Public and especially political attention to the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic has not abated and recently increased. A House subcommittee held a hearing on the subject last week, and Republican senators have called on Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines to provide raw materials that underlay the intelligence community’s assessments on the subject.
The community has had insufficient information to reach even a moderately firm judgment about how and where the virus first infected humans. A plurality of member agencies has leaned toward the hypothesis that the pandemic, like many other viral diseases, began with a natural transmission from animals to humans. A minority of agencies have leaned toward the alternative hypothesis involving a leak from a virology laboratory in Wuhan, China. Other agencies have remained thoroughly agnostic and declined to lean either way. No agencies have offered judgments on this question with high confidence, and all agencies agree that both hypotheses are plausible and that China’s lack of cooperation in sharing information has impeded efforts to resolve the question of Covid’s origin.
Recent reports of thinking within the Department of Energy and the FBI have encouraged those favoring the lab leak hypothesis. But the question remains open, among government agencies as well as outside experts.
Before anyone—in politics, the scientific community, or elsewhere—devotes much more time to dwelling on this question, it is advisable to consider how much difference resolving the question would or would not make. Despite the immense worldwide economic and other consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, knowing exactly how the pandemic began makes less difference than the amount of attention devoted to this topic might suggest. It is hard to see how a definitive judgment on that question now would be of any help in further dealing with Covid-19 itself. Potentially there would be some beneficial lessons relevant to warding off or preparing for future pandemics—lessons on, say, how to get early warning of animal transmission or the importance of laboratory security. But this is unlikely to involve new knowledge, beyond what experts on infectious diseases could have told us before Covid-19.
The origin question potentially has implications regarding official Chinese behavior, but the most worrisome scenarios have already been ruled out, even by responsible proponents of the lab leak theory. It is implausible that Chinese leaders would have intentionally unleashed a disease that has wreaked tremendous damage on their own people and economy. Moreover, the scientific consensus about the nature of the Covid-19 virus is that it was not manmade, and not genetically engineered as a biological weapon or for other purposes. Thus, the remaining question about the Chinese is only whether they were sufficiently careful about security at a lab in Wuhan that was conducting research on viruses.
The origin of Covid-19 is very much a technical question, but American politicians have seized it and turned it into a political question. Most of the seizure is by Republicans, including such outspoken partisans as Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio and Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. This is partly tough-on-China posturing, although Democrats, as well as Republicans, are trying to sound tough on China, in ways that are unhelpful in constructing sound policy.
Another probable motivation for the politicization is to get at Anthony Fauci, whom many Republicans never have forgiven for talking sense that contradicted then-President Donald Trump’s nonsense about Covid, and who has said that the preponderance of evidence favors the natural transmission hypothesis although he is keeping an open mind about the origins of the pandemic. Still, other Republican motivations involve making life difficult for a Democratic administration under whom the noncommittal intelligence assessments have been prepared, as well as making life difficult for the intelligence community itself, part of the supposedly nefarious “deep state” about which Jordan, Trump, and others have fulminated and never have forgiven for speaking other embarrassing truths during Trump’s presidency.
The origin of Covid-19 is hardly the only technical question that has gotten politicized. It can happen with the narrowest and most mundane question. The issue before a House committee in a hearing fifteen years ago was whether baseball star Roger Clemens had used performance-enhancing drugs. Clemens denied that he had. His former personal trainer, Brian McNamee, said that he had injected Clemens with steroids. Facing contradictory testimonies, the factual question before the committee was whether one man had stuck a needle into another man’s buttocks—a seemingly nonpolitical question. But the patterns of belief among committee members followed party lines. Democrats sided with McNamee, the little guy, while Republicans favored Clemens, the wealthy professional athlete. A further probable influence on Republican thinking was that the main report on steroid use in professional baseball—a report that fingered Clemens, among others—had been prepared by a Democrat, former Senator George Mitchell.
An example far more consequential for national policy was the issue of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as part of the George W. Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq in 2003. Much of the WMD question was highly technical, involving matters such as the tolerance levels of aluminum tubes and whether they were suitable for use in centrifuges for enriching uranium. But politicians determined to launch the war—and to use the WMD issue not as a technical question to be carefully explored but instead as one more talking point in their campaign to sell the war—took over the issue. Vice President Richard Cheney declared, in a speech delivered before the intelligence community had even begun work on an estimate on the subject that Congress had requested—that “there is no doubt” that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
When technical questions get politicized, three harms follow.
First, the policy significance, if any, of the answer to the technical question gets badly distorted. The public as well as politicians come to believe that important policy choices hinge on that answer, even when they should not. The enormous attention devoted to the WMD question at the time of the Iraq War obscured how, even if false beliefs about Saddam Hussein’s unconventional weapons had turned out to be true, the war still would have been a huge blunder. All the mess that followed the invasion—including the insurgencies, the economic dislocation, the birthing of terrorist groups, the regional destabilization, and the American casualties—still would have ensued. And if U.S. forces had faced such unconventional weapons when they invaded, the costs and casualties would have been even higher.
Similarly, U.S. policy toward China should involve careful consideration of many important political, economic, and military matters that are far more significant than security measures at a single Chinese laboratory. There might be good reasons to be tough on China these days, but sloppiness at a lab is not one of them, regardless of how consequential possible past sloppiness might have turned out to be in the case of Covid.
Second, because politicians and the public are simply not qualified to assess many technical questions, for politicians to inject themselves into such assessments will inevitably produce many wrong answers. The public will be fed misperceptions, including ones that are less easily dismissed than Trump’s suggestions about ingesting bleach as a remedy for Covid.
Texas Republican Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, recently stated that the Biden administration should conclude “what common sense told us at the start—the COVID-19 pandemic originated from a lab leak in Wuhan, China.” It is incomprehensible how the question about Covid’s origins—which is far outside the experience of ordinary Americans and which has tested even the expertise of highly trained virologists and epidemiologists—can be viewed as a matter of “common sense.”
Third, politicization of such issues can corrupt, subtly and even at an unconscious level, the judgments of the experts themselves, especially those in government bureaucracies who ultimately are answerable to political leaders. When the available evidence is fragmentary and uncertain, it does not take much of such back-of-the-mind considerations to influence judgments. The strong preference by leaders of the George W. Bush administration for the analysis of Iraq to come out in a way that would aid the pro-war campaign probably affected the analysis of Iraqi weapons programs in this way. There is no comparable policy imperative in the current administration regarding either China or Covid, and so it is not clear in what direction any political influence would operate on the question of Covid’s origins. But any such influence reduces the chance of getting the correct answer to the technical question at hand.
Paul Pillar retired in 2005 from a twenty-eight-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, in which his last position was National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. Earlier he served in a variety of analytical and managerial positions, including as chief of analytic units at the CIA covering portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. Professor Pillar also served in the National Intelligence Council as one of the original members of its Analytic Group. He is also a Contributing Editor for this publication.