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A Note on the Media and the Wuhan “Lab-Origin” Theory

From Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post:

The source of the coronavirus that has left more than 3 million people dead around the world remains a mystery. But in recent months the idea that it emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) — once dismissed as a ridiculous conspiracy theory — has gained new credence.

…a lack of transparency by China and renewed attention to the activities of the Wuhan lab have led some scientists to say they were too quick to discount a possible link at first.

Kessler’s article has been received with glee by strong proponents of the “lab-origin” theory of Covid-19, with Fox News reacting with an article headlined “Ted Cruz mocks Washington Post as ‘clowns’ after fact-check declares Wuhan lab leak theory ‘suddenly’ credible”.

More generally, a Substack post by Michael Tracey headlined “As New Evidence Emerges For COVID “Lab-Leak” Theory, Journalists Who Screamed “Conspiracy” Humiliate Themselves” is proving popular, although Kessler’s WaPo colleague Aaron Blake has a more measured perspective:

It has become evident that some corners of the mainstream media overcorrected when it came to one particular theory from Trump and his allies: that the coronavirus emanated from a laboratory in Wuhan, China, rather than naturally.

It’s also true that many criticisms of the coverage are overwrought and that Trump’s and his allies’ claims invited and deserved skepticism.

Blake notes that the Trump administration “leaned into” the lab-leak theory “hard” while declining to provide evidence.

He could have gone further: public discussion was positively corrupted by bad actors such as Steve Bannon, who produced an alleged whistleblower who claimed that the chimeric nature of the coronavirus was self-evident, but was being covered up by scientists in cahoots with China (she was heavily promoted on Fox via Tucker Carlson). In the UK, articles sensationally promoting – rather than fairly evaluating – specific lab-origin claims were prominent in the Mail on Sunday (which took credit for Trump being asked about the subject at a press conference) and the Daily Telegraph, which wheeled out  former head of MI6 Richard Dearlove to give the subject the aura and authority of “intelligence”, even though he has no more knowledge of the subject than the rest of us (Dearlove recently went on to provide similar commentary to LBC).

Meanwhile, scientific voices who argue for continuing scepticism risk being overlooked. On Twitter, a thread by Nsikan Akpan (former science editor at National Geographic) argues that there is evidence against the “lab-origins” theory and for the “natural origins” theory; his interpretation is backed by a data scientist with a biology background here and expanded on here.

UPDATE: See also “The Lab Leak Theory Doesn’t Hold Up” by Justin Ling for Foreign Policy.