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Did the SARS-CoV-2 virus arise from a bat coronavirus research program in a Chinese laboratory? Very possibly.

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On May 15, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published a short commentary titled, “Let evidence, not talk radio, determine whether the outbreak started in a lab,” by Ali Nouri, a biologist and president of the Federation of American Scientists. “The outbreak” referred to the pandemic of SARS-CoV-2 now circling the globe. It is a thin commentary, and it is puzzling why the Bulletin thought it desirable to publish it at all. Only two weeks earlier the journal had published a reasoned and competent appraisal by Kings College London biosecurity expert Filippa Lentzos titled, “Natural spillover or research lab leak? Why a credible investigation is needed to determine the origin of the coronavirus pandemic.”

The Nouri article very correctly pilloried the statements by President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, presidential legal advisor Rudy Giuliani, and radio personality Rush Limbaugh. These are as notorious a gang of four fabricators as will ever likely be recorded in American history. They were ably assisted by Fox News, which the Nouri critique also mentions. Nouri ended his commentary with these lines: “Our leaders ought to … take steps to prevent the next pandemic, instead of diverting our attention to unsupported sensationalist theories spread by cable TV and talk radio.”

Perhaps the most damaging blows to efforts to obtain a certain answer as to the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 “outbreak” have been the pronouncements by Trump, Pompeo, and their echo chambers. But they and their remarks are not the measure by which the question of the possibility that a laboratory escape began the pandemic should be examined. Trump’s diversionary ranting comes from a president who did nothing for two months in the face of an oncoming lethal pandemic, actively denied and denigrated intelligence warnings of the imminent danger, and said that SARS-CoV-2 would “just go away … like a miracle” and that “within a couple of days is going to be down close to zero.” All this has been widely and thoroughly chronicled.1

But long before Trump, Pompeo and Co. sought a Chinese scapegoat for the president’s gross and willful incompetence, researchers understood that the possibility of laboratory escape of the pathogen was a plausible, if unproven, possibility. It is most definitely not “a conspiracy theory.”

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