How Conspiracy Theories Go Viral

Gretchen LaSalle is a family physician and a clinical assistant professor in medicine at Washington State University. In March of 2021, she asked 2,232 people whether they had become more or less confident in the efficacy of vaccines—for any illness—since the COVID-19 pandemic. Most people either became more confident (29.3%) or reported no change in their pre-pandemic attitude (39.3%).  

But what worried LaSalle was that a significant number of people—20.8% of her respondents—feel less confident in vaccines than they did before the whole wretched saga began. “Even before the pandemic, vaccine hesitancy was increasing,” she told CNBC. Now LaSalle, who published a book addressing anti-vax concerns back in 2019, sees skepticism about COVID vaccines bleeding into a general wariness toward all forms of inoculation.

When COVID vaccines became available, anti-vaxxers suddenly became objects of intense press scrutiny. “They claim that any opposition to their propaganda must be proof of ‘deep state’ or ‘big pharma’ corruption of science and public policy,” wrote microbiology professor John P. Moore this year. According to epidemiology professor Elizabeth Jacobs, online forums are largely to blame: “Social media is the single greatest contributor to anti-science attitudes and the anti-vaccine movement.”  Moore is so incensed at the collateral damage of online misinformation that he suggests laying excess COVID deaths at the feet of anti-vaxxers, depriving them of free-speech rights on those grounds: “when words kill, there should be no absolute First Amendment protection.” 

For those who hoped that widespread vaccine uptake would at last provide an off-ramp from the COVID nightmare, it’s understandably frustrating to see conspiracy theories muddy the waters of public debate. But cracking down on skeptics is surely not the answer, if for no other reason than that censorship and moral superiority on the part of officials are big parts of how we got here in the first place. You don’t get out of a crisis in public trust by further vilifying doubt.  

If journalists and public health experts really want to understand the rise in anti-vax sentiment, then a little introspection is in order. Last September, according to Pew Research, 88% of the unvaccinated said that “there’s too much pressure on Americans to get a COVID-19 vaccine.” And 80% suspected that “public health officials are not telling us everything they know about COVID-19 vaccines.” It’s true enough that online conspiracists can take advantage of people who feel uncertain and confused about how to get accurate information. But of course they feel that way: at this point, they’ve been misled for over two years by authorities who claimed to deliver apolitical and unbiased facts.

This dereliction of civic duty is the most interesting aspect of Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19, by genetic engineering expert Alina Chan and science writer Matt Ridley. Their stated aim in the book is to investigate evidence for and against the “lab leak” hypothesis, according to which the novel coronavirus originated not in the wild but in a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). Chan has been poring over the relevant scientific literature ever since the pandemic began; with Ridley’s help she lays out the facts in clear and methodical prose for the lay reader. Though a lab leak looks plausible, the truth is we don’t know for sure and may never know where COVID came from. But that doesn’t mitigate the real scandal exposed in this book, which is how authorities in America and around the world obscured people’s understanding of the issue out of cowardice and corruption.

In 2012, six men were admitted to a hospital in southwest China after working to clear out bat guano from a mine in Mojiang County. Their symptoms—dry cough, shortness of breath, aching muscles, fatigue—look unnervingly familiar in retrospect. But the case aroused interest even then, especially after three of the men died. In subsequent years Dr. Shi Zhengli, a researcher at the WIV, collected at least nine samples of SARS-like viruses that were spreading among the bats in the Mojiang mine.

Then, when COVID became a global threat, the mine became a closely guarded secret. In October 2020, John Sudworth of the BBC tried to access it using geographic coordinates from a Chinese medical thesis on the 2012 incident. As Chan and Ridley explain in detail, Sudworth and his team were met with roadblocks and threats of violence. “It’s impossible to overstate just how large and coordinated the effort was,” said Sudworth: “state-security, plain-clothes police, uniformed police, officials and local residents. When we tried to talk to anyone, they’d turn their backs.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Shi Zhengli, by then the WIV’s deputy director and director of its Center for Emerging and Infectious diseases, was realizing that one of her Mojiang samples had striking genetic similarities to COVID-19. In publishing this fact, though, she renamed the sample from “4991” to “RaTG13.” She also buried or simply omitted several ledes: “Dr. Shi and her colleagues neglected to connect the newly renamed RaTG13 to 4991, neglected to cite her own 2016 paper describing its discovery and origins, neglected to identify the mine where the bat sample had been collected, and neglected to mention that RaTG13 was from a site where three people had died of a respiratory illness of unexplained origin.”

All of this had to be uncovered by anonymous Twitter users and doctors in their spare time. The University of Innsbruck’s Dr. Rossana Segreto combed public records of gene databases to prove that RaTG13 was the artist formerly known as 4991. Around the same time, a Chinese database quietly updated its records to indicate the connection. Dr. Peter Daszak, president of an American nonprofit named EcoHealth Alliance which funded research into SARS coronaviruses in Wuhan, dismissed this revelation: “The answer is already in the papers & obvious to people working in virology,” he scoffed. But as Chan and Ridley point out, “it had been far from obvious to the Wuhan University team or Dr. Segreto.”

These eight virus genomes, which also looked quite plausibly related to COVID-19, had been embargoed, unpublished, and basically ignored.

This little episode is symptomatic of the way Daszak covered over his own omissions and evasions by defensive posturing and appeals to authority. As Chan and Ridley point out, his entire professional reputation was basically staked on agreeing with the Chinese Communist Party that no lab leak occurred. Yet the World Health Organization saw fit to make Daszak part of a joint investigation into COVID’s origins alongside Chinese scientists in early 2021.

During the press conference which resulted from this venture, the team speculated that the virus may have traveled to a Wuhan market in the frozen carcass of a ferret-badger or some other dead animal meant for consumption. This was after it had already been determined that the infamous wet market in question featured no extant samples of coronavirus-infected meat, meaning that the virus would somehow have had to travel hundreds of miles in the frozen animal, refrain from infecting anyone on the way, spread to human customers while the meat was on sale, and then fail again to infect any other products at the market. Meanwhile, it emerged that the WHO-China team had spent a grand total of two to three hours at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where they were walked through a different kind of laboratory than the one that was suspected of harboring the original virus.

During all this, one might have expected the American press to leap into action, raising questions about Daszak’s conflict of interest and the WHO team’s apparent unwillingness to offend Chinese authorities by giving the lab leak hypothesis a fair hearing. But many major outlets did effectively the opposite, treating the case of COVID’s origins as closed and maligning anyone who floated lab leak theory as an unhinged crank.

The consequence was that citizen journalists, online obsessives, and amateur detectives had to pick up the slack. “Where the scientific and intelligence establishments had, in 2020, displayed only a surprisingly shallow interest (at least publicly) in the origin of the pandemic, these online sleuths have filled the gap,” write Chan and Ridley. For instance, it took a Spanish business consultant named Francisco Ribera, with the help of Twitter users working under pseudonyms like “the Seeker” and “Babarlelephant,” to unearth records of the other eight bat virus samples that Dr. Shi had collected from Mojiang.

These eight virus genomes, which also looked quite plausibly related to COVID-19, had been embargoed, unpublished, and basically ignored. “Pause to reflect on the situation,” write Chan and Ridley: “A Spanish business consultant working in his spare time painstakingly worked out, no thanks to Dr Shi and Dr Daszak, that they found eight viruses five years ago that are very closely related to the virus causing the pandemic.”

All this time, belief in the lab leak hypothesis was treated as tantamount to roaming the streets in nothing but a tinfoil hat. “Facebook flagged as ‘false information’ much of the work of these sleuths, even when it proved to be true information,” write Chan and Ridley. “Reddit simply deleted it.”

Then, after the WHO-China joint study generated international concern, news outlets began surreptitiously reversing course. The fact-checking website PolitiFact, which had labeled the lab leak a “debunked conspiracy theory,” decided that “that assertion is now more widely disputed.” Meanwhile “the New York Times altered its description of the laboratory-leak theory in a tab heading of a previous online article from ‘debunked’ to ‘unproven’.” Chan and Ridley pile up examples of outlets that suddenly blessed lab leak theory with the imprimatur of acceptable thought. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, who had rejected the idea of a leak, admitted in June that he was “not convinced” of a natural origin.

Chan and Ridley are not political hacks or wide-eyed conspiracists. Neither of them denies the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic, or takes its death toll lightly. Chan is a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT; Ridley is a former peer in the House of Lords and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The mutual convictions they express in this book may be described as classically liberal: they believe in the truth and they think that civilized open debate is the way to get at it. 

When the COVID vaccine came out, many people sensed that they were being manipulated once again by officials who considered it their right to toy with facts.

In one chapter, for example, they present a cogent argument against the lab-leak hypothesis in more gracious and convincing terms than most actual advocates for natural origin. They carefully distinguish between the thesis that COVID was engineered (i.e., altered or experimented upon to become more infectious) from the possibility that it leaked out of a lab in which it was merely being examined. Stressing that “there is no evidence at all that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was the subject of experiments in any laboratory,” they concede that Dr. Shi and her colleagues may have concealed their findings for fear of being reviled or even persecuted: perhaps “the scientists were afraid of being blamed so they did what they could to prevent a narrative developing that would cast shade on them. In a secretive and autocratic system they were afraid to be open.” 

And yet, they continue, “the proximity of the outbreak to the WIV—the largest collector of SARS-related coronaviruses in the world, where scientists were creating chimeric viruses and experimenting with close relatives of SARS-CoV-2—makes a compelling case for a laboratory-based origin of the virus.” Perhaps more importantly, they are alarmed by the motivated reasoning and climate of media hostility that made free inquiry on the subject so difficult. “Our preference throughout was for a balanced debate that led to the truth, not for a victory for one side or the other,” they write.

Readers of Viral will learn plenty about furin cleavage sites, virus genomes, and the nature of lab leaks in general. But the book’s greatest revelation, and a major object of Chan and Ridley’s own concern, is the manifest corruption of China’s officials and our own. “Honest discussions among leaders and scientists appear to be happening increasingly on burner phones and in secure email channels,” write Chan and Ridley. Under political pressure or out of the simple human impulse to save face, our authorities have lied to us. When they were caught, they lashed out and feigned outrage. 

And so, though it is regrettable that anti-vax sentiment has gained some traction as a result of all this, it is also predictable. When the COVID vaccine came out, many people sensed that they were being manipulated once again by officials who considered it their right to toy with facts. “When polls said only about half of all Americans would take a vaccine, I was saying herd immunity would take 70 to 75 percent [vaccination],” Fauci told the New York Times. “Then, when newer surveys said 60 percent or more would take it, I thought, ‘I can nudge this up a bit,’ so I went to 80, 85.” Those are the words of a philosopher king telling noble lies, not of a public servant reasoning with a free people.

The COVID vaccine is, in my personal view, a miracle of scientific achievement. It does not contain 5G tracking technology or other mind-control devices. It is 500 times less likely to kill you than COVID itself, whose effects it mitigates significantly. Like other vaccines before it, this shot saves lives and will continue doing so. People ought to get it. When they are scared off from it—or worse, from letting their child get any shots at all—that is a crying shame.

But I cannot say that it surprises me. John Moore writes with concern that anti-vax rhetoric “resonates with people whose psychological states leave them susceptible to believing conspiracy theories.” But what kind of psychological states are those, and who is to blame for creating the environment in which they arise? If experts and officials really want to ask why people are taking refuge in conspiracy theories, they will have to reckon with their own complicity and abuses of power.

Being deprived of reliable information and control over important decisions makes people feel edgy and aggrieved. It erodes their sense of agency, and leaves them vulnerable to anyone who claims, however dubiously, to tell them the real story. The antidote to this problem is not more disdain, more censorship, or more callous indifference to personal freedoms. The antidote is books like Viral, which offer facts that can help the public make their own choices—as is their God-given right.