The 2019 novel coronavirus did not come from a lab. It was not the produce of human tinkering with CRISPR or the result of an effort to weaponize SARS. The immediate ancestors of the virus now generating a world pandemic almost certainly made their home in bats, then spent at least a few generations in some as yet unidentified intermediate host before making the leap to humans. The first human to human exchange of the virus came somewhere around the first of December 2019 near the city of Wuhan.
It’s not surprising that this rumor might get started. After all, when a disaster strikes, people naturally seek reasons, and a small change in a specific protein on the tip doesn’t satisfy the itch in the same way as nefarious scientists manipulating the stuff of life for big-“E”-Evil purposes. But it’s not true. COVID-19—like thousands of other diseases that made the leap from animals to humans—happened without the help of anyone in a lab coat.
However, the disaster that’s happening now—that definitely had human help. Specifically, it had Donald Trump’s help. Which is why Trump is desperately trying to revive the “made in a lab” theory in order to deflect the blame he richly deserves.
In March, a paper published in Nature detailed the ways in which we know that SARS-CoV-2 did not originate from human tinkering. A thorough analysis looked at the current virus and compared it with other coronaviruses known to infect people, including SARS, MERS, and less well-known viruses like HKU1 and OC43. In particular, this study investigated the “spike”— the part of the virus that allows it to attach to and invade human cells.
Their conclusion was that the virus behind COVID-19 did not originate from “laboratory manipulation.” Not only is the way that the actual virus attaches quite different from the way that might be expected of a human-designed pathogen, it also has none of the fingerprints that would almost certainly remain after manipulation with any known laboratory tool. Instead, researchers concluded that the virus was generated either entirely inside an animal host before making the leap to humans, or that it made the leap to humans first, then evolved to become more effective at human-to-human transmission. The conclusion was that they don’t know. The only thing they could definitely show was that it was not generated in a lab.
However, as The New York Times discussed on April 11, Donald Trump has become obsessed with the idea of “proving” that this virus did originate in a lab. Specifically, Trump wants to pin the blame for COVID-19 on an oft-mentioned Chinese research lab near Wuhan—a lab with the real purpose of researching and attempting to detect viruses like the one behind COVID-19.
All the way back in January, as science and health advisers were warning of the serious implications of the outbreak in Hubei province and the need for the United States to take immediate action, Trump was already latching onto conspiracy theories about the origin of the epidemic. Despite the combined Trump and John Bolton gutting of the office within the National Security Council (NSC) responsible for dealing with pandemics, there were still enough responsible adults on hand within the NSC to make a report in early January predicting that COVID-19 would come to the United States, and that the federal government needed to move to close schools, suspend businesses, and impose the kind of social distancing that Trump has still not been willing to declare.
But instead of acting, Trump leaned into an idea pushed by deputy national security adviser and major China hawk Matthew Pottinger. Pottinger fired off warning after warning that the virus was coming and that the U.S. needed to prepare. All of that seemed to be ignored. What wasn’t ignored was Pottinger’s talk about the possibility that the virus had been engineered by China, and that China was covering up the “real” extent of the outbreak.
All the way back in mid-January, Trump’s White House staff was meeting not to discuss how they would deal with the threat of the virus, but how they would pin the blame on China.
In the early going, the “blame China” crowd ran into a problem in the form of Trump’s economic team, which was still involved in creating a trade deal that would allow Trump to claim a “win” after years of ineffective tariffs and massive payoffs to cash-strapped farmers. But as the virus took hold in the United States, the concerns over China trade policy began to fall behind the need for Trump to find someone else to blame for ignoring the main message that had been echoing in the White House since the first of the year: the virus was coming, and they needed to get prepared.
Faced with a disaster created from his own disdain for science and experts of any type, Trump began returning to the one part of that early message he could use: Blame China. That was evidenced in his growing insistence on referring to COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus” and being dismissive of the harm those statements were causing the Asian American community.
As the weeks have gone on, Trump has become even more direct in his support for the disproven Chinese bioweapon theory. As The Guardian reports, Trump made a point of repeating the “escaped from a lab” theory in a response to a question from a Fox News reporter on Wednesday. Fox, where the made-in-a-lab fairy tale has never fallen out of favor despite all evidence to the contrary, was happy to toss the ball in the air for Trump. And Trump was happy to bat it back, with a just short of tacit endorsement of the idea.
After saying there were “multiple sources” claiming that China had handcrafted the virus, Trump went on to hint that he had been in secret, undisclosed discussions with Communist Party chair Xi Jinping “about the laboratory.” That would be the laboratory where the virus was definitely not made.
This follows a report from The Washington Post on Tuesday that was widely promoted as showing that the lab in Wuhan was a dangerous source of bat-hosted viruses—mainly because that’s how the Post wrote it—when in fact those cables show that not only was this lab the first in China to achieve the highest level of safety; American researchers were requesting more cooperation with the lab specifically because the coronaviruses it was studying were both dangerous and important.
Not only that, but China was requesting more American help at the lab. In 2018. Chinese officials and scientists at the lab in Wuhan were, just two years ago, requesting American help in operating the lab safely. And what happened next?
No extra assistance to the labs was provided by the U.S. government in response to these cables.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, did not originate in a lab. It evolved naturally in an animal host before making the leap to humans, and may have evolved further in human hosts before it developed the suite of features that make it such a formidable threat to the world today.
But if there’s anyone to blame for a lack of safety at the Wuhan lab, it’s the same person who is responsible for the over 30,000 people who have already died in the United States from COVID-19.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.