The covid-19 lab leak theory is becoming increasingly mainstream, now with the help of liberal demigod Jon Stewart.
Stewart was a guest on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on Monday, and the two Daily Show alums barely had time to do their usual banter before Stewart barrelled into his new favorite theory.
“I think we owe a great debt of gratitude to science,” Stewart said. “Science has in many ways helped ease the suffering of this pandemic... which was more than likely caused by science.”
After a moment of surprised laughter from the live audience and some probing from Colbert, Stewart continued.
“There’s a novel respiratory coronavirus overtaking Wuhan, China, what do we do?” Stewart riffed. “Oh, you know who we could ask? The Wuhan Novel Respiratory Coronavirus Lab. The disease is the same name as the lab! That’s just a little too weird, don’t you think?”
The name of the lab at the center of this conspiracy theory is actually called the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has long studied coronaviruses and their prevalence in the bat population. Wuhan is where the pandemic originated, and while recent revelations that three researchers from the institute reported symptoms similar to covid-19 back in November 2019, it is not evident that this was the result of a lab mishap or negligence. Additionally, the presence of coronavirus from in Wuhan, a city of over 11 million, is reportedly not that surprising: According to nature.com, Wuhan is “in a broader region where coronaviruses have been found” and “contains an airport, train stations and markets selling goods and wildlife transported there from around the region — meaning a virus could enter the city and spread rapidly.” Given these factors and the fact that most pandemics are zoonotic in origin, it’s not hard to believe that Wuhan was a natural ground zero for the covid-19 pandemic.
But Stewart believes his summation is much more practical: “There’s been an outbreak of chocolatey goodness near Hershey, Pennsylvania. What do you think happened?”
Colbert pushed back, albeit lightly. “It could be possible that they have the lab in Wuhan to study the novel coronavirus disease because, in Wuhan, there are a lot of novel coronavirus diseases because of the bat population there,” he said.
He’s on the right track. From Nature.com, emphasis ours:
Virology labs tend to specialize in the viruses around them, says Vincent Munster, a virologist at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories, a division of the National Institutes of Health, in Hamilton, Montana. The WIV specializes in coronaviruses because many have been found in and around China. Munster names other labs that focus on endemic viral diseases: influenza labs in Asia, haemorrhagic fever labs in Africa and dengue-fever labs in Latin America, for example. “Nine out of ten times, when there’s a new outbreak, you’ll find a lab that will be working on these kinds of viruses nearby,” says Munster.
Stewart, in response, asked why there isn’t an “Austin coronavirus” due to the large bat population in Austin, Texas.
“This is not a conspiracy,” Stewart insisted. “This is the problem with science. Science is incredible, but they don’t know when to stop, and nobody in the room with those cats ever goes, ‘I don’t know about that...’”
He then made an even more glib comparison: “Curiosity killed the cat. Oh, so let’s kill 10,000 cats to find out why.”
Once merely regarded as a conspiracy theory largely perpetrated by anti-China Trump administration officials and right-wing hacks, the lab leak theory is now enjoying a sliver of legitimacy among liberals. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait scolded the so-called “liberal media” for being too quick to condemn the lab leak theory just because Trump supported it. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who has long been regarded as a trusted voice of reason throughout the pandemic, told CNN that he has an “open mind” about the origins of the virus. President Biden has also ordered the Intelligence Community to more thoroughly review the virus’s origins, including the possibility of a lab leak; the Chinese government denies allegations that the virus spread due to a lab mishap.
And Stewart isn’t the only comedian slash social commentator supporting the lab leak theory either. Back in January, Bill Maher expressed support for the lab leak theory on an episode of his weekly HBO program, Real Time with Bill Maher, saying, “the fact that there is this lab, I think it’s the only one in the world quite like it, in Wuhan, where it started. It would almost be a conspiracy theory to think it didn’t start in a lab, right? And that theory was demonized at first—Oh, come on, that’s conspiracy thinking, that started in a lab. But it’s certainly 50-50...”
Here at the facts that remain: The mere possibility of a lab leak doesn’t mean it is the likely origin of covid-19. Plus, even if covid-19 did originate in a lab, that doesn’t change the paltry response to the virus’s spread; there have been nearly 600,000 confirmed covid-19 deaths recorded in the United States since March 2020. While a lab leak may pressure nations around the globe to enforce stronger safety standards—and, importantly, help prevent a pandemic of that nature in the future—this would not negate, explain, or in any vindicate the failures of governments worldwide to reduce the spread via tried and true safety standards.
But more galling than the bloodlust to punish China for covid is the anti-intellectual tendencies of some of the loudest lab leak defenders, which now include Stewart. Stewart’s belief that the lab leak theory speaks to a broader “problem with science” is, frankly, birdbrained. Studying infectious diseases is vital to learning how to treat them and make them less of a threat in the future. We need scientists pushing boundaries and working with dangerous pathogens, lab leak or otherwise.
Maybe Stewart should stick to his strengths, like begging Congress to provide 9/11 first responders with life-saving health benefits. Because this? This is clearly out of his range.