Washington, D.C., has little love for mystery. Politicians prefer the news to supply certainty: two antagonists, clear moral stakes, the chance to take a side. But for more than a year the starting point of the dominant political story, the coronavirus pandemic, has been mysterious. Among conservatives, predisposed to hawkishness toward China, where the virus had come from, attention focussed on the possibility that the COVID-19 pathogen had emerged from a Chinese lab, either by accident or design. Liberals sought a more explicit alignment with scientific investigators, and favored an account in which the virus had migrated naturally from animals to humans, possibly through the Chinese markets where exotic animals are sold for human consumption. The right’s theory, at best, blamed science run amok, and at worst, suspected an unprecedented act of biowarfare. (“It was the ‘incompetence of China,’ and nothing else, that did this mass Worldwide killing,” President Trump tweeted in May, 2020.) The left’s theory blamed an unreconstructed pre-modern approach to wildlife that, instead of protecting it, killed and ate it. For a year, each camp occupied the seats that they liked best: liberals in the mainstream, conservatives on the fringe. This spring, though the evidence for either side has not changed much, there has been news in this area. Scientists and political commentators have become less swift to dismiss the lab-leak theory. And so, the political debate over the pandemic’s origins became a case study in something else: how the political world does and doesn’t change its mind.

Political actors have restaged the same argument so frequently during the past few years that it can sometimes seem as if they are only ever having a single fight. The argument is invariably about some scientific or intellectual consensus, and it follows a general pattern. First, conservative media or political figures notice what seems to them a glitch in the consensus—a situation in which liberals might be using the slogans of science and objectivity as a cover for a partisan political endeavor. Then liberals react, and often overreact, by insisting that the scientific or intellectual consensus is, in fact, ironclad, and introduce prominent members of the relevant field to say so in public. (This is the “circling the wagons” phase.) Often, there is a third stage, in which certain center-left dissenters become exasperated by the overstatements of the liberals, and point out more technical issues with the consensus, frequently based in previously arcane sub-specialty disputes. These left dissenters then sometimes make jarring, slightly comic appearances on, for instance (or, specifically), “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”

These stages—glitch, circle the wagons, “Tucker Carlson Tonight”—have appeared in the debates over masking, the 1619 Project, the Russiagate scandal, and many of the outrages over “cancel culture.” The pattern recurs frequently enough that the current political era, often identified with Trump, or with the more atmospheric phenomenon of populism, might actually be defined by this argument about consensus. It offers a reassuring familiarity: every issue rings the same bell, and then everyone staggers bleary-eyed to their usual stations, like firemen at midnight.

In the case of the origins of COVID-19, the glitch was identified early, even before the pandemic had taken hold. On February 16, 2020, the Republican senator Tom Cotton appeared on Fox News to discuss the possibility that the virus had originated in a lab in Wuhan, China. “Now, we don’t have evidence that this disease originated there, but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says,” Cotton, of Arkansas, said. Wagons were circled quickly; the Washington Post denounced this as a “conspiracy theory,” and the Times described it as a “fringe theory.” In May, 2020, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told National Geographic that “everything about the stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that [this virus] evolved in nature and then jumped species.”

The pressure on the consensus theory was always time—the longer scientists went without identifying an animal origin, the more attention would be paid to alternatives. In January, the novelist Nicholson Baker published a cover story in New York magazine arguing a richly textured version of the lab-leak theory, which emphasized the “gain of function” research being pursued in the Wuhan Institute of Virology and elsewhere, in which scientists were manipulating coronaviruses to discover what would make them more virulent or infectious, and suggested that these inquiries could be a culprit. (Here was the left-dissent phase). When Baker’s piece was published, Carlson devoted a segment of his program to it, declaring gleefully, “For 2020 you were called a science denier unless you agreed vehemently, on faith, that the coronavirus came from a bat, or something called a pangolin, that was sold in a wet market in Wuhan.” New York magazine, Carlson pointed out, was “hardly a conservative magazine,” and yet Baker had done “like, a year’s worth of research” talking to many scientists before coming down in favor of a lab leak. Carlson said, “Turns out scientists around the world agree with him. They just didn’t want to say so.”

The pattern reached a slightly absurd dénouement a few weeks ago, when Senator Rand Paul staged a bitter standoff with Fauci in a Senate committee hearing. Paul insisted that the National Institutes of Health had funded “gain of function” research in the lab of a prominent virologist named Ralph Baric, at the University of North Carolina.

“You’re fooling with Mother Nature,” Paul declared.

“We have not funded gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” Fauci, who represented the scientific establishment as perfectly as Paul represented anti-authority libertarianism, said. Here were two men who plainly loathed one another, engaged in a debate that any casual observer would need a glossary to decode.

Everyone—the conservatives, the liberals, and the dissenters alike—had an interest in describing the scientific community as moving with the coherence and self-certainty of a closed fist. It flattered liberal audiences to think that they were objective and on the side of reason, gave conservatives an antagonistic authority to rail against, and reflected the dissenters’ interest in being seen as the tellers of hard truths. But it also had the effect of mischaracterizing how certain scientists were. The pundit Matt Yglesias wrote recently that, when Baker’s article first appeared, he had “tweeted disparaging things about it only to be told quietly by a number of research scientists that I was wrong and plenty of people in the science community thought this was plausible.”

The pattern began to break at the end of March, when the World Health Organization released a long-awaited report into the origins of the pandemic, for which members of an investigative team had travelled to Wuhan, and conducted interviews with staffers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The topline findings suggested that the consensus had been right all along: the investigative team concluded that it was “likely to very likely” that the origin of SARS-CoV-2 was a zoonotic transfer, and “extremely unlikely” that a lab leak had caused the pandemic. “It’s a brand-new lab,” Peter Daszak, a prominent disease ecologist and W.H.O. team member, told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s not somewhere where a virus would likely get out of. The staff are trained really well before they get into the lab. They’re psych-evaluated, they’re tested regularly. The lab’s audited. It’s just not a place that’s sloppily run.”

But the details were less convincing. Though the team had identified a pattern of COVID-like illness that had appeared in December, 2019, among people associated with the Wuhan animal markets, they could not find any animal that had carried a direct progenitor of the virus. The crucial step, between bats and human beings, was still missing. More concerning to critics, the treatment of the possibility of a lab leak seemed at best perfunctory: it covered just four of more than three hundred pages in the report, and the team had secured incomplete documentation and evidence from the Chinese labs they visited. All of which led the W.H.O.’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to tell the agency’s member states that the expert team had not sufficiently interrogated the lab-leak theory. “I do not believe this investigation is extensive enough,” he said, suggesting that further W.H.O. investigations would follow.

To be clear, no major new evidence had been found. But after Tedros’s statement, what had looked like an establishment consensus came quickly to seem like something else: duelling hypotheses, each with missing evidence. One prominent ex-Times science reporter, Nicholas Wade, published a lengthy analysis in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists concluding that a lab leak was more likely, and a second ex-Times science reporter, Donald G. McNeil, Jr., responded to Wade’s analysis with his own, saying that though he had long been skeptical of the lab-leak theory, he now found it worthy of further study. On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal reported that a U.S. intelligence report showed that three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology had become sick with COVID-like symptoms in the late fall of 2019. The world of political ideas reacted barometrically: “My priors: Lab leak 60% Natural origin 40%,” the elections analyst Nate Silver wrote on Twitter. For people who had stuck vigorously to one side, there was some irony in seeing how quickly these establishment types could swivel. But everyone was swivelling. Earlier this month, when Fauci was asked whether he was still sure that COVID-19 developed naturally, he said, “No, actually.”

The argument over the existence of a liberal consensus—that everyone important agrees—can often obscure substantive stakes: the lab-leak controversy contains the possibility of a major inflection point in the contest between the U.S. and China. It had one foot in the old political regime, Donald Trump’s, which lent it a conspiratorial, madcap fury. But it also has one foot in Joe Biden’s world, one in which it remains an open question whether a suddenly fragile liberal power will confront its authoritarian rival. On Wednesday, Biden announced that he had asked the intelligence community to formally assess whether COVID-19 “emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident.” More than three million people have died from COVID-19. What will the U.S. do if it becomes clear that someone in China had been culpable and that there had been a coverup?

Earlier this month, a joint letter appeared in the journal Science, written by eighteen scientists, most of them with prestigious academic appointments, and including some of the major figures in virology and related fields. The letter was succinct, and its authors did not commit themselves to any theory of the case. But they did suggest that the W.H.O. team had too quickly dismissed the lab-leak theory, writing, “theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable.” They simply wanted the case reopened.

The letter has mostly been taken as further evidence of the collapsing consensus. When I spoke with two of the scientists who had signed it, they agreed that there were two possible explanations for SARS-CoV2: either it came from a zoonotic spillover or a lab. The lab-leak theory had gained enthusiasm largely because the zoonotic-spillover hypothesis lacked crucial evidence. But both of them also recognized that there wasn’t direct evidence for a lab leak, either. David Relman, a prominent microbiologist at Stanford who had helped organize the letter in Science, told me, “It’s all circumstantial.”

I had placed a video call to Relman, on Sunday afternoon, because I had hoped he might help me characterize the evidence for each theory. He said he saw several points in favor of zoonotic spillover. The first was that this was usually how new viruses emerged in people, and the literature suggested that animal crossovers are “happening far more than we know.” At the margins of human civilization, where villages pressed up against the bush, scientists kept finding antibodies from deadly diseases that had never spread: henipaviruses, SARS, Ebola, “village outbreaks that are like flashes in a pan,” Relman said. On top of that, by bringing more humans into contact with wild animals, China’s vigorous wildlife trade had expanded the opportunities for such spillovers to occur. If that sounded a bit abstract, his second point in favor of zoonotic spillover was more concrete. By last summer, scientists had identified the closest known relatives of SARS-CoV-2 in horseshoe bats. “The nearest known relatives of SARS-CoV-2 are all found in bats, and they’re found in bats in China,” Relman said. “So you have to think at some point this virus or its immediate ancestors were found in bats—seems like a reasonable conclusion. The only question was: What was the path from bat to human?”

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