to her boyfriend, and he then went to the wet market and spread the virus. In any event, various pieces of evidence indicate that Wuhan officials emphasized the wet market theory in conveying news of the crisis to China’s national government. 

(2) The kind of transparency this laboratory had—US scientists collaborating on the work there, US officials visiting it—is something you can probably kiss goodbye if this pandemic leads to a new Cold War with China, as various Republicans seem to want and as some of Joe Biden’s campaign messaging may encourage.

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