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Media Shift Gears on COVID ‘Lab Leak’ Theory

Sarah Westwood of the Washington Examiner explores major media outlets’ changing approach to the COVID-19 origin story. Reporters and pundits now tout an idea they once rejected.

A hypothesis about the origins of COVID-19 has, in the space of a few weeks, gone from a seemingly debunked conspiracy theory to a plausible explanation in the eyes of some in the media.

The idea that the virus could have originated in a Wuhan virology lab and spread accidentally through a lab worker, known as the lab leak hypothesis, has been reported on by outlets including the Washington Examiner repeatedly through the past year.

But in other parts of the media, the hypothesis has only now gathered steam thanks to an essay from a former New York Times reporter who laid out the scientific and circumstantial signs pointing to a lab leak.

Reflecting the media’s fresh look at the possibility of a lab accident, left-leaning outlet Vox on Monday attached an editor’s note to an article from last year that called the lab leak hypothesis a conspiracy and a “distraction.”

“Since this piece was originally published in March 2020, scientific consensus has shifted,” Vox wrote.

The original article cited a letter signed by scientists and published in the Lancet, a scientific journal, in February 2020 as evidence that the lab leak “rumor” was a “dangerous conspiracy theory.”

That letter served as the basis for much of the media and many public officials dismissing the lab leak hypothesis when the pandemic began to spread. With little scrutiny of the hypothesis, commentators blamed the existence of the hypothesis on everything from former President Donald Trump, who floated it, to outright racism.

The letter cited by Vox and other outlets created the false impression that the scientific community had ruled out the hypothesis when, in reality, it had not even been properly investigated.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...