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Return of the COVID lab-leak theory

The epidemiological laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of

The epidemiological laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, on April 17, 2020.  Credit: AFP via Getty Images/Hector Retamal

In the spring of 2020, when the United States was coping with the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, some journalists began asking whether the initial outbreak in China could have originated in the biomedical research laboratory in Wuhan through the accidental release of a virus (perhaps altered for the purpose of studying disease). The Washington Post’s Global Opinions columnist Josh Rogin wrote about this scenario; I noted it in an April 2020 column that argued that assigning major responsibility for the pandemic to China’s leadership made sense.

Yet, most of the media dismissed the "lab leak" hypothesis as fringe conspiracy theory — particularly after it was endorsed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a politician with a reputation for far-right and arguably xenophobic views. The rebuttals often conflated the "research accident" scenario with a far less plausible one of biowarfare. The theory was also seen as a ploy by President Donald Trump and his supporters — such as Cotton — to use China-blaming to deflect from his own poor handling of the crisis.

The momentum began to shift in early January, when New York magazine published a long article examining the evidence for the lab-leak scenario and finding it fairly compelling. In March, the CBS program "60 Minutes" aired a report on unanswered questions on the pandemic’s origins. Over the past few months, numerous scientists have joined calls for a new investigation, stating that the "lab release" scenario cannot be ruled out.

Finally, last week, President Joe Biden ordered an intelligence probe into the origins of COVID-19. Interestingly, CNN has revealed that a State Department inquiry launched in the Trump era was later shut down by the Biden team.

For many on the right, this is a moment to gloat. The mainstream media, conservatives say, dropped the ball on the lab-leak hypothesis for ideological reasons — because they wanted Trump to be wrong, or even because they wanted to give China a pass.

The animus against Trump and Trumpism, however justified, probably did lead to some knee-jerk dismissals of the lab-release scenario, which was prematurely described as "discredited" or "debunked" despite the fact that some respected scientists and journalists took it seriously. And while I don’t think the media have been particularly easy on China in the past couple of years, some progressive journalists have embraced the bizarre idea that talking about the possible lab leak or the Chinese government’s cover-up is racist. Last week, New York Times health and science writer Apoorva Mandavilli tweeted, "Someday we will stop talking about the lab leak theory and maybe even admit its racist roots." (She later deleted the tweet, acknowledging that it was "badly phrased.")

Yes, "China virus" rhetoric can be used to stoke hostility toward Asian Americans. But as some have pointed out, the conventional view that the virus spread to humans from China’s "wet markets" in which live wild animals are sold for food, has far more racist overtones than the lab-leak hypothesis: The "wet market" scenario easily lends itself to nasty caricatures of poor hygiene and unusual eating habits.

Conservative claims about the media’s alleged silencing of the lab-leak hypothesis are drastically exaggerated. But the media bias on the subject was very real. That’s especially unfortunate because, when serious journalism loses credibility, actual fringe views and conspiracy theories are far more difficult to discredit.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

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