| Lab Leak Theory | MR Online

NYT unleashes the Lab Leak theory on the public debate once again

Originally published: FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) on July 6, 2024 by Phillip Hosang (more by FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting))  | (Posted Jul 07, 2024)

The lab leak theory of COVID-19’s origins has been something of a zombie idea in public discourse, popping up again and again in corporate media despite numerous proclamations that it’s finally been debunked (Conversation, 8/14/22; Atlantic, 3/1/23; LA Times, 6/26/23).

| The New York Times op ed 6324 broke little new ground but arrived at a timely moment for the public debate | MR Online

The New York Times‘ op-ed (6/3/24) broke little new ground but arrived at a timely moment for the public debate.

The most recent resuscitation of the theory came in the form of a New York Times guest essay (6/3/24), provocatively headlined “Why the Pandemic Probably Started in a Lab, in Five Key Points”—and notably published the day of a congressional subcommittee grilling of Dr. Anthony Fauci over, among other things, his supposed role in a lab leak cover-up. The paper further bolstered the theory in the Times’ flagship Morning newsletter (6/14/24), which spotlighted Chan’s op-ed.

The author of the guest essay, Dr. Alina Chan, is a well-known proponent of a lab leak origin for SARS-CoV-2 (MIT Technology Review, 6/25/21). Her biggest claim to fame is probably the 2021 book Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19, which she co-authored with London Times science writer Matt Ridley. The book’s case for Covid’s origin in a lab leak was criticized for the evidence—or lack thereof—it presented (New Republic, 12/10/21).

Her guest essay reiterates the book’s arguments. But it also recapitulates the misrepresentation, selective quotation and faulty logic that has characterized so much of the pro—lab leak side of the Covid origin discourse.

Misleading air of authority

Under her byline, the Times identified Chan as a “molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and a co-author of Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19.”

| Chans co author of Viral Matt Ridley is a coal mine owner who argues that global warming is good for us | MR Online

Chan’s co-author of Viral, Matt Ridley, is a coal-mine owner who argues that “global warming is good for us.”

While true, it’s important to note that Chan’s expertise is neither in epidemiology nor virology, but in gene therapy and synthetic biology, meaning she isn’t exactly a subject expert when it comes to the fields most relevant to SARS-CoV-2 research. But that’s far from clear to the average Times reader, for whom such a bio suggests that Chan is an authoritative figure on the subject.

What’s more, the paper produced flashy data visualizations to accompany the piece and help Chan make her case, lending the paper’s institutional credibility to her argument. That same institutional credibility was further invoked by Times columnist Zeynep Tufekci, who shared the article on X the day it was published, proudly stating:

Yes, it’s factchecked. And we now know many outspoken experts opposed to this made similar points in PRIVATE.

But that credibility is not earned by the quality of the underlying evidence Chan offers.

Lacking critical context

Many of Chan’s arguments aren’t new and have already been discussed in depth in a previous FAIR article (6/28/21), so I’ll be mostly focusing on points not already discussed there.

Near the beginning of the essay, Chan makes multiple dubiously selective references to Shi Zhengli, a WIV scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) who has received copious attention in discussions of a hypothetical escape of Covid from that lab (MIT Technology Review, 2/9/22).

Chan notes that at the start of the outbreak, Shi “initially wondered if the novel coronavirus had come from her laboratory, saying she had never expected such an outbreak to occur in Wuhan.”

| Chans theory benefits from selective retelling of a story told more fully by Scientific American 6120 | MR Online

Chan’s theory benefits from selective retelling of a story told more fully by Scientific American (6/1/20).

Mentioning this worry to journalists would be a relatively strange thing to do for someone trying to cover up a leak from their lab, which Chan has implied on multiple occasions that the WIV researchers are doing (MIT Technology Review, 6/25/21, 2/9/22; Boston, 9/9/20). Chan also leaves out the vital context that Shi says that in response to her worry, she went through the lab’s records to check if it could have been the source, and found that it couldn’t have been (Scientific American, 6/1/20):

Meanwhile, she frantically went through her own lab’s records from the past few years to check for any mishandling of experimental materials, especially during disposal. Shi breathed a sigh of relief when the results came back: None of the sequences matched those of the viruses her team had sampled from bat caves. “That really took a load off my mind,” she says. “I had not slept a wink for days.”

At another point, Chan asserts that Shi’s group had published a database containing descriptions of over 22,000 wildlife samples, but that database was taken offline in fall of 2019, around the same time as the pandemic began. The implication is clear: that this action was taken in order to hide the presence of SARS-CoV-2, or a virus close enough to be its predecessor, in WIV custody.

Again, Chan doesn’t mention the reason given, that repeated hacking attempts at the onset of the pandemic led the institute to take their databases offline out of fear that they might be compromised. Nor does she address Shi’s claim that the databases only contained already published material (MIT Technology Review, 2/9/22).

It’s possible Chan believes that these are all lies told in defense of a Chinese coverup, but to not even mention these not-implausible explanations belies a biased and selective presentation.

Schrodinger’s proposal

Chan goes on to argue,

The year before the outbreak, the Wuhan institute, working with US partners, had proposed creating viruses with SARS‑CoV‑2’s defining feature.

This talking point should be familiar to anyone who has been keeping up with the cyclical resurgences of the lab leak theory over the last few years; a key piece of evidence they point to is a leaked 2018 research proposal by the name of Defuse, which was published three years ago by the Intercept (9/23/21).

The proposal is presented as a damning piece of evidence, with Chan stating that the proposed viruses would have been “shockingly similar to SARS-CoV-2.” She admits that this proposal was rejected by DARPA—in part specifically because it involved modifying viruses in ways that were viewed as overly risky—and never actually received funding. But she still posits that the WIV could have pursued research like it, despite presenting no actual evidence that this ever occurred.

Chan engages in a large amount of conjecture stacking in this section, placing unsubstantiated claim atop unsubstantiated claim to produce an argument that looks compelling at a glance but sits upon a pile of what-ifs.

| A Wall Street Journal article 62023 cited by Chan about sick researchers at the Wuhan lab left out the key detail that according to US intelligence the researchers had symptoms consistent with colds or allergies with accompanying symptoms typically not associated with COVID 19 | MR Online

A Wall Street Journal article (6/20/23), cited by Chan, about sick researchers at the Wuhan lab left out the key detail that, according to US intelligence, the researchers had “symptoms consistent with colds or allergies with accompanying symptoms typically not associated with COVID-19.”

The entire narrative relies on the assumption that a virus similar enough in structure to have become SARS-CoV-2 was present in the WIV at some point before the pandemic, but Chan never presents anything to substantiate this. None of the known viruses within the WIV’s catalog could have been the progenitor, with even the closest virus there—RaTG13—merely seeming to share a common ancestor.

A less-than-alarming detail

Her point relating to sick scientists is possibly the most dishonest aspect of the entire piece. Chan states that “one alarming detail—leaked to the Wall Street Journal and confirmed by current and former US government officials—is that scientists on Dr. Shi’s team fell ill with Covid-like symptoms in the fall of 2019.”

If you only read the Journal article (6/20/23) Chan links to, you may be convinced that these cases represent serious evidence. However, the US intelligence report these claims of sick researchers originate from, which has since been made public, clearly shows the weakness of the claim:

While several WIV researchers fell mildly ill in fall 2019, they experienced a range of symptoms consistent with colds or allergies with accompanying symptoms typically not associated with COVID-19, and some of them were confirmed to have been sick with other illnesses unrelated to COVID-19. While some of these researchers had historically conducted research into animal respiratory viruses, we are unable to confirm if any of them handled live viruses in the work they performed prior to falling ill.

So the intelligence community was unable to establish that any of the researchers actually had COVID-19 and in fact collected information that showed they presented with symptoms consistent with colds or allergies and inconsistent with Covid, with some even confirmed to have been sick with unrelated illnesses.

This is something the Times should have caught and addressed during a rudimentary factcheck.

Meanwhile, the WIV denies the allegations, and challenged its accusers to produce the names of its researchers who were COVID-19 vectors. Chan’s “alarming detail” is therefore both unsubstantiated and dependent upon the existence of a coverup at the WIV.

Weighing the evidence

| New evidence that the virus originated at the Wuhan wet market New York Times 22722 didnt make Chan any less confident in her theory | MR Online

New evidence that the virus originated at the Wuhan wet market (New York Times, 2/27/22) didn’t make Chan any less confident in her theory.

The final stage of Chan’s argument is identifying deficiencies in the zoonotic spillover theory. She maintains that Chinese investigators, believing early on that the outbreak had begun at a central market, had collected data in a biased manner that likely missed cases unlinked to the market.

She links to a letter to the editor in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society (3/20/24) that criticized one of the major market-origin papers (Woroby et al, 2021) on the grounds that it suffered from a large degree of location bias. Consistent with Chan’s habit of ignoring arguments contrary to her thesis, she fails to mention the rebuttal produced by one of the paper’s authors, alongside another researcher.

It’s true that the evidence on the spillover side is currently incomplete; however, this isn’t necessarily damning. It took over a year to identify the intermediary hosts of MERS; we still haven’t found the one suspected to exist for HCOV-HKU1, first described in 2004; and finding the natural reservoir from which SARS stemmed was a decade-long endeavor (Scientific American, 6/1/20).

Still, the circumstantial evidence present for zoonotic spillover is strong. Early COVID-19 cases, as well as excess deaths from pneumonia—a metric far less likely to suffer from the potential bias Chan mentions—cluster around the Huannan wet market, not the WIV. Multiple distinct lineages of SARS-CoV-2 were also associated with the wet market, as would be expected if it were in fact the origination point.

In fact, five positive samples were discovered in a single stall that had been known to sell raccoon dogs, one of the animals suspected as a possible intermediate host for SARS-CoV-2 (New York Times, 2/27/22).

As a comprehensive review of the scientific evidence surrounding the origins of SARS-CoV-2, published in the Annual Review of Virology (4/17/24), states in no uncertain terms:

The available data clearly point to a natural zoonotic emergence within, or closely linked to, the Huannan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan. There is no direct evidence linking the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 to laboratory work conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

False equivalence

Days after the guest essay’s release, the Times featured it in their popular Morning newsletter (6/14/24), under the headline, “Two Covid Theories: Was the Pandemic Started by a Lab Leak or by Natural Transmission? We Look at the Evidence.”

| The New York Times David Leonhardt Morning 61424 presents evidence and speculation as equally compelling | MR Online

The New York Times‘ David Leonhardt (Morning, 6/14/24) presents evidence and speculation as equally compelling.

Newsletter writer David Leonhardt situated the debate by explaining that “US officials remain divided” on which theory is more plausible, then presented the issue with scrupulous balance, offering three brief arguments for each theory “to help you decide which you consider more likely.”

But this is complicated, specialized science, not Murder, She Wrote. Agencies like the Energy Department, cited by Leonhardt as endorsing the lab leak theory, do have teams of people with relevant lab and scientific expertise. (Leonhardt does not note, however, that the department has “low confidence” in its conclusion—see FAIR.org, 4/7/23.) But surely, if we’re to talk about where current thought lies on the likely origins of SARS-CoV-2, the most pertinent information to give a lay reader is what people who are experts in viruses and disease outbreaks believe. And the majority of experts in those fields lean strongly in the direction of a zoonotic spillover origin.

In a 2024 survey of 168 global experts in epidemiology, virology and associated specialties, the average estimate that the virus emerged from natural zoonosis was 77%; half the participants estimated that the likelihood of a natural origin was 90% or higher. Just 14% of the experts thought a lab accident was more likely than not the origin. (The survey excluded experts from China as being from a country rated “not free” by the U.S.-funded think tank Freedom House.) Yet Leonhardt left out this crucial information.

The evidence Leonhardt presented for zoonotic spillover involves actual epidemiological data, as well as biological samples showing SARS-CoV-2 was present in the Huannan wet market where live animals susceptible to the virus were being sold.

The evidence presented for the lab leak, on the other hand, is the bare minimum to establish it as even being a possibility, with the strongest point not even being in direct favor of the lab leak, and instead just reestablishing that there are still missing pieces to fully prove a zoonotic spillover origin. These are not equivalent bodies of evidence in any sense of the word.

After presenting these carefully crafted options, Leonhardt suggested the logical conclusion:

Do you find both explanations plausible? I do. As I’ve followed this debate over the past few years, I have gone back and forth about which is more likely. Today, I’m close to 50/50. I have heard similar sentiments from some experts.

This is where the crux of the issue lies: These two scenarios may both be plausible, but the relative evidence of their likelihood is not a coin toss. For some reason, however, the Times seems to want to pretend that this is the case.

Why now?

| Former New York Times editorial page editor James Bennett 1843 122423 argued that the Times had lost its way in part because it was slow to report that Trump might be right that Covid came from a Chinese lab | MR Online

Former New York Times editorial page editor James Bennett (1843 12/24/23) argued that the Times had “lost its way” in part because it was “slow” to report that “Trump might be right that Covid came from a Chinese lab.”

Why has the Times now chosen to revive the lab leak theory? Perhaps it stems in part from recent accusations that, early in the pandemic, corporate media outlets like the Times were overly dismissive of the lab leak possibility. This sentiment was reflected in a post on X (6/4/24) by Times columnist Nicholos Kristof after Chan’s article was published:

In retrospect, many of us in the journalistic and public health worlds were too dismissive of that possibility when she and others were making the argument in 2020.

This claim of early “lab leak skepticism” has been brought up as evidence of the Times’ supposed left-wing bias, a false claim publisher A.G. Sulzberger is nevertheless at pains to dispel (FAIR.org, 4/24/24).

It’s hard to deny that the Times‘ Covid coverage has shown a strong animus against China, which has played out in absurd op-eds and news stories like “Has China Done Too Well Against COVID-19?” (1/24/20) and “China’s ‘Zero Covid’ Bind: No Easy Way Out Despite the Cost” (9/7/22). (See FAIR.org, 1/29/21, 9/17/21, 9/9/22.)

Whatever its motive, the paper’s decision to publish an argument for the lab leak theory on the day of Dr. Fauci’s congressional subcommittee testimony—without any contrary op-ed to balance it—was clearly intended to influence the public debate.

The responsibility of the press corps on the issue of Covid origins is to help readers understand in which direction the current scientific evidence points. Instead, it misinformed on the science, validating Republican attempts to turn the serious question of the source of a devastating pandemic into a political football.

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