Back in April, Bill Maher went on a hysterical rant against China over the novel coronavirus. The Real Time host insisted that COVID-19 be called “the Chinese virus” because it originated in China, citing the Spanish flu as precedent (which did not come from Spain, unbeknownst to Maher); railed against the “PC Police” for refusing to let him and others call it “the Chinese virus,” even though hate crimes against Asian-Americans had risen to 100 cases a day at the time; and compared China’s wet markets, where he said the virus originated, to nuclear bombs.
Well, on tonight’s edition of his HBO show, Maher welcomed a pair of podcast hosts, the husband-and-wife duo of Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, to discuss the origins of COVID-19. Weinstein and Heying, for the uninitiated, are members of the so-called “intellectual dark web” who in 2017 both resigned from their posts as biology professors at Evergreen State College in protest of a minority-appreciation day, and have since whined about campus speech on a number of libertarian-leaning podcasts.
Maher proceeded to forward the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was man-made and somehow escaped from a lab in Wuhan.
“We’ve heard a lot recently about the fact that maybe the virus did start in a lab,” offered Maher. “Let’s talk about that—the fact that there is this lab, I think it’s the only one in the world quite like it, in Wuhan, where it started. It would almost be a conspiracy theory to think it didn’t start in a lab, right? And that theory was demonized at first—Oh, come on, that’s conspiracy thinking, that started in a lab. But it’s certainly 50-50, would you say that?”
“Oh, it’s far more likely than that,” replied Weinstein, adding that “it looked to be about 90 percent” probability that it originated in a lab. “We are so politicized and polarized and partisan now as a country that if the wrong guy proposed this to begin with—and for the half the country, it was the wrong guy—then the rest of the country says ‘no way, no how, we’re gonna call that a conspiracy theory,” added Heying.
Let’s unpack this a bit. The “wrong guy” Heying is referring to is likely alt-right gadfly Steve Bannon, whose anti-China group the Rule of Law Society produced a report alleging that the virus was not produced in nature and had escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. This dubious “report,” which was again spread by Steve Bannon (and retweeted by Trump, and parroted by Tucker Carlson), was immediately shot down by prominent members of the scientific community.
“These two features of the virus, the mutations … of the spike protein and its distinct backbone, rules out laboratory manipulation as a potential origin for SARS-CoV-2,” explained Kristian Andersen, an associate professor of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research, who authored a paper debunking the Bannon theory in March. Andersen’s conclusion was backed by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious-disease expert, who said all available evidence pointed to COVID-19 not originating in a Wuhan lab but in bats. And this month, Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a top virologist, released an article concluding that: “There is genetic evidence that SARS-CoV-2 has natural origins. There is no evidence to support a lab leak.”
While the World Health Organization is currently in Wuhan investigating the origins of the virus, they are visiting a number of sites in the region—from the lab, to the Huanan Market, and elsewhere—and their mission is not to assign blame. “As the pandemic continues to unfold, understanding how the epidemic began is essential to prevent further SARS-CoV-2 virus introductions and help prevent introductions of new viruses in the future,” the team said.
So, you can either trust a comedian and a pair of culture-war-obsessed podcast hosts—who were biology professors and are not epidemiologists or virologists—or you can trust the scientific community.