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How the Media Failed on the origins of COVID
Now maybe there will be an uncensored debate about what really happened
The U.S. Energy Department has concluded that the Covid pandemic was most likely from a laboratory leak. It provided its new assessment in a classified intelligence report to the White House and leaders in Congress. It was a change from its own conclusion a year earlier that thought it most probably was the natural evolution of a virus.
My book about the drug industry, Pharma, was published in March 2020, as the world began locking down. In dozens of interviews that followed, whenever I was asked about the origins of Covid, I said I did not know. I could make a persuasive case either that it was from a natural transmission from an infected animal or from an unintended leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
No matter how much I was pressed for which one I thought was more likely, I never gave an opinion. That was because I had not done the reporting necessary to reach a conclusion. At one point in the late summer of 2020, I talked to my publisher about whether he might be interested in a book about the origins of Covid. He was not, convinced himself that it was a natural transmission and there would be no great story to uncover.
The most prominent media voices agreed that the debate was over before it began. Mainstream news outlets time and again chimed in with stories that made it appear that the origins of Covid were settled. Few seemed bothered when the WHO, in a half-hearted effort to uncover how Covid began, returned empty handed from a trip to China in which their Chinese hosts put up roadblocks at every turn.
There was a campaign in both the media, Big Tech, and the mainstream medical and science journals to close off any debate and to endorse “natural transmission is the correct answer.”
For nearly a year, Facebook and Twitter suspended or ghosted posts that were about a possible lab leak. Leading medical and science journals joined the effort to shut off further inquiries. A long article in Nature Medicine about the origins of Covid ridiculed the idea it might have been man made: “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”
Not only was there a mainstream rush to embrace the natural transmission conclusion but anyone who suggested that the virus might have been from a lab, was denigrated as a conspiracy theorist, even a racist.
Twenty-seven scientists signed a public letter in The Lancet in which they concluded, “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.”
Apoorva Mandavilli, The New York Times science and health journalist who covered the origins of Covid as part of her reporting, in a now-deleted tweet, said, “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….A theory can have racist roots and still gather reasonable supporters along the way. Doesn’t make the roots any less racist or the theory any more convincing, though.”
Why was it racist to believe that Covid might have come from an unintended lab leak? By calling it racist, some hoped to close off legitimate debate. The accusation was used as a cudgel to end open discussion. A 2020 academic journal concluded that “Trump’s ‘Wuhan lab’ theory” was “anti-Chinese racism” and the result of “toxic White masculinist truth-telling and truth-recognition.”
Little wonder that so many people have lost trust in mainstream journalism and in their partisan allies in science and tech and academia.
It is journalism 101 to follow the evidence, even if it leads to an unexpected or unwanted conclusion. Too many good reporters forgot about that and became advocates instead for what they hoped was the right answer.
According to some who have seen the Energy Department Report, it expressed “low confidence” in its new conclusion. Four other federal agencies, joined by a national intelligence panel, still think Covid was probably from natural transmission. Two other federal agencies are undecided.
That is all good since maybe now we can have the vigorous and open debate and the pursuit of what really happened that has been taboo for too long. No more name calling.
I am never afraid of getting to the truth. I am far more fearful of those in power who censor and block that pursuit.