Former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade recently testified in a House Oversight Committee hearing investigating the origin of Covid-19. Just two years ago, such a hearing would have been inconceivable. Back then, public health officials, leading scientists, and major media outlets were almost unanimous in the view that there was just one credible explanation for the pandemic: It had spilled over from some wild animal sold in a wet market in Wuhan, China. Suggestions that it might have escaped from a nearby research laboratory were dismissed as a racist right-wing fantasy. Wade was one of a handful of journalists who took the lab-leak question seriously early on.
He told the committee that understanding Covid’s source is vital for how we prepare for future threats. “If the virus came from nature, virologists can carry on bringing wild viruses back into their laboratories and continue to manipulate them,” he testified. “The national media can say it was right all along to dismiss lab leak as a conspiracy theory and that no self-scrutiny is required.” On the other hand, Wade continued, if the virus leaked from a laboratory, we would need to hold Chinese authorities responsible and halt the riskiest types of virus research. Journalists would also have to ask “how they let the wool be pulled over their eyes for so long and so effectively.”
Wade’s view is no longer consigned to the fringes. In recent months, both the FBI and the Department of Energy have concluded that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is the likeliest source of the virus. Robert Redfield, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control, has reached the same conclusion. While not all scientists agree, the lab-leak question is no longer suppressed and ridiculed. Whether or not Covid-19’s source is ever definitively proved, the reckoning Wade speaks of is coming.
After Vietnam, Watergate, and the Iraq War, American lawmakers, academics, and journalists spent years studying how those catastrophes occurred and figuring out who was responsible. If our society has any backbone left, we will conduct a similar audit of the pandemic disaster. Such an audit would entail questions our media figures and public health experts are not keen to answer—including why so few of them were willing to honestly investigate Covid’s origins.
Not surprisingly, many of these people have already begun rewriting—or “retconning”—their past actions and statements. That word, short for “retroactive continuity,” comes from the world of movie sequels and serialized fiction. It describes the gimmicks writers use to bring back characters they had previously killed off or to erase earlier plot twists that have become inconvenient.
For the past few months, Anthony Fauci and other public health heavyweights—along with a compliant media—have been busily retconning their role in suppressing the lab-leak theory. In March of this year, Fauci told NewsNation host Chris Cuomo that accusations he had participated in a cover-up of Covid’s possible origins are “politically motivated.” He said his willingness to challenge President Trump’s Covid claims “triggered a great deal of hostility in which I became a target.” As for the lab-leak theory? “I have kept an open mind,” he said, “from Day One.”
Unfortunately for Fauci, some people have been keeping receipts. In a refreshingly skeptical column, New York Times guest opinion writer Megan K. Stack recently unearthed an interview Fauci gave in the first weeks of the pandemic, on February 9, 2020. Fauci and his longtime colleague Peter Daszak (who heads the EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that funds virus research) appeared together on Newt Gingrich’s Newt’s World podcast. Gingrich asked them about rumors that the virus might have leaked from a Wuhan facility. “I’ve heard those conspiracy theories,” Fauci answered. “And like all conspiracy theories, Newt, they’re … without any scientific basis.” Daszak agreed, adding that “all the evidence says” the virus jumped into the human population from bats or some other natural source.
They sounded so certain.
What Fauci didn’t say was that over the previous two weeks he’d been juggling anxious phone calls and emails from some of the world’s top virus experts. Many believed it was highly possible, even probable, that the virus had leaked from a Wuhan lab. Some thought the virus appeared possibly to have been “engineered.” Other scientists in the group believed it might be a naturally occurring virus that had become more transmissible as researchers infected lab animals with it.
And some worried about how the public would react if it learned that top virologists—their friends and colleagues—had accidently loosed this scourge on the world. One Dutch scientist warned that public disclosure of the lab-leak possibility “would unnecessarily distract top researchers from their active duties and do unnecessary harm to science in general and science in China in particular.”
Fauci’s ad hoc group of advisers quickly pivoted from considering all Covid origin scenarios to actively discouraging any mention of a lab leak. “Our main work over the last couple of weeks has been focused on trying to disprove any type of lab theory,” Scripps Research scientist Kristian Andersen wrote to the group on February 8. Meanwhile, Daszak was busy corralling 27 prominent scientists to sign on to a letter he’d drafted for publication in The Lancet, an influential medical journal. “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” the letter asserted (despite the lack of any tangible evidence for that claim).
Fauci and Daszak didn’t mention any of this in that interview with Gingrich, or in the many other interviews they gave in the early months of the pandemic. Fauci didn’t mention that his agency had helped fund some of the Wuhan lab’s research. Daszak didn’t mention that his nonprofit was a primary conduit for those grants, and that his group had pushed to modify viruses genetically in dangerous ways. Daszak’s Lancet letter, and a later paper penned by Andersen, would be stunningly effective in shutting down debate among scientists. Few were willing to risk their careers by questioning the seemingly unanimous consensus: Covid had come from nature, and anyone who questioned that conclusion was a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist.
Here’s the irony: At the time that Fauci, Daszak, and their colleagues were busy tamping down “conspiracy theories,” there were no conspiracy theories circulating widely on the right. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton was the first leading Republican to draw widespread attention to the possibility of a lab leak. Suggesting that the senator had accused China of creating a “bioweapon,” the Washington Post accused him of “fanning the embers of a conspiracy theory that has already been debunked by experts.” CNN, Slate, and others doubled down. So did social-media companies. But from the start, Cotton had stressed that a bioweapon scenario was “unlikely,” that an accidental release was most likely, and that researchers should be open to all plausible explanations. Fifteen months later, the Washington Post issued a correction to its Cotton story, expunging the words “conspiracy theory” and “debunked.”
Looking back, it’s clear that the idea that a lab leak might be a “conspiracy” originated not on the right but among leading scientists and their media enablers. After all, what would a Chinese Covid conspiracy consist of? Cooking up a bioweapon and deliberately infecting their own population? The idea makes no sense. (Eventually, sadly, the American populist right would come to believe all sorts of implausible nonsense about Covid. But that came later.) Of course, there were conspiracies of sorts surrounding the origins of Covid. The first was a campaign by Chinese authorities to cover up a possible lab accident by withholding information, blocking investigators, and spreading ridiculous counterclaims about the source of the disease. The second was the effort by Fauci, Daszak, and others to conceal their own role in funding dangerous research at the Wuhan lab.
That conspiracy almost worked. Thankfully, a handful of determined researchers and journalists kept pushing for answers. One of these was a young postdoctoral fellow at Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute named Alina Chan. She published an early study investigating hints that the virus might have been manipulated. Her paper also acknowledged that “a non-genetically-engineered precursor could have adapted to humans while being studied in a laboratory.” Either way, it was important for scientists to consider a laboratory source. The pushback was intense. Eventually though, Chan and her small group of like-minded colleagues forced the discussion out into the open.
Fauci and other experts who initially ridiculed the possibility of a lab leak now want to reframe those earlier statements. In an email exchange, Chan told me, “As public opinion and the assessment of intelligence agencies are shifting in favor of a lab origin of the pandemic, we’re seeing several experts trying to redefine a ‘lab leak’ as a more extreme scenario requiring bioengineering or bioweapons.” Fauci did exactly this in another recent CNN appearance.
Perhaps “someone was out in the wild, maybe looking for different types of viruses in bats, got infected, went into a lab and was being studied in the lab and then came out of the lab,” he told Jim Acosta. “But if that’s the definition of a lab leak, Jim, then that still is a natural occurrence.” Other virologists have also tried to narrow the definition of “lab leak.” Of course, as Chan told me, “it is in the public record that experts were even shutting down a lab escape of a natural virus as a conspiracy theory in 2020.”
Major media outlets are also retconning their roles in suppressing the issue. “Lab Leak or Not?” the New York Times asked in a recent article, “How Politics Shaped the Battle Over Covid’s Origin.” The piece offers a polished version of the media’s latest fallback position: We wanted to tell the truth, but we couldn’t risk helping those crazy Republicans! “Some Republicans grew fixated on the idea of a lab leak after former President Donald J. Trump raised it in the early months of the pandemic despite scant evidence,” the Times wrote. “That turned the theory toxic for many Democrats, who viewed it as an effort by Mr. Trump to distract from his administration’s failings.” Moreover, the Times continued, “the campaign by lab-leak proponents, far from creating a more open discussion, had given rise to such vitriolic attacks that many researchers are reluctant to speak publicly about the issue.” In truth, public health officials and the media were treating the lab-leak idea as toxic more than two months before Trump ever mentioned it. And the vitriolic attacks initially came from public officials, not right-wing extremists.
We still can’t rule out the possibility that the disease originated in the Wuhan wet market. In fact, two recent studies seem to lend credence to that theory. One looked at the genetic profile of the first human cases of the disease and found most had ties to the market. A more recent study examined genetic data from samples collected at the market in early 2020. That analysis found traces of “racoon dog” DNA in stalls that also tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. Many in the media, as well as some scientists, embraced these studies with an almost audible sigh of relief. NPR reported that “virologists say there is ‘very convincing’ data and ‘overwhelming evidence’ pointing to an animal origin.”
That enthusiasm is premature. In a recent interview, Nicholas Wade pointed out that both studies suffer from a kind of selection bias. Chinese authorities assumed that, like earlier outbreaks of novel viruses, SARS-CoV-2 probably spilled over from animals. So when Wuhan citizens began showing strange flu-like symptoms, authorities prioritized collecting samples from patients with ties to the market. When other researchers later studied those samples, Wade says, the cases “centered around the market, not because the disease started there, but because that’s how the Chinese collected their statistics.”
As for the study showing traces of SARS-CoV-2 in areas where animals were housed, “it doesn’t even come close to being scientific evidence,” Wade says. It’s no surprise Covid traces were found in the market, he notes; it was a key super-spreader location. But there’s no evidence that animals, rather than humans, brought the disease into the market. Indeed, no racoon dogs or other animals have been shown to carry the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
It has been more than three years since Covid-19 tore through Wuhan, and then around the world. Perhaps some animal source for the disease will yet be discovered, but the odds of that happening dwindle by the month. Whether or not Covid-19’s ultimate source is ever found, here in the U.S. our public officials, scientists, and journalists need to be held to account. By spinning the facts and crushing open debate, they undermined the proper workings of both science and journalism. If they want to win back public trust, those officials and media outlets will have to earn it.
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