How A Legitimate Theory About COVID-19 Emerging From A Lab Got Dismissed By Media Fact Checkers

GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

Shelby Talcott Senior White House Correspondent
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As COVID-19 spread across the world, President Donald Trump suggested in an April press conference that the virus may have emerged from a lab in Wuhan, China. Fact checkers sprang to check out the claim, often dismissing it summarily by noting there was little to no evidence backing it up.

And it’s true, there was no direct evidence, but there was a mountain of circumstantial evidence. Still, the story fizzled. In part because fact checkers and reporters, while focusing on the more wild claims that China deliberately created and released the virus as a bioweapon, often dismissed out of hand the less aggressive possibility that it simply leaked out of a lab.

Then, in January of 2021, things changed. An investigative essay published in the New York Magazine’s Intelligencer dove into the lab theory and found a number of surprising discoveries. (RELATED: Did Coronavirus Come From A Lab? Ten Key Takeaways From A Shocking New Report)

“It was an accident,” Nicholson Baker wrote as his summary opinion in a wide-ranging piece published in the Intelligencer. “A virus spent some time in a laboratory, and eventually it got out. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, began its existence inside a bat, then it learned how to infect people in a claustrophobic mine shaft, and then it was made more infectious in one or more laboratories, perhaps as part of a scientist’s well-intentioned but risky effort to create a broad-spectrum vaccine. SARS-2 was not designed as a biological weapon. But it was, I think, designed.”

Prior to Baker’s piece, fact checkers spent considerable time using a lack of direct evidence to dismiss any real inquiry into the matter. Many of these fact checks failed to dive deep into the theory, as Baker did, and instead found individuals eager to dismiss it and reports that fit the angle.

About two weeks after Trump’s comments, The Washington Post published a fact check exploring the claim. The Post noted that the claim had been repeated and wondered by many people – including “the political world, Internet theorists, intelligence analysts and global public health officials.”

While The Post explored various ways that the virus could have been developed and escaped in a lab, it repeatedly came to the same kind of summary dismissal found in several other fact checks. The piece cited individuals eager to push the public into the easier option, which more people publicly backed, but which still lacked conclusive evidence – that it “came” as is “from nature.”

Even when the fact check noted the various suspicious incidents in China at the time of the outbreak, like a report that “scientists were told to destroy early samples of the virus” and the government’s quick insistence that it came from the market despite doing  “little to provide supporting evidence for this theory,” the Post continuously dismissed the idea.

Ultimately, the fact check appeared to blame the theory on the Chinese government’s lack of transparency in providing information that would crush the idea. (RELATED: US Has Evidence Researchers In Wuhan Lab Fell Ill Before Coronavirus Outbreak, State Department Says)

“Too many expected coincidences would have had to take place for it to have escaped from a lab,” The Post decided at the time. “But the Chinese government has not been willing or able to provide information that would clarify lingering questions about any possible role played by either Wuhan lab.”

“That’s why intelligence agencies are still exploring that possibility, no matter how remote it may be,” according to the fact check. “And even then, it’s unclear when or if we will ever know the origin story of this new virus that is causing death and economic turmoil around the globe.”

The Post disagreed with the idea that it downplayed or suppressed the lab theory in a statement to the Caller.

“We disagree with your premise—a thorough fact check that ends with, ‘…the Chinese government has not been willing or able to provide information that would clarify lingering questions about any possible role played by either Wuhan lab’ is not ‘suppressing’ anything,” Molly Gannon Conway, a communications manager at The Post, wrote in an email.

“It’s also worth pointing out that columnist Josh Rogin advanced the idea of it starting in a lab in one of his columns, dated April 14, 2020, and columnist David Ignatius raised questions about China’s explanation of its origin in a fish market in a column on April 2 last year,” Conway added, noting two opinion pieces published in 2020 regarding the origins of the coronavirus.

The Post also included the lab theory in a piece aimed at combatting “common misinformation” about the coronavirus.

“Fact: Scientists believe the coronavirus originated in animals,” the article, published in December of 2020, read. “The Post’s Fact Checker investigates these theories in the spring and found that most scientific evidence strongly supports the conclusion that the virus was not manufactured.”

This piece was published just about a month before the Intelligencer’s damning report about the COVID-19 lab theory.

The Post’s news section, on the other hand, ran a rather aggressive headline calling Republican Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton’s suggestion that it was a safety lapse at a lab a “conspiracy theory.”

CNN jumped in the dogpile, addressing Cotton’s suggestion directly in a “Fact First” piece published in February of 2020.

One of Cotton’s primary theories was that an accidental breach inside of a lab that tested vaccines caused COVID-19 to descend on the world. Another theory he included as among the most popular “four hypotheses” was a potential that it was an “engineered bioweapon” that could have been either accidentally or intentionally released.

Both the Post and CNN predictably jumped on the bioweapon theory as a hook to later dismiss lab leak theory.

“Experts have dismissed Cotton’s ‘engineered bioweapon hypothesis’ but noted it’s possible, yet unlikely, that the lab was connected to the start of the outbreak,” CNN reported.

The network continued on to cite Dr. William Schaffner, who works as an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Schaffner quickly backed up CNN’s dismissal, saying that no one has provided “any solid information to support that theory.”

“I think at this point you can draw a line through it and say that didn’t happen,” Schaffner said. “Everyone with whom I’ve spoken, or whom I’ve read, thinks that it has come from a natural source, as did the SARS virus, as did the MERS virus. Both of those were also coronaviruses in animal populations that jumped to the human species in the natural environment. By now scientists all over the world have looked at this virus and nothing nefarious has come up.”

CNN also cited statements from the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission, which said preliminary studies showed many cases related back to the market.

In April, CNN published a piece announcing that the U.S. was exploring whether COVID-19 originated in a lab. This theory, according to CNN at the time, was pushed by people “eager to deflect criticisms of Trump’s handling of the pandemic.”

The article also noted that the Chinese government denied the theory, although China took steps to initially try to cover up the outbreak and has pushed misinformation regarding its origins. (RELATED: A Comprehensive Timeline Of The Novel Coronavirus)

Aside from fact checks, publications spent time dismissing the theory in articles and on TV throughout 2020. National Geographic conclusively wrote that “the coronavirus wasn’t made in a lab” in an article published on September of 2020.

Similarly, an article from NBC News published in May of 2020 largely shot down the theory. This article noted that “U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News that they have made no such assessment” and that “no one has credibly suggested that the virus was engineered by humans.”

“Scientists and virologists say a far more likely explanation is natural transmission from animals to people. But experts and U.S. officials say a good deal of circumstantial evidence points to an accidental release,” NBC News added before citing various points made by those who back a lab leak theory.

“Despite all that, most scientists and researchers believe natural animal-to-human transmission is the most likely scenario,” NBC News wrote after the seven bullet points of pro-lab theories.

Although the lab theory did have some evidence indicating it could be a legitimate option as to how COVID-19 emerged, many publications and fact checkers were quick to dismiss it. Members of the media often dismissed the idea as a theory Trump and others used to displace blame and quickly found ways to suppress the idea from public discourse.

CNN did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Daily Caller regarding the fact check.