The Misguided Media Debate of Lab Leaks

While the origins of the pandemic must be investigated, the reasons to investigate aren’t what the media makes them to be.

Donald John Trump and his minions, needing a scapegoat for their own miserable efforts against the pandemic, decided to blame China. Before that point, there had been adamance that China was doing a great job. Donald John Trump sang China’s praises in that horrid falsetto he always put on. But once it was clear he hadn’t acted, that people were dying, that cases were rising, he changed his tune.

The extremists cooked up their contradictory theories that it was all a hoax, also a plot, and finally an industrial accident at a lab in Wuhan, China. And now, a year and a half later, the media is suddenly intrigued by the possibility of a lab leak, in one form or another. There is debate whether it was overlooked because Donald John Trump is a lying schmuck, whether a mistake was made in not championing a theory for which there remains no real evidence.

Investigate, I say. Let the origin be investigated. I don’t recall anyone serious saying we shouldn’t investigate! So investigate! But on the matter of the 6 January Capitol attack, there is an extremist faction that does not want to investigate. Funny, that. I don’t hear the media wondering much about that. They squirm over something everyone does want investigated, but they offer yawns of acceptance at something that must be investigated, because Republicans don’t want to. Media bias? What’s that?

There are two things to keep in mind about the lab leak theory. First, it doesn’t matter much. Second, it should still be investigated. We need to know the origin of the virus for several important reasons that don’t matter that much. We need to know to help develop the ability to track disease to its origins, to help us understand how diseases cross species and how their behavior in one species may or may not predict the behavior in another. There are very good epidemiological reasons, medical reasons, to hunt this thing down.

And we do need to know if it was a lab leak. Particularly, if there were, the manner it escaped, as it’s always possible that it wasn’t shoddy protections of a lab that allowed it out. It’s possible the lab designs and protocols need specific improvements.

But that’s also why it doesn’t matter: anyone who has lived through these past months upon months should be able to tell you that we should treat the pandemic as though it both were and weren’t caused by a lab leak. Both are plausible scenarios for future pandemics. Both cases require some overlapping and some different defenses. We must do both things, regardless of whether this particular plague was brought direct from nature or by way of a laboratory.

We do need to continue to improve infectious disease containment in labs, to make it less likely that one could escape while still allowing for the vital research to help us detect and predict disease and to defend humanity against it.

We also need to improve our surveillance of pathogens in nature, for much the same reasons, but in very different places. Most of nature doesn’t live in our laboratories, and so you need field surveillance and a different set of skills.

But if the investigation into the virus finds one answer or the other, we should still act as if both were true! It’s a false debate, it’s a bunch of media jerks thumping their chests trying to show what kind of hot shits they are while doing nothing productive.

One area where the origin might matter most is accountability for China. But it remains a marginal utility. China must be held accountable for their failure to adequately warn the international community once they knew what was coming. If it was from a lab, perhaps there are separate measures of blame to be laid on China. But the main blame, that they and their media friends, including Donald John Trump in the early days, didn’t give enough warning.

For all the things learned from Donald John Trump’s presidency, many in the media did not learn that grandstanding is lame and they should cut it out.

A conclusive investigation would help with reforms around whichever origin turned out to be true, but only marginally. Most of the work, in this case, could be done without knowing definitively.

The sudden debate comes as a proxy for debate about how the media performed during Donald John Trump’s term of office. Not well, one would think. But for the media looking back, one particular type of failure is seen as more important: if they bent too much away from the noxious smell of a decomposing, would-be demagogue, that they missed a story in their revulsion. For all the times they took selfies with Donald John Trump, aided his lies, those are acceptable. Those are sins to be proud of. But if even once they turned too far away, it would be a black mark.

If we look at parallel stories, such as police alternatives and crime rates, the similar sin-aversion of the media becomes apparent. If they push for humanity in criminal justice, and crime rises, they are more sinful than if they push for tougher policing and it results in more police murders, more incarcerations that diminish our humanity and our government budgets. (Even during the woes of Texas last winter, the media was ready to accept blaming wind turbines for one of the largest states being frozen dark!)

Consider crime a cancer, and the community the body. Prevention includes green spaces (eating a balanced diet) and education and employment (exercise). Policing is chemotherapy, which is a harsh attack on existing cancer and existing crime. But the media is much more afraid of not having enough chemotherapy. The story of a person having cancer, fighting it, suffering through torture treatments, is more enticing than prevention efforts.

The prevention of pandemics is less clickable than intrigue over their sources. And we see the same pattern repeated in the immigration crisis. Were they too tough on Donald John Trump? Not tough enough on Joe Biden? No question about them being tougher on the lawmakers to actually reform the law, to invest in the places that people flee, to do the necessary work to stop cancer.

Whether or not COVID escaped a lab, we should act as though it did. Such things remain a real risk, and only by continued efforts to improve lab safety will we avoid it. Meanwhile, the animal kingdom holds deadly pathogens we must continue to study, both in the wild and in the lab. We must do both. We should investigate the origins of the virus, but we can proceed to protect our species without knowing which happened to be the cause. And those who failed to raise warnings, including China and Donald John Trump’s administration, should be held accountable. That accountability should focus on avoiding the same mistakes in the future, rather than punishment.

The media should not waste its time tallying its own score. It should proceed on the assumption it is screwed up and work to reduce its flaws, rather than focusing on some acute sense of guilt when it has committed worse crimes that it fails to recognize. Fix the system, not the blame.


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