Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Yellow Peril Redux


Udo J. Keppler, "The Yellow Peril", Puck, 1905. Via Wikipedia.

Here we go again with the "lab leak" story attempting to convey the idea that the Communist Party of China was somehow responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed almost 7 million people around the world in its four years and infected close to 700 million, because the virus that causes the disease might have started out by infecting workers at a research facility, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, instead of as it's generally believed to have done, by leaping from an animal (maybe one bought at a market where exotic meats like bat are sold) to a human, and the lab is thought to be more under the control of the Communist Party of China than the markets are, which is probably true in a sense, as far as the way the funding works.

The actual current news story is about the US Department of Energy, which has belatedly responded to a call from the Biden administration in May 2021 to the intelligence community to resolve this question in the next 90 days. All the other agencies involved had finished work on it in somewhat more than 90 days, by that October, concluding "with low confidence" that the virus had a natural origin (there was a lot of disagreement inside the community, though, with the FBI in particular assessing with "moderate confidence" that it had originated in the lab. Now, 15 months later, DOE has shown up with its own conclusion with "low confidence".that it happened in the lab, making the final score Community Spread 5, Laboratory 2 and Undecided 1.

Or, as Michael Gordon (remember him? Judith Miller's partner in a large number of NYTimes stories denouncing Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to not exist?) and Warren Strobel reported in the Wall Street Journal on Sunday,

The U.S. Energy Department has concluded that the Covid pandemic most likely arose from a laboratory leak, according to a classified intelligence report recently provided to the White House and key members of Congress....

The Energy Department’s conclusion is the result of new intelligence and is significant because the agency has considerable scientific expertise and oversees a network of U.S. national laboratories, some of which conduct advanced biological research.

The Energy Department made its judgment with “low confidence,” according to people who have read the classified report.

The Journal doesn't reveal what this new intelligence might be, or which "key members of Congress" leaked the story, though I'd be looking at members of the new bipartisan House Select Committee on Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, which will be holding its first public hearing in primetime tonight.

Has anybody else been noticing how China has a new official name in some circles? It's not a country any more, it's a party, as in the formal name of this new committee.  According to chair Mike Gallagher (R-WI) and ranking member Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Il) this is meant to emphasize that only the party, not the people of China, are the object of their scrutiny, but we don't do that with other dictatorial parties. We don't say that Fidesz has disputes on human and civil rights with the European Union, or accuse United Russia of invading Ukraine; if we want to avoid blaming things on the people, we blame it on the government, or more properly the dictator. 

It's only in the case of China that we use this formulation (with the adjective of "Chinese Communist Party" instead of the noun in the more correct "Communist Party of China"), bringing back the specter of the 1950s "Chicoms" with a Yellow Peril disease narrative of the kind familiar from that of the San Francisco smallpox epidemic of 1875-76

the city Health Officer immediately suspected that its proliferation was largely due to the Chinese population and ordered the fumigation of all houses in the city’s Chinatown to no avail as smallpox continued to rage on. Unable to account for the hundreds of white lives that continued to be lost from other areas of the city, he resorted to publicly denouncing the Chinese themselves as “lying” and “treacherous” (“San Francisco Municipal Reports” 1887, 397)

or San Francisco's bubonic plague epidemic in 1900

Regardless of legal rulings and occasional vindications of the Chinese, however, popular Sinophobic newspapers like the San Francisco Call continued to falsely racialize the bubonic plague as an “Asiatic pestilence” and suggest that the physical, and perhaps moral, purging of the Chinatown was long overdue, regardless of the plague itself.

I have no love for the Communist Party of China—maybe a certain wistfulness over the days of the Reform and Opening Up from around 1976 to the reaction beginning to set in after 1989—but it really isn't the party that this is about, as the victims of anti-Asian violence in the US over the years of the pandemic can attest, and I wish our leaders would be more careful on this.

And to remember that whatever epidmiology expertise the intelligence community may have, the NIH has more, and their view still has more weight:

The scientific evidence thus far suggests that SARS-CoV-2 likely resulted from viral evolution in nature and jumped to people or through some unidentified animal host. Public health and scientific organizations are engaged in a continued international effort to uncover the origins of SARS-CoV-2, which is essential to preventing future pandemics....
Unfortunately, because the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 have not yet been identified, misleading and false allegations have been made about NIAID-supported research on naturally occurring bat coronaviruses. Specifically, these allegations have targeted research conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, funded through a subaward from NIAID grantee EcoHealth Alliance. The naturally occurring bat coronaviruses studied through this subaward were significantly, genetically different from SARS-CoV-2 and, therefore, could not have caused the COVID-19 pandemic. For a detailed, scientific analysis as to why this is the case, please see SARS-COV-2 and NIAID-Supported Bat Coronavirus Research.

More from our friend Bethesda 1971 at Kos, and I hope to post a bit more on the science.

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