For several years, political partisans have played armchair historian and asserted that whomever is currently occupying the White House is either the best or worst president of all-time. Which of these two it is depends solely on the person’s political leanings and is not based on policy, accomplishments, ability to build consensus, or to craft compromise.
But genuine historians, as opposed to the armchair variety, will tell us that it can take upwards of 50 years to determine a president’s performance. That much time is required to judge the impact of his policies and decisions. For example, the Marshall Plan is the brightest feather in Truman’s cap, but this would not have been obvious in 1946.
Similarly, the idea that we can ascertain right now the origins of COVID-19 is a mistaken notion based on a misunderstanding of virology. Skeptic and medical writer David Gorski explained that when a virus migrates from animals to humans, it can take years to determine the origin. Epidemiologists are still uncertain which animal Ebola came from and it has been around since the U.S. bicentennial.
To deduce the origin, scientific sleuths must sample wild animals and sequence the viruses they carry to find a close genetic relative, a task Gorski likens to “haystacks within haystacks. So the fact that scientists don’t know where the relatively new coronavirus comes from is not evidence that it came from a laboratory. Still, there are some who excitedly claim it came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, either engineered as a bioweapon or having leaked out.
The former option largely leans on the Appeal to Incredulity fallacy, asserting there is no way it could have formed from a natural source when there is a viral institute nearby.
Gorski write, “While it is possible to create genetic sequences without, for instance, typical restriction enzyme sites of the sort that were frequently used to insert sequences into genomes…it is more difficult than conspiracy theorists let on. To them these nefarious Chinese scientists were supposedly so clever that they not only did something that’s not at all trivial but did it without leaving behind any telltale signs in the sequence of genetic manipulation.”
Theorists also argue that a natural virus pandemic would gradually mutate and become more infectious but less deadly. Virologist Angela Rasmussen said this is wrong, that those in her field would not necessarily anticipate this. Further, the virus’ low fatality rate, combined with the fact that a significant number of those infected are asymptomatic, would mean there is little selective pressure for mutations that make it less deadly, particularly when it’s still widespread.
Moreover, several studies show the virus likely evolved from previously existing coronaviruses and is continuing to evolve as is spreads.
By contrast, the conspiracy theory assumes abilities beyond the capabilities of even the most advanced research teams. It further assumes that whoever created this would know what effects it would have on humans without having tested it.
Virologists can predict what impact mutations might have, but these are highly-educated guesses and not certainties.
Scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology previously determined that bats in the area carried coronavirus varieties. But that’s a very different thing from proof that the pandemic came from a leaked source as opposed to free bats.