Proving COVID-19 Lab Leak Theory Could Be Political Win for Republicans

The idea that the COVID-19 virus could have leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China was initially dismissed by leading public health authorities.

However, in recent weeks the theory has gained renewed attention and that could have political advantages for the Republican Party, experts have told Newsweek.

A Wall Street Journal report this week highlighted a May 2020 study by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory that found the lab origin hypothesis to be plausible and worth further investigation.

President Joe Biden has ordered an investigation into the virus' origins and some Republicans have argued that the possibility of a lab leak vindicates former President Donald Trump's claims about COVID-19, as well as GOP criticism of China's role in the pandemic.

The theory centers on the idea that the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in China's Hubei province.

Speaking to Fox News' Sean Hannity on Tuesday, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) suggested that if the lab leak theory had been proven before the 2020 presidential election, Trump may have won.

"If Trump was right about the lab leak it would change the image the public had of Trump regarding the coronavirus. More importantly, if it came out of the lab in China, he was right it was the China virus, and the 2020 election would have been about who could hold China accountable, Trump or Biden," Graham said.

"Who would you want in the room to hold China accountable for infecting the world with coronavirus?" Graham asked.

Political experts who spoke to Newsweek emphasized that Republicans like Graham may see proving the lab leak theory as a potential political win and a way to push tougher measures against China.

Thomas Gift, founding director of University College London's Centre on U.S. Politics, told Newsweek that Republicans could see political benefits from pursuing investigations into the lab leak hypothesis.

"There's little doubt that Republicans will push for a larger-scale probe into the lab leak theory, especially given recent reports about its plausibility," Gift said. "If new evidence could prove the theory (or simply offer compelling evidence of its veracity), it's hard to imagine that not being a political boon for Republicans."

"Republicans would gain more ammunition to portray the response to COVID-19 as they often do: as being driven by elites with—at best—incomplete knowledge, and—at worst—an explicit partisan agenda," Gift added.

"Amidst an ongoing trade war with Beijing, as well as concerns about the government's military expansionism and human rights abuses, the framing of China is already quite negative in Washington. To the extent that the lab leak theory gains traction, it would only fuel even more negative sentiments toward America's number one geopolitical adversary," he said.

Robert Singh is a professor at the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. He told Newsweek the GOP could use the lab leak theory as a means to portray the Biden administration as weak on China.

"China is one of the few sources of bipartisan agreement in Washington today. But that doesn't mean that it can't be a source of friction between the parties," Singh said.

"The Republicans will likely want to push for as aggressive a probe into the lab leak theory as possible, in part to portray the Democrats as 'weak' on the key foreign policy issue of our time—U.S./China relations—and in part to vindicate Trump's 'China virus' claims of the past year.

"It will likely push Biden into being more assertive than he might ideally wish to be, since the Democrats know that they cannot allow themselves to be seen as 'soft' on Beijing. Biden has already maintained much of the Trump trade approach. He may now find political pressures ratcheting up to make the broader U.S. stance more muscular."

Former President Trump repeatedly argued that he was "tough" on China and frequently criticized the country. He also referred to COVID-19 as "China virus" and "Wuhan virus." He demanded on June 3 that China pay the U.S. and the world $10 trillion in compensation for the pandemic.

Mark Shanahan is a professor and head of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Reading University and the author of Eisenhower at the Dawn of the Space Age. He told Newsweek the lab leak theory fits neatly into Trump's style of rhetoric.

"What's most interesting about the 'lab leak theory' is that it plays into the Trumpian narrative of 'othering' problems and making every issue the U.S. faces an existential threat," Shanahan said.

"Given the authoritarian nature of the Chinese government and the secrecy within which it conducts its business, it is highly unlikely that we'll ever know exactly what went on in Wuhan, and any U.S.-led enquiry is likely to founder on the walls of Chinese non-cooperation."

"The Trumpist wing of the GOP want to be proven right: that the pandemic was a deliberate Chinese conspiracy," Shanahan said. "If they can do that, and persuade the American public that the fault lies elsewhere, they hope to divert attention from Trump's achingly slow and scarily chaotic response to the pandemic when it hit US shores in 2020, and the over 400,000 people across the country who died of COVID-19."

On Trump's last full day in office on January 19, 2021, U.S. deaths from COVID-19 reached 400,000, according to NPR.

"The Trumpists want vindication," Shanahan added. "Actually, Biden may well let this strategy play out. He hasn't dramatically altered U.S. policy towards China since taking office and understanding how the virus emerged does not change his repudiation of the way Donald Trump subsequently handled it."

Newsweek has asked former President Trump's office for comment.

Security Outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology
Security personnel stand guard outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan as members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus make a visit to the institute in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on February 3, 2021. Some Republicans are pushing for an investigation into the theory that COVID-19 leaked from the Wuhan lab. Hector RETAMAL / AFP/Getty Images