The universe of MAGA politics and media regularly defies Darwin. It is an environment in which the least-fit ideas tend to thrive.
Such is the case with its treatment of the origins of the coronavirus. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has heavily implied that the National Institutes of Health collaborated with Chinese scientists to engineer a supervirus that somehow got released in Wuhan, China. And Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, as is typical, turned an implied lie into a vile slander. “More than any other single living American,” Carlson has charged, “Tony Fauci is responsible for the covid-19 pandemic.”
The prosecutors of this charge have credibility problems. Paul has a history of playing down the pandemic, dismissing the importance of masks, putting his Senate colleagues at risk of deadly infection and refusing to take the coronavirus vaccine. If more Americans had followed Paul’s covid example, far fewer of them would still be breathing. Carlson, meanwhile, has set himself the task of distracting attention from President Donald Trump’s lethal bungling of the United States’ initial pandemic response. In both cases, political need is the father of scurrilous blame shifting.
It is true that a whisper of conspiracy generally moves faster than a briefing book of refutation. And complex scientific matters are particularly easy to distort. But this matter is not especially complicated.
The charge? That the NIH funded “gain of function” research at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology that genetically modified bat viruses to become more lethal and easier to transmit.
The reality? In the aftermath of the SARS-CoV-1 outbreak in 2003 — which emerged from bats — the NIH funded studies to sample and investigate bat viruses in China. It would have been odd to do such work in, say, Luxembourg, given that the guilty bats originated in China. As part of these experiments, viruses were tested to determine whether various spike proteins from existing bat viruses could infect human cells. That is very different from modifying these viruses to become more transmissible or deadly (which is the formal definition of “gain of function” research).
Fine points are generally lost on committed fabulists. But this distinction is not fine. There is a large scientific and ethical distinction between genetic techniques that test the properties of pieces of viruses such as the spike protein that occur in nature, and modifying viruses to become more transmissible or virulent in humans. And we know from laboratory analysis that none of the coronavirus work done under NIH funding corresponds to the novel coronavirus as it actually emerged.
The very limited amount of “gain of function” research funded by NIH generally happens in the United States, under the strictest controls. The terms of the grant in China did not permit such research. The charge that the United States funded the creation of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, is categorically false. Claiming otherwise is a despicable calumny.
This does not mean that the origins of the coronavirus are clear. It appears that the closest related viruses to SARS-CoV2 are found hundreds of miles away from Wuhan, where the outbreak first took hold. Most likely, this was a natural event, caused by a leap of the coronavirus from an animal species to humans. But there is still no clear evidence of how or where that happened. So the possibility can’t be excluded that this virus was under study at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (possibly carried in cell culture or in the animal where it evolved) and was accidentally released — perhaps by an infected lab tech. (The more diabolical conspiracy theory that the Chinese built the virus from scratch is much less likely, given that the pathogen shows no signs of tampering and used a method of binding to the human cell that was not predicted by previous research.)
All this uncertainty has led to broad discontent with China’s compulsive secrecy. The first examination of these issues by the World Health Organization did not inspire much confidence, and was criticized by the United States, the European Union, a global chorus of scientists and the director general of the WHO itself. The NIH has strongly supported mounting a second WHO investigation, to be given unimpeded access to all materials needed to assess what happened in Wuhan in late 2019.
But this kind of necessary reckoning becomes considerably less likely if the U.S. political system remains focused on absurd partisan charges against American public health leaders. The manias and vendettas of Paul, Carlson and the populist right are helping shield Chinese authorities from scrutiny. Every vile, unjustified charge against an American official delays the next stage of Chinese accountability. Every moment in which American politics is occupied with MAGA myths about Covid-19 is a Chinese victory.
Distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group