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The media's dereliction of duty on the lab leak theory

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WASHINGTON — With evidence mounting that the coronavirus might have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, President Joe Biden has reversed course and ordered the U.S. intelligence community to produce a report on the virus’s origins within 90 days — while reporters who until recently could not be bothered to ask tough questions pressed the White House for answers.

Better late than never. For the past year, the media has scorned the idea of an accidental lab release as a far-flung conspiracy theory, declaring it “debunked,” “dangerous” or “doubtful.” In fact, it would have been an extraordinary coincidence for this virus to emerge in Wuhan — home to China’s leading research laboratory studying bat coronaviruses — and have had no connection to the lab. Thanks to my Post colleague Josh Rogin’s excellent reporting, since April 2020 we have known that in 2018 U.S. diplomats warned of inadequate safety at the Wuhan lab. Just apply the principle of Occam’s razor — the simplest solution is almost always correct -- and you have the most likely source of the pandemic.

Since then, more evidence has emerged: Thanks to veteran science reporter Nicholas Wade, writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, we know that the Wuhan lab was conducting risky and controversial “gain of function” experiments in which they “set out to create novel coronaviruses with the highest possible infectivity for human cells” — and that researchers were conducting many of these experiments at Biosafety Level 2 (the safety level in your dentist’s office) rather than Biosafety Level 4, which requires scientists to work in spacesuits. We also know that there is a long history of coronaviruses escaping from labs, including the SARS1 virus, which escaped four times from the Chinese National Institute of Virology in Beijing (as well as labs in Singapore and Taiwan). And this week the Wall Street Journal reported that three researchers at the Wuhan lab sought hospital care in November 2019 — roughly when the pandemic began — with symptoms consistent with Covid-19.

By contrast, there is no evidence yet that the virus emerged from nature.

We will probably never find a smoking gun proving a lab leak, because the Chinese regime has almost certainly destroyed all evidence at the Wuhan lab. The Chinese Communist Party will never cooperate in an impartial investigation because so long as it remains possible that the virus emerged from nature, then it could be an act of God for which Beijing cannot be held fully responsible — their lies and cover-up notwithstanding. But if the virus emerged from a Chinese government lab because of lax safety and irresponsible research practices, then it is no longer an act of God, but an act of state — and the Chinese regime is directly responsible for unleashing a pandemic that has killed millions.

It is obvious why the Chinese regime wanted to dismiss a lab leak. But why was the media so eager to dismiss it? Perhaps because the most vocal advocates of the theory were President Donald Trump and his supporters, like Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. And in the run-up to the 2020 election, any effort to blame China for the damage done by the virus was treated as an attempt to deflect responsibility from Trump as the villain of the Covid-19 story.

Another reason could be that the lab leak hypothesis threatens to ensnare the media’s anointed hero, Dr. Anthony Fauci. It turns out that Fauci’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, awarded a grant for studying bat coronavirus to the U.S.-based EcoHealth Alliance, which then subcontracted the research to the Wuhan lab. Fauci admits this, but insists that the money did not support gain of function research. But as Wade points out, that is exactly what the Wuhan institute was doing. Indeed, the grant proposals from Shi Zhengli — the “Bat Woman” at the Wuhan lab — which are a matter of public record specified that she planned to use the money for gain-of-function research. Fauci is on record supporting such research. And the NIAID was supporting research in Wuhan even though the U.S. government had placed a moratorium on gain of function research.

As Wade puts it, “if the SARS2 virus did indeed escape from the Wuhan institute, then the NIH will find itself in the terrible position of having funded a disastrous experiment that led to the death of more than 3 million worldwide, including more than half a million of its own citizens.” At a bare minimum, NIAID was funding dangerous research at a lab using minimal safety precautions. Fauci has yet to respond to a letter from Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., demanding answers. “We need to declassify all the intelligence, we need all the email traffic related to these grants,” Gallagher tells me.

The U.S. public health bureaucracy has no interest in following a trail that could lead back to itself. Neither does the Chinese Communist regime. This is why we needed the free press to do its job. All the facts Wade uncovered were there for any intrepid reporter to find. But none did so. That was a shameful dereliction of duty. It’s time to start digging.

Distributed by The Washington Post Writer’s Group.

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