BREAKING NEWS: LEAKED DOCUMENT SHOWS U.S. AND CHINESE SCIENTISTS PLANNED TO GENETICALLY ENGINEER A SARS-LIKE VIRUS BY INSERTING A SEGMENT KNOWN TO MAKE IT MORE INFECTIOUS TO HUMANS
There never was such a headline in mainstream media, but the news was real. Contrast with widespread coverage of studies concluding Covid-19 started at the seafood market in Wuhan.
As I have argued in several previous posts discussing the debate over the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, the argument between proponents of the lab-leak and the natural origins hypotheses is as much ideological as scientific. That’s because the toxic presidency of Donald Trump poisoned discourse over nearly every important issue we have been facing over the past several years, and the pandemic clearly was not spared. When whether to wear a mask or take a vaccine that is proven to give high protection against the virus becomes a symbol of one’s political and ideological allegiances—on both sides, it can be argued—it becomes very difficult to have a dispassionate discussion based on evidence.
That’s why I have abstained from even forming an opinion about which of the two main origins hypotheses is correct: After the curtain of ideological fog is lifted, the truth is, there is no direct evidence for either one. And last week’s media-heavy announcements of two studies “suggesting” (see headlines above) that the pandemic began in the Wuhan seafood market does not really change that, as some skeptical scientists have pointed out—and as the reporters writing these stories point out themselves once you get past the headlines and into the weeds of what the (so far unpublished and un-peer reviewed) preprints actually say.
Some might argue that by using the phrase “studies suggest,” as some of the publications above do, the media is hedging its bets and not “suggesting” that the new evidence is a slam dunk for the natural origins hypothesis (which, in this incarnation, holds that the virus jumped from animals to humans and that it actually happened at the Wuhan seafood market.)
Of course, some leading media outlets used more definitive language, such as “twin studies say” (Guardian), “offer further evidence” (CNN), and “Wuhan Lab Leak Theory Undermined” (Newsweek.) That was also true of the highly influential New York Times, whose story went through various permutations, but ended up with the following headline:
Indeed, the Times was so enthusiastic about the new evidence that it actually issued a “breaking news” alert when the preprints went online (for more on how the Times handled the story, see below.)
It’s not my purpose here to analyze the papers themselves, other than a brief descripton. That will be done by peer reviewers, who may or may not suggest revisions that might soften the researchers’ conclusions (eg, in one paper, the evidence is declared “dispositive” for the natural origins hypothesis.) And critiques are also appearing online, from other scientists who have argued for nearly a year now that we don’t have enough evidence to decide either way—in large part because Chinese officials have withheld critical evidence about the pandemic’s earliest days.
And that’s where the ideology comes in. Once Donald Trump pointed the finger in an overtly racist way at China for starting the pandemic, and once that led to racist attacks on Asians in the U.S. and elsewhere, any suggestions that the virus could have escaped from a lab in Wuhan was branded as a “conspiracy theory” motivated by anti-China sentiment and anti-Asian racism. Amazingly, as I will discuss below, in a recent Scientific American commentary, three researchers actually blamed lab-leak proponents (or even those who just think the hypothesis should be investigated) for those anti-Asian attacks.
Yet despite the headlines, the media coverage of the new studies make clear—once one actually reads them from top to bottom, as, sadly, most readers will not do—that real scientists with real PhDs have questioned whether the new studies are as “dispositive” as their authors claim. Interestingly, one of the most balanced stories came from Nature’s Amy Maxmen, who on social media has carried a huge amount of water for the natural origins hypothesis.
27 February 2022
Wuhan market was epicentre of pandemic’s start, studies suggest
Report authors say that the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 jumped to people from animals sold at the market on two occasions in late 2019 — but some scientists want more definitive evidence.
In her piece, Maxmen brings in cautious voices about the findings in the third paragraph, which is part of what journalists call the nut graf or “set up” section of news and feature stories, where readers are given an early indication of what is coming. And by the fourth “graf” we have this:
Nevertheless, some virologists say that the new evidence pointing to the Huanan market doesn’t rule out an alternative hypothesis. They say that the market could just have been the location of a massive amplifying event, in which an infected person spread the virus to many other people, rather than the site of the original spillover.
“Analysis-wise, this is excellent work, but it remains open to interpretation,” says Vincent Munster, a virologist at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories, a division of the National Institutes of Health in Hamilton, Montana. He says that searching for SARS-CoV-2 and antibodies against it in blood samples collected from animals sold at the market, and from people who sold animals at the market, could provide more-definitive evidence of COVID-19’s origins.
Coverage in Science magazine, by its long-time infectious diseases writer Jon Cohen, was not as balanced. Although Cohen did mention the skeptics in his fourth paragraph, that mention is followed by an immediate dismissal by one of the preprint authors.
Skeptics of the natural origin theory maintain the market cluster could merely be a superspreader event touched off when a person infected with a lab-escaped coronavirus visited it. But Worobey thinks further data could make that contention even less tenable. A more transparent analysis of the market’s genetic sampling data, in particular, might identify exactly which species of animals sold there carried the virus.
In Cohen’s story, the skeptics have to wait many paragraphs before their voices are more fully heard.
Interestingly, the mainstream coverage focused primarily on two preprints that argued most strongly for the natural origins hypothesis. Reporters gave a much briefer mention to a third preprint, put online (before the other two) by a team led by George Gao, director of China’s CDC. With the necessary caveats that Chinese scientists are under enormous pressure not to reveal evidence that the pandemic might have begun when the virus leaked from a lab in Wuhan, Gao’s team reported on 1380 samples collected from the environment and from animals in the Huanan seafood market in early 2000. Elaborating on previous reports, the team found 73 environmental samples (from stalls, waste, and other sources) that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 (with more than 99.98% genetic identity to the first human virus isolates); in contrast, no SARS viruses were identified in animal swabs of 18 species of animals from the market.
The team concluded that however the virus got into the Huanan market, it was brought there not by infected animals, but by humans. The implication, the authors say, is that the market was the site of a “super-spreader event” rather than the actual origin of the animal to human transmission. Indeed, just such an argument has been made by natural origins skeptics such as the Broad Institute’s Alina Chan and others, on the grounds that we simply do not have samples from the very first cases of Covid-19 in China. Importantly, Chinese officials have refused to release data that might elucidate those cases, which could have started as early as November 2019 according to some indications.
In other words, qualified and experienced scientists say, the jury is still out. We need more data, and we don’t have it. Until we do, journalists should avoid any suggestions—and editors should avoid any headlines—that might lead readers to think the debate is solved or even nearly so.
Before moving on to related matters, I would like to provide a little journalism tutorial (other journalists will indulge me, I hope.) My case study is the New York Times story on the new preprints, which has gone through various permutations as its reporters—Carl Zimmer and Benjamin Mueller—did additional reporting and added new comments. I am quoting from the currently available version as of this writing.
First we have the lead, or in journalistic jargon, the “lede.”
This is followed by what is often called a “nut graf” or “setup grafs,” which tell the reader, in essence, what we are going to tell them. The nut graf can actually consist of several paragraphs, as it does in this story. Nut grafs not only summarize what the story says, but also usually tell readers why it is important and why they should care.
Analyzing a wide range of data, including virus genes, maps of market stalls and the social media activity of early Covid-19 patients across Wuhan, the scientists concluded that the coronavirus was very likely present in live mammals sold at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in late 2019 and suggested that the virus spilled over into people working or shopping there on two separate occasions.
The studies, which together span 150 pages, are a significant salvo in the debate over the beginnings of a pandemic that has killed nearly six million people across the world. The question of whether the outbreak began with a spillover from wildlife sold at the market, a leak from a Wuhan virology lab or some other event has given rise to pitched debates over how best to stop the next pandemic.
“When you look at all of the evidence together, it’s an extraordinarily clear picture that the pandemic started at the Huanan market,” said Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona and a co-author of both new studies.
Several independent scientists said that the studies, which have not yet been published in a scientific journal, presented a compelling and rigorous new analysis of available data.
“It’s very convincing,” said Dr. Thea Fischer, an epidemiologist at the University of Copenhagen, who was not involved in the new studies. The question of whether the virus spilled over from animals “has now been settled with a very high degree of evidence, and thus confidence.”
Sometimes there is not a clear line dividing the lede and nut grafs from what is called the “body” of the story, where the writer goes into much more detail about the basic news and its importance. But as journalists and editors know, most readers are unlikely to get past the headline or the first paragraphs. Thus is is very important to make sure they take away the main point of the story before they go on to something else. In science writing, if not everyone agrees with the conclusions of a study being discussed, it is important to let readers know that relatively high up. But we are now six grafs into the Times story with no indication that might be the case. Finally, in paragraph seven, we read:
But others pointed to some gaps that still remained. The new papers did not, for example, identify an animal at the market that spread the virus to humans.
“I think what they’re arguing could be true,” said Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “But I don’t think the quality of the data is sufficient to say that any of these scenarios are true with confidence.”
We have to plow through many more paragraphs (I will let readers do the counting if they wish) to get more specifics about the limitations of the papers in the views of other experts:
But David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University, raised the possibility that these patterns might be just evidence that the market boosted the epidemic after the virus started spreading in humans somewhere else.
“The virus would have arrived in a person, who then infected other people,” he said. “And the neighborhood of the market, or the market itself, became a kind of a sustained superspreader event.”
Relman’s cautions are consistent, of course, with the findings by the Gao team, which gets a relatively brief mention in this story.
Overall, the coverage of the new preprints fits into a pattern of media bias that I and others have discussed repeatedly over the past year. What is behind it?
Is some news not fit to print?
I gave this post a provocative headline because I wanted to underscore a key problem in media coverage of the Covid-19 origins story: A bias towards the natural origins hypothesis despite the lack of direct evidence for either of the two main scenarios.
The clustering of early Covid-19 cases with sections of the Wuhan market where live animals were sold, including ones that could have been hosts for the virus (but for which there is no actual evidence, since the assumed intermediate host between bats and humans has not been found) is an important finding—and for that reason, the new studies were worthy of coverage. The fact that they are not yet published or peer-reviewed no longer argues against such coverage, as it has become routine for reporters to cover preprints. I see no serious argument against doing so; science journalists, including myself during the 25 years that I was a reporter for Science, often write about papers that had been presented at meetings and were much further from being peer reviewed than the average preprint.
But given the failure so far to identify any specific animal as a host or intermediate host for transmission of the virus to humans, all such evidence remains circumstantial. It goes to the plausibility of the natural origins hypothesis, which is of course highly plausible. Likewise, evidence that suggests a lab-leak was plausible, even if it is also indirect, is worthy of media coverage.
One of the most dramatic examples was the leaking of a grant proposal prepared by the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance and its president, Peter Daszak, submitted to the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA) in 2018. The document, a proposal to fund what was called Project DEFUSE, was put online by the organization known as DRASTIC, which is variously described as a group of scientists and activists devoted to uncovering the origins of the pandemic.
As I think most readers know by now, EcoHealth Alliance and Daszak have worked closely with Chinese researchers, especially at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, on research designed to prevent pandemics such as the one we now find ourselves in. The NIH has funneled millions of dollars to EcoHealth Alliance, significant portions of which have gone on to the WIV.
Collaborators on the DARPA proposal included the famous “Bat Woman” Shi Zhengli of the WIV and coronavirus researcher Ralph Baric of Duke University. All of these individuals and organizations were involved in the Project DEFUSE proposal—which was not funded in the end.
Although the proposal was not funded, a number of scientists and activists were quick to spot an alarming part of the project: Inserting so-called “proteolytic cleavage sites” into SARS-like viruses to study their effects on viral infectivity and virulence. Just such a site, called a furin cleavage site, is a feature of SARS-CoV-2, but not of any other viruses in its viral lineage. That coronavirus researchers were contemplating such a series of experiments the year before the pandemic broke out is not, of course, proof that they actually did it, nor direct evidence that the virus was somehow engineered in one of the participating labs. But it certainly should have, and in the minds of some did, blow up any suggestion that it was a racist “conspiracy theory” to hypothesize that such a thing might have happened, as Daszak and others loudly insisted starting early in the pandemic.
Moreover, from a news judgment point of view, I and others have argued that this revelation was as newsworthy as any other information about Covid-19 origins that has come out over the past two years.
The “alternative” press immediately saw that. Two reporters at The Intercept, Sharon Lerner and Maia Hibbett, quickly reported on the DARPA proposal, again quoting real scientists with PhDs about its potential importance. News of the proposal spread like wildfire on social media, as might also be expected. The following month, The Atlantic covered news of the document and its significance, entitled “The Lab-Leak Debate Just Got Even Messier.” Even if the news did not change many minds, the magazine pointed out, the revelations had undermined the credibility of the very scientists who were insisting it was all a conspiracy theory:
Even as a natural origin remains the most plausible explanation, these discoveries, taken as a whole, demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that good-faith investigations of these matters have proceeded in the face of a toxic shroud of secrecy. Vaughn Cooper, who studies pathogen evolution at the University of Pittsburgh, told us that he hasn’t changed his view that SARS-CoV-2 is extremely unlikely to have been created in a lab—but the lack of candor is “really concerning.” The DARPA proposal doesn’t “mean that much for our understanding of the origins of the pandemic,” he said, “but it does diminish the trustworthiness of the research groups involved.”
But for mainstream media including the New York Times and the Washington Post, this was a non-story (the Post did briefly mention the proposal in an editorial, but its news pages have not covered the document.) A Science profile of Daszak also briefly discussed the proposal, but seemed to have accepted at face value his insistence that he did not remember the furin cleavage site part of the proposed work. I can find no evidence that Nature covered the document at all. Even worse, the Editor-in-Chief of Science, H. Holden Thorp, flatly declared in an editorial that the proposed work had not been done at all—based on absolutely, positively, no evidence whatsoever.
Of course it is possible that the three institutions involved in the rejected proposal went off and forgot all about the experiments they were hoping to do. But as any scientist can tell you, just because a grant proposal is not funded does not mean that researchers will not do the work anyway, by finding other funding—or, as often happens, that the research has already been done and the teams involved want to expand on it. In other words, it is just as possible that, say, the Wuhan lab carried out the work and that it led to a virus capable of infecting humans and causing a pandemic.
What is surprising to me and others is an apparent lack of curiosity on the part of many reporters about whether this research was done or not. For example, in a recent sympathetic portrait of Shi Zhengli by science writer Jane Qiu in Technology Review, the reporter failed (at least as far as the published story is concerned) to ask Shi what she knew about this proposed research. Qiu, whose earlier portrait of Shi, in Scientific American, was equally hagiographic, neglected to ask a number of other key questions as well.
(Ralph Baric has declined to respond to reporters’ questions about the proposed work, and many other questions about his involvement in the issues.)
I will return to these issues at the end of this post. But first, while we are on the subject of Scientific American, I want to briefly discuss what I consider to be a reprehensible article that venerable magazine recently published on the subject of Covid-19 origins.
“The Lab-Leak Hypothesis Made It Harder for Scientists to Seek the Truth”
I did not make up this absurd headline. It is the one that Scientific American’s editors gave to an online version of a piece published in the March 2022 issue of the magazine. The original title of the article was, “Conspiracy Theories Made It Harder for Scientists to Seek the Truth.” Given what we now know, that’s bad enough. But “conspiracy theories” usually conjures up an image of wild-eyed zealots of the left and right, from fanatics who think the government is hiding the truth about UFOs, to right-wingers who think that Hillary Clinton ran a pedophile ring or that the last presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump.
And while Daszak and others used the term to refer to those who thought SARS-CoV-2 might have been engineered in a Chinese lab or escaped from the WIV, proponents of the lab-leak hypothesis—which, after all, is a hypothesis just like the natural origins scenario—include serious scientists with PhDs and credentials just as impressive as those who favor the zoonotic theory. But perhaps the headline is just exaggerated and that’s not what the authors of the piece and the editors of SciAm really meant?
I wish it were true.
The three authors are Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist at the University of Bristol in the UK; Peter Jacobs, a climate scientist at NASA; and Stuart Neil, a virologist at King’s College London. Lewandowsky researches disinformation, especially in the sciences; Jacobs is involved in correcting disinformation about climate change; and Neil is a prolific presence on Twitter, attacking and arguing with lab-leak proponents of all stripes.
The lede of the piece tells us right away where we are going.
Whenever scientific findings threaten people’s sense of control over their lives, conspiracy theories are never far behind. The emergence of novel viruses is no exception. New pathogens have always been accompanied by conspiracy theories about their origin.
In the course of the piece, the authors cite a number of “conspiracy theories” past and present: Claims that the CIA had created HIV, the virus that causes AIDS; the claim of creationists that the humans must have been “intelligently designed;” and the rise of climate change denialism. These examples of real scientific disinformation are deftly woven into a broadsheet against the lab-leak hypothesis, which itself includes disinformation that most who have followed the debate could easily spot. (One example: The continually repeated claim that the finding of SARS-like genomes in Laos that are closer to SARS-CoV-2 than any others known is a slam dunk for the natural origins hypothesis, despite documented evidence that such samples were part of an EcoHealth Alliance project and sent to the WIV for study. A similar claims disgraced a piece on the subject in The New Republic.)
I think it’s a good guess that Lewandowsky’s role in the preparation of this article was to create a sort of psychological profile of those who think the lab-leak hypothesis is plausible or even the most likely. Thus the piece avoids mentioning that, as I have said repeatedly, those who take the hypothesis seriously include a number of noted scientists, such as David Relman of Standard, Jesse Bloom of the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center at CalTech, Richard Ebright of Rutgers, and Alina Chan of the Broad Institute in Massachusetts. They may be wrong or they may be right—Relman and Bloom do not lean either way, simply calling for more investigation—but none are wild-eyed “conspiracy theorists.”
I think the worst and most dishonest passage in what I consider a thoroughly dishonest piece comes near the end, when the authors accuse lab-leak advocates of being responsible for anti-Asian violence. Read it and see if you come to a different conclusion:
Motivated reasoning based on blaming an “other” is a powerful force against scientific evidence. Some politicians—most notably former President Donald Trump and his entourage—still push the lab-leak hypothesis and blame China in broad daylight. When Trump baldly pointed the finger at China in the earliest days of the pandemic, unfortunate consequences followed. The proliferation of xenophobic rhetoric has been linked to a striking increase in anti-Asian hate crimes. It has also led to a vilification of the WIV and some of its Western collaborators, as well as partisan attempts to defund certain types of research (such as “gain of function” research) that are linked with the presumed engineering of SARS-CoV-2. There are legitimate arguments about the regulation, acceptability and safety of doing gain-of-function research with pathogens. But conflating these concerns with the fevered discussion of the origins of SARS-CoV-2 is unhelpful. These examples show how a relatively narrow conspiracy theory can expand to endanger entire groups of people and categories of scientific research—jeopardizing both lives and lifesaving science.
Blaming Trump and Republicans for fostering anti-Asian bigotry is supported by the evidence of their actions and motivations. Tarnishing everyone, including scientists, with the same brush, is reprehensible.
Conclusion: The Covid-19 origins story is a legitimate object of journalistic inquiry. Let’s not leave it to the alternative press and activists to do it.
One of the most poorly covered parts of the Covid-19 origins story is the clear desire of the Chinese and U.S. governments, as well as EcoHealth Alliance and Peter Daszak, to withhold key documents and other evidence that could help us find the answers. Over the past year or so, The Intercept, the activist group U.S. Right to Know, and others have filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests, trying to get at records that might help us understand what was going on in the early days of the epidemic. In nearly every case, these investigators have had to sue the National Institutes of Health and other government agencies—including Anthony Fauci’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)—to get them to release anything of importance. And even when they have, the redactions have come hot and heavy.
Last month, for example, Sharon Lerner of The Intercept reported that she had received 292 fully redacted pages from the NIH (see above for an example.) She and other reporters have been seeking emails that might explain why scientists in communication with Fauci during the earliest days of the pandemic seem to have changed their minds, fairly abruptly, about the origins of the virus, along with a number of other key questions that anyone seeking answers would want responses to. It’s bad enough that China continues to withhold this kind of information from U.S. scientists trying to investigate the origins, along with the World Health Organization. But our own government?
Anyone worried about the spread of “conspiracy theories” should realize that withholding information the public has a right to know is the best way to put a conspiracy theory on steroids.
Strangely, the mainstream media has shown little interest or even curiosity about these withheld and redacted documents. And yet nearly all scientists on both sides of the debate give lip service to the idea that the question is still not resolved and we need more data. So do journalists.
Perhaps the New York Times and other wealthy publications have funded large investigative teams to get at the origins of the most deadly pandemic in the last hundred years, and perhaps in human history. But there is no evidence of it, and certainly no results—only repetitive, superficial reports citing scientists in a “he said, she said” manner. As part of science journalism teaching teams at two major universities, we taught our students that this was not journalism, but stenography.
I’ve written before that the Covid-19 origins story is a low point for science and for science journalism, for the reasons I outline above. We can do better. I hope we will do better, soon, for the sake of preventing future pandemics by understanding the true origins of this one.
Update: As I am finishing up this post, Mara Hvistendahl—a former China correspondent for Science—has published an update in The Intercept’s valiant attempts to do real journalism about Covid-19 origins, including an interview with Daszak. Check it out.