The origins of COVID-19 remain under investigation. But anyone following stories on the topic has likely noticed a big shift in consensus over the last few weeks: The idea that the virus escaped from a lab in China, once generally denounced as a conspiracy theory, is now very much in play. At this point, the idea is merely an unconfirmed theory, as is the competing notion that the virus jumped to humans from an animal such as a bat. It's just that both are now being taken seriously. A look at the how and why of the shift in thinking:
- At New York, Jonathan Chait has a comprehensive analysis on the "failures" of the mainstream media here. He suggests the media recoiled against the lab theory as a knee-jerk reaction to former President Trump's "dissembling" on the issue. He writes that Trump kept raising the possibility of a Chinese lab leak because he was trying to deflect from his own COVID failures, and the media lumped this in with falsehoods and inaccuracies voiced by the president.
- There was a key distinction, however. At one point, Trump suggested that China leaked the virus deliberately. The media rightly disavowed this, but seemed blind to the possibility that the leak could have come from a lab accidentally, writes Chait.
- Some were supporting the lab theory all along. Nicholson Baker wrote a New York story in January arguing that an accidental leak was more plausible than people realized. And GOP Sen. Tom Cotton has been saying this from the start, "so the history books will reward him if he turns out to be right," writes Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler, who has a timeline of the entire controversy.
- The tide began to shift this month. A group of prominent scientists published a letter in Science calling for a new investigation because "theories of accidental release from a lab" were plausible. Former New York Times science reporter Donald G. McNeil wrote an essay in Medium along the same lines.
- The respected PolitiFact, which once labeled the lab idea a "debunked conspiracy theory," has appended a note to its report: "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. For that reason, we are removing this fact-check from our database pending a more thorough review. Currently, we consider the claim to be unsupported by evidence and in dispute." The site has a new "what we know" article on the controversy.
- The Wall Street Journal continues to do in-depth reporting on the issue, with its latest story raising questions about the illnesses of miners in a cave dating back to 2012.
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