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Hiltzik: COVID lab leak theory won’t die, but it should Story-level




We know that America is fascinated by zombies: “The Walking Dead”, “Fear the Walking Dead”, “Zombieland” and now, although fans may have doubts about this, “The Last of Us”.

Perhaps that explains why a claim about the pandemic that has been constantly debunked by scientific experts and should have been buried long ago still walks among us. That is the claim that the COVID virus escaped from a Chinese laboratory, specifically, a Chinese virology laboratory.

This zombie theory got another injection of life-giving plasma this weekend from the Wall Street Journal, which reported that the Department of Energy “has concluded that the COVID pandemic most likely arose from a laboratory leak.” The Journal also reported, however, that the agency “made its judgment with ‘low confidence.'”

If you’re confused about how a judgment made with “low confidence” can result in a conclusion that something is “more likely,” join the club. I will come back to that. But let’s start with the basics: There is no evidence, not a shred, particle, bacon, or iota, that COVID leaked from a lab. There never has been.

The virology and epidemiology communities, which base their conclusions on empirical data, overwhelmingly favor the conclusion that the pandemic originated from human contact with infected wild animals, known as the “zoonotic” hypothesis. This is how the above pathogens got into the human community, and the evidence that it has in this case is powerful and growing.

Almost from the beginning, the lab leak theory has been based on conjecture and fueled by Trumpian ideology that has infected, like the pathogens in all those zombie movies and TV shows, the entire Republican Party.

For them, the claim that the pandemic escaped from a Chinese laboratory to infect the world is a convenient weapon to wield against China and perhaps hamper its ability to challenge America’s global economic primacy.

Congressional Republicans have been trying to deal with this zombie on their own for years. Serious journalists treat their claims with caution, but sometimes the temptation to break a story, or at least what looks like a story, is overwhelming.

The independent research organization ProPublica stepped on this rake late last year, when he promoted the lab leak theory based in part on a report by then-minority Republican members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions that claimed, again without offering a shred of evidence, that the pandemic was “most likely the result of an incident related to the investigation.”

after me and other critics pointed out the ridiculously weak basis of his article, ProPublica issued a correction of desire. But she didn’t retract the piece, which would have been correct.

The latest “scoop” in the Journal, to quote the complimentary description offered by the newspaper’s own editorial writers, follows the pattern of all other lab leak claims reported in the media. It reports no new evidence, just an alleged change of tone in the Department of Energy’s point of view.

The article is based on a classified document that the Journal acknowledges it has not seen, the gist of which was sold to the Journal by “people who have read the classified report.”

The Journal said the Department of Energy based its apparently changed view on “new intelligence, additional study of the academic literature, and consultation with experts outside of government,” but did not describe that new intelligence, nor did it identify the academic literature or experts. agency outsiders. supposedly used.

It certainly does not appear that the Department of Energy has provided new empirical evidence on the question of the origin of COVID.

What does the term “low confidence” tell us about the quality of the Journal’s “scoop”?

This is how the National Intelligence Council, the umbrella organization for the nation’s intelligence community, explained the term in 2017: “Low confidence generally means that the credibility and/or plausibility of the information is uncertain, that the information is too fragmentary or poorly corroborated to make robust analytical inferences, or that the reliability of the sources is questionable.”

That’s a recommendation!

A low confidence level generally means that the credibility and/or plausibility of the information is uncertain… or that the reliability of the sources is questionable.

— National Intelligence Council

What is clear from the Journal article is that the Department of Energy judgment, however insignificant, has not materially changed the general assessment of the US government intelligence establishment that the laboratory leak theory, as described in a declassified report issued in 2021 by the Biden administration is dubious.

that evaluation was the product of an inquiry members of the government’s “intelligence community”, including the Department of Energy, which was ordered by President Biden.

The administration reported that four member agencies and the National Intelligence Council “assessed with low confidence” that the zoonotic hypothesis was more likely; one (apparently the FBI) ​​”assesses with moderate confidence” that the pandemic was the result of “a laboratory-related incident” at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is located in the same city but a considerable distance from the wildlife “wet market” that scientists have identified as the epicenter of the first known outbreak of COVID. Three other agencies did not take a position.

On Sunday and Monday, other news organizations repeated the Journal’s alleged scoop with varying degrees of credulity.

The New York Times He acknowledged the Journal’s reporting with a healthy dose of sarcasm, citing his own anonymous sources as noting that none of the other intelligence agencies budged when confronted with the Department of Energy’s assessment. Some of the newspaper’s sources described the new intelligence as “relatively weak.”

NBC News, Bloomberg, Fortune and The Hill all reported the story, but published it in the Wall Street Journal. That’s what you do in the news business when you feel compelled to acknowledge another news organization’s story but want to point out that you don’t really buy it.

One question raised by the Journal report concerns its timing. It comes just as the Republican majority in the House is gearing up to push the lab leak theory. The onslaught is likely to begin Tuesday, when a committee on US-China relations headed by Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin) holds its first hearing.

Soon we will have news of House Select Subcommittee on Coronavirus, comprising a whole lineup of sober Republicans interested only in the truth.

Its Republican members include Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who was permanently suspended by Twitter last year after falsely claiming that COVID was “not dangerous for non-obese people under 65,” that COVID vaccines were “failing,” and that they caused “extremely high” death tolls. (The new owner of Twitter, Elon Musk, restored his account.)

Another member, Rep. Ronny Jackson of Texas, claimed that the Omicron variant of the virus was a democratic hoax intended to push the rules of voting by mail.

Then there’s Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa, who falsely claimed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was going to order the COVID vaccine for the kids (never happened), and Rep. John Joyce of Pennsylvania, who launched an attack on “vaccine passports”, you were always a fever dream right.

Also on the committee are Republican representatives. Rich McCormick of Georgia, who outlandishly claimed that masks are harmful to children’s health; and Michael Cloud of Texas, who has recorded blame the chinese government because of the pandemic

The impending tsunami of GOP-fuelled publicity for the leak-in-the-lab theory makes the Journal’s potential scoop seem exceptionally topical. That’s not a point in your favor. As John Le Carré’s fictional spymaster George Smiley observed in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” the “impressive currency” of leaked government material is always cause for suspicion.

That is true in this case. Even the Journal’s editorial writers admit that the pending GOP committee hearings “may explain the timing and perhaps the impetus of the DOE ruling leak.” (Editorialists, curiously, seem to consider that a virtue, when in fact it is a flaw.)

Among the giveaways that the Journal article is far weaker than it might appear at first glance is the curious torture of the English language, including the juxtaposition of a “low confidence” judgment with a “most likely” conclusion.

Then there’s the downplaying of how little has changed in the intelligence community’s overall assessment of the lab leak theory. According to the original declassified version of the management report: “Some element analysts [that is, agencies] who cannot unite around any explanation also assess a laboratory origin with little confidence.

That report did not identify what items those analysts used. Who’s to say it wasn’t the Department of Energy even then?

The Journal further states that “the Department of Energy now joins the Federal Bureau of Investigation in saying that the virus likely spread through a mishap at a Chinese laboratory.” That’s not entirely true: the FBI has “moderate confidence” in that conclusion, but the Department of Energy has “low confidence.” That doesn’t sound like they’re necessarily on the same page.

Virtually everyone who has weighed in on the question of the origin of COVID notes that the response is important for global public health. That’s because getting it wrong will mean wasting valuable resources on the wrong remedies, increasing the chance that another pathogen will attack the human community and leave us without the weapons we need to combat it.

On one side of this debate, scientific evidence is mounting that points to the need to regulate contacts between humans and wildlife that appear to be reservoirs of dangerous viruses.

In the fullness of time, evidence could emerge to support the theory that COVID escaped from a Chinese lab. All we have today is sophistry promoted by ideologues who have produced absolutely no evidence despite three years of trying. They are playing a dangerous and shameful game.

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