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Ex-New York Times health reporter: 'Lab leak' coronavirus theory


Former New York Times health reporter Donald McNeil became the latest prominent voice to argue there is strong evidence that the coronavirus pandemic resulted from a leak from a Chinese lab, a theory dismissed last year as fringe nonsense by numerous media outlets.

"We still do not know the source of this awful pandemic," McNeil wrote in a Medium post on Monday. "We may never know. But the argument that it could have leaked out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology or a sister lab in Wuhan has become considerably stronger than it was a year ago, when the screaming was so loud that it drowned out serious discussion."

Experts are calling for a deeper probe into the pandemic's origins, noting the Wuhan Institute of Virology's experiments on bat coronaviruses, prior red flags being raised about the riskiness of the experiments there, and the Chinese government's continued deceit and suspicious behavior when asked for critical documents and information by investigators. McNeil said he first viewed the official explanation of an animal spillover as the most plausible and the "lab leak" theory was too "conveniently conspiratorial."

But, noting the history of the deadly H1N1 flu that scientists now believe was the result of influenza research and the concerns about gain-of-function research in Wuhan, McNeil acknowledged the "disturbing possibility" the pandemic strain indeed escaped from the lab.

"Chinese scientists were allowed to interact with W.H.O. investigators only in a very tightly controlled way and very little of the report was devoted to the lab leak theory, which it all but dismissed," he wrote. "Opening up the 2019 logs of every lab in Wuhan and the 2019–2020 emails between scientists and health officials would go a long way to restoring trust."

Former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield said in March he believed the pathogen unintentionally escaped from the lab in Wuhan, a city known as a center for Chinese viral studies.

Numerous media outlets dismissed the idea last year, however, when it was initially asserted by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. The pushback against Cotton occurred during denunciations of Trump administration figures framing COVID-19 as a "Chinese" or "Wuhan" virus.

Stories published by The Washington Post("conspiracy theory that was already debunked"), New York Times ("fringe theory"), HuffPost("debunked fringe theory"), and The Daily Beast("conspiracy theory") aggressively disputed Cotton's hypothesis.

But New York Magazine and other outlets have given the theory increasing attention in 2021. If anything, the official account of animal spillover is no longer blindly accepted. 

McNeil, who covered the virus for the Times until being forced out over years-old remarks on a newspaper-sponsored student trip in Peru, is considered a journalistic authority on the subject by his peers. His former Times science colleague Nicholas Wade discussed the theory at length earlier this month, criticizing the mainstream media for abdicating its responsibility on the matter.

"To my knowledge, no major newspaper or television network has yet provided readers with an in-depth news story of the lab escape scenario, such as the one you have just read, although some have run brief editorials or opinion pieces. One might think that any plausible origin of a virus that has killed three million people would merit a serious investigation," he wrote.

Wade hypothesized that a combination of implicit trust in their scientist sources and a bias against the Trump administration, which endorsed the lab-leak theory at the highest levels, was why the story had gotten short shrift until recent weeks.

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