March 3, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Lab can’t leak what it never had

A “lab accident" is not a conspiracy. However, in 2023, all versions of the lab leak theory presuppose a conspiracy, writes Lindsay Beyerstein.


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Editor’s note: Lots of news this week about the so-called lab leak that Donald Trump blamed for millions of Americans dying by the covid. All of it’s bullshit. Our Lindsay Beyerstein has been following the conspiracy theory since the start. Here, she knocks down the lies. No paywall. This story is too important. But please take a moment to support our work here at the Editorial Board. THANKS! –JS

Proponents of the covid lab leak theory proclaimed themselves vindicated this week after the Wall Street Journal reported that a team at the US Department of Energy now asserts – with “low confidence” – that the coronavirus most likely spread to humans in a lab accident. 

It’s an odd moment for a victory lap. 

By definition, a low-confidence assessment is based on information deemed to have serious credibility or plausibility problems. 

We don’t know what data the DOE referred to in its five-page classified addendum to a 2021 report. But we do know other intelligence agencies were privy to the same data. They did not change their assessments. 

The overall verdict of the US intelligence community remains that covid-19 probably spread naturally from animals to humans, and that it is neither a bioweapon nor a genetically engineered construct. 

The overall verdict of the US intelligence community remains that covid-19 probably spread naturally from animals to humans, and that it is neither a bioweapon nor a genetically engineered construct. More importantly, the scientific evidence for a natural origin at the Huanan Seafood Market continues to pile up. 

Even relatively good news isn’t enough to distract the lab leakers from their profound sense of victimhood. Ingrid Jacques’ USA Today column originally ran under the headline “COVID lab leak wasn’t a conspiracy theory. Where’s our apology?” It was subsequently toned down, but it captured the mood. The news of DOE’s about-face prompted Jonathan Chait of New York to accuse left-wing “dead enders” of unfairly mocking lab leak boosters as cranks and conspiracy theorists. The underlying assumption seems to be that if an intelligence agency asserts something, it can’t possibly be a conspiracy theory. 

This reasoning is highly questionable. 

It should come as no surprise that the people we hire to suss out conspiracies can be sympathetic to conspiratorial explanations. 


Lab leak theories are conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories are not necessarily false, but they have built-in credibility problems that put them at a disadvantage compared to theories that don’t presuppose conspiracies. 

For example, conspiracies require people to keep highly charged secrets, often in the face of enormous pressures to talk. Journalists should know how hard it is to keep people from blabbing. Our whole business is predicated on people’s inability to keep their mouths shut. 

Conspiracies also require conspirators to be hyper-competent and diligent in carrying out their schemes so as not to leave evidence of their machinations. Here in the real world, we can’t even keep high-level officials from falling for phishing scams. 

A lab accident is not a conspiracy. However, in 2023, all versions of the lab leak theory presuppose a conspiracy of some sort. 

The most limited version is a lab accident that was covered up by a small group of scientists, without the knowledge or assistance of the Chinese government. It’s a bit of a stretch to think that any such effort could stay secret for long at a high-security lab in a total surveillance society like China. 

Which is why most lab leakers assume that the Chinese government played a key role in covering up the accident. Many lab leak boosters also believe that multiple US government agencies and NGOs were also involved. 

Let’s review the conspiracies that even the most modest and sober versions of the lab leak theory presuppose. 

The secret virus
After all this time, there’s no evidence any lab in the world had the SARS-CoV-2 virus or any virus that could have been tweaked to make SARS-Cov-2 prior to the pandemic. 

That’s the ground truth from which every discussion of the origins of the virus must proceed. A lab can’t leak what it hasn’t got. 

If SARS-Cov-2 first infected humans because of a lab accident, the lab must have secretly acquired the virus. Some versions of the lab leak theory insinuate that the Wuhan Institute of Virology had been holding onto SCV-2 for years. This is not a plausible assumption. 

Publish or perish is the order of the day. If your lab’s fame and funding come from discovering new viruses, your incentive is to publish those discoveries promptly. And, since we’re assuming the leak was an accident, it’s unclear why the lab would have wanted to hide such a discovery. After all, they couldn’t have known it was going to leak. 

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Alleged gain-of-function program
Most proponents of the lab leak theory aren’t interested in a banal accident scenario where a researcher got infected while, say, photographing the raccoon dogs at the Huanan Market. 

They’re interested in the idea that SCoV-2 was created by a gain-of-function research program. At least this hypothesis gives us a plausible motive for secrecy. Gain-of-function research is controversial. However, the GOF conjecture locks us into a whole secret research program and therefore more elaborate conspiracy. 

An accident and a seamless coverup
In addition, you have to posit that whatever accident released SARS-Cov-2 was covered up and that the conspiracy has held fast to this day. If the Chinese government knows about it, it has successfully dodged the best eavesdropping efforts of the entire US intelligence community. The DOE low-confidence addendum underscores that there are still no solid leads. 

Involvement of US government agencies and NGOs
Most prominent lab leak conspiracy theorists go even further. They want us to believe that multiple US government agencies, from the National Institutes of Health to Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, helped fund the secret gain-of-function program that supposedly gave rise to covid. They also want to insinuate that this research program involved highly respected scientists from around the world. Numerous congressional Republican investigations are based on this premise. Once the conspiracy widens to include large numbers of outspoken scientists and US bureaucrats who live to create paper trails, the thesis goes from implausible to untenable.

Note that none of the aforementioned versions of the lab leak assume anything about covid being developed as a bioweapon or deployed intentionally by the Chinese, but they’re still conspiracy theories. 

Lindsay Beyerstein covers legal affairs, health care and politics for the Editorial Board. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she’s a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Find her @beyerstein.

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