The endless — and potentially harmful — debate over COVID’s origins

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The U.S. Department of Energy has determined that the most likely source of the coronavirus pandemic was an accidental leak from a Chinese virology lab, according to a recent report from the Wall Street Journal.

Debate over the origins of COVID-19 has raged since the earliest days of the pandemic. Two competing theories — one suggesting that it was a “lab leak” and the other that the virus was passed to humans from animals — have been the source of intense scientific scrutiny, media sniping and political posturing. But after three years of inquiry, there is still no clear answer.

The DOE’s determination, reportedly made with “low confidence,” only shows how much uncertainty there is, even at the highest levels of the intelligence community, about where COVID-19 came from. The FBI agrees that the “lab leak” theory is most plausible, director Christopher Wray said Wednesday. But four other government agencies and the National Intelligence Council have found that COVID-19 probably passed from animals to humans in an open-air market in Wuhan, China. The most rigorous scientific inquiries have also sided with the natural explanation.

For a period in 2020, the lab leak hypothesis was treated in much of the mainstream press as an unfounded conspiracy — in part because it was often raised by people who were also pushing genuine falsehoods, like the claim that COVID was a Chinese bioweapon. Prominent social media sites also blocked some posts discussing it. Over time, the lab leak theory has become more widely accepted as plausible, although no clear evidence to support it has been made public as of yet.

Why there’s debate

Experts widely agree that there’s a strong possibility the mystery of COVID’s origins won’t ever be solved and that the debate over where it came from may never die. Still, many observers believe the disagreement itself carries important lessons for science, politics and the way we tackle new challenges.

Republicans, many of whom have promoted the lab leak theory for years, responded to the DOE’s findings by accusing Democrats and the media of suppressing a potential truth about COVID, as part of a much broader campaign to stifle conservative points of view. Some centrist pundits also say the latest revelations show that the mainstream press was far too eager to block discussion of the lab leak because of the political profile of its main advocates. This error, they argue, is consistent with a trend that persisted throughout the pandemic, of invoking “trusting the science” as a rationale for smothering reasonable skepticism of COVID policies.

Others say the debate highlights how bad our society is at dealing with uncertainty. They contend that there’s no reason for such a basic question to become politicized or contentious at all, but that once it did, the critical scientific implications of discovering where COVID came from became an afterthought in the tribal fight over who got to say they were right.

Many scientists worry that intense focus on what may ultimately be an unsolvable problem is obscuring how critical it is to prevent the next major pandemic. Some people argue that part of the reason the debate has endured for so long is that once we move past it, we’ll have to face some really difficult realities about the way we choose to live and how it makes us increasingly vulnerable to deadly viral outbreaks.

What’s next

The Senate unanimously passed a bill on Wednesday that would require the intelligence community to declassify some of the material it has on the origins of COVID. It’s unclear, though, whether that bill has the votes to advance through the House of Representatives. House Republicans are likely to focus heavily on the lab leak theory at a hearing scheduled for next week as part of the party’s broad investigation into the Biden administration’s COVID response.


Far more attention should be paid to the dangers that are coming

“Tracing the roots of Covid-19 is still an important scientific and political task, but it’s far more urgent to halt the next pandemic before it ignites.” — Umair Irfan, Vox

Conspiracists made it tough to have a real discussion about the possibility of a lab leak

“The simple reason why so many people weren’t keen to discuss the ‘lab leak’ *theory* is because it was originally conflated by the right with ‘Chinese bio weapon’ conspiracies and continues to be conflated by the right with anti-Fauci conspiracies. Blame the conspiracy theorists. … It’s hard to have a good faith disagreement about a major issue if the issue itself has been hijacked by bad faith folks.” — Medhi Hasan, MSNBC host

Politicians and pundits should never have been involved in the debate in the first place

“The not-quite-solved mystery of exactly where this virus came from and how it found its way into humans … is a scientific question best left to scientists.” — David Quammen, Washington Post

Overzealous attacks on ‘misinformation’ undermine the people’s trust in government

“What’s ironic is that the measures taken by the Biden administration and the news media to ‘protect’ people from misinformation will backfire by erasing more trust in these institutions. There are still many unanswered questions about COVID-19, but it’s far better to admit this than force a narrative that later proves untrue.” — Ingrid Jacques, USA Today

During the pandemic, science became a matter of identity rather than truth

“The overt anti-science crankery on the right became a sort of cultural breaking point. For many liberals, following the science became not just a guide to developing sound policy beliefs, as it ought to be, but a tribal marker. … The temptation to use ideological criteria to settle scientific questions is one that ultimately poses a threat to science itself. The correct way to follow the science is to actually follow it — not to use it as a mascot or as a justification to place your own views beyond criticism.” — Jonathan Chait, New York

The debate shows the harm in acting as if there’s a clear answer to unsettled questions

“Health officials and intelligence experts may not have enough information to conclusively determine COVID-19’s origins. But the push to not merely decry the lab leak theory but to actively prohibit discussion of it—as was the case on Facebook—has not aged well. Let people discuss and debate all variety of coronavirus topics, without fear of sanction.” — Robby Soave, Reason

Mainstream media outlets don’t allow alternative viewpoints to intrude on their worldview

“Rather than embracing an ethic of questioning everything — and especially authority — the legacy press in recent years has taken on the role of enforcer of various orthodoxies, whether based in fact or not. The origins coverage is Exhibit A.” — Rich Lowry, National Review

Nuance and uncertainty can’t survive in the modern information environment

“In our attention economy, overconfidence is rewarded, while honest uncertainty is drowned out.” — Faye Flam, Bloomberg

Focus on COVID’s origins blocks hard conversations about far more important issues

“Whatever the conscious intentions of the proponents of a lab leak as the source of COVID-19, their arguments and their insistence on playing and replaying the debate have become dangerous. They shift responsibility for [the United States’] disastrous handling of the pandemic away from the failures of our political system, our politicians, and our health and public health systems and to a geopolitical rival. They are a partisan political cudgel, diverting attention from the real sources of danger of future pandemics and delaying action on what could be an existential threat to humans.” — John Ehrenreich, Slate

The debate will never end, even though the known facts aren’t likely to change

“It's going to go back and forth, back and forth. This echo chamber will make it appear that those who believe it was a lab leak will have more and more evidence and those who believe it was a natural spillover will have more and more evidence. But in fact, there's not new evidence at all.” — Michael Osterholm, infectious disease researcher, to Axios

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Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images