Once written off as a baseless conspiracy, the lab leak theory — the idea that COVID-19 was spread thanks to a lab accident — has been gaining traction in recent months.
Recently, on the first in-person episode of Stephen Colbert's A Late Show in over a year, none other than Jon Stewart expressed his support for the idea. Or rather, he expressed his opinion that he believes there is "a chance" the pandemic was unleashed in a lab.
"I honestly mean this: I think we owe a great debt of gratitude to science... Science has, in many ways, helped ease the suffering of this pandemic, which was more than likely caused by science," Stewart began by saying.
Colbert replied, "Do you mean perhaps there's a chance that this was created in a lab?"
Jon Stewart On Vaccine Science And The Wuhan Lab Theory www.youtube.com
"A chance? Oh, my God," Stewart said. "There's a novel respiratory coronavirus overtaking Wuhan, China — what do we do?"
"Oh, you know who we could ask? The Wuhan Novel Respiratory Coronavirus Lab. The disease is the same name as the lab!" Stewart exclaimed and mocked, "There's been an outbreak of chocolaty goodness near Hershey, Pennsylvania. What do you think happened? Oh, I don't know, maybe a steam shovel mated with a cocoa bean. Or it's the fucking chocolate factory!"
Colbert seemed taken aback. "That could very well be," he said. "It could be possible that they have the lab in Wuhan to study the novel coronavirus diseases because in Wuhan there are a lot of coronavirus diseases because of the bat population there."
Stewart kept pushing back. "This is not a conspiracy!" he said. "But this is the problem with science. Science is incredible, but they don't know when to stop and no one in the room with those cats ever goes, 'I don't know if we should do that.' They're like, 'curiosity killed the cat, so let's kill 10,000 cats to find out why.'"
In the end, Stewart admitted that his conspiracy-mindedness might have come from the same source of so many of our outlandish delusional thoughts over the past year. "I have been alone so long," he admitted (haven't we all). "And when I realized that the laboratory was having the same name — first name and last name — of the evil that had been plaguing us, I thought to myself, that's fucked up."
Afterwards, Stewart was widely condemned by medical professionals. "Right now, the reality is there is no smoking gun to say that it's of laboratory origin," said Dr Peter Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.
"They're putting the entertainment value of this above what's reality. It causes a lot of damage because a number of scientists who work on coronaviruses including myself feel that we're under attack right now."
Of course, some people were convinced the whole thing was Jon Stewart doing an Alex Jones-esque bit. But the performance landed as off-kilter, unanticipated, and unwelcome as 2020 was, with any meaningful or cathartic purpose lost in the blend of absurdity and spectacle — much like genuine political commentary.
If it wasn't, though, Stewart's announcement is a reminder of just how ready so many of us have become to believe in conspiracy theories this year. It's almost like we want to believe in them, like we need some affirmation that something is conspiring against us, like we can't accept the utter randomness and tragedy of a pandemic.
One thing is clear: We all need to get outside.