Mother Jones

ESCAPE ARTIST

Few people in the United States had heard of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV)—the high-security biolab in Wuhan, China, that does cutting-edge research on coronaviruses—until mid-April, when the Trump administration began to imply that it might be the source of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. So far the only evidence supporting this idea is the coincidence of COVID-19 breaking out in the same city as the institute, but that’s been enough to feed conspiracy theories for months. Such theories were relegated to the right-wing fringe—in mid-April, Rush Limbaugh complained that you’re considered “a kook if you think that this virus happened in a lab!”—until the White House, feeling the heat for its own inept response, began to embrace them.

The groundwork to do so was laid when two cables from officials at the American Embassy in Beijing were leaked to the Washington Post. The cables had been sent to Washington in 2018 after the officials had visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the first lab in China with a Biosafety Level 4 rating, meaning it has enough security to work with the world’s most dangerous pathogens. The Americans had been told of safety concerns at the lab. “During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” one of the cables said, urging the US government to send additional support to the lab and stressing how important the WIV’s work was for “future emerging coronavirus outbreak prediction and prevention.”

The second leak was more pointed: Fox News, citing intelligence from unnamed insiders, reported “increasing confidence” that the outbreak had come from the lab. Asked about the report at a briefing, President Trump responded, “More and more, we’re hearing the story.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later pressed the case on The Hugh Hewitt Show, saying, “We know that the first sightings of this occurred within miles of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. We know the history of the facility—the first BSL-4 lab where there’s high-end virus research being conducted took place at that site. We know that the Chinese Communist Party, when it began to evaluate what to do inside of Wuhan, considered whether the WIV was, in fact, the place where this came from. And most importantly, we know they’ve not permitted the world’s scientists to go into that laboratory to evaluate what took place there.”

The motivation to blame China—to point the finger at foreign sloppiness as the true cause of the pandemic—seems obvious. The administration’s initial claim that it had little advance warning about the coming virus had quickly crumbled. New reports made it clear how early and often it was warned, including a claim by ABC News that the first alarms started ringing way back in November, when US intelligence picked up on the outbreak through intercepted communications in China and flagged it as

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