“Business as usual” – Interview with Markus Heidingsfelder on the Return of the ‘Lab-Leak Thesis’

Mass media reporting on the ‘laboratory thesis’ (Google image search results from 30 May 2021)

AK: Markus, how do you explain the resurgence of what is called ‘the lab-leak thesis’ in the Western media, which was already believed to be dead?

Politically. And mass media-wise. These are the two factors one needs to look at. And of course one must not neglect cultural differences. But that is always true.

AK: And science?

Only plays a minor role here.

But first of all, before we get into the details, let me just say that I don’t think this ‘return’ is a particularly noteworthy event. It has not ‘returned’ in the way that some dead people in horror films return, even if the way some media report on it does bear a certain resemblance to the horror genre. It was never gone. Even if the Chinese government is understandably outraged by the fact that Western media give it so much space now and Biden talks about it and see this as a provocation – which it is to some extent, but not in the first place. If we pay attention to the communicative mechanisms at play here, then what is happening right now is nothing special. Business as usual, if you like. The same is true for Fauci’s remark that he could not completely rule out the lab-leak thesis. That too is business as usual, even if this business belongs to science.

AA: Science as usual.

Right, exactly. That’s science ‘doing its thing’. And it is politics ‘doing its thing’. And the mass media ‘doing their thing’. And that is what generates the conflicts we are currently looking at. Because they all do their thing. These social units or systems as I call them are all monopolists. And they all take themselves tremendously seriously. I think the current events can best be explained in terms of this structure, the structure of functional differentiation.

AA: I don’t agree with you.

So how would you do it?

AA: Certainly not by saying ‘Keep calm and carry on’. It may be science as usual. But I think that what we are seeing here, these people attacking Fauci, and how aggressively they do that, that this is not business as usual. It’s something new. It’s a new phenomenon.

You are right, the vehemence of the attacks, the tone, that is quite unusual. So let me specify …

AA: You mean correct yourself.

Ok, Aymen (laughs). Let me correct myself then: I plead not to be infected by this excitement, this disinhibition, which has many reasons. So I prefer ‘Keep calm’ to ‘Now panic and freak out’. You are right insofar as some people don’t seem to like this ‘business as usual’ any longer. They attack it, call organization ‘deep state’, attack institutions, attack objectivity and competence. It sometimes feels as if these forms of communication dock onto older patterns of differentiation in order to undermine functional differentiation, to subvert these structures. So some of these attacks on Fauci indeed have a new quality. But this too is best explained by looking at the social structures – and in this case, the feedback-milieus that take place in the social media, where dissent – saying ‘no’ to something, to wearing masks for instance – can  escalate so easily. My friend Maren Lehmann assumes that negation, contradiction, dissent – as opposed to affirmation and consensus, the Habermasian ideal  – will become more and more important in the next society. We are already getting a foretaste of what awaits us there. And these milieus affect the media and affect politics – ‘irritate’ them, in my terms – and politicians try to use them for their purpose. That’s what populism is all about: the ‘mob rule’, mobilizing the mob. The most blatant example was the storming of the capitol. The attacks on Fauci owe much to similar dynamics. I don’t think they affect science though – what science does. I still think what Fauci said was business as usual. But how politics and the media connect to it – true, that has a new quality. 

AK: So that’s why the WSJ published this article? And why it hit a nerve?

NBC News, 25 May 2021

They published it because they are looking for attention. And they get that attention not by telling people the same thing over and over again. They need ‘breaking news’. Their preference value is information, which Shannon by the way measured as something that surprises us – it’s something we did not know before or did not expect. So bringing back this thesis was ‘informative’. If the thesis of the spillover from nature is confirmed, everyone will wave it off – “Thanks, we knew that already”. And there will be no political impact. Why did it hit a nerve? Yes, because the US is deeply divided politically, and there is this mob out there, waiting to be activated… And science is being dragged into what some call a cold civil war. I like to read the comments section on Fox News sometimes, where one can see that kind of mob dynamic unfold in real time … Everyone interested in the character and the dynamics of these mob-mobilizations should take a look – no objectivity, and no sociality. That has – sorry for using that metaphor – ‘infected’ politics. The disinhibition that’s displayed there.

 AK: The article did lead to political ramifications. Biden told the intelligence agencies: Find out everything about the origin of Covid in 90 days.

Which is of course a joke.

AK: It doesn’t come across as one.

Well, the comedians have understood this right away, they have a very fine sense of the ridiculous, the laughable. They are the experts. Jimmy Fallon said in his monologue yesterday:  “If you can find a fiancé in 90 days, you can find the truth about Covid  … It’s worth a shot, I mean, if we learned anything from Marvel movies, everyone loves a good origin story, you know?” Indeed, people love stories about beginnings, because they love stories, and no story is a story without a beginning. That is their main characteristic: They start, they end. We all define ourselves by stories, by self-narratives that usually start from our birth. Or think of the bible, the whole story starts with God separating the light from the darkness.

AA: Or the story of the universe, which – allegedly – started from the Big Bang.

Right, very good example. The chances of success of the ‘community’ commissioned by Biden would be neither better nor worse if he had charged them with finding out everything about the origin of the universe in 90 days. Maybe the Chinese are responsible! Or about the origins of life or of rap music – there are also multiple, conflicting accounts here.

AA: Maybe the rap music formula escaped from a lab, too?

Maybe you should join the Tonight Show!

AK: Are scientists at all interested in the origin of the virus?

Yes, they are, but not because it serves the purpose of being able to hold anyone liable – to ‘bust’ anyone, as FOX put it. It is about preventing pandemics in the future. If the virus emerged from wildlife, then we need more efforts to prevent and anticipate human encounters with animals that harbor potentially dangerous viruses.

AA: Which we should be doing anyway, I guess.

Yes, you are absolutely right.

AA: And if it escaped from a lab?

Then we need to talk about lab safety. 

In any case, the so-called ‘intelligence community’ has de facto very little to do with intelligence – and it has certainly nothing to do with science. Apart from the fact that the US secret services can hardly claim a great deal of trust for themselves, the question is, and CNN has asked that question, “whether intelligence agencies … represent the best way of finding the truth”. And the answer is: Of course not. But not so much because of the “notorious difficulty of penetrating the Chinese security state” – that is again CNN – but because of the notorious tendency of these agencies to support the foreign policy and national security of the United States. The truth does not belong to any single state, it is administered by the one true ‘intelligence community’ of this planet: science. 

AK: Politics is not competent in matters of truth.

No, it is not. Politics is about power, not about truth. And that is what we are seeing here: a power game is being played. And Biden is well aware of it. I am not so sure about the American citizens. The WHO’s demand that politics please not interfere in scientific matters is therefore understandable – but it at the same time shows that this is no longer self-evident. That’s Trump’s influence. Businessman Trump had already undermined the old borders with his sidelining of the CDC…

AK: The American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

… even stripping them of control of Coronavirus data, trying to silence scientists, meddling in their reports, because their results did not align with his political agenda. That is what I meant when I said that we see a trend where older patterns of differentiation are activated, segmentary or stratified patterns, which undermine functional differentiation. 

But the fact that the WHO is protesting now so vehemently also shows that the old structures still hold – so far. In other words, we still expect society to separate the scientific and political processes.

AK: When I googled ‘science and politics’, I came across an opinion piece in a paper called The Daily Texan

You know what to expect when you hear such a name, right?

AK: That’s a terrible prejudice. I know quite a few reasonable Texans.

Just kidding.

AK: Me, too. Anyway, the writer says, “But if science should remain above politics, then what is it actually for?”

Not sure about the ‘above’, but if we think about politics in this way, as a kind of service provider, I think the answer is: to provide society with methodically assured knowledge.

AK: He continues, “When scientists discover that smoking causes cancer, what do they do with that knowledge? Leave it out there for tobacco companies to distort before it reaches the general public? Or take an active role in its dissemination, interpretation and ultimately political ramifications?”

I hope not. Although I’m glad that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is a former physicist, this background seems to have favourable effects on her actions. No, they should not leave this to the tobacco companies, but to politics. As soon as scientific knowledge is used in politics, it becomes politics. Because in politics, knowledge must be able to lead to results, it must be translated into decisions – collectively binding ones. Like banning commercials for cigarettes and tobacco products. Or asking the companies to put terrible photos of smoke damage on cigarette packs. Whereas in science, the knowledge is the result: that around one third of all cancers are probably caused by tobacco smoke. Note the ‘probably’. Not to mention the time pressure in politics, think of the 90 days. Luhmann once put that very nicely, he asked: How am I supposed to know how long I have to research to get reasonable results? And then there’s the need to simplify complex contexts, analogous to the need for narrativity. How do you explain such a complex thing as the emergence of a virus to voters? Much easier to point at China, isn’t it?

In systems theory, the idea is: science and politics are structurally coupled. But not operationally. They both operate differently, follow different codes. 

AA: They ‘do their thing’.

Yes, not the thing of any other. 

AA: But scientists work for governments.


AA: So one possible structural coupling could be: Virologists working for the government. And even if these virologists are only interested in truth, for instance if it is possible to genetically engineer a deadly virus, their research can still be used. 

Of course. Freeman Dyson once said – in one of these excellent interviews for the Web of Stories series – that a person can be, quoting him, both a “great man and also a bastard”. His example was Francesco Severi, who was a brilliant mathematician – and a fascist. Or think of the atom bomb. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Robert Oppenheimer said that he had blood on his hands. Without science, World War I and II would have looked very differently. But in contrast to scientists, science has no hands. Or a mind. That’s why we cannot make a system – science or politics or capitalism – responsible.

AK: But the organisations commissioned by Biden claim that they are concerned with finding the truth. 

An organization is a system, too. But let’s try to keep this as simple as possible: Already their understanding of truth is quite different from ours. In science, truth  only means: that the scientific community agrees to accept a proposal  – provisionally, conditionally, for a limited period, on revocation. One offers a truth, but that is not the end, this decision is not set in stone, but is always already being observed with regard to its possible dissolution. And no politician, especially not one with an instinct for science, can dispute science’s monopoly here – not even today. Which is because the validity of this knowledge is methodically secured. It does not owe itself to any instinct or opinion or to party membership. Any expression of opinion in science is therefore viewed with extreme skepticism. So again, if the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases …

AK: Anthony Fauci.

… yes, if Fauci says there needs to be further investigation into whether or not Covid-19 was leaked from a Wuhan lab “until we continue to find out to the best of our ability what happened”, then that is – again – actually not really noteworthy.

AK: But obviously newsworthy. The Washington Times …

… which is a conservative Pro-Trump newspaper, let’s keep that in mind …

AK: … says Lord Fauci “flip-flops on things as basic as the origin of the pandemic”, and that this is fatal for “real science”.

‘Real science’, I like that. Coming from a ‘real newspaper’ that calls him “Lord Fauci”. No, that is just real nonsense. He said, one thesis is very likely, the other not so much. That’s it. Real science as usual.

AK: But he did flip-flop on whether one should wear masks.

You call it flip-flopping, I call it business as usual. Such ‘flip-flops’ from true to false can be even understood as scientific progress. They ‘flip-flopped’ on thinking the earth is flat. They assumed there was an ‘aether’ – and are currently revisiting that idea. Any well accepted theory can be upended. 

Concerning the masks, I think in the beginning it was a combination of things: There was the idea that the limited supply of masks should be saved for health care workers. They also thought it would be a bit much to ask the whole American population to wear masks. As you know, up to this day many Americans refuse to wear masks. They are just not used to it like the people in Asia are. So that’s a mix of pragmatic and cultural considerations. And scientifically, further research and further testing made clear: Masks are necessary.

AA: A few days ago, the Washington Post published a bunch of emails between Fauci and other experts that show the chaos at the beginning of the pandemic. And the Chinese health expert George Gao said in one of them: It’s a big mistake that the Americans don’t tell their people to wear masks.

Well, as it turns out, he was right about it. Zeynep Tufekci has also said that very early on, and she was harshly criticized for it.

AK: How did further tests change their minds?

They realized that both pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission are possible and even common, and that just talking is already enough to infect others. And because there are a lot of asymptomatic infections, because you cannot tell who has it and who has not, it makes the most sense to prescribe a mask for everyone. 

Science is not about this kind of proof the Washington Times or Biden are looking for. It is about disproving such a thesis as that of the inefficiency of masks or the laboratory origin or the spillover thesis – not with the party book in hand, not with an eye on the possible applause of the public, not even to attract attention, but methodically, on the basis of data. 

AK: But aren’t there scientists who say: It escaped from the Wuhan lab?

A handful. There are lots of scientists out there, you may find one for every wild thesis that exists. But the scientific consensus so far – and that is as close as we can get to the truth, having the majority of scientists agree on something – says: It’s unlikely. To be clear, I am not a virologist or epidemiologist, that is not my field, but I know that most emerging infectious diseases take their start after a spillover from nature. That has been seen with HIV, with Zika,  with Ebola, and with Sars-1, too.  So it is very likely that Sars-2 has the same origin. However, this is only a thesis, there is no evidence – yet. The whole thing is more like a circumstantial trial.

AA: What do you mean there is no evidence?

Sars-2 is of the same species of Sars-1. In the case of Sars-1, the transitional hosts were tanuki and creeping cats. And tanuki are used on a large scale in the Chinese fur industry. 

AK: So it is a ‘China virus’!

I am going to ignore that comment.

Anyway, these are all very clear indications. No real evidence, but strong circumstantial evidence. The problem is, there is no research on whether tanuki breeding stock or some other carnivore breeding stock on Chinese fur farms carry the Sars-2 virus.

AK: Wow. Why not? 

I have no idea. All I know is that – according to the experts – an animal origin is much more likely than a laboratory leak. 

AA: The German virologist with the funny moustache from the University of Hamburg says in a study that a laboratory origin is very likely. 

Roland Wiesendanger, yes. Does he have a funny moustache?

AA & AK: Yes.

Is that important?

AA: Yes. 

Well, not from the perspective of science. But another virologist, Matthias Glaubrecht, director of the Centre for Natural History at the same university – no moustache by the way -, says he would not even have accepted this alleged study as a BA thesis. 

AA: What about the bioweapon thesis, the idea that China purportedly enhanced the coronavirus to make it more harmful to humans? Doesn’t this have even more potential for a scandal?

Yes, it does, and it’s sometimes combined with the lab-leak thesis: the weapon escaped. That is not really up for discussion. There’s no evidence for this so far, and that’s what science is about, not about coming up with a script for a thriller. What one can do of course is to ask the ‘What if’-question. What if it was? There was an interesting article in Forbes, where a physician and biodefense expert simply asked himself: Would the SARS-CoV-2 virus make a “good” biological weapon? Result: Nah, not really. But of course it fits in well with the current trend, the popularity and also the new credibility of conspiracy theories. For a long time, conspiracy theories were stigmatised knowledge, now they are again accepted as legitimate – but only in certain sub-publics. If the mainstream media would support this thesis, that would be risky. FOX and a few other lesser newspapers at least mention it. This is also a very interesting field of research: where does this need come from, what function do these narratives fulfill in society? That’s the real thriller from my point of view, it’s a hundred times more interesting. 

AK: What about the two scientists who claim to have identified inserted sections placed on the SARS-CoV-2 spike surface that explain how the virus interacts with cells in the human body?

FOX headline (30 May 2021)

Again, I am not a virologist, I am not an expert here, but my colleagues argue that similar sections appear naturally in other viruses – which I find very plausible. There is simply no evidence that it has been artificially engineered – yet.

AK: They also claim the lack of mutation in the virus since its discovery.

Yes, they say: “It was already fully adapted to humans!” But several published studies disagree and say, no, it evolves, it mutates. By the way, they first failed to get their article about the origins of the coronavirus published. That says something about its quality, I think. In science, texts have to jump the hurdle of peer reviews. The one article that was actually published back then doesn’t indicate a lab origin, it deals with observations of the virus and the receptors that the virus can attach to in humans, but it doesn’t claim: that’s because it was developed in a lab. I guess that’s why it was published.

AA: You suggest that it is mainly the quality of a paper that decides if something gets published?

Well, yes.

AA: But I guess these journals receive thousands of papers every year, so the vast majority of them may be rejected for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with the quality. 

Some do receive an enormous quantity of manuscripts, that’s true. I still think quality plays a role. If an article is rejected over and over, it is at least an indication that it may not meet the standards.

AK: One of them, his name is Sørensen, a Norwegian scientist, says that the virus has properties that differ greatly from SARS, and have never been detected in nature. 

And other Norwegian scientists disagree and say, yes, what he refers to as “inserted sequences” can indeed enable the development of a more serious disease, but that is not unusual in nature, it can be found in other viruses, too. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying it did not escape from a lab! Maybe it did. I agree with Fauci: At the moment, we cannot refute the thesis that it came from the laboratory in Wuhan. But we also can’t rule out the possibility that it jumped from an animal to a human being. Both are possible. The second thesis makes the most sense – from a scientific point of view. Not least because this is exactly what has happened again and again in the past, even if this proof of a chain of infection between humans and animals is not easy.

AK: Has it been proven yet?

Yes, once, in one case so far. Plus, the origin of the pathogen necessarily doesn’t have to be where it was first discovered. It is quite possible that the first smaller outbreaks took place in other regions of China, but because of the unspecific symptoms, no one took notice of it.

The most that can be said is that the authors of the first report, the WHO study report, were somewhat too firm in their conclusions. Just like the scientists who had published this statement in The Lancet.

AK: What was that about?

A number of scientists, very influential and well-respected ones, among them the most famous German virologist Christian Drosten, said they strongly condemn the lab-leak thesis. They even called it a conspiracy theory. And while this managed to effectively end the debate for a while, it’s also the reason why it is resurfacing all the more strongly now. If you tell people: You are not even allowed to think about it, it is very tempting to do exactly that, isn’t it? They wanted to support their colleagues in China, who battled the virus, and also put and end to these racist undertones. So they did not so much act as scientists, but as ‘good people’. Unfortunately, virologists know a lot about viruses, about variation and mutation in viruses, but they obviously don’t know how much communication thrives on the same mechanisms. It’s no coincidence that some critics compared their behavior with that of religious authorities, saying it was as if they had ‘nailed the statement to the church doors’, establishing a contingent truth offer as orthodoxy. 

Of course, the church door image is also nonsense, because we all know that Luther did not nail any confirmation of church doctrine to the church door in Wittenberg. These are all indications of how important interdisciplinary exchange is.

AA: There is another aspect to it, namely that the letter was drafted by this guy Peter Daszak, who is the president of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York, and his organization funded coronavirus research in Wuhan. Which is why I am not so sure about the ‘good people’ thing.

Yes, this conflict of interest also plays a role and undermines what they wanted to achieve with it. But I don’t think this is why someone like Drosten signed the letter. I cannot prove it, but I am quite sure: They had the best intentions. Maybe Daszak had something else in mind.

AK: Apart from all this, how plausible is the lab-leak theory? 

As I said: Not very plausible from a scientific point of view so far. Illogical conclusions are drawn from supposed ‘evidence’ such as that different types of coronaviruses are combined in Wuhan: Because Sars-Cov-2 is a combination of such virus types, it must come from there. The fact that such virus combinations continue to emerge in nature, that new virus variants are created all the time, and that genes are constantly changing, is ignored.

AA: Science as usual. But the mass media thinks the laboratory story is newsworthy.

Yes, because they value conflict, they look for attention and they think conflict gets them this attention – which is why they are also processing this high morality, to compensate for constantly succumbing to the temptation to scandalise: ‘We only push for transparency! The poor people should not be kept in the dark!’ 

AK: I don’t find it too hard to imagine that a virus can escape from a lab. 

And you are right about that, it is a possibility. Some scientists claim that two SARS-related lab breaches did indeed take place in China, back in 2004. But the question is not whether it’s possible – of course it is – but whether it happened in Wuhan. 

If we take a closer look at the WSJ story, it turns out to be a lot of ‘hot air’, as we say in Germany – a lot of noise about nothing. Because what was actually claimed there? They speculated that staff at the Institute of Virology in Wuhan could have contracted Covid-19 as early as November 2019. Listen closely: Could have! Why? Because: they would have had similar symptoms. Similar symptoms! When everyone knows that Covid-19 symptoms are highly non-specific. And even if they had indeed been infected with Covid-19, we then still don’t know whether these employees contracted it in the lab. Not to mention the publicly available research that contradicts this assumption.

AK: How? What does it say?

Well, they did not find any antibodies in the blood of the staff. That is the reason why the Biden administration did not pursue it further, which right-wing commentators like FOX‘s Laura Ingraham blow up into the ‘biggest cover-up in the history of the world’. As a scientist, one marvels at such a careless, sloppy approach – at a debate based on nothing but hearsay, which is why another comedian, Stephen Colbert, calls it the “Wuhan Random Guess”.

On the other hand, for a communication theorist, it is quite fascinating to see how these system conflicts unfold. Also, the high speed of these connection processes today – in comparison, the scientific processes run in slow motion, only surpassed by the super slow motion of law. Again, what can be observed here is not so much what appears to be a conflict on the substantive level – namely that between the USA and China or the one between the two different parties in the US – but that between the contexts or systems. Science is interested in truth, the mass media are interested in ‘news’ in the sense of conflictual material, in gaining attention – and because both belong to the same world, which includes politics, which is concerned about voters, and the government, which is struggling for national support for global influence and vice versa, there are massive mutual irritations here. This is well illustrated by the hearings that a pitiful virologist like Fauci has to face in the USA, where he is caught in the mills of a party-democracy that plays these power games in a kind of career turmoil and anticipates and instrumentalizes dissent and consensus in view of it, while at the same time constantly denying that interests of this kind are at stake.

AK: And why does the laboratory hypothesis make the most sense for American politics at the moment? 

I think several things come together here. They become visible when looking at the different contexts. A mass medium like the WSJ is struggling for attention. This does not mean that the journal deliberately spreads fake news. It just means that truth is not the preferred value in reporting. Otherwise they would have to hire scientists, not journalists. It also fits well with the anti-China bill that the US Senate has recently passed.

AA: Seriously, an anti-China bill?

Well, they gave it another title of course. “Strategic Competition Act”. And the interesting thing about this strategic competition is, it is not only about military, diplomacy, technology, and trade. It’s also about giving hundreds of millions of dollars to media initiatives against China. As RT reported

AK: That is a Russian media organization. Russian propaganda.

Yes, and CNN is an American media organization, so what? The report is still correct, you can look it up. It is a massive “propaganda push”, even if another propaganda medium may inform about it.

AK: I don’t agree with this.

Ok, but matter of fact is, the Americans want to put millions of dollars into spreading information on the “negative impact” of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), into “anti-Chinese influence” programs, into a scheme to “train journalists” with the goal of countering Beijing – and so on. That is what the American ‘Intelligence Community’ does. That is what the CIA has been doing for decades, they call it “psychological warfare”. In this context, the 90 days operation appears in a completely different light, doesn’t it? So once again, politics is about power, not about truth.

And then there’s the divisiveness of American politics – Biden is dealing with a divided nation. Already people are speculating that the demand on the intelligence agencies is an attempt to reach out to the Republicans – first he passes an Asian Hate Crime Bill, then he makes this concession on Trump’s China virus thesis.

This is the second political aspect I would take into consideration here. Trump’s statements can be understood through the – rather infectious – technique of ‘othering’, which my colleague Marius Meinhof analysed with regard to the pandemic. This virus is indeed man-made. According to Meinhof – and I share his view – we are dealing with a new form of Orientalism here. The virus was perceived as a catastrophe in China, but not as a threat to Europe. Chinese voices that could have provided experience in dealing with it were excluded – and even when the pandemic hit Europe, it still did not lead to a critical reflection of this attitude, but rather to its further confirmation about China’s initial guilt. 

Illustration of the lab-leak thesis in Western media, using the colors of the Chinese flag (The Telegraph, 29 May 2021)

AA: Would you go so far as to say, that this “othering” was the reason why the virus was able to spread so effectively in the first place?

Of course the main reason why it was able to spread is globalization, the interconnectedness. And because these organic structures came up with such wonderfully efficient transmission paths. But stigmatising it as the ‘China virus’ did help. Until recently, the brave Americans refused to recognise it as their virus, which it had long become. And the lab-leak thesis is a way to say: “See? We were right all along!” But we also need to take other aspects into account. For instance that most countries used what Tufecki calls the flu pandemic playbook, and not the SARS pandemic playbook.

Thirdly, this tendency towards scapegoatability has cultural reasons, because the ‘West’ – and the US in particular – has a preference for men, not so much for moments, as Erving Goffman already criticised in the late 1960s. Since Freud, the phantasmatics of the subject is actually obsolete – this idea that we are the masters of our own decisions. But this idea is quite persistent, many people hold on to it, understandably. This is by the way what made Trump’s election victory possible – complex, highly dynamic, intricate world relations suddenly become manageable. All you need is a good manager like Trump. Who even said that: “I alone can fix it.” The mass media also stabilize this idea with their preference for individual persons, for heroes and villains. And just like in real life, heroes are especially needed in times of crisis: to save – whatever, the world, the US, their families etc. This idea is associated with focusing on motives, here good ones – to make the US great again -, there bad ones: to contribute to the downfall of the USA, or to release a deadly virus, on reasons for action, which are related to individuals. If you look for reasons for action in relation to a virus, you don’t get very far – Sars-Cov-2 doesn’t have any motives, it does what it does. But people can be blamed.

AK: Trump could not fix the pandemic.

Which is the main reason why he did not get re-elected. This tiny virus beat him. Maybe that’s why he is so angry at it.

But of course, Trump alone would not have been able to do it anyway. The question of guilt is a question of causality, and therefore an attribution question. Causality is so important to us that we would rather look for alternative causes than give up monocausal attribution itself. For this, one is even prepared to accept high improbabilities, as in the bio weapon thesis. This has to do with our – evolutionary – inability to causally link events that are far apart in time and space. If something follows something else in time and space – a lab in Wuhan, a virus outbreak in Wuhan -, this is evidence enough for us. Fortunately, we can pay attention to such dispositions, to these strategies of attribution.

AK: Do you think there are different strategies of attribution in the West and the East?

Psychologists say yes.

AK: Western ones?

You got me. (laughs) Well, psychology is owned by the Americans, isn’t it? But this comes from an Austrian, Fritz Heider. He found out that the dispositional attributing – one that says, it’s the person – is more important than situational or external attributing in Western cultures. We tend to look for men, not for moments,.

AA: Situationally, the Republican men and women can distract from their catastrophic crisis management. 

That’s right. And I think that this desire to view the pandemic as the necessary outcome of either China’s mean intentions or their dilettantism or inability to effectively run a lab both amount to the same thing. They construct China as an inferior or threatening authoritarian Other. This is functionally equivalent to older Orientalist patterns of argumentation.

Unfortunately, we can also observe an anti-Chinese trend in Germany, for instance in a recent article my father sent to me that was published in Der Tagesspiegel, where a scientist says: I am not going there any longer, I may end up in jail. I showed it to some of my friends, sinologists, and they pointed out a few things. It for instance pretends that research in Germany is fundamentally more “independent” than in China, or that China is more aggressive in Germany than the West is in China. And then it asks for action: “We need to strengthen exchanges with China with like-minded democracies, especially in Asia.” Like-minded! One of my friends thinks that the Western mainstream attitude towards China expressed in such an article is very clearly perceived by the people in China itself – it adds to Chinese nationalism. So you could say, they are asking for it. And while it is more or less the usual anti-Chinese rhetoric, to now also see it in the mainstream media is a little disturbing. The topic of Corona and China seems to be getting more and more out of hand in Germany, already some China researchers had to suffer being defamed or suspected in the mass media. To quote a colleague: “I hope that the pandemic will soon be over and with it the identification of China as an enemy and danger – but I am not optimistic.” The task for us scientists is not to get caught up in what Meinhof calls the “dual power structure” in one of his essays: One criticises the power practices of China or the USA, reproducing the discourse of the other power, but overlooks their systematic interplay. The alternative is always the same: “I would prefer not to.” You have to look at both, at the unity of this difference.

AK: Why do you think Biden set the 90-day deadline? How do they justify this number?

What do you think?

AK: I have no idea. They just made it up?

Excerpt from a CDC paper on “Interim Clinical Considerations for Use of Covid-19 Vaccines Currently Authorized in the United States”

That would be my assumption. But to avoid it looking like a totally random number, they imported it. And here’s the punchline: From clinical considerations with regard to Covid-19. Which have nothing to do with the question which time frame makes sense for this kind of ‘origin research’. They are about the efficacy of vaccines. How likely it is to become re-infected. And the idea is that reinfection is uncommon in the 90 days after initial infection, so vaccination should be deferred for at least 90 days. Isn’t that great? I think it further exemplifies the difference between science and politics.

AK: Unbelievable. And noone noticed that?

It looks like that. All the people get is: Oh, it’s urgent! 90 days is perfect for Biden: not tomorrow, not in 48 hours, but not in 2 years either. If you want to play for time without it looking like it, you’ll probably opt for 90 days. And perhaps the fact that you’ve heard this figure somewhere in the medical discourse on Covid-19 is one of the reasons why people think: Sure. 

One thing is clear, the lab-leak discussion exacerbates the already existing tensions between the two superpowers. And that is not helpful for political decisions on how to contain the pandemic and prepare for similar emergencies in the future, because this needs to happen at the highest level – through talks between heads of state and government.

However, as I already said, the world’s confidence in the claims of the US intelligence services is not particularly high. Should they after 90 days – counting: 85, 84, 83 – actually come to the conclusion that Wuhan is to blame, they won’t get very far without science supporting it. And without this support, the USA would willingly leave the circle of reasonable people. Do they really want to take the chance, after they have only recently returned there? My thesis is that this is possible – but not very likely.

AK: Thank you, Markus. We will follow up in 83 days. 

Interview: Arqam Khan & Aymen Ansari