Almost exactly one year ago, The Washington Post loudly ridiculed U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) in a news story — not an opinion piece — about the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. The Post‘s headline: “Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked.”
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) repeated a fringe theory suggesting that the ongoing spread of a coronavirus is connected to research in the disease-ravaged epicenter of Wuhan, China.
The Post‘s story on February 17, 2020, came in response to Cotton’s interview with Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo the day before. In the interview, Cotton stated the coronavirus outbreak was “worse than Chernobyl” and questioned whether the virus may have come from China’s biological weapons’ lab in Wuhan.
The Post wasn’t the only news outlet that slammed Cotton for questioning the official Chinese Communist Party’s COVID-19 explanation that the virus originated in a wet market. Throughout much of 2020, Cotton and the possibility of the Wuhan lab as the source were roundly derided by numerous media outlets.
A Republican senator who floated a conspiracy theory which said the Chinese government created Covid-19 in a weapons lab claimed on Saturday that since he first learned of the outbreak, in mid-January, “common sense has been my guide”.
When mainstream news outlets reported that most experts considered the Wuhan facility to be secure, he conceded that they had a good point, “except … can we be sure that no researcher at any point made any mistakes?” Soon, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas was accusing the “Chinese Communist Party” of releasing the virus through willful negligence, and Donald Trump was hinting that researchers had let the virus loose by “mistake”—a classic act of Trumpian projection designed to distract from the many disastrous miscues his administration has committed in its efforts to contain the virus.
Early January statements from the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission had said most cases were related to the South China Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, based on preliminary studies.
Besides Cotton, The Washington Times, citing an Israeli biological warfare analyst, suggested the virus was developed in a lab, potentially as part of a Chinese bioweapons program. A story claiming China planned to admit the virus came from the lab was also circulating on Facebook but flagged by fact-checkers as false.
Facts First: Experts have dismissed Cotton’s “engineered bioweapon hypothesis” but noted it’s possible, yet unlikely, that the lab was connected to the start of the outbreak.
Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at MIT with a background in chemical engineering told CNN, “the thing that weighs against the claim is that it’s a terrible bioweapon. If you were engineering a bioweapon this would have the absolute opposite of the characteristics you would want.”
But now, over a year after the coronavirus first emerged from Wuhan, China, The Washington Post seems to be backtracking on its year-long anti-Cotton campaign calling him a conspiracy theorist. In its February 5, 2021, opinion piece, the Post‘s Editorial Board now agrees with nearly all of Sen. Cotton’s statements from last winter.
But there is another pathway, also plausible, that must be investigated. That is the possibility of a laboratory accident or leak. It could have involved a virus that was improperly disposed of or perhaps infected a laboratory worker who then passed it to others. Wuhan, with a population of 11 million, is a major transportation hub and a center of virus studies in China, with at least six facilities with BSL-3 laboratories for handling infectious agents. Published papers show that some of these institutions have been very active in coronavirus research. The most active is the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where Shi Zhengli leads a research team that has extensively studied and experimented on bat coronaviruses that are very similar to the one that ignited the global pandemic.
China actively covered up the early stages of the pandemic, concealed the transmissibility of the virus from its own people and the world, and punished Wuhan doctors who expressed worry about it in late December 2019. President Xi Jinping did not warn the public in China or abroad until mid-January.
Since then, Chinese officials and scientists have advanced a host of dubious theories to suggest the origin of the virus was beyond China’s borders: perhaps brought to China by contaminated packaging of frozen food from abroad or from the U.S. military biodefense laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., or from mink farms. The disinformation only heightens suspicions that China is trying to distract from or conceal something.
We don’t know where the pandemic began. But a major step toward finding the answer is to examine all the relevant databases and laboratory records, including those at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and elsewhere, and the clues they may hold.
It is encouraging that the Post has come around to common sense on this issue. COVID-19 has manifested in the human population in ways that continue to stump most virologists. The Editorial Board is correct: we need to find the origin of this virus, not ignore any potential source, and demand accountability from the Chinese government.
One must ask, however, when does Sen. Tom Cotton get his apology from those who for a year characterized him as a conspiracy kook for asking the right questions?