Why Did The Media Discount COVID's Lab Leak Theory For So Long?
A few reasons, and one major takeaway.
The U.S. media has been engaging in a subtle course correction over the past several weeks with regard to its treatment of the “lab leak” theory of COVID-19’s origin, which posits that that the global pandemic was sparked not by animal-to-human transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus but instead by a leak of that virus from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a Chinese lab which studies coronaviruses and is located in the city of Wuhan where the first outbreak of COVID-19 occurred.
It’s a significant course correction for a media that not only discounted and downplayed the theory throughout the entirety of the pandemic, but regularly labeled it an unfounded conspiracy theory. For instance, Vox conducted what it considered to be a thorough “debunking” of the “conspiracy theory” in March of last year.
When Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton began referencing the possibility of a lab leak origin last year, both the New York Times and the Washington Post accused him of repeating a debunked “fringe” conspiracy theory.
But that’s changing now. Not only will you not see any national press outlet refer to the theory as a conspiracy theory any more — let alone one that’s “fringe” or has been “debunked” — but we’re also beginning to see them give significant voice and space in their coverage to those who believe that the theory not only deserves more thorough investigation, but also deserves to be near the top of the list in terms of possible explanations. In April, the New York Times devoted an entire news story on the recent World Health Organization COVID-19 investigative report to the critics of that report who are calling for more consideration of the possibility of a lab leak origin. And late last month, the Washington Post editorial board published an editorial calling on the WHO to fully investigate the lab leak theory — the same Washington Post that had called that theory a fringe conspiracy theory last year.
To be clear, the possibility that COVID-19 originated from a lab leak is nowhere near confirmed. How could it be? It hasn’t really been investigated (which is the point). What the media is now doing is simply adopting the basic attitude of what we might expect from almost any rational thinking person, which is to consider the theory a valid and worthwhile possibility deserving of investigation. After all, if you approached random people on the street last year and told them that a lab that harbors and studies coronaviruses exists in the exact city where the COVID-19 pandemic began, almost every single person would have put that near the top of the list of things to investigate. But our elite national media literally did the opposite of that. Why?
I believe it’s due to several interlocking reasons — some that are obvious, and some less so (and some downright shocking) — with perhaps one fundamental dynamic underlying them all.
Let’s get the most obvious one out of the way. If Trump had declared himself a climate change believer at some point during his presidency, it’s likely that some percentage of the media, and liberals generally, would have begun to second guess their own beliefs regarding climate change. It’s obvious that this anti-Trump dynamic played some role here, both directly and indirectly.
While Trump never definitively endorsed any specific theory of COVID’s origin (though he came quite close), a major part of Trump’s political response to COVID last year was to place the focus on China’s culpability for the pandemic. As such, any theory that placed the blame on China last year was certain to be associated with Trump’s public messaging strategy and therefore fiercely resisted within the anti-Trump media and political class.
Similarly, anything that took attention away from Trump’s handling of the pandemic was always going to be given short shrift in the media and among liberals generally. A more naturalistic origin story for COVID-19, such as an animal-to-human transmission at a wet market, was always going to be far more conducive for a Trump-critical narrative. After all, if the pandemic was the result of unavoidable natural forces that humans are bound to face at one point or another, then it’s simply not worth dwelling very much on how COVID-19 happened, and far more important to focus on how to respond to that inevitability.
Another factor that played into the media’s discounting of the lab leak theory last year was confusion over what the theory actually was. Specifically, the media seemed to unanimously jump to the conclusion that the theory’s proponents believed that the virus was a man-made bioweapon genetically engineered in a lab, and then intentionally released.
That’s in fact precisely what happened in the case of Sen. Tom Cotton. When Cotton publicly mused about the possibility of a lab leak, he never made any specific claims regarding the genetic engineering of the virus or an intentional leak. Yet the media, including both the New York Times and the Washington Post, jumped to that conclusion completely on their own when pouncing on Cotton’s comments and performing their “debunks.” Cotton in response posted a twitter thread at the time to clarify himself.
There are of course multiple permutations of a lab leak “theory,” ranging from mundane to quite nefarious — engineered, non-engineered, intentionally leaked, unintentionally leaked. The more bold and extreme a claim one makes (like saying COVID was an intentionally leaked bio-weapon), the more evidence you’ll need to maintain credibility and be taken seriously. So in that light, it becomes a little easier to see how the media was so willing to immediately label it a “conspiracy theory.” But the question remains: Why was the media so quick to assume the most extreme version, when few people actually promoted or espoused it, and when there were other ways to perceive the theory? That gets us to the next point.
Partisan Trust Issues
It’s an unfortunate fact of both human psychology, as well as the current bitterly divided political environment in the U.S., that often what matters more than what is being said is who is saying it. Studies often show that support for an idea or policy can flip dramatically simply based on which political figure happens to be championing it. This is one of my favorites:
I believe this was very much in play with the lab leak theory.
Those who floated or promoted the theory last year, especially if they were outside of the scientific community, were almost unanimously Republicans and conservatives. Part of the reason for that is obviously the political expediency of shifting the focus away from a Republican administration’s handling of the pandemic and instead rallying the public against a common, external foe. But just as significant (and related) is that China skepticism and hawkishness is far more prevalent on the Right than on the Left. Ideologically, Republicans and conservatives were much more primed to be receptive to the lab leak theory and far more motivated to discuss it. This was exactly the case with Sen. Tom Cotton, known for his hawkishness generally and China hawkishness specifically. And it was also the case with one of the Trump administration’s leading proponents of the lab leak theory, White House adviser Peter Navarro, known for being a leading critic of trade with China. (Navarro was also one of the few who promoted the more extreme “intentionally released bioweapon” version of the lab leak theory).
This all resulted in an environment where the only people promoting the lab leak theory were people who had very little trust and authority among those in the more liberal and Democratically-aligned media. Not only did that mean the theory wouldn’t get the attention it deserved, but it gave people an incentive to actively oppose the idea.
Like most scientific controversies, the media’s appraisal of the lab leak theory relied on grounding itself — at least superficially — in the opinions and judgments of scientific experts. But all too often, the media conflates scientific truth and fact with scientific authority. That tendency manifested itself in a couple of ways with the media’s handling of the lab leak theory.
First, it made the media far too trusting and unquestioning of the statements of officials, experts, and authorities. One major problem with that is that these people can simply be wrong, and often are. Science gets it wrong all the time. The scientific process itself produces more errors and flops than wins — it’s just a part of scientific inquiry. But in recent years the media has trended away from adversarialism and strongly toward blindly echoing the positions and statements of institutions and authorities, and nowhere is this more dangerous than in matters of public health.
But the other major problem is that these people, who are often government officials or authorities in large and influential agencies with complex relationships with other institutions and foreign countries, can themselves be compromised (often in ways they themselves might not realize). A prime example of this was pointed out in the recent bombshell article written by science writer Nicholas Wade in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, an article which is now stimulating much of the renewed attention on the lab leak theory. In the article, Wade reveals that perhaps the single most influential scientific statement fueling the media’s dismissal of the lab leak theory was written and organized by a man who quite literally was funding coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology — a fact that was never noted at the time:
From early on, public and media perceptions were shaped in favor of the natural emergence scenario by strong statements from two scientific groups. These statements were not at first examined as critically as they should have been.
“We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” a group of virologists and others wrote in the Lancet on February 19, 2020, when it was really far too soon for anyone to be sure what had happened. Scientists “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife,” they said, with a stirring rallying call for readers to stand with Chinese colleagues on the frontline of fighting the disease.
It later turned out that the Lancet letter had been organized and drafted by Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York. Daszak’s organization funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. If the SARS2 virus had indeed escaped from research he funded, Daszak would be potentially culpable. This acute conflict of interest was not declared to the Lancet’s readers. To the contrary, the letter concluded, “We declare no competing interests.”
As Wade notes further, Daszak himself was a contractor who was directing U.S. government research grants to the Wuhan lab. Those grants came from a department in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) called the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The director of the NIAID is none other than Dr. Anthony Fauci, meaning that the lab leak theory would directly implicate Dr. Fauci himself — another major authority figure critical in the media’s pushback against the lab leak theory (Fauci continues to firmly reject the theory to this day).
But lest we place too much blame on scientists themselves while casting the media as unwitting dupes, it’s also the case that the media’s veneration of scientific authority is also a key way the media allows itself to advocate an ideological position or elevate the side of a debate it may have its own inherent biases toward. As with many scientific controversies and open questions, it’s usually possible to find experts and authorities on either side of a debate. In other words, the media often engages in its own cherry-picking, and it seems it certainly did so in this case. Plenty of well-regarded and credentialed experts were openly proposing and exploring the possibility of a lab leak early in the pandemic last year, even if they may have been in a minority. Wade notes several of them in his article, including molecular biologist Richard Ebright of Rutgers University and microbiologist David Relman of Stanford University. Another was Alina Chan, a genetic engineer at MIT who published a paper on the theory last year. Even former CDC Director Robert Redfield — an actual virologist — recently endorsed the theory and then faced an onslaught of outrage and rebuke, clearly a result of having served under the Trump administration.
I believe all of these reasons played a unique role in the media’s treatment of one of the most important public health stories of the century. But it’s hard not to spot a common thread though them all: That the deep partisan divide in the U.S., and the effect that it has on the way both sides perceive basic facts and truth, is having a profound and consequential effect on the most important matters and challenges the world faces. Increasingly, it feels like we live in a “post-truth” world where the validity of something is based on which team is saying it, and which team it benefits or hurts. That’s a perilous path to be on, no matter which team you’re on.