While the precise origin of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, remains unknown, several fact-checkers and media outlets found themselves in an embarrassing position when a theory they had previously dismissed as “baseless” gained new attention from scientists. That theory holds that the novel coronavirus did not originate from human contact with an infected animal, but instead was leaked – intentionally or otherwise – from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Several prominent figures recently have acknowledged the possibility that the pathogen escaped from a laboratory. On May 11, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci said he is “not convinced” the virus developed naturally. In a May 24 interview on CNBC, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb suggested that a growing body of circumstantial evidence supports the lab-leak hypothesis. President Biden recognized the possibility that the virus may have spread as a result of a laboratory accident in a statement to reporters last week.
For months before elite opinion on the subject began to turn, fact-checkers, media figures, and social-media platforms dismissed the lab-leak theory out of hand while relying on questionable evidence.
In September 2020, for example, Chinese virologist Li-Meng Yan expressed a version of the theory on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” that drew the ire of fact-checkers. “This virus, COVID-19 SARS-CoV-2 virus, actually is not from nature,” Yan told Carlson, echoing sentiments she expressed in a controversial research paper on the subject. “It is a man-made virus created in the lab.”
On Sept. 16, PolitiFact’s Daniel Funke penned a polemical fact check of Yan’s claim. He described the idea that COVID-19 originated in a laboratory as a “debunked conspiracy theory” whose exponents dissented from the “consensus of the scientific community and international public health organizations” on the natural origin of COVID-19. He argued that the virus’s genetic structure precluded “the possibility that it was manipulated in a lab.” Funke called Yan’s claim “inaccurate and ridiculous” and awarded it the “Pants on Fire!” verdict.
The day after the publication of the PolitiFact article, FactCheck.org published a similar piece by Angelo Fichera titled “Report Resurrects Baseless Claim That Coronavirus Was Bioengineered.” Fichera described the conclusions of Yan’s research paper as “faulty,” and dismissed what he described as her “unsubstantiated claim that the novel coronavirus was bioengineered in a Chinese lab.”
Both PolitiFact and FactCheck.org added editor’s notes to their pieces in May acknowledging that, contrary to their previous statements, the lab-leak theory could not be ruled out. PolitiFact went a step further and “archived” the original fact check, thus removing it from the site’s database. “When this fact-check was first published in September 2020, PolitiFact’s sources included researchers who asserted the SARS-CoV-2 virus could not have been manipulated. That assertion is now more widely disputed,” the editor’s note reads.
PolitiFact has archived at least three other fact checks before, in 2012, 2013, and 2016. In the last instance, after new data was discovered on the claim in question – that Hillary Clinton insisted she had never sent nor received classified emails on her private server – an editor’s note was added to say, “This claim will remain rated Half True, because we base our rulings on when a statement was made and on the information available at that time.” Later, however, PolitiFact archived the piece and changed the rating to False.
In a 2011 article, PolitiFact noted that it set out to check a claim made by President Obama, but ultimately decided against doing so when the “experts we spoke with … told us this is a complicated case and perhaps not a checkable fact.” We asked why PolitiFact considered the origins of SARS-CoV-2 a settled fact rather than a similarly complicated case, but a representative declined to comment.
In addition to adding an editor’s note to the fact check of Yan’s claim, PolitiFact posted an explainer in May that detailed the state of the debate over the virus’s origins. “Officials and researchers are also paying more attention to the possibility that the virus somehow leaked from the lab,” wrote Tom Kertscher and Noah Y. Kim. They concluded, “Claims of complete certainty on either side remain unfounded.”
Many other outlets followed a similar pattern. As journalist Drew Holden has documented, Politico, Reuters, NPR, The Hill, BBC News, Business Insider, and Fortune magazine, among others, all minimized the idea that the virus leaked from a Wuhan lab as a baseless conspiracy theory, but all have now reversed course.
In February, for instance, CNN fact-checker Tara Subramaniam quoted an infectious-disease specialist from Vanderbilt University who said, “I think at this point you can draw a line through [the lab-leak theory] and say that didn't happen.” That same day, Chris Cillizza, CNN editor-at-large, also dismissed the theory and quoted Subramaniam’s fact check. But on May 24, CNN reported on new evidence that supports the lab-leak possibility.
The New York Times also dismissed the lab-leak hypothesis as a “fringe theory” in February, but on May 13, it reported that a prominent group of scientists had called for further investigation. The Washington Post similarly reported in a since-revised headline that the lab leak is a “conspiracy theory that was already debunked,” and lead fact-checker Glenn Kessler claimed it was “virtually impossible” for the virus to have come from a lab. Yet Kessler has since written an article for the Post demonstrating how this theory “suddenly became credible.”
Even Facebook, which in February started removing posts that claimed COVID was man-made or manufactured, announced last week that it will no longer delete such claims from its platforms.
The lab-leak theory’s newfound credibility is due in part to reporting by Nicholas Wade, a former science reporter at the New York Times. Wade, who was cited in PolitiFact’s May explainer on the virus’s origins, wrote a lengthy piece in Medium on May 2 arguing that media claims of a “scientific consensus” on the natural origin of the virus relied on questionable sources. He contended that two scientific groups’ statements – one in The Lancet and another in Nature spearheaded by Dr. Kristian Andersen – were taken as evidence of a scientific “consensus” but were “not at first examined as critically as they should have been.”
“The [Peter] Daszak and Andersen letters were really political, not scientific statements, yet were amazingly effective,” Wade wrote. “Articles in the mainstream press repeatedly stated that a consensus of experts had ruled lab escape out of the question or extremely unlikely. Their authors relied for the most part on the Daszak and Andersen letters, failing to understand the yawning gaps in their arguments.”
The Lancet statement, which denounced “conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin” and declared its signatories had “no competing interests,” was in fact riddled with undisclosed conflicts of interest that raise questions about the impartiality of its signatories.
According to internal emails obtained by the public-health-transparency group U.S. Right to Know, the Lancet statement was organized and drafted by EcoHealth Alliance CEO Peter Daszak. EcoHealth Alliance is a nonprofit that funds research on genetically mutated bat coronaviruses, and Daszak has collaborated with scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology on the study of these coronaviruses. Neither fact was disclosed in EcoHealth Alliance’s statement. USRTK also discovered that four of the Lancet letter’s signatories had undisclosed affiliations with EcoHealth Alliance.
Both PolitiFact and FactCheck.org cited the Lancet statement as evidence of a supposed scientific consensus about COVID-19’s natural origin, but neither mentioned Daszak’s connection to the Wuhan institute.
The massive media about-face on the lab-leak theory should caution fact-checkers against pronouncing victory in still-unsettled debates about matters of science. Fact-checkers should avoid the temptation to treat claims around scientific theories, which are by their nature opinions, as matters of plain and objective fact. Scientific questions are settled not through derision but through open debate and an honest examination of the evidence.