Tue. May 17th, 2022

A copy of China’s state-run Global Times newspaper in Beijing, Jan. 21.


Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press

Unfortunately the fact that China is covering up the origins of SARS-Cov2 can’t be taken as circumstantial evidence for the lab-leak theory. A circumstantial case can be strong or weak, but this is not a criminal investigation. We shouldn’t have to rely on circumstantial evidence. We should be able to rely on good-faith testimonial and documentary evidence from people who know exactly what happened, backed by lab and tissue samples, including evidence from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which should have been preserved rather than destroyed.

But the truth is, China’s government would be as likely to cover up a natural occurrence as it would a lab accident. China’s government and people well understood the risks arising from its massive and atavistic live-animal trade (source of the 2003 SARS outbreak), which Beijing long claimed to be addressing and regulating. For months its propaganda strategy toward the new virus has been clear: The elusiveness of its origins, despite this history and China’s diligent search, means a foreign source must be considered as likely as a domestic one.

The big circumstantial problem for China is this: the virus’s emergence overnight in the city of Wuhan, seemingly without earlier outbreaks or intermediate forms showing up elsewhere. These circumstances obviously lend credence to a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The same circumstances must be emphasized in China’s counternarrative, best seen in the English version of a lengthy “investigation” in the party-run Global Times. To wit, the virus exploded in Wuhan because it arrived during the October 2019 Military World Games, on the persons of foreign athletes or in frozen foods they brought with them.

The Global Times, an offshoot of People’s Daily created in the reform era to exude a more modern credibility, offers a tellingly tentative but suggestive account: quotes from retailers at the Huanan wet market saying it was visited by foreign military personnel who may have spread the virus; testimony from airport officials about the frozen foods athletes brought with them; allusions to French media reports suggesting that participants returned with cold-like symptoms. China convinced the World Health Organization to mention the military games and frozen-food theories in its own report, which the Global Times then cites as evidence for the theories.

Most important is how the Global Times frames the investigation: the sine qua non is finding patient zero. This is awfully convenient when other countries are allowing searches for early victims of Covid and China isn’t. In Italy and France as early as November 2019, we know from patient samples that Covid was likely present. Baldly, the Global Times asserts that China by now has “done what it can do” to find similar evidence of domestic Covid “before January 2020” and concludes, “If the answer could not be found here, maybe it’s time to find it in other places.”

I may be wrong, but I don’t see Beijing backtracking from this stance, which would require admitting error and repudiating a coverup. It would mean surrendering the party’s time-tested strategy of shifting blame to foreigners for bad outcomes (see

Ian Johnson’s

account of this aspect of party history in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books).

This will be a high-wire act. Like the lab-leak theory, China’s preferred narrative depends on not finding early cases of Covid or transitional versions of the virus in China. From the start, China’s government was frantic to write a narrative independent of the scientific evidence. Recall the silencing of doctors, the expulsion and jailing of journalists, the destruction of Huanan market.

Donald Trump

may gripe about the unfairness of Covid arriving in his re-election year but China lacks any orderly means to replace a regime that discredits itself in a national crisis. Its singularly draconian effort to suppress the virus wasn’t because it adopted the attitude of CNN announcers that no cost is too high to prevent a Covid death. It was the prospect of Covid ripping through a country whose intensive-care capacity is 10% of what the U.S. and other Western countries could provide. A second Wuhan, much less 40 of them, might have meant the end of party rule.

The consequences of the lab-leak theory may be large but perhaps not what you are hearing. China, after a slow start, has begun vaccinating its 1.4 billion citizens, but Bloomberg News notices that it has shown no desire to ease the travel restrictions that cut its people off from the outside world. China’s estrangement from the world is likely to grow with the Covid-origins controversy. This is where Western governments, I’m betting, will feel a need to pitch in, manifested in a soon-to-be-apparent desire to move on quickly from the lab theory without resolving it.

While the Biden administration plays for time, some lawmakers believe sanctions would be the faster route to establishing whether the origin of covid-19 was a lab-leak in Wuhan, China. Image: Roman Pilipey/Shutterstock

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Appeared in the June 12, 2021, print edition.

By rahul