Donald Trump aims to ride a COVID conspiracy theory to reputational rehab. “Now everybody is agreeing that I was right when I very early on called Wuhan as the source of COVID-19, sometimes referred to as the China Virus,” the former president said.
It’s unclear why a president who failed to protect us from a bioweapons attack, or who failed to respond to the fallout of a lab accident, would be more sympathetic than a president who was outmatched by an ordinary virus, but let’s set that aside. Trumpian rhetoric is not about logic. It’s about arousing prejudice and grievance. Trump is playing the ancient game of scapegoating. He believes that if he can convince his supporters that COVID is China’s fault, they’ll forget the parts that were his fault.
Epidemics and conspiracy theories go together like crops and fertilizer. The imagery varies according to the technologies and anxieties of the era, but the basic logic never changes. In the pre-modern era, you were more likely to hear about poison and black magic. The tropes have since shifted to bioweapons and lab accidents. Faced with the horror of an outbreak, even modern people tend to forget that epidemic diseases are a natural and depressingly predictable feature of human history and existence. The conspiracists always say this time is different. This time our enemy hurt us on purpose.
More even-handed conspiracy theorists often allow for the possibility that our enemy hurt us by accident, on account of being inept, dirty and irresponsible. Theories that posit without evidence that the latest plague was an accidental release of a bioweapon, or an innocent experiment gone awry, fall into this category. Granted, lab leaks have occasionally resulted in outbreaks, but if you’re pushing a lab-leak theory without evidence, and your theory involves someone covering up said lab-leak, you’re probably indulging in conspiratorial thinking, especially if you’re blaming an outsider for it.
There is no evidence that COVID was released from a lab. There is a mountain of evidence that animals infect humans with novel viruses all the time; that bats are a natural reservoir of numerous coronaviruses in the SARS family; that bats are constantly recombining them in their bodies; and that the wildlife trade is a vector for spreading them from bats to humans, often through an intermediate species.
After SARS, the question on every expert’s mind was not: Will there be a more transmissible SARS? This pandemic was not just predicted. It was inevitable.
The idea that our enemies have caused the plagues that afflict us is one of the oldest propaganda tropes, much older than the germ theory of disease, let alone modern biolaboratory methods. During the plagues of the Middle Ages, Jews were often accused of poisoning wells. Europe saw multiple cholera riots during the 19th century, each independently sparked by rumors that the rich had deliberately poisoned the poor. (To their credit, the poor had correctly observed that the rich were less likely to die from cholera, but the killer was inequality, not poison.) During the great flu pandemic of 1918, Americans accused the Germans of releasing this viral scourge from U-boats, poisoning over-the-counter medicines, and other wiles—even though Germans were also dying from the flu. The AIDS epidemic spawned multiple sub-genres including a KGB-sponsored disinformation campaign code named “Operation Denver,” claiming that HIV was an escaped US bioweapon. Historical records reveal that the goal of the disinformation campaign was to spread anti-American sentiment around the world and create controversy and division inside the United States.
When the original SARS coronavirus broke out in 2003, there was rampant speculation that SARS was a bioweapon. Foreign policy hawks blamed Beijing. Meanwhile, Chinese activists pointed the finger at Washington. We later learned that humans caught SARS from trafficked palm civets in a live animal market, who caught it from bats. The civet connection was exposed relatively quickly but it took 15 years for scientists to find one cave that housed a colony of bats carrying between them all the genetic building blocks of SARS. They still haven’t found a bat with a complete SARS virus in its body, but because bat roosts are such fertile environments for recombining new viruses from existing viruses, the discovery was strong enough to close the case.
When the MERS coronavirus hit in 2012, a now-familiar style of argument recurred: “Many of the features [of MERS] are paradoxical and cannot be explained by known principles of epidemiology,” claimed a press release on behalf of an Australian professor who argued MERS could be a bioweapon. In other words, this is new. It’s got features we’ve never seen before and can’t readily explain, and it’s scary. Ergo, it could be a bioweapon. Spoiler alert: It was camels, who probably caught it from bats.
In 2021, we’re still battling the same knee-jerk assumption that if we don’t fully understand something, it must have been created by someone we hate. Novel features of the COVID-19 virus are being cited as evidence of artificial origins. As soon as one potentially artificial feature is explained, the conspiracy mill generates a new one.
Scientists have yet to isolate COVID from an animal in the wild. Nevertheless, there’s a huge body of evidence to support the idea that COVID-19 came from the same place the last two epidemics of deadly human coronavirus came from: From bats encroached upon by humans and their livestock, or from some intermediate host that was infected by a bat before being scooped up by a poacher and ferried to a big-city wildlife market.
It’s now considered unlikely that COVID made the final jump from animal to human at the famous Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where the first cases of COVID were observed, because the earliest known case had no connection to that market. But there’s no particular reason that the jump would have had to have happened at the market in order for the virus to be zoonotic. And it’s noteworthy that about two-thirds of the earliest known COVID cases were associated with either the Huanan Market, another market that sold live animals or another source of live or dead animals.
It’s hard to accept that random mutations in lowly horseshoe bats upended human civilization for over a year. It’s always easier, cognitively and emotionally, to blame our enemies for our woes. It’s a trap any of us can fall into if we’re not careful. And as usual, Trump is positioning himself to capitalize on human weakness.
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