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Beware of conspiracy theories

Summary:
Let’s get two points out of the way.  First, I believe that a few conspiracy theories are true.  Second, Covid-19 might have escaped from a Chinese lab. Nonetheless, you should be very skeptical of most conspiracy theories, including one discussed recently by The Economist: A recent study of blood samples from 9,144 adults in 12 different regions of France found seven which contained antibodies against sars-cov-2, all of them taken in November 2019. An Italian lung-cancer screening trial has found samples taken in September 2019 which seem to contain anti-sars-cov-2 antibodies. Another antibody study suggests the virus was circulating at a low level in northern Italy at the same time, notably in Lombardy, a region which has close connections to Wuhan through the

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Let’s get two points out of the way.  First, I believe that a few conspiracy theories are true.  Second, Covid-19 might have escaped from a Chinese lab.

Nonetheless, you should be very skeptical of most conspiracy theories, including one discussed recently by The Economist:

A recent study of blood samples from 9,144 adults in 12 different regions of France found seven which contained antibodies against sars-cov-2, all of them taken in November 2019. An Italian lung-cancer screening trial has found samples taken in September 2019 which seem to contain anti-sars-cov-2 antibodies. Another antibody study suggests the virus was circulating at a low level in northern Italy at the same time, notably in Lombardy, a region which has close connections to Wuhan through the garment trade, and saw Europe’s first major outbreak of covid-19 in March 2020. . . .

An early origin would fit with the timeline that lab-leak proponents tend to favour. Early this August, the minority Republican staff on the House foreign-affairs committee released an 84-page report arguing this case. It makes much of a small but deadly disease outbreak which took place at an abandoned copper mine in Yunnan in 2012. As drastic showed last year, a virus studied at wiv which had been taken from that mine is the closest known relative to sarscov-2.

The report sees importance in the removal, on September 12th 2019, of a database containing details of sequences and samples from the wiv. This is read as the beginning of a cover-up, and thus as the point when the authorities first knew something had gone amiss, arguing for a leak in late August or early September. The wiv says it was a response to cyber-attacks.

There’s a tendency to view the construction of conspiracy theories as a process of adding up unrelated evidence, like scoring seven points on a passing touchdown in football, and then seven more on an interception return.  In fact, it’s not like that at all.  If this new theory is to be believed, then it suggests that Covid conspiracy theorists are not to be trusted, as it directly contradicts important points that they had previously been making.

Until recently, conspiracy theories had a timeline that suggest the virus crossed into humans in late October 2019.  A big part of the conspiracy theory was based on the “fact” that three workers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology were hospitalized with flu-like symptoms in November 2019.  We were told that this was strong evidence that they had become infected with Covid, and that they were a likely conduit through which it infected the broader population.

Obviously, if the virus were already circulating in Italy in September 2019, then the November 2019 Wuhan illnesses had absolutely no bearing on the origin of Covid-19.  By putting forth this new Covid conspiracy theory, they are unwittingly arguing that the previous arguments made by Covid conspiracy theorists are not to be trusted, not reliable.  Those November 2019 lab worker illnesses were not suspicious at all, not evidence of anything.

[As an aside, I still think the original Covid conspiracy theory is more plausible, for reasons I’ll explain below.  My point is not that the November illnesses for lab workers is meaningless (although it is, for reasons I explained here), rather my point is that this new theory developed by GOP Congressional staff directly contradicts previous lab leak theories.]

So what’s wrong with the claim that a Covid-19 cover-up began on September 12, 2019?  The answer is simple; it’s much too early to be consistent with the other information that we have about the progress of the pandemic.

Just think about the implications of this claim.  We are told that September 12 was “the point when the authorities first knew something had gone amiss”.  So what did “the authorities” do about this disaster?  Apparently nothing.  They sat back and just watched as more and more Covid cases spread all through Wuhan’s population, even though due to China’s previous experience with SARS, and also because of their totalitarian government, the Chinese are more fanatical than any other country on Earth in terms of controlling epidemics.   Their zero Covid policies make even places like Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan seem lax by comparison.  And yet we are to believe that they purposely let Covid run wild until many thousands of Wuhan residents were infected, and then suddenly clamped down on things in mid-January, four months after the cover-up began.

I hope it’s obvious to readers that this timeline makes no sense at all.  It’s not that Covid could not have begun in August or September without the authorities’ knowledge.  But if a Covid outbreak was already viewed as such a major problem that a cover-up was required, it hardly seems plausible that the Chinese would have just sat back for many months as the virus ran rampant through the Chinese population.  That makes no sense.

I would add that if the virus really were spreading in Northern Italy in September 2019 (something I doubt), then we don’t even know if it began in China.

Later on, The Economist gives a much more plausible explanation:

China clearly does not want lab-leaks investigated; but that does not mean it knows one happened. It is also being misleading about Huanan market, denying access to early-case data and obfuscating in various other non-lab-leak-specific ways. The most obvious explanation is that it does not really want any definitive answer to the question. An unsanitary market, a reckless bat-catcher or a hapless spelunker would not be as bad in terms of blame as a source in a government laboratory. But any definite answer to the origin question probably leaves China looking bad, unless it can find a way to blame someone else. To that end China has called for an investigation of Fort Detrick in Maryland, historically the home of American bioweapons research; state media regularly publish speculations about its involvement.

The Chinese government also resisted investigation of the first SARS epidemic, now generally accepted to be of natural origin.  Indeed Chinese government cover-ups are standard operating procedure, also occurring after disasters like earthquakes and train wrecks, and thus tell us nothing about the cause of the pandemic.

As an aside, while I agree that the Chinese would be blamed more for a lab leak than an animal market source, in my view exactly the opposite should be true.  America has similar labs where leaks occur on occasion, but we don’t have Chinese-style live animal markets.  In an ethical sense, an animal market would be worse for China if we lived in a rational world.  But of course . . .

Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment". In May 2012, Chicago Fed President Charles L. Evans became the first sitting member of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) to endorse the idea.

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