Americans are overwhelmingly supportive of the ‘lab leak’ theory of origins of covid
The polls come shortly after it was reported that the Department of Energy concluded the virus was likely due to a lab leak. Republicans have played that finding by stepping up congressional investigations into the origins of the virus and related issues — even as the Energy Department’s finding is described as “low confidence,” and intelligence agencies as a whole remain decidedly divided on the most likely theory.
There is no doubt that the lab leak theory is ascending in the minds of Americans, although the scientific community and some media have cast a lot of doubts on it from the start.
But it’s also true that this has clearly been an attractive theory for many Americans for a long time.
The first big-name pollster to test this question was the Pew Research Center. He popped the question in mid-March 2020, shortly after the first covid deaths in the United States were reported. At the time, 43% thought the virus was naturally occurring, but around 3 in 10 thought it was intentionally or accidentally created in a lab.
And as early as a few months later, those opinions were indeed linked in the minds of Americans in another poll in September 2020, after President Donald Trump and others promoted the theory. A Public Religion Research Institute poll later showed that 50% believed it had been developed intentionally in a lab, while 49% believed it had developed naturally.
Another PRRI poll six months later showed more skepticism of the lab leak theory, with only about 4 in 10 people supporting it. But in June 2021, a Politico-Harvard poll showed Americans embracing it by a nearly 2-to-1, 52-28 margin.
As Dan Diamond of The Washington Post recently noted, by this point many of Trump’s critics had begun to treat this as a more open question. The Biden administration launched a 90-day investigation into the origins of the virus in May 2021 (it was inconclusive). And shortly before the June 2021 poll hit the field, comedian Jon Stewart went viral a bit by playing on the possibility.
“Science has, in many ways, helped alleviate the suffering of this pandemic,” Stewart said, before adding to effect, “which was more than likely caused by science.”
The reasons why this has long been an attractive theory are obvious, and Stewart’s bit hit a number of them. Among them, it is a relatively simple theory to solve a complex problem. (It’s much easier to grasp the idea that something so deadly was intentionally created – or leak intentionally – rather than it somehow happened.) This also has the benefit of pointing to a bona fide culprit for something that people were and are understandably angry about. China’s lack of transparency has undoubtedly increased mistrust.
And indeed, if you look a little closer, you can see opinions in favor of a lab leak even earlier.
The Economist and YouGov have actually asked this question many times over time, but in a different way than others. Rather than contrasting laboratory leakage with natural transmission, he asked: “Whether the virus responsible for COVID-19 was created or mutated naturally, do you think it is true or false that a laboratory in China is the origin of the virus?”
This question allowed people to believe that a lab was responsible without necessarily believing that the virus was deliberately created (which, to many people, might sound like the more conspiratorial “bioweapons” theory). And as early as May 2020, YouGov showed that Americans were leaning toward a lab playing some role. Half were in favour, while only 3 in 10 thought it was wrong that a lab was involved.
Given that Americans were no doubt already in favor of a lab leak theory at this very early stage, it shouldn’t be too surprising that it has become such a strong favorite – even if it isn’t a favorite yet. so strong in government and the scientific community.