When the virologist Kristian Andersen testified before the U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Covid Pandemic this summer, he was asked to explain a seeming contradiction between his public and private statements about the origins of Covid.

In March 2020, as one of the authors of a study about the “proximal origins” of Covid published in Nature Medicine, Andersen stated that evidence demonstrated that Covid had not emerged from a laboratory but rather from another species, after which it crossed over into humans. Although an earlier draft of the paper left some room for the possibility that Covid might have come from a lab leak, the published version stated flatly that “any type of laboratory-based scenario” was not plausible.

In fact, as internal messages among scientists later revealed, Andersen and his colleagues didn’t have anywhere near this level of certainty, either before or after the paper was published. On a Slack forum of scientists convened by Anthony Fauci, Andersen himself wrote, “Accidental escape [from a lab] is in fact highly likely—it’s not some fringe theory.” He had told Fauci the same thing just a few weeks earlier. Andrew Rambaut, a biologist from the University of Edinburgh also on the Slack forum, said, “I literally swivel day by day thinking it is lab escape or natural.” A few weeks later, the paper was published. How had Andersen and his colleagues moved off their position of doubt about Covid’s origins so quickly?

The question matters because the “proximal origin” paper became the ur-text for shutting down any further exploration of the idea that Covid might have emerged from a laboratory in Wuhan. It also conveniently shut down any discussion of the possibility that China and, by implication, the United States’ scientific funding apparatus—which had subsidized controversial “gain of function” research in Wuhan—were responsible.

And yet the only message from the designated scientific leaders at the time was that anything other than natural origins was rank speculation at best and harmful conspiracy-theorizing at worst. Speaking in the White House press briefing room, Fauci assured the public that the data from the proximal-origins study were “totally consistent with a jump of a species from an animal to a human.” Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health posted a message on the NIH website declaring, “This study leaves little room to refute a natural origin for Covid-19.”

Media outlets immediately ran with the story, citing the paper as definitive proof that the lab-leak hypothesis was little more than a conspiracist’s fever dream. Facebook moved swiftly to censor posts that referenced lab-leak theories. Cable-news hosts denounced mention of lab leaks as conspiracy-mongering. Joy Reid declared the lab-leak theory “debunked bunkum,” and her fellow MSNBCers Joe Scarborough and Nicole Wallace called it a “conspiracy theory.” On CNN, Drew Griffin claimed there was “zero proof” behind the lab-leak “conspiracy theory,” later claiming, incorrectly, that it had been “widely debunked.” The New York Times even chided Senator Tom Cotton for raising the possibility of a lab leak, calling it a “fringe” idea that encouraged unhealthy thought patterns. As Andersen watched the media attention lavished on his and his colleagues’ work, he wrote to a fellow scientist, “We RUUUUUUULE. That’s tenure secured, right there.”

Tenure might have been secured for Andersen, but public trust in the scientific establishment has since plummeted. Scientists who had been uncertain about the origins of Covid nevertheless deliberately obfuscated and misled reporters to craft a narrative that suited their political ends. One of Andersen’s colleagues had warned him privately about “the shit show that would happen if anyone serious accused the Chinese of accidental release,” and Andersen agreed, noting, “I hate when politics is injected into science—but it’s impossible not to, especially given the circumstances.” An astonishingly incurious media were more than happy to help them.

The crucial media organ for embedding the narrative that the lab-leak argument was mere conspiracy was the New York Times. At the time, the paper’s Covid reporter, Donald McNeil Jr., was pursuing the story, repeatedly asking Andersen for comment and explanation of possible origins, including a lab leak. Andersen boasted about misleading McNeil. “Can’t ignore him and can’t just give him the scientific story,” he wrote a colleague. “That would only lead to follow up question.” He added, “I’m hoping that by including ‘extremely busy’ I’ll also be able to deflect requests for a call—and also gives me a get out of jail card for ignoring potential request.”

McNeil at least attempted to pursue the lab-leak hypothesis. When he was abruptly forced to resign from the Times over a trumped-up claim of making a racist remark, McNeil was replaced by Apoorva Mandavilli, who immediately fell into line with the approved narrative. In May 2021, she tweeted, “Someday we will stop talking about the lab leak theory and maybe even admit its racist roots. But alas, that day is not yet here.”

The Times continued to endorse the narrative. Even when some of Fauci’s emails were leaked to the press in 2021, showing far more ambiguity about the origins debate, the Times gave space to Andersen to defend scientists’ behavior as merely being the scientific process at work: “Overall, this is a textbook example of the scientific method where a preliminary hypothesis is rejected in favor of a competing hypothesis after more data became available and analyses are completed.” But given the behavior of Chinese officials in Wuhan, including barring any independent investigations of the laboratory, how could a full analysis of the possibility ever have occurred?

As recently as mid-July 2023, the Times was still defending Andersen and his colleague after their House testimony. “Two world-renowned virologists appeared on Capitol Hill on Tuesday and delivered a pointed defense of their findings that the coronavirus pandemic was natural in origin, and told skeptical Republicans that Dr. Anthony S. Fauci did not exert influence over a scientific paper they wrote to that effect,” the lede to the Times story read.

Other outlets, such the Atlantic, have indulged in convenient semantical arguments to downplay what the leaked Slack messages revealed. “From the start, the problem has been that a ‘lab leak’ could mean many things,” Daniel Engber wrote. He criticized the congressional hearing, saying it “gestures not toward the true origin of Covid, but toward the origin of the origins debate.” This is a rather tortured way of avoiding the topic of what the scientists in question did wrong. Rather than say, “We’re not sure but here are the possibilities for the origins of Covid,” the community closed ranks and declared the lab-leak theory verboten.

Also left unexplored by mainstream media outlets were potential conflicts of interest among the authors of the proximal-origins paper. For example, while Andersen was seeking guidance from Fauci about how to frame the arguments in the paper, he was also waiting to find out whether Fauci would approve an $8.9 million research grant he had submitted. Fauci approved Andersen’s grant four days after the proximal-origins paper was published. One would think an intrepid science reporter might want to find out whether this was merely coincidence or in fact a conflict of interest.

Of course, we know about any of these internal scientific debates only because Republicans in the House subpoenaed the Slack conversations and emails. They may have done so for their own political purposes, but that still raises the question of why journalists, who pride themselves on being the country’s truth-seekers, so quickly became eager, incurious purveyors of what those in power told them to say during the pandemic.

Contemporary media are siloed not only along partisan lines but also along elite and non-elite lines—in the case of the Covid origins debate, the Times and other mainstream outlets doubled down on serving as the mouthpiece of the elite. They could have examined their own editorial mistakes; taken responsibility for failing to realize they were being manipulated by the scientists; and vowed to do better in future by exercising a more vigorous journalistic skepticism about all sources, not merely the ones who question the newspaper’s preferred narrative. They could have done their jobs better. Instead, they aided and abetted the undermining of the public’s trust in scientific institutions. But at least they helped a bald-faced liar get tenure.

Photo: County of San Diego via AP

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