As New Evidence Emerges For COVID "Lab-Leak" Theory, Journalists Who Screamed “Conspiracy” Humiliate Themselves

Over and over again early last year, as the COVID pandemic was ramping up but hadn’t yet reached the US in earnest, journalists working at prominent national publications claimed to have conclusive knowledge about the origins of the virus. It was trafficking in a “conspiracy theory” that had been roundly “debunked” — they collectively declared — to suggest that the virus may have originated in a laboratory that specializes in experimenting on human infectious diseases in Wuhan, China.

Journalists are huge fans of plastering the word “debunked” all over their headlines and articles because this confers upon them the false authority of a neutral fact-checker, as opposed to someone just rattling off an opinion (though that’s typically all they’re doing). 

These declarations look dopier than ever after a new article was published this week by the journalist Nicholas Wade, who for many years was a science correspondent for the New York Times. At the very least, Wade demonstrates that the “lab-leak” theory ought not to be discounted. But he also goes much further, showing that the theory is in fact highly plausible. The article was first self-published on Medium, then later reproduced by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. While long, it’s worth reading in full even if (like me) you are effectively illiterate in the technical scientific details.

In summary, here’s what one might call a “kicker” paragraph:

It’s documented that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were doing gain-of-function experiments designed to make coronaviruses infect human cells and humanized mice. This is exactly the kind of experiment from which a SARS2-like virus could have emerged. The researchers were not vaccinated against the viruses under study, and they were working in the minimal safety conditions of a BSL2 laboratory. So escape of a virus would not be at all surprising. In all of China, the pandemic broke out on the doorstep of the Wuhan institute. The virus was already well adapted to humans, as expected for a virus grown in humanized mice. It possessed an unusual enhancement, a furin cleavage site, which is not possessed by any other known SARS-related beta-coronavirus, and this site included a double arginine codon also unknown among beta-coronaviruses. What more evidence could you want, aside from the presently unobtainable lab records documenting SARS2’s creation?

Wade also quotes the eminent virologist David Baltimore, the former president of CalTech and discoverer of an enzyme used in all PCR-based COVID tests, as saying:

“When I first saw the furin cleavage site in the viral sequence, with its arginine codons, I said to my wife it was the smoking gun for the origin of the virus… These features make a powerful challenge to the idea of a natural origin for SARS2.” 

So there you have one of the most esteemed virologists in the world stating that the current body of evidence poses a “powerful challenge” to the theory that the SARS-CoV-2 virus originated by jumping naturally from wildlife to humans, which is the theory that has been propagated ubiquitously across the media for the past 15 months. And this after we’d all been confidently told by journalists at major national outlets that an alternative hypothesis — that it originated by leakage at a lab — was no more than a “conspiracy theory,” and had been authoritatively “debunked.” (See examples below)

Tom Cotton, an extreme foreign policy hawk whose first Senate campaign in 2014 was cultivated and funded by neoconservative Bill Kristol (before Kristol became a passionate Democratic Party pundit) is definitely not the person I’d favor managing the foreign policy response to a tumultuous geopolitical predicament like this one. Nonetheless, Cotton aired a version of the lab-leak theory in early 2020. And though he never endorsed it as fact, only calling for further investigation, journalists furiously swooped in to denounce him. 

Here’s an article in the Washington Post from February 17, 2020, the day after an interview with Cotton aired on Maria Bartiromo’s Fox News show:

The author claims that because Cotton “suggested it’s necessary to ask Chinese authorities about the possibility” of the lab-leak theory, he was therefore “fanning the embers of a conspiracy theory that has been repeatedly debunked by experts.”

This is interesting because one of the expert sources quoted in the Washington Post article as purportedly having “debunked” the lab-leak theory, molecular biologist Richard Ebright of Rutgers University, is also quoted in Wade’s new article giving strong credence to the theory. Moreover, Ebright affirmed in a declaration to me his view that the lab-leak theory has actually been the strongest hypothesis about the origin of COVID since… January 2020. A month before the Washington Post cited him as a preeminent “debunker” of the theory.

Ebright further elaborated to me over email regarding the strange discrepancy in how his views were portrayed by the Washington Post:

Michael--I discussed the genome sequence and properties of SARS-CoV-2 on the record and the lab-accident hypothesis on background with WaPo on January 28, 2020.

On January 29, 2020, WaPo quoted me, correctly and appropriately, that, based on the genome sequence and properties of the virus, there was no basis to conclude the virus was engineered.

On January 29, 2020, immediately after publication of the January 29, 2020 WaPo article, I informed WaPo that I was willing to be quoted on the record that the virus may have entered humans through a laboratory accident.

On February 16, 2020, in an interview regarding comments by Sen. Tom Cotton, I again discussed both the genome sequence and the lab-accident hypothesis--this time, both on the record--with WaPo. I was surprised that the February 17, 2020 article in WaPo quoted only my comments on the genome sequence and not my comments on the lab-accident hypothesis.


So what’s going on here?

One issue seems to be that Cotton was accused of having asserted that the virus was a deliberately-released Chinese bioweapon, but that’s not what he asserted in the relevant portion of the Maria Bartiromo interview that set off the wave of journalists chirping about how roundly he’d been “debunked.” This is what Cotton said: 

So Maria, here's what we do know. This virus did not originate in the Wuhan animal market. Epidemiologists who are widely respected from China who have published a study in the international journal the Lancet have demonstrated that several of the original cases did not have any contact with that food market. The virus went into that food market before it came out of that food market. So we don't know where it originated. But we do know that we have to get to the bottom of that. We also know that just a few miles away from that food market is China's only BioSafety Level 4 Super Laboratory that researches human infectious diseases. Now, we don't have evidence that this disease originated there. But because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says. And China right now is not giving any evidence on that question at all. 

One could object to Cotton’s overly-conclusive statement that the “virus did not originate in the Wuhan animal market,” or object to his editorializing about the alleged “duplicity and dishonesty” of the Chinese government. But that wouldn’t then justify castigating as a “conspiracy theory” his other suggestions about the potential origin of the virus. Nor did anyone in February 2020 — especially journalists sitting around aggregating TV show clips — have grounds to definitively declare Cotton’s theory “debunked.” You’d think the journalists in question had already completed a thorough international investigation into the origins of the virus by February 2020 based on the arrogant certainty they rushed to project.

I asked numerous journalists who authored these stories for comment on whether they stand by their over-assured denunciations from early 2020 of this supposed “conspiracy theory,” which according to them had been “debunked.” None replied to me in time for the publication of this Substack item. (If that changes, I will update the post.) However, the author of the Washington Post article, Paulina Firozi, did reply in the sense that she disabled her ability to receive DMs shortly after I messaged her on Twitter:

This is all the more ironic in the case of the Washington Post, whose editorial board on April 30 called for a new investigation into the origin of the virus, including into “the possibility of a laboratory leak.” Which is the exact same “possibility” Cotton was decried by the Washington Post as a debunked conspiracy theorist for raising last year. Columnist Josh Rogin also just published an article May 6 lauding congressional investigations into the lab-leak theory.

The New York Times pulled a similar routine by parroting the “conspiracy theory” label, as though that’s the be-all-end-all and no further inquiry on the subject was required:

Unfortunately, I’ve received no reply from Alexandra Stevenson.

The Daily Beast was as pathetic as usual, with Executive Editor Tracy Connor lambasting Cotton for having “amplified a debunked conspiracy theory about the origin of the coronavirus outbreak.”

Tracy Connor sadly has not replied to my email.

The cratering and staff-shedding HuffPost had been hot on Cotton’s trail for some time vis-a-vis the COVID “panic” they claimed he was shamefully stoking. Here’s an incredible-in-hindsight article from January 2020 lashing into Cotton:

In the first sentence, marvel at the things author Nick Robbins-Early claims Cotton shouldn't have been listened to about:

Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has been on an absolute tear about coronavirus, calling for all Americans in China to “get out now,” demanding the U.S. implement an extensive travel ban targeting China proposing a “Manhattan Project-level effort to create a vaccine” ― a reference to the undertaking that produced the atomic bomb during World War II.

On top of that, Cotton is of course accused of “boosting a debunked fringe theory” that the virus could have originated in the Wuhan lab. No reply to me from Nick Robbins-Early either.

Unchastened by this humiliation, HuffPost persisted in mocking Cotton:

It’s truly amazing that HuffPost writer Mary Papenfuss possessed the copious scientific knowledge required to dismiss the lab-leak theory as a “debunked conspiracy” in February 2020. Perhaps she ought to consider a career change and become an epidemiological fortune-teller of some sort. I’m devastated to report that she also has not responded to my query.

It goes on and on. Here’s the Guardian’s masterful summary in April:

“Virus conspiracy.” Just stated as fact over and over again. In keeping with the pattern, I’ve gotten no response from Martin Pengelly.

Here’s the Kaiser Family Foundation’s news page — which you might have wrongly suspected would have higher standards on this subject area — dutifully repeating the “conspiracy” mantra:

Notably, these media reports are all indistinguishable from the take proffered by Democratic Party propaganda organ Media Matters:

I personally don’t have any vested interest in believing the lab-leak theory; if anything, confirmation of the theory as true would undoubtedly accelerate an already-ramping-up New Cold War conflict between the US and China, which I generally oppose for a variety of reasons. But I’m primarily interested simply in knowing whether the theory is true, whatever implications this might have for my other political and moral commitments. Clearly, though, much of the rest of the media doesn’t operate on the same epistemic principle.

A number of factors likely contributed to these journalists proclaiming hard-and-fast certainty about this issue, despite having no grounds for such certainty. Many likely thought they were heroically combating anti-Asian xenophobia by dismissing a theory that could’ve assigned some measure of culpability to Chinese state authorities for the origination and spread of the virus, although it’s unclear why this should have implicated individual Chinese-Americans. Either way, lying or misrepresenting stuff in the name of combating xenophobia can’t be justified journalistically, and is liable to backfire anyway.

Many probably thought they were undermining Donald Trump by declaring the lab-leak theory to have been “debunked.” But again this makes no sense, as there was plenty to criticize Trump for regarding the initial phase of the US federal government’s response to COVID without obfuscating important information about the origin of the virus. This blinkered partisan mentality on journalists’ part wouldn’t have been surprising given that similar motives, for example, caused the aftermath of the most widespread and destructive riots in 50+ years to go chronically undercovered. Same goes for their frenetically-saturated Russiagate coverage. This is just what they did during the Trump era — their entire ethos around “journalistic objectivity” radically shifted.

But the most obnoxious aspect is the journalists’ utterly unfounded projection of total and complete certainty — as if they’re infallible purveyors of sacred knowledge when, in reality, they’re just engaging in the same off-the-cuff speculation as anybody else. And then their refusal to admit error, thus leaving the “misinformation” they produced splashed across the internet. Anyone who in February 2020 acted like they had all the answers about the origins of a catastrophic new virus was either too haughty or stupid to recognize how nonsensically they were behaving. But that’s the debased media landscape we’re all stuck with, alas.