As the United States struggled to contain the initial onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic, a few conservatives peddled an outlandish theory to explain the origins of the disease. The virus, they claimed, did not emerge in the Wuhan market where most experts believed it had appeared, but at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a research laboratory about eight miles away.* In late January, The Washington Times suggested that scientists at the lab had developed the disease as part of China’s biowarfare program. Even after an article in Nature found that the chemical structure of the virus proved it could not be a “laboratory construct,” the theory had no trouble mutating into a new, more durable form: If the virus hadn’t been manufactured, perhaps it had escaped the lab by accident, the product not of biowarfare but of unsanitary Chinese negligence.
The media personality who jumped farthest down this rabbit hole was not a Fox host or a Breitbart hack, but the center-right blogger Jim Geraghty of the National Review, who was, before now, mostly known for straightforward election commentary. In early April, Geraghty analyzed translated media reports and amateur YouTube videos to identify “the trail leading back to the Wuhan labs,” theorizing that researchers may have brought a bat to the lab from a cave and inadvertently been splashed by its blood while studying it. “This wasn’t bioterrorism,” he warned a few weeks later, “but the next virus could be deliberate.”
When mainstream news outlets reported that most experts considered the Wuhan facility to be secure, he conceded that they had a good point, “except ... can we be sure that no researcher at any point made any mistakes?” Soon, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas was accusing the “Chinese Communist Party” of releasing the virus through willful negligence, and Donald Trump was hinting that researchers had let the virus loose by “mistake”—a classic act of Trumpian projection designed to distract from the many disastrous miscues his administration has committed in its efforts to contain the virus.
This is not the first time an American politician has tried to pin a pandemic on China: In 1900, the surgeon general blamed Chinese immigrants for a bubonic plague outbreak, calling it an “Oriental disease, peculiar to rice eaters.” But the Wuhan lab theory is particularly worrying, since it has caught on not just with fringe conspiracy theorists and the occasional rogue health official but with politicians at the very highest levels of government. Hawks such as Cotton have sought to confront China for years; now, they can accuse Xi Jinping’s government of a crime far worse than currency manipulation or cyberwarfare. Already more than two-thirds of Republicans believe the virus came from the Wuhan lab, and as the election approaches, Trump is sure to look for a place to focus the anger of his base. And if the ideologues around him parlay their pet theory into an act of aggression against China, the cure may indeed prove worse than the disease.
* This piece has been updated to reflect the Chinese CDC’s belief that the Wuhan market was not the source of the coronavirus, but a super-spreader.