Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos
The far right has a favorite new conspiracy theory: Dr. Anthony Fauci, it seems, conspired with nefarious globalists to manufacture the COVID-19 virus in a Wuhan, China, laboratory and unleash it on the unsuspecting world in order to seize control of the global population. Or something along those lines.
But watching its progression into more mainstream settings—including a recent White House press conference—provides a vivid illustration not only of the ways that conspiracy-fueled extremists twist quasi-legitimate debate to their own ends, foisting their fantasies on a larger public in the process, but how they can almost instantaneously transform government-created information vacuums into fetid hothouses for their fearmongering and smears.
Far right promotes conspiracy theory blaming Fauci for COVID-19 www.youtube.com
"COVID-19's greatest power is fear," intoned conspiracy-meister Alex Jones in the introduction to a recent episode of his Infowars show, behind a distorted video portrait of Fauci and creepy soundtrack. "It is a psychological warfare weapon that has been deployed against the people of the world—to be the cover for a controlled global collapse, to consolidate power in the hands of the globalists, and establish their New World Order.
"If this power grab is ever to be defeated, we must meet it head on, and expose the fact that the virus was deliberately released from the Wuhan lab, and that Fauci was publicly in control of the gain-of-function coronavirus project," Jones asserted.
The stories about the Wuhan laboratories are not new. A number of far-right conspiracists, ranging from Jones to Donald Trump, have made similar claims in the past but were knocked down by leading scientists. However, their assertions have come under fire due to questions raised by an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists suggesting that the weight of evidence points to the likelihood that the COVID virus was produced in a Wuhan lab—which in turn has set the far-right aflame.
The article, by onetime New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade, argued that the consensus among leading virologists that the virus originated in wildlife and was transmitted to humans has no data to support it, and that the theory that it had leaked out of a laboratory—specifically, the Wuhan Institute of Virology—due to so-called "gain-of-function" research was supported by the weight of the evidence. Its primary conclusion, however, is that none of the theories are conclusive because of a lack of evidence—almost entirely due to the refusal of the Chinese government to allow a transparent investigation of the lab's role in the global pandemic.
That was all the opening the conspiracy crowd needed. As usual, Jones was only leading a parade of hysterical theorists eager to add their take on the Wuhan-lab controversy. "Did The Pandemic Start in Fauci's Lab?" asked one YouTube video. "Chinese Virologist Claims Coronavirus Was Man-Made In Wuhan's Laboratory," and "Is the Coronavirus a Chinese Bioweapon?" read others. At World Net Daily, the headline read: "New evidence ties COVID-19 creation to research funded by Fauci."
Wade's article was careful to specify that the evidence for any of the lab-leak theories is inconclusive, and acknowledges the natural-origin theory could yet prove correct. He complains that the lab-leak theories have been unfairly dismissed as conspiracies, but spells out clearly that "the idea that the virus might have escaped from a lab invoked accident, not conspiracy."
What he fails to acknowledge, however, is that reportage such as his becomes malleable putty for the conspiracy theorists. Jones was adamant about suggestions that the lab release was accidental: "None of it's accidental. You had the Rockefeller Foundation lockstep, you had the Event 201 with Gates and Fauci and the U.N.," he told his audience.
Jones blamed research under the auspices of "Fauci and Bill Gates" for the creation of what he called a "bioweapon." One of his guests went on to assert that the COVID-19 virus was not an accidental product, either: "This is clearly an offensive biological warfare weapon," he said.
On the "Real America's Voice News" podcast by former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon, another ex-White House adviser, Peter Navarro, held forth at length about the Wade article, plainly eager to blame Fauci for it all: "If it came from the lab, Fauci did it," Navarro told Bannon. He also claimed that Fauci used contract legalese to "get around the Trump White House to give the Chinese Communist Party weaponization capability through gain of function."
"You know, Fauci pulled a fast one on the House of Trump, I'm telling ya," he said. "This Nick Wade article, Fauci is goin' down."
He concluded: "For whatever reason, Fauci wanted to weaponize that virus. And he is the father of it, he has killed millions of Americans, and now we are 99.99 percent sure of that."
A number of Republican politicians—notably Wisconsin Congressman Mike Gallagher and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul—have now called for an official investigation into whether U.S. taxpayers were helping finance "gain of function" research in Wuhan. Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson blamed Fauci, saying: "So what were we doing cooperating with China?"
The extent to which the Wuhan-lab-leak-theory is becoming a right-wing obsession was manifested late last week when reporter Emerald Robinson of the conspiracy-friendly Newsmax operation tried to grill Press Secretary Jen Psaki about the matter. She asked a question similar to Johnson's: "Given that gain-of-function research is dicey, why would the U.S. fund that in China?"
When Psaki suggested she ask the National Institutes of Health that question, Robinson continued: "Who does the president agree with, Dr. Fauci or the other officials? Does he think it was a lab leak?"
"Well, the president has said, and I have said from here many times, that there needs to be a credible, independent investigation through the World Health Organization, and one that relies on data, that relies on participation from China and other countries that may have information," Psaki answered. "That's certainly something everybody has called for and we look forward to that happening."
The article that sparked the controversy is also deeply problematic, in no small part because of the author: While Wade is indeed a formerly well-regarded science writer, his reputation was permanently tarnished in 2014 when he published a book—titled A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History—contending that race is a biological reality, and that recent natural selection had created racial differences in economic and social behavior—claiming, as he is in the case of the COVID-19 theories, that "politics" suppressed a robust discussion of the matter.
The book was denounced in a letter signed by 140 senior geneticists who said that Wade had misrepresented and misinterpreted their findings, and that his conclusions fell well outside of any grounded hypothesis based on the science: "We reject Wade's implication that our findings substantiate his guesswork. They do not."
An American Scientist review of the book concluded: "A Troublesome Inheritance is itself troubling, not for its politics but for its science. Its arguments are only mildly amended versions of arguments discarded decades ago by those who methodically and systematically study human behavioral variation across cultures."
Wade, it seems, has a knack not only for distorting and misrepresenting science, but for promulgating "apolitical" discussions of scientific issues that just happen to become grist for white nationalists and far-right conspiracy theorists. His recent piece on the Wuhan labs is filled with similar key omissions.
For instance, he claims that the only evidence supporting the argument that the COVID-19 genomes indicate a natural origin is a letter by two scientists based on ostensibly slipshod claims, saying: "And that's it." But in fact another letter he cites (and dismisses), published in the medical journal The Lancet in February 2020, specifically references a list of studies by scientists from multiple countries who "have published and analyzed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2),1 and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife, as have so many other emerging pathogens."
A recent debunking by Politifact of the claims regarding Fauci notes that, while Fauci was indeed involved in approving a grant to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, all parties involved deny that it involved gain-of-function research.
"We have not ever participated in gain-of-function research. Nor have we ever been funded to participate in gain-of-function research," Robert Kessler with the EcoHealth Alliance told PolitiFact.
"The research supported under the grant to EcoHealth Alliance Inc. characterized the function of newly discovered bat spike proteins and naturally occurring pathogens and did not involve the enhancement of the pathogenicity or transmissibility of the viruses studied," the NIH told Politifact.
Fauci himself recently addressed the underlying issue in an interview with National Geographic, calling the whole debate a "circular argument."
"If you look at the evolution of the virus in bats and what's out there now, [the scientific evidence] is very, very strongly leaning toward this could not have been artificially or deliberately manipulated … Everything about the stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that [this virus] evolved in nature and then jumped species," Fauci said.
For conspiracy theorists, however, actual science, facts, and logic don't really matter. They have just learned how to trot out enough of them to seem interested in a good-faith discussion, and then using them to springboard into the bizarre alternative universe of fabricated smears where they dwell.
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