Covid had just reached American shores on Feb. 9, 2020, when Newt Gingrich invited Anthony Fauci, the longtime head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the British zoologist Peter Daszak onto his podcast, “Newt’s World.”
Mr. Gingrich would later sour on Dr. Fauci, accusing him of playing a key role in “the biggest scandal in American history” and calling him “one of the most destructive and dangerous people in American history.”
But on that earlier, more innocent day, Mr. Gingrich deferred to Dr. Fauci’s expertise, gushing that Dr. Fauci was “a national treasure.” At one point, Mr. Gingrich asked about something he had heard.
“There’s a sort of urban legend,” Mr. Gingrich prodded Dr. Fauci, “that there’s a biological warfare center in Wuhan and that the coronavirus escaped from that.”
“I’ve heard these conspiracy theories,” Dr. Fauci replied. “And like all conspiracy theories, Newt, they’re just conspiracy theories.” He added that while he could not say that scenario was impossible, “the things you’re hearing are still in the realm of conspiracy theories without any scientific basis.”
Dr. Daszak agreed that “all the evidence says” the virus crossed from animal to human either in a Wuhan market or in rural China, probably after originating in wild bats.
The two men could have told Mr. Gingrich a lot more.
They could have said that laboratories in Wuhan had indeed been studying bat viruses, including coronaviruses. Live bats were kept in the laboratories, and scientists occasionally carried out controversial forms of research in which viral strains are manipulated in ways that can make them more dangerous to humans. Both men worked for organizations that had a hand in moving U.S. taxpayer funds to the scientists in Wuhan — Dr. Daszak had been involved with Wuhan bat research for years; Dr. Fauci’s emails show his staff had recently reminded him of N.I.H. funding for the coronavirus work Dr. Daszak’s organization supported.
They could have acknowledged that while they believed the virus had reached humans as a zoonotic spillover from animals, accidental leaks are a known lab hazard and couldn’t yet be ruled out (even if the notion of using coronaviruses as a biological weapon was laughably improbable).
Instead they dissembled. The near-certainty with which Dr. Fauci spoke publicly of zoonotic crossover is somewhat incongruous with his private communications from that time. He knew there was real debate — he was in the thick of it. In public, he leaned hard into animal crossover; behind the scenes, he wrote that “I do not know how this evolved” but warned that he was concerned about “distortions on social media” of Covid’s origins.
The pandemic grievously eroded public faith in health authorities as well as news media, a sort of national unmooring often attributed to former President Donald Trump and others on the right who touted questionable treatments and pushed back against vaccine mandates, masks and closures.
But the full story of Covid information manipulation is much broader. In the past month we’ve learned that both the Department of Energy (which oversees its own network of laboratories and scientists) and the F.B.I. now consider it most likely that the pandemic started in the laboratories. Although those assessments were made, respectively, with “low” and “moderate” confidence, they forced the laboratory theory to be roundly, if begrudgingly, acknowledged as a plausible explanation for the origin of Covid.
And so we are left to wonder how a straightforward hypothesis got labeled first as a conspiracy and later as a reflection of racism. Retracing coverage and public comments, I found a cautionary tale: Those who seek to suppress disinformation may be destined, themselves, to sow it.
A familiar Chinese tendency to stonewall and evade foreign inquiries was on full display in Beijing and Wuhan as the world demanded answers about Covid’s origin. A similar impulse to shut down discussion, however, is suggested by the early public remarks of Drs. Fauci and Daszak, who found themselves thrust into fame overnight as journalists eagerly sought their insights.
By the time Dr. Fauci recorded the Gingrich podcast, he was involved in a private debate among some of the world’s most renowned biologists and virologists over how the virus had come to infect humans. Dr. Fauci recently acknowledged that half the participants in a now-notorious conference call to discuss Covid’s origin “felt it might be from a lab” — but at the time he gave little public hint of the seriousness of this debate.
I asked Dr. Fauci in a telephone interview about the largely one-sided nature of his public remarks. He’d always, at least, acknowledged the possibility of a lab leak, he said, but he couldn’t pretend to think both theories were equally probable. His entire career, he reminded me, centered for years on a virus — H.I.V. — that jumped into humanity from a chimpanzee. He then listed all the other outbreaks that he’d seen traced to animal origin: swine flu, MERS, even SARS-CoV-1.
“I can’t dissociate that in my mind, I can’t say, just, ‘I don’t know,’ the way you can,” he said. “I can’t, as a scientist, ignore the historical perspective that I’ve been deeply involved with my entire career.”
Emails released in a congressional inquiry indicate that Dr. Fauci was among the senior scientists who encouraged his colleagues to write a paper asserting that the new coronavirus had a natural origin. “The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2,” published by Nature Medicine in March 2020, concluded “we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is possible.”
“Our main work over the last couple weeks has been focused on trying to disprove any type of lab theory,” one of the authors, a researcher named Kristian Andersen, wrote in an email the day before the podcast dropped.
Then, in April 2020, Dr. Fauci pointed White House reporters to the publication, presenting it as compelling evidence of zoonotic crossover — without revealing that he had been involved with its creation and had even, according to the emails, given it his approval. (Dr. Fauci told me that he’s not sure he ever got around to reading the paper.)
By then, Dr. Fauci was fixed in the public imagination as a figure of reassurance and reliability. Mr. Trump was an easy foil — dishonest, childishly self-congratulatory and disturbingly capricious. And then there was Dr. Fauci — sober, rational and an emerging celebrity at a time when the public was extolled to “follow the science,” a tiresome phrase obscuring the necessarily disputatious nature of scientific progress.
With Mr. Trump sneering about “kung flu” and “China virus,” it was easy to write off a lab-leak hypothesis as a right-wing fantasy. The MSNBC host Nicolle Wallace called it “one of Trumpworld’s most favorite conspiracy theories.” Twitter added warning labels to posts that argued for lab leak; Facebook banned such posts altogether for several months in 2021 before reversing the decision. NPR called it a “baseless conspiracy theory” in a tweet, and the foreign affairs expert Fareed Zakaria wrote (and repeated on CNN): “The far right has now found its own virus conspiracy theory.”
And not just a loopy, harmless conspiracy theory, either, but a toxic idea often blamed for rising hate crimes against Asian Americans. Last year, even the White House press secretary at the time, Jen Psaki, attributed attacks on Asian Americans to “hate-filled rhetoric and language around the origins of the pandemic.”
But was that really about the lab? As I recall, people harped about bats, made cruel comments about Chinese food and stigmatized Chinese markets like this:
“The wet markets that have exotic animals in them — you’re not talking about a big chicken farm. You’re not talking about raising pigs. You’re talking about getting exotic animals from the wild … the fact is, the customs and the traditions and the things people have done for centuries are so ingrained in the population that the Chinese authorities and the Chinese people have found it very difficult to make those kinds of changes. That’s Dr. Fauci in conversation with Mr. Gingrich, dwelling on the “ingrained” tendency of people in China to create disease-breeding environments.
As for Dr. Daszak, he’d soon pop up in China as a member of the World Health Organization team dispatched to investigate the origins of the virus. He was hardly a disinterested observer: Dr. Daszak had been collaborating for more than a decade with Chinese virologists studying bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and directed National Institutes of Health money toward the research through his nonprofit, EcoHealth Alliance.
That initial W.H.O. investigation was famously stymied by Chinese intransigence, but the panel nevertheless ruled out the possibility of lab origin — only for the organization’s director general to admit several months later that this decision had been premature.
Fresh off the W.H.O. investigation, Dr. Daszak made the rounds of U.S. media to disparage lab leak as a conspiracy theory — frequently without disclosing his own professional stake in the laboratory. In perhaps the most mind-bending of these appearances, Dr. Daszak, was quoted on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” vouching for the independence of the W.H.O. investigation.
“If there was political interference with what we’re trying to say,” Dr. Daszak assured the listeners, “ … we would push back.”
From the beginning, it struck me — and many others — as outstandingly odd that the virus had erupted in a city where Chinese scientists ran experiments on bat viruses. It seemed even stranger when it emerged that one of the labs, the Wuhan branch of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, was next to the market still believed to be the epicenter of the outbreak. Sure, it could be a coincidence. But what a coincidence!
I never expected a definitive answer. As a former China correspondent, I assumed the government would lock the information down. I could not have predicted, however, that mentioning the laboratories would become socially unacceptable back in the United States. I’ve never had an opinion about how Covid started, but I was unnerved to see mainstream consensus lashing out in opposition to an idea that I understood to be plausible. Even friends and family gave me blank looks or suggested I’d fallen prey to conspiracy theory when I discussed these thoughts.
By spring of 2021, the lab leak was no longer unmentionable. Researchers, including some highly respected figures in coronavirus studies, published an open letter in Science magazine arguing that lab leak was a viable theory and should be properly investigated. President Biden asked his intelligence agencies to redouble efforts to identify Covid’s origin.
But there was still a taint around the idea.
Even when news fell in its favor — a World Health Organization report that left open the possibility of a lab leak, for example — the developments tended to be described gingerly and layered with caveats. CNN, for example, qualified the W.H.O. news by adding, “experts have roundly condemned the theory of a laboratory origin” and “there’s no proof of such origins or of a leak.”
In fact, there is no conclusive proof to rule out either theory. Mentions of lab leak were frequently followed by warnings that “many” or “most” researchers didn’t think it had happened, but I never found any basis for this sweeping assertion: Did somebody poll all the scientists?
Dr. Fauci has, in recent weeks, seemed to conflate the two theories or muddy the distinction between them.
“A lab leak could be that someone was out in the wild, maybe looking for different types of viruses in bats, got infected, went into a lab and was being studied in the lab and then came out of the lab,” Dr. Fauci told Jim Acosta this month on CNN. “But if that’s the definition of a lab leak, Jim, then that still is a natural occurrence.”
He has frequently mentioned the intense pressure he faced after contradicting a dishonest president, which he believes made him a target for political attacks.
“I have kept an open mind,” Dr. Fauci recently told Chris Cuomo on NewsNation, “from Day 1.”
We talk a lot about disinformation; the word has appeared in 27 New York Times articles so far this month. The anxiety is justified: The ease with which people can be misled, especially online, creates a perpetual instability. The country is awash in propaganda and manipulative fakery.
But trying to clean up disinformation by quashing ideas that somebody — a government employee, an academic think tank, a social media team — deems undesirable? This creates its own dangers. I’ve spent too many years in censored countries like Egypt, Russia and China to believe that our disinformation problem can be solved by monitoring speech and sorting out acceptable from unacceptable ideas. You end up in a society where nobody really believes anything.
A particular dread takes hold when I see public officials or pundits take it upon themselves to purify the national dialogue — to keep the guileless masses from being confused or misled. Dr. Fauci may have feared that ill-informed citizens and grandstanding politicians prying into laboratories would endanger beneficial research. He had, at other times, displayed a Hamiltonian distrust of ordinary people: when he admitted to lying about the benefits of masking because he feared panicked shoppers would buy up all the masks needed by frontline workers, or when he confessed to repeatedly nudging the herd-immunity target higher according to what he thought Americans could bear, apparently applying the boiling-frog theory to our collective tolerance for restrictions. Dr. Fauci told me both of those examples had been misunderstood. “That all got garbled,” he said. “What I was saying, in a clumsy way, was that we don’t really know.”
“I understand how you’re trying to psychoanalyze me,” he said. “It’s almost impossible to sort this out for the general public to understand.”
Maybe, too, most of the people who’ve shamed the discussion of lab leak were trying to do the right thing — those who weren’t Chinese bots, anyway. They were following the example of the people we are supposed to trust.
Here’s the real kicker: A recent Economist/YouGov poll indicates that 66 percent of the country, a majority of both Democrats and Republicans, now believe the pandemic originated in a laboratory.
Nobody should be surprised. After all, this is human nature: Once we realize an idea is being suppressed, we start to think it might be true.
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