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Three years later, Tom Cotton’s Covid theory gets a fresh look

Was Tom Cotton’s provocative Covid theory from February 2020 correct? The latest evidence suggests it’s not nearly that simple.


In February 2020, Americans were starting to hear quite a bit about a word that was, at that point, largely unfamiliar: coronavirus. The global pandemic hadn’t yet begun, and the number of officially confirmed infections in the United States was fairly low.

It was against this backdrop that on Feb. 16, 2020, when Sen. Tom Cotton appeared on Fox News and shared a theory: The virus had originated in a biochemical lab in Wuhan, China. The Arkansas Republican conceded that he didn’t have any evidence. There was some ambiguity in his rhetoric, though the senator soon after clarified that he didn’t believe Covid was a Chinese bioweapon run amok.

Cotton’s comments were nevertheless not well received at the time. The New York Times reported that the Arkansan was touting a “fringe” theory. A Washington Post used the same phrasing, adding that the senator’s ideas had already been “debunked.” As it turns out, I wrote a similar piece a day later, noting that Cotton had a habit of pushing provocative ideas without evidence, and many of those ideas unraveled under scrutiny.

Three years later, however, the theory pushed by the Republican is back in the news — and getting a fresh look. NBC News reported:

The Energy Department concluded with “low confidence” that the Covid-19 pandemic “likely” originated from a laboratory leak in Wuhan, China, according to a classified report delivered to key lawmakers on the House and Senate Intelligence committees, two sources with direct knowledge told NBC News. ... The news was first reported Sunday by The Wall Street Journal.

So, was Cotton right all along? Should he take a victory lap? It’s not quite that simple.

The fact that Energy Department officials have “low confidence” in the findings obviously stands out: This is not a definitive conclusion about Covid’s origins. What’s more, NBC News’ report added, “[A] source cautioned that the Energy Department’s conclusion was not being viewed as hugely significant among the intelligence community because of interagency disagreements about Covid’s origins.”

A New York Times report added that Energy Department officials shared their findings with other agencies, but "none of them changed their conclusions."

In other words, even now, officials continue to disagree on how best to interpret the available evidence, and while the latest developments generated a lot of conversation, they don't appear to have changed a lot of minds.

The Wall Street Journal’s report noted that much of the U.S. intelligence community continues to believe that Covid-19 has natural origins. It was a point many scholars, including Dr. Peter Hotez, were quick to emphasize while pushing back against some of the media coverage over the weekend.

In the meantime, the consensus among all of the relevant agencies is that the “bioweapon” theory has no merit.

Not surprisingly, our understanding of these issues has changed considerably since February 2020, and the scientific consensus has evolved on a variety of fronts. The relative merits of the “lab leak” theory remain controversial, but it’s notable that outlets like The Washington Post no longer use terms such as “debunked” when describing the claims.

Where does that leave us? Cotton still pushed a provocative theory at a difficult time, and by his own admission, he had no evidence to substantiate his ideas. Given his track record and position — the Arkansan is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee — that probably wasn’t wise.

As for the folks on Twitter who suggested to me over the weekend that anyone who questioned Cotton must secretly be in league with the Chinese Communist Party, I’d simply note that the senator’s theory still hasn’t been confirmed; it might never be confirmed; Energy Department’s findings are at odds with other agencies' conclusions, and “low confidence” is a phrase that should be taken seriously.