Why Is Sam Husseini Channeling Neocon Conspiracy Theories On COVID-19?
Above photo: Researchers working in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. By Zou Hong for China Daily.
Journalist Sam Husseini was once known for challenging the Neocon warmongers on the Iraq War in a former lifetime. He now seems to have joined them, becoming a promoter of anti-China Neocon conspiracy theories on the origins of Covid-19.
Husseini recently wrote a series of articles that recycle a large amount of right-wing disinformation–alt-right fecal matter–and smeared them inside a juicy little hamburger of truth: the fact that the US engages in dangerous biowarfare research.
It is certainly true, if not really hot news, that the US has at least two dozen known biowarfare labs, many in Eastern Europe and Ukraine. It’s unknown to what extent they comply with the regulations and oversight of the international bioweapons convention to which the US is a signatory.
It’s also true that the US has a long history of biowarfare and biowarfare research, going back at least to the Korean war. The use of biowarfare–Anthrax, Bubonic Plague, Cholera, Encephalitis–in Korea was such an international scandal that an entire mythology of communist “brainwashing” was invented to discredit the captured American pilots that confessed to these very real crimes against humanity.
It’s also true that accidental releases have happened from US biowarfare labs. For example, USAMRIID (Army bio lab facility) at Fort Detrick was shut down in July 2019 for leakage of contaminated waste.
But that said, Husseini is mistaken–or deeply dishonest–in suggesting that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was doing biowarfare research and thus possibly linked to the release of the Covid-19 virus. It’s unclear why he is saying this, but in doing so, he is recycling the thoroughly discredited rumors of Rush Limbaugh, Josh Rogin, Steve Bannon, Tom Cotton, Mike Pompeo, and other rightwing hawks and loons. In other words, a journalist, who in another life, made a modest reputation for challenging neocon propaganda and disinformation, is now functioning as one of its key shills.
This propaganda relies on five thinking errors or deceits.
1. Failure of common sense–the language con
Husseini first pulls off this canard by arguing that there is no meaningful difference between biowarfare and biodefense. This is hardly true. Although there is always some overlap between basic science, medicine, preventive research, and warfare, there are also serious differences in emphasis, approach, practice, and funding that he glosses over. Husseini has to assert this tenuous proposition in order to implicate the Wuhan lab in suspected biowarfare malfeasance (or error) and to claim that there is a global biowarfare arms race between China and the US (rather than by the US against its opponents). That linguistic sleight of hand, in particular, the equivalence of biowarfare and biodefense is factually not true, and is certainly not true in one very obvious way regarding the Wuhan lab: if there were a biowarfare arms race happening around the world, the countries putatively at war with each other–the US and China–would not share or allow access to their labs to a competitor state, collaborate, or exchange their research and researchers. But the fact is the US was given wide access to the Wuhan Labs–not just scientists but also US State Department functionaries–as were French scientists. The Wuhan lab solicited US aid and funding. (Husseini seems to believe that biowarfare labs openly solicit funding from other countries). Scientists in the US and China collaborated and worked together collegially, trained each other, shared information, published papers, and still maintain some relations.
As a point of contrast, no one, not a single Chinese national has ever set foot in Fort Dietrick, the key US biowarfare research lab. No Chinese university has ever collaborated with them. No Chinese funding has been directed to it. No one knows exactly what they are researching. This is not the case with Wuhan—there is knowledge which viruses they had, and published papers on what they were researching, how they were being researched, as well as what safety protocols were in place. If we take into consideration the fact that Chinese researchers are no longer welcome to do even basic research in the US at this point in time, it’s inconceivable that the US would have been assisting the Chinese with weaponizing viruses that could potentially be used against them, or funding such work when even basic scientific research–and now graduate study in the sciences–is being obstructed in the US for the Chinese.
Until Husseini can refute this basic logic, it’s not possible to give his claim about the Wuhan labs any credence, never mind the fact that he offers no proof whatsoever, only the conflating of science with weapons development, “coincidence”, innuendo, and 3 degrees-removed-guilt-by-association.
2. Misinterpreting Research: The Science Con
Husseini has also misread the article in Nature Medicine. This is one of several key articles that has refuted the “bioweapon” theory that he argues for. He misunderstands what the specifics of the RBD (receptor binding domain)and the furin cleavage site entail from an evolutionary perspective. This misunderstanding may be due to a lack of scientific literacy on his part, for which one can’t fault him, except that he subjects this illiteracy onto others who are already confused or ignorant about the science. The Nature Medicine article argues–convincingly, if not conclusively–that natural selection, either in humans or in an animal host is responsible for the very unique features of this novel virus: it demonstrates convincingly the fact that the virus could not have been engineered: a) it has no “backbone” that would correspond to or indicate that there is anything sequenced from existing components–it is truly novel b) the furin cleavage site of the spike protein–the part that makes the virus dangerous to humans–doesn’t correspond to any existing known virus (it has no close homologs in the Bat CoV RatG13 or the Pangolin CoV). It also does not correspond to any samples held in Wuhan. That means it could not have been lab-engineered.
3. The “Gain of Function” Con: Weasels, Ferrets, Monkeys, and Evolution
Husseini, however, is not one to gainsay his rigid views, and along with other far-right operatives, tries to misdirect further. Although the refutation of the Lab-created-bioweapon theory is a well-accepted conclusion in the scientific community and among medical and epidemiological professionals, Husseini argues that “gain of function” (weaponization of a virus) could have been induced by natural means (by inducing passage through animals). He’s trying to argue that SARS-CoV-2 could have been produced, by inducing natural evolution in the Wuhan lab in such a way that it would not show signs of engineering, and in a way that would weaponize it.
The Nature Medicine article refutes the possibility not just of genetic engineering, but also argues against naturally induced passage. Husseini is either misreading this conclusion or is simply dishonest on this.
In this, he misunderstands the nature of gain of function through animal passage–he seems to confound engineering zoonotic transfer with gain of function within animal-restricted viruses or viruses that are already known to infect humans. (The example of the H5N1 is such an example). This also disregards the fact that the closest existing known virus is Bat CoV RatG13, which has a 96% similarity with SARS CoV-2. That differential, although seemingly close, is comparable to 20-50 years of natural evolution, and not something that can be bred through short animal passage (“ten passages through ferrets”) as Husseini implies in weasel prose. It’s as if someone were arguing that the proverbial monkey typing randomly on a typewriter would come up with a Shakespeare monologue, or plunking away at a piano would come up with a Beethoven Sonata after a few tries. It’s possible mathematically/theoretically, and completely improbable in the time frames he imagines: yet another overlooked detail is that the BSL4 lab in the Wuhan Institute of Virology has been operational for only 2 years.
4. Failure of Logic: The Leak Con
As even the intelligence community itself has debunked the “engineered” lie, Husseini and his cohort merchants of mendacity (Josh Rogin, Mike Pompeo), then shift down to another backup lie: even if it wasn’t lab-engineered, and even if there wasn’t a lab-induced “natural” “gain of function”, it’s possible that the Wuhan lab had collected samples of this dangerous virus–captured in nature (from bats), and leaked it by accident. In his words, “The virus could have been found in the wild, studied in a lab and then released”. (Proponents of this lie often append some kind of “horror” story about researchers getting crapped on by bats, or that the researchers cooked and ate the lab animals or eggs, or sold them to the Wuhan market for pocket money).
Apart from the sheer absurdity of these cooked up assertions, this is an irrational, illogical argument: if it was captured from the wild, then it exists already in nature, and it’s much more likely that the tens of millions of people around the world who routinely interact with or are exposed to bats would be vectors of zoonotic transfer, rather than a half dozen highly trained scientists who are trained in and mandated to adhere to the strictest biohazard safety standards and protocols—protocols which they themselves, as consummate professionals, helped pioneer.
In other words, if it’s already out in nature, it can’t be leaked out to nature.
Also, according to American researchers who have worked there and trained staff, the lab itself, whenever it works with viruses–any virus–, deactivates them, so only inactive viruses are worked with. Reserve samples are stored in liquid nitrogen, making it unlikely that they could ever become virulent.
Last but not least, the virus researcher herself, Shi Zheng Li has stated categorically that the lab did not have any such samples, and therefore could not have leaked them. In other words, we have consensus among the expert scientific community, eye witness testimony, scientific analysis, logic, probability, and common sense, on one hand, all arguing against the “lab leak” conspiracy theory. On the other hand, there is innuendo, lies, conflation, misdirection, and wishful/magical thinking seemingly ungrounded in anything but racism and the need to demonize and divert blame.
5. Prosecutorial Misconduct: The “Journalism” Con
It’s a hard pill to swallow, but it’s clear that Husseini is no longer doing journalism here, but acting as a corrupt prosecutor would: the way thousands of innocent “suspects” are accused and railroaded in the American courts. This is especially clear when he cherry-picks and weaponizes the statement of scientist Shi Zheng Li at Wuhan. Shi recalls asking herself, “If coronaviruses were the culprit… could they have come from our lab?” This might ordinarily be considered a statement of the conscientiousness and care of a researcher to exclude every conceivable possibility, the desire to leave no stone unturned—as a good scientist should. Husseini cherry-picks this statement as an implication of guilt both of the lab and the researcher, and then dismisses further and careful refutation by her:
“Why should the world take her word? As Ebright…[says] “A denial is not a refutation.”
Shi is considered an impeccable professional academic, honored by the French government (“Chevalier des Ordres Palmares Academiques”) for her contributions to science. That Husseini resorts to tarring a researcher who has dedicated her life to saving lives and advancing science in this sarcastic manner reveals much about him and his values.
Now, it’s well known that Fort Detrick is a biowarfare institution and that it was recently temporarily closed for certain violations. That fact is well established. It’s also known that the US is doing biowarfare research in many other institutions.
If Husseini was simply arguing that dangerous biowarfare research is happening around the world, or in the US, he could have made that argument and made it easily. It’s easy fare to highlight the known dangers, the known failures, as well as the history of biowarfare by the US. Even if he wanted to capitalize or sensationalize off the existing news cycle, he could have simply asserted, “although the Wuhan leak theory has been effectively discredited by the intelligence and scientific communities, we still have ample reason to be worried about other potential leaks and bioweapons research.” There was no reason to bring the Wuhan lab into the biowarfare scare story, except that it feeds the conspiracies and the trolls, draws sensationalist, conspiratorial attention to his work, and gives support and succor to the endless bastinado of China-bashing.
What is to be made of someone who echoes extreme, debunked right-wing lies while pretending to be critiquing them in generic terms?
These are some basic, commonsense questions that Husseini—and anyone implicating the Wuhan lab has to answer–even if we disregard all the science:
- If there were a biowarfare arms race happening between the US and China–why would the Chinese government share or allow access to their labs to a competitor state, collaborate, or exchange their research and researchers?
- If there were a biowarfare arms race happening between the US and China–why would the Chinese lab be [reduced to] soliciting funds from the US government?
- Researchers of Chinese origin, or with Chinese ties, are hounded, surveilled, and practically banished from doing even basic research in the US at this point in time. They were terminated from MD Anderson’s cancer research, for example. In this witch hunt environment, why would the US be assisting the Chinese with weaponizing viruses that might theoretically be used against them?
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. They also require a modicum of logic. Until Husseini (and his co-conspiracy-truthers) can coherently answer these questions, they are trafficking in contradiction, conspiracy, and absurdities.
From Absurdities to Atrocities
The right-wing corporate media, the MSM, members of the administration, the Secretary of State, the President, key senators, right-wing think tanks and institutions, GOP talking points, Steve Bannon, the Committee on the Present Danger, Falun Gong, right-wing fascists around the world, extreme far-right crackpots– all have been touting and stoking the lie that China is responsible one way or another for the virus. This propaganda has been echoed across the political spectrum, and “catapulted” 24 hrs/day, across all media—highbrow, low brow, broadsheet, tabloid, at the center and on the margins, we have been swimming in a morass of lies and deceit.
Nevertheless, every single one of these lies has been carefully shown to be without merit. As this has happened, there has been a continual retrenchment, recycling, and refurbishing of the lies. First, there was the allegation that Covid was strictly a “communist” virus–something that could only arise in a depraved communist state—hundreds of thousands of dead put paid to that statement, showing the danger when ideology supersedes science. Then there was the allegation that there was some sort of cover-up. As the facts came out, the duration of this coverup shrank from months, weeks, to days and looks likely to be reduced to hours or minutes. There was also the allegation that it was spread deliberately by planes (full of infectious people) that flew out of Wuhan. That was easily debunked with actual flight schedules. Then the lie that the Chinese hid and hoarded PPE and masks (as if 4 billion masks exported in a few weeks were hoarding). Virus “made in China”, and the virus “leaked by China” are the ugly, exhausted faggot ends of these absurd libels and lies.
By spreading the lies and errors behind this lie, Husseini is aligning with, or at least feeding those extreme, hate-filled politics and ideas.
Why would Husseini cast his lot with these crackpots? Only Husseini can answer this.
This type of propaganda should be very familiar to him. It fits a readily recognizable pattern: it’s simply a recycling of the WMD template during the run-up to the Iraq War that he once opposed. That war, too, had its own WMD biowarfare labs: “mobile weapons labs” and other “dodgy dossiers” and “satellite pictures” that were shown to be false, as they have also been concocted for Wuhan. (The “labs” in question, were hydrogen generation units for weather balloons). Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, Tony Blair, and other powerful purveyors of systemic mendacity argued up and down the court that these were dangerous to the world–until they slinked off in infamy. Yet some people still believe these lies to be true.
We know that Covid-19 is raging throughout the world, creating untold suffering and pain, causing needless deaths, and ravaging entire countries and economies. As it does so, it is fundamentally revealing and delegitimating the existing structures of power that have brought us to the edge of this catastrophe, in particular, the US-imposed, neoliberal, imperialist-capitalist structures of the global economy. China, outside of that circuit of control, looks to have successfully controlled the virus for the moment and is regrouping and restarting. At the current moment, China seems to offer one alternative model: a better, people-centered approach to public health, governance, and development. As the jubilant schadenfreude against China suddenly turned suddenly to jealous rage for its successes in containment, the desire to re-direct confusion and outrage outward against the Chinese became evident: it ties to the current global moment where the US is losing its global “leadership” status, during an election season that needs to distract and redirect blame, and in a historical moment where the US has declared China an enemy, waged hybrid warfare, and is rooting around for reasons to further escalate hostilities against it. This is the reason for the ceaseless propaganda war–the absurdities pronounced daily and relentlessly, the absurdities, as Voltaire put it, that prepare you for atrocities: the atrocity of kinetic war.
Are Husseini and other hack “journalists” the “good Germans” in this war? Time will tell.
But in the meantime, no self-respecting human–with a smidgen of scientific knowledge or good sense–should give any space to these ideas.
Some articles and presentations debunking the theory:
Video, Richard Horton, The Lancet editor-in-chief: the U.S. has wasted time, CGTN, May 1, 2020
Jonna Mazet, American Researcher Who Worked In Wuhan Virology Lab Says It’s Unlikely Coronavirus Escaped From There, Inquisitr, May 2, 2020
COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic has a natural origin, Science Daily, March 17, 2020
Charles Calisher, et. al, Statement in support of the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China combatting COVID-19, The Lancet, February 19, 2020
Why these scientists still doubt the coronavirus leaked from a Chinese lab, Vox, April 29, 2020
The conspiracy theories about the origins of the coronavirus, debunked, Vox, March 12, 2020
Moon of Alabama, How The Trump Administration Inserts ‘Blame China’ Propaganda Into Main Stream Media, May 13, 2020
K.J. Noh is a scholar, journalist, peace activist, and special correspondent to KPFA Flashpoints.
Claudia Chaufan, MD, PhD, directs the graduate program in health policy at York University.