Once widely dismissed as a conspiracy theory, the allegation that Covid-19 originated in a Chinese government laboratory in Wuhan is gaining renewed attention.
According to this theory, Chinese scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) engineered the virus as part of a biological weapons program and the pandemic started when the virus escaped into the surrounding community.
On May 11, celebrated US immunologist Dr Anthony Fauci publicly suggested that the lab-leak theory is plausible, a shift from his 2020 opinion that the theory lacked credibility. On May 23, a report emerged that US intelligence concluded three staff members at the WIV had been sick with Covid-19-like symptoms in November 2019, a few weeks before the outbreak in China was publicized.
Most importantly, on May 26, US President Joe Biden announced he was ordering the US intelligence community to determine which of two competing explanations is more believable – the lab-leak theory or the “zoonotic” theory that the virus originated in nature and jumped from an animal to a human.
Beijing’s behavior up to now indicates that avoiding embarrassment to the regime is a higher priority than global health. While claiming to be cooperative and fully transparent, Chinese officials have hidden some important details of the outbreak.
In particular, the Chinese government is extraordinarily sensitive to the lab-leak theory. Chinese officials have consistently and vehemently denied the virus came from the WIV.
One of the key events that contributed to the deterioration of US-China relations in 2020 was US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s claim in May 2020 that the pandemic started in the Wuhan lab.
Chinese official spokespersons retaliated with a sharp counter-narrative: the United States has a history of conducting biological warfare; the virus originated in the United States; and a likely source was a US Army laboratory in Fort Detrick, Maryland.
Last year, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian suggested on Twitter that US army members first brought the disease to Wuhan in October 2019.
The lab-leak theory is far from proven. The increased interest is not based on a corresponding influx of scientific evidence. Nevertheless, the resurgence of the theory by itself has several important political implications.
First, if the lab-leak theory turned out to be true, China would be caught in violation of yet another international agreement it has signed onto. The United Nations’ Biological Weapons Convention prohibits not only the use, but also the development and production of biological weapons. China acceded to the Convention in 1984.
Second, the refocus on the Wuhan lab theory will impede international cooperation on epidemic disease research. With millions of lives at stake throughout the world, and with the populations everywhere at risk, nothing should stand in the way of maximum international cooperation to better prepare for inevitable future virulent epidemics.
Unfortunately, however, the Chinese government will withhold any collaboration and block the release of any information that might corroborate either the lab-leak theory or any other assertion that the performance of Chinese officials during the initial outbreak in China was imperfect.
This will inevitably restrict the dissemination of at least some data that would otherwise strengthen the collective understanding of how the Covid-19 pandemic started and how to better mitigate other similar outbreaks.
Third, Biden’s seeming legitimization of the lab-leak theory indicates a willingness to antagonize Beijing and a lack of urgency to restabilize badly-frayed US-China relations.
Biden’s action is somewhat surprising, given that in March of this year his own administration reportedly shut down an investigation into the lab-leak theory started by the Trump team because the investigative work was shoddy and biased.
It is indeed a nasty surprise for Beijing, whose officials have been urging Washington to take a more “objective and rational” approach to relations – in contrast to Pompeo’s demonization of the Chinese Communist Party – and to “avoid confrontation.”
The fact that Biden publicly announced his instructions to his intelligence agencies in this matter strongly suggests a domestic political angle.
As the news media primed new public interest in the Wuhan lab story, Biden saw a need to demonstrate responsiveness. With his May 26 order, Biden has taken yet another step toward undermining the rival Republican Party’s argument that he is weak toward China compared with his predecessor Trump.
Predictably, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was quick to react to Biden’s announcement by re-asserting that the virus started in the US Army lab in Fort Detrick.
Finally, the return of the lab-leak theory reinforces the rift that grew between China and the liberal democracies during the pandemic. This plays into a structural problem.
On one side are the peculiarities of the Chinese government. The Chinese Communist Party believes maintaining the appearance of a virtuocracy is essential to the regime’s legitimacy. The party leadership is hypersensitive to accusations of dishonorable behavior.
Once Beijing has committed itself to a particular position and narrative seen as necessary to save face, backing down is unlikely, even when there is considerable contrary evidence. The Chinese government’s denial of large-scale religious and cultural persecution and mass incarcerations in Xinjiang exemplifies this pattern.
When the regime perceives it has been insulted by a foreign government, Beijing is scarcely able to carry on with normal bilateral relations. For example, China embarked on a course that has seriously damaged its relationship with Australia because Canberra called for an international investigation into the origin of the pandemic, a move that offended Beijing.
On the other side are the liberal democracies. Neither their governments nor their societies will refrain from criticizing certain Chinese government policies. This dynamic was at play during the first year of the pandemic.
Free media in the liberal democracies criticized China to the point that Chinese officials hit back with shrill, counterproductive “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy. China’s image in North America, Western Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand plummeted in 2020.
This negative spiral will recur regularly as long as China and the liberal democracies maintain their respective political systems. The resurgent lab-leak theory threatens to be the latest issue to trigger a new round.
The international community should of course pressure Beijing to yield what it knows about the outbreak of the pandemic. Further exploring the lab-leak theory might be a necessary part of that process.
Unfortunately, due to pre-existing political tensions, this process will be painful and its ultimate success limited, while it is sure to prolong the downturn in US-China relations.
Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu.