For those eager to move on from the Covid-19 pandemic, the latest chatter about the coronavirus’s origin may feel like a distraction: In the space of about a month, there was a leak from the Department of Energy about a “low confidence” assessment of a lab origin, followed quickly by warring scientific research and commentary about what it means that raccoon-dog DNA was found alongside SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan’s Huanan wet market in January of 2020, followed by another leak from the Covid House subcommittee documenting early, behind-the-scenes discussions by top scientists expressing perhaps more openness to a laboratory origin than they felt comfortable endorsing in public.
To some, it all sounds like noise. “Whether Covid came accidentally from a lab in Wuhan or a seafood market is almost beside the point,” Edward Luce wrote in the Financial Times last month, echoing arguments that have been circulating since 2021 that we don’t need to resolve the origin of Covid-19 to take action against it or prevent future pandemics. In a March Guardian editorial that similarly treated the matter of origin as an arcane sideshow, the paper emphasized expanding disease surveillance, protecting natural habitats, reforming factory farming and ramping up lab safety — and concluded that all “this, rather than the blame game, is what politicians should prioritize.”
This has always struck me as an exceedingly strange perspective. Perhaps it is a truism to say that the events that brought about the deaths of perhaps 20 million people around the world and the jagged disruption of many billions of other lives are of enormous consequence and that dismissing the matter of its cause as simply a “blame game” is a form of not just historical but moral incuriosity.
But the origin debate isn’t only consequential because it might someday be definitively resolved. It is consequential as long as it remains unresolved, as well. That’s because our collective uncertainty about the origin of the pandemic has itself shaped the way we’ve come to think about what we’ve all just lived through, the way we responded in the first place and the way the pandemic has played out, often weaponized, in geopolitics.
In many ways, you can tally the impact of the coronavirus without having to know whether it jumped to humans from animals naturally or in a laboratory setting. But the experience and memory of the pandemic is not recorded only in statistics. Three years since its start we are still more likely to see the pandemic in partisan rather than world-historical terms. And the grandly tragic story of the pandemic takes on a profoundly different shape and color depending on the nature of its first act.
How so? In a world where a natural origin was confirmed beyond all doubt, we might look back and narrate the pandemic as one particular kind of story: a morality tale showcasing the incomplete triumph of modern civilization and the enduring threats from nature, and highlighting the way that, whatever we might have told ourselves in 2019 or 2009 about the fortress of the wealthy world, pandemic disease remained a humbling civilization-scale challenge no nation had very good answers for.
That may well be the likeliest resolution. But in a world where a lab-leak origin had been confirmed instead, we would probably find ourselves telling a very different set of stories — primarily about humanity’s Icarian hubris, or perhaps about scientists’ Faustian indifference to the downside risks of new research, or the way in which very human impulses to cover up mistakes and wrongdoing might have compounded those mistakes to disastrous global effect. The lesson would not be that disease remains ineradicably with us or that public health struggles, for all its wisdom and power, to truly contain the spread of a highly transmissible disease. It would have been, “We brought this on ourselves.” Or perhaps, if we were feeling xenophobic rather than humbly human, “They brought this on us,” as some did at the very beginning of the pandemic. If a lab origin had been confirmed, we might never have drifted from that timeline.
Particulars aside, the pandemic would probably have joined nuclear weapons as a conventional illustration of the dark side of human knowledge, perhaps even surpassed them — 20 million dead is nothing to trifle with, after all, though it remains less than the overall death toll of World War II or even the Great Leap Forward. “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” Robert Oppenheimer is said to have remarked, citing the Bhagavad Gita while watching the detonation of the first nuclear weapon, which killed no one. The story is probably apocryphal; witnesses remember him saying only, “It worked.” But what epigraph would we turn to in making sense of a laboratory accident?
Sure knowledge of the pandemic’s experimental origin might’ve been a horror to contemplate, given that a lab leak would mean both that the responsibility for all those deaths was human and that it was most likely the result of a tragic mistake. And yet the horror would also offer a silver lining: If human action was responsible for this pandemic, then in theory, human action could prevent the next one as well.
But in a world where neither narrative has been confirmed, and where pandemic origins are governed by an epistemological fog, I worry we have begun to collate the two stories in a somewhat paradoxical and self-defeating way. According to recent polling by The Economist and YouGov, two-thirds of Americans now believe that the pandemic began in a lab, up from just over half in 2021 (and including 53 percent of Democrats). And yet the matters of lab safety and even pandemic responsibility appear somehow less front-and-center within the public and political discourse than do questions of mask mandates and school closings, which the country has long since left behind. It is as though we’ve decided both that the pandemic was “man-made” and that its emergence was a kind of inevitability we can’t do much about.
Perhaps those polling numbers are flimsy — few surveys have been conducted on the subject, which makes those we do have a bit tricky to contextualize. But if the figures are even mostly reliable, they reflect a remarkable indifference on the part of the country to the source of a once-in-a-century disease disaster. It would be as though following a catastrophic earthquake, we didn’t bother to sort out whether it had been caused by local fracking but instead argued endlessly about the imperfections of disaster response. Or if, in reflecting on a horrifying cancer cluster, we asked only about the course of chemotherapy treatment and not the upstream source of the tumors themselves.
It may well be natural that in living through disaster, we focus first on triage and response. But as we piece together a working history of the past few years, you might hope we’d grow more focused on nailing the story down.
It is hard to write pandemic counterfactuals with great confidence and detail, of course, particularly given how messy our narratives about real-world events tend to be. But it seems likely to me that in the very earliest days of 2020, with cases exploding in China but not yet elsewhere, knowing that the disease was a result of gain-of-function research and had escaped from a lab probably would have produced an even more significant wave of global fear. We’d lived through SARS and MERS and still carried some faint cultural memory of 1918 (less so 1957 and 1968). But it is hard to hear the phrases “lab leak” and “gain of function” and not think “superbug.” And it is hard to think “superbug” and not panic.
Whether that panic would have produced a more robust or productive response is perhaps an open question, particularly for those who now strikingly believe the country — and indeed the world — went overboard. But presumably, many fewer people contemplating the initial news would’ve assumed that the outbreak would be largely limited to Asia, as previous outbreaks had been; public health messengers in places like the United States probably would not have so casually reassuring; and even more dramatic circuit-breaking responses like a monthlong international travel ban might’ve been instituted quite quickly. It may be hard to imagine a more dramatic response than the one we did engineer, globally, given how unprecedented that response was — billions of people sheltering in place for weeks or months to protect themselves and one another. But it is even harder to imagine that a lab-leak pandemic would have been scarier still.
As the pandemic wore on, I suspect that effect would have lingered beyond the initial panic. At first, it might’ve been harder to decide that the virus was just something to live with if we knew simultaneously that it was something introduced to the world in error. And later, when the vaccines arrived, I suspect there might have been considerably less resistance to them, particularly on the American right, where anxiety and xenophobia might have trumped public-health skepticism and legacy anti-vaccine sentiment. Or at least moderated them. And swaths of the country might not have turned so swiftly against public-health authorities if they had been seen as fighting a pathogen arising from somewhere other than nature.
But the opposite counterfactual is just as illuminating. If there had been no question about the natural origin of the disease, with an intermediate host discovered as quickly as scientists identified the palm civet with the first SARS, would public-health skepticism have gained the foothold it has? Pandemics are long and hard, and offer ultimately ample opportunities for recrimination. But ambiguity contributes, as well, even when the known facts raise only a sliver of doubt.
The question and its unresolvability have mattered enormously for geopolitics, as well. Given the entanglement of American and Chinese virology research and funding, a definitive confirmation of a lab origin probably would not mean that responsibility lay in any simplistic way with China. But that isn’t to say the case wouldn’t have been made, probably in a variety of forms — calls for “reparations,” demands for global provision of free vaccines — that would only have contributed additional antagonism and resentment to the world stage, further polarizing the great-power landscape. (Though perhaps it would have had a salutary effect on global vaccination efforts, with the United States compelled to do much more to support rollout in the developing world for purposes of competitive vaccine diplomacy.) The disease and global response may well have accelerated our “new Cold War,” as Luce writes, but it is hard to imagine an alternate history where a known lab-leak origin didn’t move the world there much faster.
On the other hand, the natural logic of a confirmed zoonotic origin would probably have been to push nations of the world closer together into networks of collaboration and cooperation — to share research material and surveillance data for the purpose of better monitoring and preparation for future pandemics. Perhaps this proposition seems naïve, and I don’t want to suggest it might have led quickly to a cooperative scientific utopia — only that the direction of change would have most likely been toward more integration rather than less. After all, this is to some degree what happened in the wake of the initial outbreaks of SARS and MERS and the Ebola outbreaks of the past decade.
Instead, the geopolitics remain unsteady, which is to say, a bit jagged. The United States can weaponize a narrative about lab origin — as China hawks in both the Trump and Biden administrations have repeatedly done — without worrying too much about providing real proof or suffering concrete backlash. (Every time a new leak produces a new raft of headlines, I think, where’s the new evidence?) And China can stonewall origin investigations by citing sovereignty rights and a smoke screen story about the disease originating in frozen food shipped in from abroad without paying much of an international price for the intransigence or bad-faith argumentation, either. To this point, each has carried forward a gripe that needn’t be substantiated in order to be deployed.
Can that status quo endure? It is tempting to think not, with the World Health Organization and others expressing growing frustration with China’s position after several years of deference. But ambiguity also offers plausible deniability, which means that without considerably more Chinese transparency and cooperation, those pushing both stories will find themselves still making only probabilistic cases. We’re probably going to be living with that uncertainty, in a political and social world shaped by it, for the foreseeable future.
David Wallace-Wells (@dwallacewells), a writer for Opinion and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth.”
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