As we enter the fifth year of the coronavirus pandemic — the disease still kills roughly 280 people per week in the UK and 1,000 per week in the US — Press Gazette has investigated the media’s role in uncovering the origins of the virus.
We wanted to know why the Wuhan lab-leak theory, now very much in the mainstream, was ignored by major newsrooms for months or even years.
Press Gazette contacted 20 journalists, read 165 academic journal articles and news reports, and sifted through nearly 4,000 pages of leaked and FOIAed documents to create this retrospective of how the Wuhan lab story did, and did not, get covered.
- Credible sources urged The New York Times to investigate the Wuhan lab, but the paper baulked
- Scientists advising National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci told the NYT that the leak theory was “false” even though they had seriously considered it
- Academic papers published in The Lancet and Nature Medicine shut down the lab-leak theory without hard evidence
- Science journalists were sometimes “captured” by their sources and thus avoided investigating the story
- Reporters feared false accusations of racism if they proposed investigating the lab.
Man or nature could have made virus that killed more than seven million
On 28 November, Michael Gove, the former minister for the cabinet under ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson, sat down to answer questions in the government’s official inquiry into how the UK handled the Covid-19 pandemic. In the 49th minute of his testimony, Gove said: “There is a significant body of judgment that believes that the virus itself was man-made, and that that presents a particular set of challenges.”
He was immediately shut down by Hugo Keith KC, the lead counsel for the inquiry. “That forms no part of the terms of reference of this inquiry, Mr Gove, to address that somewhat divisive issue, so we’re not going to go there.”
The inquiry moved on.
But, for a dozen or more journalists around the globe who have investigated the origin of Covid-19 for the last three years, it was a satisfying moment. A senior secretary of state — Gove has been in the cabinet of the last four prime ministers — had said the quiet part out loud.
Since the early days of the pandemic, these journalists believe, the media has done a poor job of telling what they regard as the biggest story of the century: That the US government funded coronavirus research for years, via experiments in which the viruses were manipulated. Much of that funding went to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, just a half-hour drive from the Huanan Seafood Market which was initially suspected as the source of the pandemic.
Their reporting shows that multiple scientists and US intelligence officials worried that the research was dangerous and that the Wuhan lab was not operating safely. And then, in late 2019, people in Wuhan began dying of a mysterious new coronavirus that the Wuhan lab itself said was “highly similar” to one it had studied. Ultimately, seven million people were killed according to the official tally (though the true figure could be multiples higher according to some estimates).
There are two threads to the lab-leak theory: One argues it might have been a sample collected from nature — perhaps from one of China’s many bat caves — that escaped from the lab by accident. The other posits that the lab was manipulating samples it had collected into more infectious “man-made” versions, one of which also escaped, probably by accident.
To be clear: There is no scientific proof that SARS-CoV-2 (the official name of the virus) leaked from the Wuhan lab.
Rather, many prominent scientists say, the virus likely emerged from nature. But there is no definitive proof of the “natural origin” theory, either. On both sides, the jury remains out.
In the meantime, the circumstantial evidence linking the Wuhan lab to the pandemic continues to emerge. Thousands of pages of emails, Slack messages, leaked documents, intelligence reports, and regretful testimony from senior US officials have been unearthed by reporters. Much of it demonstrates that government officials and the scientists advising them regarded the theory that SARS-CoV-2 leaked from the Wuhan lab more seriously than they admitted in public.
In a story published on the same day as Gove testified, former US Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said: “The most likely origin of Covid-19, of the Wuhan virus… was a lab leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
That scoop did not come from the BBC or The Guardian or The Washington Post or The New York Times, but from Sky Australia’s Sharri Markson. Much of the most detailed reporting on the Wuhan lab came from similarly unexpected outlets: The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Medium, US Right To Know, The Intercept, Vanity Fair, and New York Magazine.
Journalists ‘astoundingly’ close-minded about lab-leak theory
Several sources expressed frustration with The New York Times specifically. Three sources told Press Gazette they made early approaches to the NYT science desk with evidence suggesting that a lab leak was plausible, and were rebuffed or ignored.
Nicholas Wade was one of them. Wade was the former science editor of the NYT and wrote for the science desk between 1982 and 2012. He still writes freelance for the NYT.
In April and May 2021, he pitched a story to the NYT describing, at length, with on-the-record sources, how the Wuhan lab had been researching coronavirus for years; that it was funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the US National Institutes of Health; that it created a novel coronavirus in 2015 by taking the backbone of the SARS virus and replacing part of it with material from a bat virus; and that — contrary to popular belief — viruses routinely escape from labs, usually by accident. (In the year before the pandemic, there were 219 unplanned releases of biological agents and toxins from US labs, roughly one every two days, according to the US government’s reporting system.)
“I had a great deal of difficulty trying to place the story,” he told Press Gazette. “I offered it to almost every publication I could think of that had a broad circulation or had a science interest. It was turned down three times by my former employer, The New York Times. It was turned down by The Wall Street Journal, turned down by The Economist. Turned down by just about everyone.
“I was just astounded at how close-minded all the publications were when I sent them the piece.”
Update 5/1/2024: Economist senior science editor Geoffrey Carr told Press Gazette he did turn the piece down but said: “My motive in doing so was not a particular scepticism about the thesis. It was that our in-house team were already considering the matter.”
Baffled, Wade published it himself on Medium. It was immediately republished by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. The stories “got a very large number of page views, I think a million page views on each outlet,” Wade said.
Wade wasn’t alone.
Milton Leitenberg, a specialist in biological weapons at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, sent a 600-word memo to a journalist at the NYT in January 2021. It said: “Since at least 2015… the Wuhan Institute of Virology has been carrying out a particular form of research, ‘gain of function’ (GOF) research – using the newly discovered novel bat SARS-related coronaviruses.” He urged editors to look into it.
Leitenberg’s contact said he shared it with editors at a breakfast meeting. “He emailed me the day after the breakfast and [an editor at the meeting] promised that she would discuss it with the others… and that ‘they would take it very seriously,’ end quotes. Nothing happened.”
The rejection was significant because eight months earlier Leitenberg had written a lengthy discussion, also for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which described how frequently pathogens leak from labs, and that the Wuhan lab had possessed “the most closely related known virus in the world” to SARS-CoV-2, a bat virus named RaTG13.
While neither Leitenberg nor Wade’s stories featured a smoking gun, they both made detailed, fact-based cases that lab leaks are a common and expected part of virology.
Another scientist, Richard Ebright of the Rutgers University Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, told Press Gazette he kept NYT reporters briefed on evidence around the plausibility of the lab leak after May 2020, but the reporters did little with his information.
“The science desk at the Times was interested in keeping up to date on the facts and knowing the facts in full, but then not reporting them,” Ebright said. “Or when they would report, only those developments that could be spun as favouring a natural accident origin, and systematically not noticing any other developments.”
Other writers who competed with the NYT also told Press Gazette they were puzzled by the NYT’s apparent lack of curiosity about the lab.
All the NYT staff named by Press Gazette’s sources were contacted for comment. They did not respond. Instead, a spokesperson for the newspaper said: “The New York Times has covered every angle of this story, including a wide array of news and opinion coverage that explores the unanswered questions about the origins of the virus, but does not take any institutional position on which of them is more definitive.
“In fact, as our coverage points out repeatedly, the origins may not be known because of China’s censorship campaign that has stifled the search for truth.”
How New York Times was thrown off scent of lab-leak story
In the NYT’s defence, one of its science reporters did make an early inquiry into the lab-leak theory. Donald G. McNeil Jr. sent several emails to members of the group of scientists advising NIAID director Anthony Fauci around 6 February 2020.
One said: “I’m trying to check out a rumour that an editor got from a government source — that the US government is trying to seriously investigate the possibility that the nCov [new coronavirus] came out of the Wuhan Virus Laboratory rather than out of a wet market. I know that’s part of a lot of silly conspiracy theories circling. But is there any possibility that it could be from the Wuhan lab?”
At the time, the Fauci group was actively discussing whether it came from the lab. Their Slack and email messages — released via FOIA requests, Congressional investigations, and leaks months later — showed that in the early days of the pandemic some of them regarded the lab leak as plausible.
“On a spectrum if 0 is nature and 100 is release — I am honestly at 50!” wrote Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome, a major funder of virological research, on 2 February 2020, weeks before the lockdowns began. “My guess is that this will remain grey, unless there is access to the Wuhan lab — and I suspect that is unlikely!”
Farrar forwarded notes from an exchange with Mike Farzan, a Harvard Medical School researcher. Farzan was bothered by the virus’s structure and “has a hard time explaining that as an event outside the lab,” Farrar wrote. “Accidental release or natural event? I am 70:30 or 60:40,” he said of Farzan’s opinion.
On the same day, Kristian Andersen, director of Infectious Disease Genomics at Scripps Research, told his colleagues: “Natural selection and accidental release are both plausible scenarios explaining the data – and a priori should be equally weighed as possible explanations.”
The scientists discussed in Slack how to respond, and decided the best course was to not tell McNeil their suspicions. On 6 February 2020, Andersen drafted a reply to McNeil: “A lot of conspiracy theories are talking about this being either a lab strain … or some new recombinant. These rumours are demonstratively false.”
The NYT was thrown off the scent.
All of the scientists were contacted for comment. At the time of writing, none responded.
Over a year later, McNeil wrote a post on Medium in which he admitted he was too quick to dismiss the lab-leak theory.
“I was offended by some aspects, such as [the] attacks on Dr. Anthony S. Fauci of the National Institutes of Health and Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance, both of whom I have known for years,” McNeil wrote.
In an email to Press Gazette, McNeil said: “This past July, I was startled to learn what had really happened behind the scenes in early February 2020 when I first raised questions about the possibility of a leak or viral manipulation.”
McNeil added that he had a book coming out in the new year in which he will discuss “the lab-leak theory and my role in both debunking and propagating it.” He declined further comment.
The Lancet and Nature ‘helped shut down’ story
In March 2020, the group who rebuffed McNeil published a paper in Nature Medicine. It said: “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.” It said there was a “possibility of an inadvertent laboratory release” but the existence of similar coronaviruses in the wild was “a much stronger and more parsimonious explanation”.
The paper came on the heels of another article, published in The Lancet on 18 February 2020, authored by coronavirus researcher Peter Daszak and others, which said: “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin.”
The Lancet and Nature papers remain a source of anger for reporters investigating the Wuhan lab. It was not possible, at that early stage, to rule out a leak from a lab, they say. Neither paper demonstrated proof that the lab was not the source.
Even though in their private conversations they initially considered the lab as a possibility, both papers set a strong tone: The scientists closest to the US government said the virus did not come from a lab. (In July this year, Andersen laid out a lengthy argument criticising the media’s reporting of these events on his Twitter/X account.)
Jon Cohen is a senior correspondent at Science who emphatically does not favour the leak theory. Even so, he was one of the earliest to report, on 31 January 2020, that “concerns about the [Wuhan] institute predate this outbreak”. He expressed some misgivings about the Lancet/Nature papers to Press Gazette. “I think that both of them would have been stronger had they spelled out the possibility of a lab origin that wasn’t a conspiracy theory,” he said.
“There were prominent [unfounded] conspiracy theories about a lab leak being promoted in China and elsewhere in early January before that came out in February. And there were also solid scientific reasons to probe the lab origin. And the Lancet editorial didn’t make that clear. And I think it would have been much stronger, had it separated the two and made that clear,” he said.
Scientific groupthink permeated media
The two papers placed an immediate roadblock in front of any journalist asking the obvious question — wasn’t it an amazing coincidence that the coronavirus pandemic started near that coronavirus lab? — because very senior scientists had already rubbished the leak theory.
“A specific difficulty in reporting on the Covid origin issue is that Andersen and his close virology colleagues all stuck to the same position, and all sceptics held their tongue because conformity in science is even worse than in the media,” Nicholas Wade said.
Yuri Deigin, a gene therapy entrepreneur and founder of YouthBio Therapeutics Inc., found the papers dissatisfying. So he wrote a lengthy and influential discussion of the history of gain-of-function research and the “genealogy” of SARS-CoV-2 on Medium, in April 2020.
“The prevailing narrative was that the esteemed scientists have concluded that it’s natural and only crazy conspiracy theorists are still insisting that it’s not,” Deigin said. Daszak blocked him on Twitter/X, he said.
Emily Kopp, an investigative reporter at US Right To Know, which has obtained dozens of documents via FOIA requests, describes herself as “pissed” at those scientists. “Because I look like an idiot, I have interviewed multiple experts but I found out from a FOIA somewhat recently, actually, I think earlier this year, that all of the people I’ve talked to for that story were at the time talking to each other and talking to Ecohealth Alliance [Daszak’s research company] and talking to NIH about how to suppress stories about this.”
Cohen vehemently disagrees that the authors set out to “suppress” anything. Rather, he says, the Fauci group changed its mind as the evidence developed.
“The initial concern of it being a lab leak came from people who had not studied coronaviruses. And a group call was put together by Jeremy Farrar with people who had studied coronaviruses. And after that conversation, the people who had studied coronaviruses for decades didn’t think the evidence supported it, and told the people who did have concerns about it why they thought they were wrong. That’s what it was about. That’s what happened.”
Because of the competing narratives — initial concerns about the lab being replaced with an affirmation in favour of a natural origin — the two papers have since become infamous among lab-leak reporters.
Even Science’s Cohen says he wished he had written about the pre-publication meetings when he learned about them from a source in July 2020. “I didn’t pick up that there was this meeting that was historically important. I was overwhelmed with whatever I was doing, and I missed it. As we’d say in baseball literature, I missed the ball, I swung the bat and missed the ball,” he said.
How journalists were captured by scientific sources
“We’d seen the same article” in The Lancet, said George Arbuthnott, deputy editor of The Sunday Times’ Insight investigations team, which began publishing detailed stories about the lab’s history in July 2020. “Our assumption was these eminent scientists were almost certainly right and we’d be doing a piece about the interesting science of the bat caves.”
“We spoke to Peter Daszak. He was almost the first person we spoke to because he was the most prominent natural origin advocate. We asked him benign questions, we asked him to explain the natural origin theory, which he did. But again we found it unconvincing. We didn’t understand how he could back up the claim that the lab theory was a conspiracy theory.” Arbuthnott talked to other scientists and found them strangely reticent as to why, exactly, the Wuhan lab should be ruled out.
Another UK newspaper which began taking the Wuhan lab-leak theory seriously early on was the Mail on Sunday, which in April 2020 published a story headlined: “Did coronavirus leak from a research lab in Wuhan? Startling new theory is ‘no longer being discounted’ amid claims staff ‘got infected after being sprayed with blood”
Daszak’s paper in The Lancet had stated: “We declare no competing interests.”
Yet Daszak had a lot at stake, Arbuthnott said. Daszak’s New York company, Ecohealth, had received millions in NIH funding for coronavirus research and had given $750,000 of it to the lab in Wuhan, documents from the NIH show.
In June of 2021, The Lancet ran a corrective note in which Daszak admitted the conflict: “EcoHealth Alliance’s work in China was previously funded by the US National Institutes of Health”.
In September 2021, The Intercept obtained from the online research group DRASTIC a leaked copy of a grant proposal Ecohealth had written in 2018. It asked the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to give Daszak’s company $14m for a project in which researchers at six institutions in the US and China would collect bat coronaviruses in China, reverse engineer samples, and then insert the samples into different coronavirus “backbones” to form new “chimera” viruses. The intent was to see whether a new, engineered SARS coronavirus caused disease in human cells.
Shi Zhengli’s Wuhan lab would “conduct PCR testing, viral discovery and isolation from bat samples collected in China, spike protein binding assays, humanised mouse work, and experimental trials on Rhinolophus bats,” the proposal said.
The grant was never funded.
Much of this was already sitting in the archives of academic journals. Daszak and Shi Zhengli had published a paper on bat coronaviruses as early as 2005. Together, they had jointly authored at least five papers on coronaviruses prior to 2020. One of them announced they had “constructed a group of infectious bacterial artificial chromosome (BAC) clones with the backbone of WIV1 [a type of coronavirus] and variants of S genes from 8 different bat SARSr-CoVs.”
Yet science journalists the world over were slow to highlight this back story, multiple reporters told Press Gazette.
“Some of these reporters who have failed to scrutinise this relationship between the NIH and the Wuhan Institute of Virology were covering gain-of-function research for years,” said US Right To Know’s Kopp. “And suddenly, when a pandemic emerged near this lab, they forgot all about it.”
Sometimes, columnists rather than news reporters led the way.
The NYT spokesperson sent Press Gazette a selection of the NYT’s best stories on the lab. The most thorough one was not from the news or science desk but from a guest opinion column in June 2021, by Dr. Zeynep Tufekci, who laid out the case in depth and urged the public to keep an open mind.
Josh Rogin is a columnist at The Washington Post who broke a story on 14 April 2020 that said US State Department officials were worried in 2018 that the Wuhan lab was conducting risky research. “During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” the leaked diplomatic cables obtained by Rogin said.
But two months earlier, US scientists involved with the lab had said in The Lancet that worries about the lab were “conspiracy theories”. So the science journalists sympathised with their best sources — the scientists — Rogin told Press Gazette.
“A lot of science journalists, especially at papers like The New York Times, were captured. It’s called ‘source capture’”, he said.
What happened to NYT’s McNeil was a classic example, Rogin said. “His [McNeil’s] best sources were Anthony Fauci and Peter Daszak, the head of the Ecohealth Alliance, who assured him that the lab leak was totally impossible, and he believed that because he trusted them.”
“And that is like the clearest admission of ‘source capture’ I’ve ever seen in my 20 years of being a journalist.”
At the NYT, health policy correspondent Sheryl Gay Stolberg tweeted in July 2020 that she had acquired an Anthony Fauci bobblehead doll, a promotional toy often bought by fans. “You certainly shouldn’t have a bobblehead of someone you’re covering,” a source moaned to Press Gazette. “I think that’s just so inappropriate.”
Claims of ‘racist roots’ for lab-leak theory clouded the issue
The fear of false accusations of racism also clouded journalists’ judgement, several sources said.
The lab leak theory became politically toxic when President Trump began blaming China for Covid-19 using racist language, such as calling it “kung-flu”.
Trump also talked to the press in late April 2020 and claimed, without evidence, that he believed the virus may have come from the Wuhan lab. From that point, the lab leak theory became a pro-Trump talking point, reporters told Press Gazette, which made it very difficult for any journalist who wanted to test whether it might actually be true.
Again, the NYT muddied the issue. In May 2021, science and global health reporter Apoorva Mandavilli 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.” She later deleted the tweet.
Sources told Press Gazette that Mandavilli’s attitude was common in newsrooms during the pandemic. Somehow, because of Trump, it was “racist” to want to understand what happened in the Wuhan lab. Yet, these reporters said, it was apparently not racist to believe that the world was in lockdown because of China’s trade in live bats or pangolins or racoon dogs.
Nicholson Baker, who wrote about the lab for New York Magazine, also said he got pushback from editors due to the political atmosphere. “I tried the story out on several editors at places I’d written for in the past. This was in June 2020. They all said no. Everyone was worried. When those rejections came back, part of me was relieved. I didn’t want to feed the crazies — the Trumpists, the China-haters, the anti-vaxxers.”
After the story was published seven months later: “There was some unpleasantness on Twitter,” he said. One virologist accused him of “Sinophobic jeering.” “Not fun, but it didn’t matter — I was so relieved to have gotten the piece out finally,” he said.
A story too complicated to tweet
It is true that there has not been a shortage of coverage about the Wuhan lab. But given the stakes — seven million deaths — it is noteworthy that major media brands took such a long time to probe deeply into the pandemic’s origins.
With science journalists sidelined because their sources were waiving them off, much of the investigative work fell to news reporters without science backgrounds.
Coronavirus research is bafflingly complicated for the newcomer: the viruses have complex family trees, there is a tricky debate about what counts as “gain of function” and what does not, and scientists themselves have not identified the virus’s immediate predecessor either in the wild or in a lab sample. Merely explaining the background can take hundreds of words — which is tough in a world where newsrooms want shorter and shorter angles. You cannot argue the lab leak case in a tweet.
The fact that the science is inconclusive doesn’t help. There were other hurdles, too. The Chinese government washed down the Huanan market on 1 January 2020, spoiling the evidence there. On 3 January 2020, the government ordered its labs to start destroying samples and deleting data. Chinese people who have questioned their government have disappeared or gone to prison. Shi Zhengli herself feared being arrested, according to one email obtained by US Right To Know. What the Chinese government really knows about the Wuhan lab remains a mystery.
The debate continues today. On the same day as Gove’s statement, some scientists pushed back. One, Professor Alice Hughes of the Biodiversity Analytics of Terrestrial Ecosystems group at the University of Hong Kong, said: “There may be a body of judgment [about the lab theory], but sadly this has come from a political and not a scientific basis… Like the majority of viruses Covid is almost certain to have a natural origin.” She declared “No COI”, meaning no conflicts of interest, but disclosed that she had done work on bats and Covid in China.
In fact, she does have an “interest”. In June 2020, she authored a paper jointly with researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology on a coronavirus found in nature that was somewhat similar to SARS-CoV-2, but didn’t make that link clear in her critique of Gove.
“I was actually unaware any of my coauthors on the paper were from WIV — they were obviously brought in later by one of the Chinese collaborators,” Hughes told Press Gazette.
“In China often the author list is added to the final proof.”
There’s nothing nefarious about that. But, in terms of disclosure and transparency, it was another head-scratching moment for journalists curious about the lab in Wuhan.
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