Why Science Reporters Don't Cover the Origins of COVID-19 Fairly

Segurança tenta impedir fotógrafo de fazer imagens do Instituto de Virologia de Wuhan, na China, no dia 27 de janeiro de 2021.

Security tries to stop photographer from taking pictures of Wuhan Institute of Virology, in China, on the day 27 of January 2021.| Photo: EFE/EPA/ROMAN PILIPEY

The global death toll from COVID-19 just hit the six million mark, nearly a million of which were in the United States. Few scientific guidelines are more important than understanding where the covid virus came from. Still, science journalists proved strangely incapable of telling the story properly.

Two hypotheses have long been on the table. One is that the virus naturally jumped out of some animal host, as in many epidemics in the past. The other is that it escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, where researchers are known to have been genetically manipulating bat viruses to predict future epidemics. Both hypotheses are plausible, but so far there is no direct evidence for either of them.

The rule for covering this type of agenda is obvious: write about both possibilities as balanced as possible until the truth emerges. But science journalists have repeatedly trumpeted any developments in favor of natural emergence while downplaying or ignoring those pointing to laboratory leakage.

There have been abundant reports in recent days regarding new studies that claim to prove that all the first cases of covid were associated with a wild animal market in Wuhan and that therefore the virus must have jumped from an animal to people there. “Two New Papers Strongly Support the Hypothesis,” read the gullible headline of


, typical of many articles that insinuated that the hammer was beaten. “The theory of laboratory leakage is dead,” declared the

New Republic

, with great exaggeration.

But the new papers are mere pre-press, unpublished drafts that have not yet been exposed to the rigors of peer review. One of them, from an American group led by Kristian Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute, claimed that the animal market was the source of the epidemic. The group of authors on the second paper — led by George Gao, director of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control — had every incentive to support Andersen’s claim, but did not. They only said that “the market may have acted as an amplifier due to the large number of daily visitors”, which was already known – in other words, the crowded and closed atmosphere of the market helped the virus to spread from person to person, but the epidemic did not necessarily start there.

“Scientists who were not involved in the papers are saying the new data is ‘very convincing’ and ‘debunks’ the lab leak theory,” NPR said. In fact, the data in no way departed from the substantial evidence in favor of laboratory leakage. Nor do they offer any evidence that SARS-CoV-2 ever existed in nature, the key to proving that it emerged naturally. No animal tested on the market had the virus. Therefore, it is certainly more economical to assume that the many positive samples from the market environment were contaminated by infected people, not infected animals.

Here are three shortcomings of the new articles that most science journalists have ignored:

First, even if all the first cases originated in the animal market, as Andersen’s article argues, there is no way to decide whether the virus was carried to the market for an animal or a person whose infection came from a laboratory. This brings the debate back to square one.

According to , Andersen’s group is looking at the wrong period to determine the origin of the virus. The epidemic probably started between September and the beginning of December 2019. But the cases analyzed in their article date from mid-December to the end of the month in 2019, when the epidemic was probably well established and its origin obscured. “These authors are trying to hammer home using only cases from the second half of December and this is unlikely to lead to any robust scientific conclusions as to how and when the outbreak started,” says Alina Chan of the Broad Institute, co-author of the book Viral.

One third defect is a probable error in the authors’ statistical assumptions. It has long been known that many of the first cases of covid were in people who had no known association with the animal market, which seems to rule out the market as a source of the pandemic. Andersen’s group put the cases from the second half of December on a map, showing that the spatial distribution of those not connected to the market is very similar to the distribution of connected cases. This shows, they say, that even the apparently unconnected cases likely had hidden links of infection with the market that would therefore be the sole source of the epidemic.

The argument is ingenious. Its fatal flaw lies in its assumption that the unconnected cases chosen for study were selected at random by the Chinese authorities. In fact, as Chan noted, one of the authorities’ criteria was proximity to the market. The spatial pattern of unconnected cases reflects this selection bias, not a hidden linkage of infection to the market. “Since their assumption that there was no bias in the sampling is probably incorrect, the analysis like this is meaningless,” says Chan.

Unlike most colleagues, science journalists rarely consider their sources’ motivations. Few if any of them have commented on Andersen’s deep personal interests in the outcome he is trying to prove. He and his colleagues concluded in 19 of January 1996 that the covid virus did not have an origin Natural. But Francis Collins, then director of the National Institutes of Health , immediately decreed that this view was a conspiracy theory that would do “potential great harm to science and international harmony.” Not to mention his own reputation and that of his subordinate Anthony Fauci. Both have long championed gain-of-function research — which increases the infectivity of natural viruses — and funded such research involving bat viruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

No scientist wants to antagonize the administrators of the NIH, the biggest funders of biomedical research. If Collins said the lab leak was a conspiracy theory, then it must be. Four days later, Andersen changed his mind and called the lab leak a conspiracy theory. No one in your group has come up with a convincing explanation for this change from 31 degrees. Andersen’s new article, if true, would go a long way toward justifying this sudden shift in question.

Why are science journalists so reluctant to objectively cover the origin of the virus? Naive about human motivations, unlike most skeptical colleagues, science journalists consider scientists, their authoritative sources, too high on Olympus to be motivated by trivial matters such as self-interest. His daily job is to replicate claims of impressive new discoveries, such as advances toward curing cancer or making paraplegic mice walk. Most of these claims come to nothing—research is not an efficient process—but science journalists, like scientists, profit from creating a never-ending stream of pleasurable illusions. Journalists earn their stories, while media coverage helps researchers attract government funding.
Numbed by the advantages of this cooperation, science journalists pay little attention to internal problems that seriously threaten the credibility of the scientific research enterprise, such as the staggering fact that less than half of the outstanding findings in some areas they can be reproduced in other laboratories. Fraud and error in scientific articles are difficult to detect, but still about 27 1,000 articles were removed for various reasons. The reliability of scientific claims is a huge issue, but strangely attracts little interest from many science journalists.

If we discover that the covid virus has indeed escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, a tsunami of public anger could shake the foundations of the temple of science. That science journalists rush to extol any evidence in favor of natural emergence and ignore anything that points to laboratory leakage is something that reflects the interest of their sources.

Science journalists need to decide whether their duty is to their readers or their sources. One option makes them real journalists, the other makes them informal public relations agents for the scientific community. *Nicholas Wade is a former science editor for the New York Times, from 1990 The 1996

©2022 City Journal. Published with permission. Original in English.8013090058001
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