In a March 2022 article for City Journal, Nicholas Wade, a former science editor at the New York Times, wrote: “Few science stories are more important than understanding where the Covid virus came from. Yet the science writers’ section of the press corps has proved strangely incapable of telling the story straight.” Noting that two main hypotheses for the virus’s origins “have long been on the table”—a natural jump from an animal host or the escape of a genetically-manipulated virus from a lab—Wade proposed that science writers ought to “report both possibilities as evenhandedly as possible until the truth emerges.” By contrast, he continued, science writers have “trumpeted any developments favoring natural emergence while downplaying or ignoring those pointing to a lab leak.”
In August 2021, the long-awaited U.S Intelligence Assessment on Covid-19 Origins had announced that both hypotheses remained “plausible” and that the intelligence community “remains divided on the most likely origin of COVID-19.”
Previously, in a June 2021article, investigative journalist Sheryl Attkisson had reported, “Numerous scientific insiders are signing onto the ‘lab origin’ theory for Covid-19 and a link to controversial research funded by your tax dollars.” According to Attkisson, these insiders include former head of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Robert Redfield, and “a sizable segment of the research community,” including French virologist Luc Montagnier, a Nobel Prize recipient, who says that COVID-19’s genetics reveal hallmarks of human “manipulation.”
Attkisson’s report described experiments intended to make a bat coronavirus more infectious in hopes of developing a vaccine. “It’s called ‘gain of function’ research,” Attkisson wrote. Though the US had halted similar research in 2014, on the grounds that it was too risky, the work at the Wuhan lab was “reviewed and approved” by the National Institutes of Health and funded by six grants, including one from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which was led at the time by Anthony Fauci, Attkisson reported.
In line with Wade’s critique of biased science writing, and by contrast with Attkisson’s reporting, in March 2022 the New Republic declared, “The lab leak theory is dead.” Earlier that month, NPR reported “striking new evidence” that the virus originated in a Wuhan seafood market. NPR’s report cited scientists who called the new evidence “very convincing” and “a ‘blow’ to the lab-leak theory.” According to Wade, the author of the City Journal article, the new data “don’t detract in any way from the substantial evidence favoring a lab leak… Not a single animal tested in the market bore the virus.”
Wade noted other factors that also blocked open investigation. When a research group investigating COVID origins, led by Kristian Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute, concluded that the virus did not have a natural origin, NIH director, Francis Collins, immediately “decreed this view to be a conspiracy theory,” Wade reported, noting that both Collins and Fauci are longtime advocates of gain of function research. In February 2020, 27 scientists from around the world who worked in virology and related medical fields submitted an open letter to The Lancet, attesting that the lab-leak hypothesis for the COVID-19 virus was a conspiracy theory. In September 2021, the Telegraph, reported that 26 of the 27 scientists who signed the letter dismissing potential lab origins of the virus had affiliations with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The Daily Mail noted that this revelation “calls into question” the scientists’ impartiality.
Nicholas Wade concluded: “Science writers need to decide whether their duty lies to their readers or to their sources. One choice makes them real journalists, the other just unaccredited PR agents for the scientific community.”
Nicholas Wade, “Journalists, or PR Agents? Why Science Reporters Don’t Report Fairly on the Origins of COVID-19,” City Journal, March 20, 2022.
Sharyl Attkisson, “Exclusive Investigation: Separating Rumor from Fact on COVID-19’s Origin”, Sharyl Attkisson, June 26, 2021.
Student Researcher: Alexis Navat (San Francisco State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)