Contra the Covid Contrarians

By dubiously claiming lab leak theory is being victimized by liberal media bias, contrarian centrists are enabling the far right

Where did Covid come from? The two major theories are that it spread from animals to humans (zoonosis) or was leaked from a Chinese lab. Zoonosis remains the most likely theory – nature, after all, is fecund in creating viruses. But, for a variety of reasons, the lab leak theory is gaining traction in media and politics. 

In the absence of any conclusive evidence, it’s best to remain agnostic about these theories. 

There are more outlandish conjectures: that the virus is a Chinese-government-created bioweapon that was accidentally released or, even more extreme, that it was a deliberately released bioweapon. Note that these propositions demand a much higher burden of proof than the accidental lab leak theory. If you are positing a bioweapon, you have to show there was a program in place to create it. If you claim deliberate release, you have to show motive. Since no convincing proof has been offered, these theories can be dismissed as pure speculation.  

But as the lab leak theory gains new prominence, it’s worth calling attention to ways in which it is being used for dubious political ends. On Saturday, Senator Josh Hawley tweeted, “The public deserves to know if persons within the US govt tried to stop a full investigation into #COVID origins, as recently reported. And Congress must also find out to what extent Fauci’s NIAID was involved in financing research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.” To be crystal clear, the Senator is suggesting that Fauci was involved with either a Covid lab leak or, more odiously, covering up the alleged release. 

Politicians on the extreme right are getting help in mainstreaming a conspiratorial view of the lab leak theory from centrists like Matt Yglesias and Jonathan Chait, who have both recently suggested that the mainstream (or liberal) media has been unfairly attacking the lab leak theory. (Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan have echoed these claims in a more cursory fashion). 

For example, consider Yglesias’s characterization of what happened when Republican Senator Tom Cotton broached the idea of a Chinese lab leak early last year, when the virus was just beginning to spread beyond Wuhan. In a long post, Yglesias tells a story of January and February 2020 which goes like this: Cotton tried to raise the alarm about Covid but because he expressed himself as a China hawk, he was unfairly tarnished as an advocate of the idea that Covid was a Chinese bioweapon.

I want to quote Yglesias at some length from throughout his piece, just to make clear I am not misstating his argument:

What happened is that Tom Cotton raised this idea in February in his capacity as a China hawk, and then again in March as part of a nonsensical attack on Joe Biden. He got shouted down pretty hard by scientists on Twitter, by formal institutions, and by the media. Then this kind of pachinkoed down into being a politics story where writers and fact-checkers who didn’t cover science at all “knew” that this was a debunked story that right-wingers were pushing for their nefarious ends. I think it’s increasingly clear that this was a huge fiasco for the mainstream press that got way over their skis in terms of discourse-policing, and there is in fact a serious scientific question as to where the virus came from — a question that we will probably never be able to answer because the Chinese government has clearly committed to one viewpoint on this and isn’t going to allow a thorough investigation.


But then Blake Hounshell from Politico tweeted about the article about the tweets about the interview, calling it “wild” that Cotton was “spreading rumors about a Chinese bioweapon,” which just didn’t happen.

At this point, Cotton had achieved what’s really the greatest achievement possible for a Republican Party politician — he was unfairly maligned by the MSM.


A similar piece by Alexandra Stevenson in the New York Times is headlined “Senator Tom Cotton Repeats Fringe Theory of Coronavirus Origins.”

But again, the article is overwhelmingly about people who are not Tom Cotton saying something different from what Tom Cotton said. Stevenson’s piece is also a reminder that this was a different era of Covid politics, because one of the reasons she gives for doubting that it’s a deliberately engineered bioweapon (which again, is not what Cotton said) is that the virus isn’t really that big of a deal because younger and healthier people don’t have much to fear from it.

Was the mainstream media unfair to Cotton, as Yglesias alleges? Yglesias’s story is that Cotton was, in January and February of 2020, heroically trying to get the Trump administration to act on Covid, and that he merely used some characteristically hawkish rhetoric and got unfairly labelled as a conspiracy theorist. As Yglesias writes: “Cotton does not believe that it’s all going to work out fine, that the Chinese have everything under control, or that President Xi is worthy of all this praise. He thinks that Biden is right and the outbreak is a very serious problem. Cotton is going on television mostly to do the ‘Audience of One’ thing where, because Trump doesn’t read briefing documents, the best way to persuade him of something is to go on television.”

But in looking at what Cotton’s actual words were we get a very different story. On February 16, 2020, Cotton is interviewed on Fox News by Maria Bartiromo. It’s a friendly interview where he gets to advance his views. Bartiromo starts by saying, “Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton has been calling out China for its response to this outbreak, suggesting the virus may have come from China's biological warfare program.” Cotton nowhere contradicts this characterization of his views.

The interview features the following exchange:

BARTIROMO: Now, the Chinese ambassador called the notion of biological warfare – quote – "absolutely crazy," accusing you of trying to spread misinformation and panic. What's your response there? I mean, we don't want to create panic, but, at the same time, people need to be educated in terms of what exists in this region in China.

COTTON: Well, the burden of proof right now is on the Chinese Communist Party and the ambassador of China and his fellow communists. They have lied consistently about this virus from the beginning. So, we shouldn't take their word at face value.

Cotton also compared the Chinese military lab with putatively innocent American military research: “We have such laboratories ourselves in the United States run by our military, in large part done for preventative purposes. We're trying to discover vaccines or to protect our own soldiers. China's obviously very secretive about what happens at the Wuhan laboratory. We don't know, again, where this virus originated. That's why it's so important that we at least ask the questions and get the evidence.” The implications here are that while American labs were doing good (“protect our own soldiers”), the Chinese labs might have been up to something much more nefarious. 

It’s impossible for me to read Cotton’s “ask the questions” rhetoric as anything other than innuendo for the dark scenario of a deliberately created bioweapon.

On the same day as the Bartiromo interview, Cotton responded to critics by only partially backing away from the bioweapons theory. He tweeted:

 Let me debunk the debunkers. @paulina_milla and her “experts” wrongly jump straight to the claim that the coronavirus is an engineered bioweapon. That’s not what I’ve said. There’s at least four hypotheses about the origin of the virus: 

1. Natural (still the most likely, but almost certainly not from the Wuhan food market) 

2. Good science, bad safety (eg, they were researching things like diagnostic testing and vaccines, but an accidental breach occurred) 

3. Bad science, bad safety (this is the engineered-bioweapon hypothesis, with an accidental breach) 

4. Deliberate release (very unlikely, but shouldn’t rule out till the evidence is in). 

Again, none of these are “theories” and certainly not “conspiracy theories.” They are hypotheses that ought to be studied in light of the evidence, if the Chinese Communist Party would provide it.

In many ways, this clarification is much worse than the original statement. What Cotton is saying here is that not only is it possible that Covid is a deliberately engineered bioweapon, but also, more shockingly, that it is possible that it was purposefully released onto the Chinese people and the world. Such an act would be a monstrous crime against humanity and an act of war.

On March 12, 2020, Cotton, while making an announcement that he was closing his Washington office due to the pandemic, said, “We will emerge stronger from this challenge, we will hold accountable those who inflicted it on the world.” The use of the world “inflicted” has clear connotations of a deliberately malicious act.

To fully appreciate what Cotton was up to, it’s important to consider how dog-whistles and innuendo work. Right-wingers like Steve Bannon were already spreading the idea of Covid as a Chinese bioweapon. In that environment, Cotton knew that his sly allusions to the theory, even when he partly backed away from it, as in the tweet thread, was still helping mainstream the conspiracy theories. 

Evaluating Cotton’s words without an awareness of the conspiracy theories spread by Bannon is simply poor reading. It’s like looking at tweets where Donald Trump uses Q-Anon catch phrases and writing about them without citing the fact that they are Q-Anon catch phrases. Political speech is always contextual and it is because he deliberately ignores the context that Yglesias’s arguments about Cotton’s claims fall apart. 

Pace Matthew Yglesias, Tom Cotton is not the victim of a mainstream media hit job. The reporters who covered Cotton understood the right-wing mediasphere he was working in and how his comments would be understood by large parts of his audience. The reporting on Cotton was mostly responsible. (Tellingly, Chait, in his survey of the lab leak media controversy, fails to mention how the fallacious notion of Covid-as-bioweapon was a major source of the media’s pushback.)

Centrist contrarians are serving as the handmaidens of the far right by making it seem like the still speculative lab leak was censored by the mainstream media. 

To understand the dangers of Cotton’s efforts to mainstream the idea of a deliberate Chinese government release of bioweapons, it’s worth recalling the role played by false accusations of Iraqi WMDs in selling the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The situation is similar in part because many of the personages are the same. In 2002 and 2003, the Iraq War was supported by ostensible liberals and centrists like Yglesias, Jonathan Chait, Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan. Now all these figures are enthusing over the lab leak suppression theory and glossing over the way in which a legitimate theory is being used as a stalking horse for a much more incendiary and unverified claim. 

George W. Bush never said Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Instead, he uttered many sentences where Hussein’s name was in close proximity to 9/11. By August 2003, 69 per cent of Americans thought Hussein was involved with 9/11. Not nice!

The same shift is now happening in public opinion about China. According to a YouGov poll, 58 per cent of Americans now believe the virus originated in a Chinese lab (up from 49 per cent last year). More startlingly, 24 per cent of Americans (including 39 per cent of Republicans) believe the virus “was created in a laboratory and released on purpose.” With these poll numbers, we can see the seeds of a future war being planted right now.

Lab leak theory is still unproven, but a politically motivated rhetorical sleight of hand is well underway, with the Cottons of the world using supposition to imply not just Chinese governmental negligence but vast war crimes. And centrist contrarians will have helped make that connection happen.

(Edited by Emily M. Keeler)

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