More than a year has passed since the WHO declared the pandemic due to COVID-19 and it is still not known exactly where SARS-CoV-2 was born. The most lauded theory is that of an interspecies jump, but now there is a theory that is gaining momentum: the COVID-19 Wuhan lab leak theory.
For much of 2020, the theory that COVID-19 could have been born out of a Wuhan lab accident was rejected by experts and scientists. As a result, the mainstream media, between February and March of last year, positioned the story championed by the Trump administration as a conspiracy theory or unsubstantiated claim.
In a way, the media always had an argument on their side: the opinions of “the experts”. Much of the scientific community rejected, based on their first impressions and studies, that the laboratory accident theory was more plausible than the jump between species. Some experts even went so far as to say that there was basically no possibility that the pandemic started in WIV.
However, a year later, several journalistic and scientific reports opened Pandora’s Box: the COVID-19 Wuhan lab leak theory is possible and should be investigated.
Why is the COVID-19 Wuhan lab leak theory feasible?
While the last few weeks saw the release of news reports and scientific analyses that catapulted the lab accident theory to the top of public opinion, there were already since last year news reports by Fox News and The Washington Post raising some doubts about the real possibility of an accident in Wuhan.
The first point is that in 2017 American officials in China sent diplomatic cables warning about bat coronavirus research at WIV. The concerns were not only about the studies themselves but also about the lab’s low biosafety standards. The diplomatic cables went virtually unnoticed.
The second point highlighting the possibility of the accident are reports alleging a “gain-of-function” study at WIV. Nicholas Wade, a well-known science writer who long worked for the New York Times, explained a detailed analysis in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists where he explains that the lab’s theory is not a conspiracy at all, as the bat studies at Wuhan were carried out with alleged funding from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), led by Anthony Fauci, Ph.D. Wade explains that the gain-of-function study was conducted with funding from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), led by Anthony Fauci, Ph.D. Wade’s theory is not a conspiracy at all.
Wade explains that the gain-of-function sought to “understand what changes needed to occur in a bat virus’s spike proteins before it could infect people.” For many scientists, such studies are dangerous, especially in laboratories that do not meet biosafety standards.
The third point is the secrecy of Xi Jinping’s regime, which has systematically blocked attempts to carry out serious, independent research on WIV.
Reaffirming the second and third points, prominent scientists signed a letter on May 14 calling for a thorough investigation into the origins of the virus where the laboratory accident theory is taken into account. The letter says:
We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data. A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest.
Another science journalist who wrote a thorough analysis of the lab accident theory was Donald G. McNeil Jr., an expert reporter for the New York Times, who recounted how he himself changed his mind about the possibility of a WIV error.
Outlets misinformed about the COVID-19 Wuhan lab leak theory
Many headlines and article lead-ins criticized former President Donald Trump, Republicans and conservatives in general for pointing against the possibility of the lab accident.
“The conspiracy theories about the origins of the coronavirus, debunked (…) There’s a rumor the coronavirus started in a Chinese lab. And evidence from scientists to the contrary,” reads the lead-in to the article itself.
As evidence of Vox’s haste to brand the plausible lab theory as a conspiracy, on April 29, 2020, the outlet itself published another article titled, “Why these scientists still doubt the coronavirus leaked from a Chinese lab.”
That piece noted several current concerns explaining why an accident in Wuhan could have triggered the pandemic. However, the topic was little addressed thereafter.
Most of the stories debunking the accident theory date from March of last year. This was published by USA Today’s fact-checking service: “Fact check: Coronavirus not man-made or engineered but its origin remains unclear”; current reports suggest that the coronavirus may have been created in a series of investigations that some scientists call “gain-of-function”.
USA Today in February added an editor’s note at the top of the article. They explained that they changed the verdict to “partially false” information, now adding the context of current reports.
Politifact, a fact-checking organization, also did something very similar to USA Today.
Other media, such as the New York Times, vehemently criticized Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK), who since January of last year denounced the possibility of a possible laboratory leak.
In an article dated May, The Guardian writes: “Trump claims to have evidence coronavirus started in Chinese lab but offers no details (…) President touts unsubstantiated theory shortly after director of national intelligence rejects it.”
A month later, the same media outlet published another article: “Ignore the conspiracy theories: scientists know Covid-19 wasn’t created in a lab.”
By that time, the WaPo had already published a major story about diplomatic questions about the safety of WIV and the experiments conducted at the virology institute.
Just two months ago, CNN echoed the statements of former CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, who claimed that COVID-19 escaped from a lab.
Underhandedly, CNN broke the accident theory in one of the paragraphs, “There is no clear evidence to support the “lab leak” theory, although it has played a continuing role in conspiracies and speculation, including Trump’s statements.”
Nowhere in the story did CNN give context for the new findings already circulating regarding the lab accident.
Many headlines and biased headlines were quick to label the lab leak as a conspiracy. Much of the press was vague, limiting itself to gathering statements and disqualifying or approving them by comparing them with the statements of some scientists.
Investigative work and lobbying against the Chinese regime was scarce, and the few journalists who dared to step out of the comfort zone of only listening to “experts”, such as Josh Rogin, did not get much coverage.