Looking before you leap

On COVID-19, cholera, and other sh*tstorms

If you’ve managed to stay away from the right-wing and crypto-ring-wing blogospheres lately—first of all, congrats. Second, you may not be aware that a long-simmering point of nationalist speculation about the COVID-19 pandemic is starting to harden into a contrarian consensus: that the virus that paralyzed the world might have—somehow, maybe—originated in a Chinese lab.

Here’s what I have to say about that: The “lab-leak hypothesis,” as it is known, is a fine starting point for an investigation—and has been since the idea started being kicked around over a year ago. There is a major lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, that studies and experiments on coronaviruses, located in the same province what appears to have been the initial outbreak. But no one has even come close to making a positive case for a causal link beyond those coincidental facts and a shrugging “it’s possible.” And until someone puts in the hard work of proving such a link, it is both irresponsible and dumb for others outside the field to keep harping on about it.

This is not a theoretical question to me: A decade ago, I was in a remarkably similar situation. As the Associated Press correspondent in Haiti, in October 2010, I found myself in a horrific cholera epidemic that would eventually kill upwards of 10,000 people. Rumors were rampant that the disease had been introduced by U.N. troops. As with the China-lab hypothesis, many of those rumors were being spread by people with political axes to grind—as a way of discrediting the peacekeepers, who many Haitians rightly saw as an imperial occupying force, or just throwing stones at the status quo. But, as also with the China-lab hypothesis, there was just enough potential plausibility to the rumors that I thought they were worth investigating.

So I did. I went to the U.N. peacekeeping base at the center of the rumors and waded into the muck. To my shock, I saw overflowing human waste beside a river, literal pools of feces dumped in the middle of a village field, and U.N. soldiers from Nepal frantically trying to destroy evidence. I also, to my surprise and theirs, happened upon a group of U.N. military police from Guatemala collecting groundwater samples, at a moment when the U.N. was denying that it was even interested in exploring a possible link. I established a timeline for the Nepalese troops’ arrival that matched both an active cholera epidemic in their country and the start of the epidemic in Haiti. It was only after doing all of that work that I published my first stories talking about even the possibility of the U.N. origin of cholera.

I got a ton of pushback. A friend at the CDC told me I was going to start a civil war. (Note: I did not.) But by pressing on diligently and honestly, through extensive investigation and collaboration with epidemiologists over the next several years, a small number of us finally made the case to the world’s satisfaction—eventually eliciting an admission from the U.N. itself.

(Or to put it another way, I didn’t just invite the equivalent of Mike Pompeo to make the case for me on my Substack.)

Ironically, or perhaps tellingly, one of the newest and most prominent voices to emerge on the “just asking questions” lab-leak front was one of the most influential figures who helped the U.N. cover up its negligence in Haiti: ex-New York Times science writer Donald G. McNeil. In a rambling Medium post earlier this week, McNeil buried multiple admissions that no evidence has been uncovered so far (“it’s a lot of ifs,” “all we have is speculation,” etc), under a conspiracist catnip lede and the unsubtle Strangelovian headline: “How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the Lab-Leak Theory.”

Back in 2010, McNeil played the same game in reverse. In a column titled “Cholera’s Second Fever: An Urge to Blame,” he passingly admitted that some unnamed “experts concede that the Nepalese soldiers are the most likely suspects”—which would have been monumental news for the Times’ readership if properly packaged at the time. Yet despite that far greater evidentiary basis, the earlier version of McNeil argued that assigning blame to the United Nations for the epidemic in Haiti would be too dangerous because, as he wrote, “scapegoating provokes violence.”

What changed? Could it be that, in 2010, the victims were a Black colonized people (in 2019, McNeil told a student trip in Peru that “colonialism is over”), and the suspected perpetrators a powerful institution that employed friends, neighbors, and sources of his social class; whereas eleven years later the rumors, if somehow proven, would lay the blame for a global pandemic at the feet of an alien-seeming geopolitical foe? Who can say. All we have is speculation.

(McNeil, like many of his newfound Cancel Contra allies, was inspired to change his mind on the lab theory thanks to a recent article by his fellow too-spicy-for-the-NYT-alum Nicholas Wade. In 2014, Wade wrote a modern pseudoscientific racist treatise that purported to explain, as his critics summarized, why “African-Americans are allegedly more violent than whites, and why the Chinese may be good at business.” McNeil defended his racist colleague as “controversial” and “cranky,” while adding, “but who am I to criticize anyone on those grounds?”)

Again, the fact that one theory of the case serves the interests of bigots, warmongerers, and other assorted members of the Worst People in the Discourse proves nothing, scientifically speaking. By the same token, that others are reticent to press the question in an atmosphere of rising ultranationalism and anti-Asian violence does not make the clickbait theory any more likely. As a critical mass of scientists has argued from the beginning, the most likely explanation still remains that SARS-CoV-2, like SARS-CoV-1 back in 2002, jumped into humans from another species. It’s still just an educated guess, but barring evidence of a more extraordinary theory it’s the best guess they’ve got.

Anyone who actually gets down into the muck, and manages to uncover real evidence of the pandemic’s origins will have done humanity a service, wherever that evidence leads. In the meantime, anyone who is in it just for the clout and who isn’t inclined to do the work can be most helpful by shutting up.

Jonathan Myerson Katz is the author of the upcoming Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, The Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire, coming January 2022 from St. Martin’s Press. On Twitter @KatzOnEarth.

Updated 5/25 - corrected spelling of Donald McNeil’s name