The tangled story of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a new twist.
On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal revealed that the Department of Energy had shifted its position, now holding that the most likely source of the virus was a laboratory mishap, presumably in Wuhan, China — the so-called “lab leak theory.”
The department reportedly only has “low confidence” in the finding.
But the new position is still a major development, especially on a topic so politically loaded as the origins of the pandemic.
Here are the major takeaways from the new revelation.
Republicans take vindication from shift
Responses to COVID have cleaved along partisan lines since the early days of the pandemic.
Many liberals and left-of-center commentators were initially dismissive of the lab leak theory.
As the ground has shifted, some have sought to explain that earlier position.
MSNBC anchor Mehdi Hasan tweeted Tuesday that the original resistance to the theory was “because it was originally conflated by the right with ‘Chinese bio weapon’ conspiracies and continues to be conflated by the right with anti-Fauci conspiracies.”
No U.S. intelligence agency believes that COVID was designed as a weapon by the Chinese.
But a number of Republicans have claimed vindication from the new reports.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) tweeted that the U.S. government had only belatedly “caught up to what Real America knew all along.”
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), one of the first prominent proponents of the lab leak theory, sought to take the high ground, tweeting “being proven right doesn’t matter. What matters is holding the Chinese Community Party accountable so this doesn’t’ happen again.”
An email to reporters from the Republican National Committee asserted that the new position from the Department of Energy “represents a significant about-face for Democrats, who routinely characterized any blame of China as ‘racist’ and ‘xenophobic.’”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has repeatedly clashed with Dr. Anthony Fauci during the pandemic, called on the Biden administration to declassify the documents that led the Energy Department to its latest conclusion.
A lot of uncertainty remains
The Energy Department was not the first government agency to favor the lab leak theory. It now joins the FBI, which has backed that thesis, with moderate confidence, since 2021.
But there is considerable division within the U.S. intelligence community — which officially comprises almost 20 different agencies— over the matter.
Four other agencies, according to the Journal’s reporting, continue to assert that the most likely genesis of COVID-19 was natural — that is, that the virus first arose in animals and later made the jump to humans.
The position of other intelligence agencies on the matter remains either unknown or undecided. According to the Journal’s Sunday report, the CIA is among those that are undecided.
Highly doubtful that the truth will ever be known
It is very possible that no definitive truth of how COVID began will ever be established.
It is now over three years since the first reports of sickness began to emerge from Wuhan.
More pertinently, the Chinese authorities have proven highly resistant to outside inquiries.
That has led to some intriguing threads that are left hanging.
For example, were three laboratory workers who had to be hospitalized in Wuhan in late 2019 suffering from some of the first cases of COVID infection — or from a seasonal flu?
Is there any credibility left for a World Health Organization report issued in March 2021 — under significant Chinese influence and pressure — that asserted the lab leak theory was “highly unlikely.”
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday that there was “not a definitive answer” as yet on the origins of the virus.
Sullivan said that President Biden had “directed repeatedly every element of our intelligence community to put effort and resources behind getting to the bottom of this question.”
But that goal seems almost as elusive as ever.
More tension in U.S.-China relations
Relations between Washington and Beijing have been at a low ebb in the wake of the discovery — and subsequent shooting down — of a Chinese spy balloon earlier this month.
Everything from the plight of Taiwan to privacy concerns around TikTok, the Chinese-owned social media app, have further strained that relationship.
The new COVID development has introduced a new wrinkle.
A spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry has accused the United States of “defaming” China with the new shift.
The spokesperson, Mao Ning, also insisted that COVID’s origins were “a scientific issue [that] should not be politicized.”
In Washington, however, the latest turn in the COVID story will add to suspicion of Beijing.
House Republicans created a new committee on the threat from China when they officially took the majority in January. The COVID news will give that panel fresh impetus.
A fueling of distrust
Skepticism of official accounts around COVID and outright conspiracy theories have been intermingled almost since the pandemic began.
The skeptics will emphasize how the lab leak theory was once marginalized and derided — only to gain credence over time. They will also note, as TV host Jon Stewart did in 2021, that the conventional wisdom once seemed to overrun common sense.
During an appearance on CBS’s “Late Show” with Stephen Colbert in June 2021, Stewart drew a comparison between the situation in Wuhan — which has several key labs, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology — to an American city synonymous with chocolate.
“‘Oh, my God, there’s been an outbreak of chocolaty goodness near Hershey, Pa. What do you think happened?’” Stewart said. “Like, ‘Oh I don’t know, maybe a steam shovel mated with a cocoa bean?’ Or it’s the [expletive] chocolate factory! Maybe that’s it?”
Still, the new twist is also sure to fuel theories that are, indeed, unsupported.
Many of those theories are unhinged, but still draw levels of support that are far from negligible.
As early as October 2020, a poll from an anti-extremism group found that almost 20 percent of American adults believed — falsely — that “COVID-19 has been intentionally released as part of a ‘depopulation’ plan orchestrated by the UN or New World Order.”