For about 24 hours in March, it looked as though the fierce, long-running debate over the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic might be close to resolution. First with the story was reporter Katherine J. Wu of The Atlantic, in a March 16 piece entitled “The Strongest Evidence Yet That An Animal Started the Pandemic.” Wu described new data that, in the opinion of an “international team” of scientists, pointed to the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China, as the source of the pandemic virus (SARS-CoV-2.) The new evidence pointed to a so-called “zoonotic spillover” between cute critters called raccoon dogs and humans either selling or buying wild animals.
Within hours, The New York Times and the journal Science followed with their own stories. Although the headlines of these articles were not quite as dramatically phrased, they expressed little doubt that the zoonotic spillover hypothesis — as opposed to the so-called “lab leak” or “lab origins” hypothesis — had been given a major boost by the new study. Within a day, the news had rocketed around the world, with headlines in media outlets on every continent (except perhaps Antarctica.)
But then things got complicated.
First, there was no published study, not even a so-called “preprint” that scientists routinely put online at when they begin submitting papers for publication, so that other researchers can comment on them. Nor was there any actual data for other scientists to look at.
It turned out that the data came from a team of Chinese scientists, led by George Gao, former head of China’s CDC, which that research group had posted on an online genomics database in anticipation of publication of its own paper. That paper, now known as Liu et al., is currently under review at the Nature family of journals.
We know what it says because the Chinese team put a preprint of its study online more than a year ago. Gao, Liu, et al. concluded that the Huanan market was probably not the site of a zoonotic spillover, but rather a human-to-human “superspreader” event (similar to what might happen at a rock concert) involving a virus that originated somewhere else.
The battle between the two camps in the origins debate can sometimes seem as fierce as the skirmishes between the Sharks and the Jets in “West Side Story.” Nearly every day, real scientists with PhDs are on Twitter, sometimes calling each other names and insulting each others’ scientific intelligence. The two sides even have names for each other: “Lab leakers” vs. “Zoo crew” or “Zoonati.” For journalists covering the debate — even seasoned science journalists — distinguishing actual science from heated rhetoric can be tough. And arguably some reporters have done a better job than others.
The “Zoo crew” had the upper hand at the beginning of the pandemic, as everything from COVID origins to vaccines to masking to school shutdowns became the subject of intense politicization. In those early days, the lab origins hypothesis was often branded as “dangerous” or “racist,” sometimes by established science journalists at major media outlets. The term “conspiracy theory” was routinely tossed around, even though, as some scientists pointed out, the pandemic had started in Wuhan — home to several research institutes, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology, known to be working on genetically engineered coronaviruses — and thus a lab origin was plausible even if there was no solid evidence for it.
But within a year of the pandemic’s outbreak, the lab origins hypothesis began to get respect, as some scientists pushed back against the “conspiracy theory” accusation. A notable event, which brought new media attention to the lab accident possibility, was the May 14, 2021, publication in Science of a letter by 18 well-known scientists calling for a serious investigation into COVID-19 origins, and discounting any notions that we already knew the answer. Since then, the controversy has whipsawed back and forth, as both camps continue to publish scientific papers they believe bolster their favored hypotheses.
That brings us full circle to the present, and the raccoon dogs (to which some media outlets, including The New York Times, devoted special explainers for those readers who weren’t sure if they were some kind of raccoon or some kind of dog. Answer: Closer to a dog, and related to foxes.)
There was something that The Atlantic and The New York Times neglected to tell us about the “international team” whose raccoon dog data generated headlines that month. Most of its members, several of whom were quoted in those two articles, are well-known and vocal members of the “Zoo Crew.” That means that their analysis of the data — which has now been released publicly by the genomics database — could have been influenced by their pre-existing biases, to which even scientists are obviously subject.
In this case, their biases might have been justified: Many of these same scientists were coauthors on two studies — published last July in Science and the subject of major headlines while still in preprint form — which were also heralded as the strongest evidence yet for the zoonosis hypothesis. But like the current raccoon dog analysis, whose zoonotic conclusions have been questioned by other qualified scientists, the earlier study has also been challenged by a number of research groups, which are slowly getting their own peer-reviewed papers into print.
The New York Times’ Benjamin Mueller, author of the paper’s raccoon dog coverage, did not respond to several requests for comment about why his articles have not mentioned the well-known partisanship of the “international team.” Katherine J. Wu did not respond directly to the same questions, but Anna Bross, senior vice president for communications of The Atlantic, did provide a comment:
“We stand by this story and the editorial decisions made. The Atlantic’s report is careful to state what is now known and what isn’t. This is the strongest genetic evidence yet that appears to link the coronavirus’s origins to raccoon dogs, which could have been carrying and shedding the virus at the end of 2019. The genetic data are the first that researchers outside of China’s academic institutions and their direct collaborators have had access to.”
While this response does not answer the questions posed by Quill, it is clear that there will be many more chances to get it right. The Chinese team has now posted an updated and expanded preprint of its Huanan market study, and the “international team” has also posted an online report of its analysis, promising not to submit it to a journal until the Chinese team publishes its own paper.
And there are numerous indications that the Chinese manuscript may now be approaching publication. That means the COVID-19 origins debate might finally land on a level playing field, with all the opportunities and challenges that will pose to reporters following the story
Michael Balter served as Paris correspondent for Science for 25 years. He now works as an independent journalist based in New York’s Hudson Valley. He also taught at Boston University and New York University. Over the course of the pandemic, his personal views about COVID-19 origins have gone from thinking a lab origin was a crazy “conspiracy theory,” to strict neutrality, to his current opinion, that a research-related accident — while not proven — is the most likely explanation.