That sound you may have detected rising from the ether of social media recently was the gnashing of teeth by COVID conspiracy-mongers, outraged by a U.S. government report debunking their most cherished claims.

A U.S. government report has put the lie to the theory that the Sars-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID, leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a laboratory in Wuhan, China, where the disease was first detected in humans. Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images/TNS

The long-awaited report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence put the lie to the theory that the Sars-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID, leaked from a virology lab in Wuhan, China, where the disease was first detected in humans.

The lab-leak conspiracists were certain that the report would validate their contentions, for which there has never been any valid scientific evidence.

Instead, it did just the opposite.

The report was issued in response to the COVID-19 Origin Act, which was signed into law by President Biden in March. The act required the intelligence community to declassify all information on the topic in its possession, save information that could compromise national security or intelligence-gathering sources and methods.

If you think that the conspiracy folks would be satisfied with the report’s conclusion that there’s nothing to their claims, think again. As soon as the four-page document was released, they were grousing that the intelligence agencies must be part of a continuing global cover-up and that their failure to come completely clean violated the law.


Another response has been simply to lie about what the intelligence report says. That was the approach of Mike Pompeo, who was Donald Trump’s secretary of state when the COVID pandemic began, and under whose watch a cadre of anti-Chinese State Department functionaries concocted and promoted the lab-leak scenario.

Pompeo’s take was that the report “confirms what we knew from the beginning: the only logical explanation is that the virus came from the Wuhan lab.” In fact, it says nothing of the kind.

Nor is the report’s release likely to derail the table-pounding allegations by Republicans in Congress that U.S. scientists have connived with the Chinese government to suppress evidence of China’s complicity in the pandemic.

On Friday, the same day as the release of the intelligence report, the Republican-dominated House Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic subpoenaed documents from Kristian Andersen, a top virologist at La Jolla-based Scripps Research Institute, as part of its fatuous investigation into whether Andersen and Anthony Fauci, among other real scientists, ginned up a bogus conclusion that the virus reached humans through natural means, rather than the efforts of the Chinese government.

The intelligence report also serves as a reproach to news organizations that have bought into the lab-leak theory, despite the utter lack of evidence for it. These organizations include The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Atlantic and ProPublica.

They’ve cited the lab-leak hypothesis with varying levels of credulousness. The Wall Street Journal has been perhaps the most assiduous purveyor of this half-baked – actually unbaked – claptrap, in a way that puts a lie to the oft-cited defense that its news pages are distinct from its right-wing opinion pages; the lab-leak theory has been promoted by its news and opinion writers alike.


The saddest example is that of ProPublica, which besmirched its reputation for painstaking and thorough investigative journalism – such as its important and indispensable exposés recently of corrupt conflicts of interest by Supreme Court justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito – by collaborating on an article last October with Vanity Fair, which has no such reputation.

I outlined the manifold flaws of that article after it appeared, as did others. The intelligence report takes particular aim at two major claims in the ProPublica article. More on that in a moment.

First, let’s examine what the intelligence report says, and its context. Contrary to Pompeo’s assertion, the report states outright that it does not “address the merits of the two most likely pandemic origins hypotheses.”

The “zoonosis” hypothesis accepted by most virologists and epidemiologists is that the virus reached humans via wildlife, almost certainly through a wildlife market in the huge metropolis of Wuhan, where animals likely to be intermediate carriers of the Sars2 virus were on sale. Scientists have found molecular and epidemiological evidence linking the outbreak to that market starting in December 2019.

The second hypothesis is that the outbreak can be traced to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. This is based on pure conjecture that the lab was working either on the virus itself or a close progenitor that somehow escaped into the wild.

The intelligence report says that both hypotheses “remain plausible.” But anyone with the slightest capability for critical thinking will see from the text that it comes down against the lab-leak hypothesis.


The agencies say that while the Wuhan Institute was engaged in genetically engineering viruses for research, there is no evidence that any of that work “has involved SARS-CV-2, a close progenitor, or a backbone virus that is closely-related enough to have been the source of the pandemic.”

The report specifically addresses two supposedly key pieces of evidence promoted by the lab-leak camp. One is that several Wuhan Institute researchers fell ill in fall 2019 with COVID – in other words, that the virus was rampant in the lab well before it reached the outside community.

This claim has always been rather squirrelly. Its most assiduous promoter, The Wall Street Journal, has acknowledged that the illness was “either COVID-19 or a seasonal illness.” (November, when they supposedly got sick, is flu season, after all.) The Journal has attributed its finding to anonymous sources.

The intelligence report says the researchers’ symptoms were “consistent with but not diagnostic of COVID-19,” and “could have been caused by a number of diseases.” Some symptoms, it says, “were not consistent with COVID-19.” Indeed, it says that “while several WIV researchers fell mildly ill in Fall 2019, they experienced … symptoms consistent with colds or allergies.”

The report says there’s no evidence that the Wuhan Institute possessed samples of SARS-CoV-2 or any close relative, prior to the pandemic outbreak, when it began working on SARS-CoV-2. Two viruses that the institute was known to be working on – and which conspiracy theorists assert could have been manipulated into SARS-CoV-2 – are not “close enough to SARS-CoV-2 to be a direct progenitor.”

Then there’s the claim that the Wuhan Institute experienced a biosafety incident in late 2019 that prompted a crisis response. The conspiracists say this must have been a lab leak. The intelligence report says: not so. The Wuhan Institute hosted a biosafety training course for virus staff in November 2019, but the training “appears routine, rather than a response to a specific incident.”


That brings us back to the irresponsible conspiracy-mongering of the press. Newspapers and cable news shows have long treated the lab-leak and zoonosis theories as somehow equivalent, often by asserting that both suffer from lack of evidence.

That’s grossly misleading. There is no evidence for a lab leak; indeed, experienced virologists find the claims that the Wuhan Institute could produce the SARS-Cov-2 virus in the lab to be implausible to the point of sheer fantasy. Epidemiological and virological evidence for zoonotic transmission has been accumulating steadily, however.

The organization that deserves to feel most embarrassed by the intelligence report is ProPublica. Its article largely relied on Toy Reid, a former U.S. government China analyst who claimed to be more fluent in Chinese government argot than native Mandarin-speakers, a claim that should have raised eyebrows at ProPublica and its partner Vanity Fair sky-high.

The analyst said that his superior skills allowed him to interpret a government document as referring to a response to an accident at the Wuhan Institute in November 2019. That’s the episode that the intelligence report now says had nothing to do with an immediate crisis. After the article’s publication, several genuine experts in Mandarin asserted that Reid had misread the document.

ProPublica also credulously cited the yarn about the sick Wuhan Institute researchers.

ProPublica responded to criticism of its work a month later with an editor’s note that largely defended Reid’s interpretation and stood by its story. It should have retracted the article. The intelligence report has now demolished some of the article’s central claim about a “biocontainment incident” – that is, a lab accident.

Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica’s editor in chief, told me June 25 by email: “We’ve got some questions about (the intelligence report) and will be doing some reporting in the coming week to understand more about its findings and methodology. We will update ProPublica readers if there’s anything new to say.”

As of this writing, ProPublica hasn’t published an update.

The lab-leak conspiracy gang has smeared scientists and misled the public into believing a theory that has no factual support whatsoever. They should be ashamed.

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