Change: Majority of Americans, plurality of Dems now believe lab-leak theory is probably true

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Here’s another reason why Leana Wen, however well-meaning, probably shouldn’t worry about what might happen if Americans come around to believing that the coronavirus leaked from a Chinese lab.

Most already believe it. And a near-majority believed it right from the start.

Republicans were all-in on the lab-leak possibility since 2020 but Democrats and especially independents have come around lately now that the expert class has grown newly credulous about it.

Those numbers don’t fully capture the depth of Americans’ skepticism that the virus evolved naturally and made the leap directly from animals to humans, the explanation still favored by many scientists, including Anthony Fauci. Just 13 percent subscribe to that theory, per YouGov. Nearly as many believe that the virus evolved naturally but accidentally escaped from a lab where it was being stored, and even more believe that it was created in a lab and then leaked via an accident.

But the most popular theory (apart from a third who say they just don’t know) is that Chinese scientists created the virus and then released it deliberately. Twenty-four percent of Americans believe that one but that number is driven heavily by Republicans, among whom 39 percent favor it. That’s a hard pill to swallow logically: Why would China release a bioweapon in its own territory, not knowing whether it could control the spread? Why wouldn’t it have locked down Wuhan before the release, to ensure that the virus didn’t propagate across the country?

The “deliberately released” theory isn’t logical but it does show how understandably suspicious Americans are of China’s intentions. Beijing certainly seems malevolent enough to use a bioweapon against their own people.

But in that case, we probably would have seen the first COVID outbreak in Xinjiang, not Hubei, right?

This is the most interesting chart from YouGov’s poll, showing a “class gap” on the question of the virus’s origins:

“Not sure,” which is the correct answer, is the biggest share in each group. But of the four, it’s lowest among the most educated cohort, postgrads. Postgrads also have the highest share of believers in the zoonotic theory, that the virus arose naturally and jumped from animals to humans. “It’s a poll showing the more educated are overconfident in their views,” says my pal Karl, correctly. But it also shows that the least educated are most likely to embrace the conspiratorial and unlikely possibility that China released the virus deliberately. “The world has been profoundly disrupted. It’s much more comforting to believe it the result of some malign actor than nature just f***ing with us,” another Twitter follower noted. That’s also correct. Mass upheaval always fertilizes conspiracy theories. JFK, 9/11, COVID: Some people prefer to think that powerful actors are in charge, pulling the strings of the universe in an orderly way, than that a small number of fanatics or some negligence in a lab could wreak such havoc.

One more graph for you from the same poll. This isn’t about the virus’s origins, just whether people fear the virus more than they fear the vaccine:

That’s a pitiful response from Republicans with nearly 600,000 people dead. We’ll be lucky if we don’t end up with another wave of COVID in red states this summer.

Here’s Fauci’s boss, NIH director Francis Collins, being grilled on Fox News this afternoon about why he and Fauci referred to the lab-leak theory as a “conspiracy” in newly released emails from last year. I’ve never thought that a lab accident was a far-fetched conspiracy theory, Collins insists, only the theory that SARS-CoV-2 was a deliberately engineered bioweapon. He also says at one point of the lab-leak possibility that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” But the lab-leak theory isn’t really any more extraordinary a claim than the zoonotic theory. Granted, there have been many cases of viruses evolving naturally and leaping from animals to humans, but there have been many lab accidents too. And we know that the State Department was worried in 2018 about the Wuhan Institute of Virology not taking proper safety precautions with its work. So why should we presume that the zoonotic theory is the correct one instead of remaining neutral on the matter?