NPR, 2020: Lab Leak ‘One of the Biggest Conspiracy Theories…About the Virus’

March 4th, 2023 6:34 PM

National Public Radio has always dismissed the “lab leak” hypothesis regarding the origin of the coronavirus as a debunked, possibly racist conspiracy theory. If Trump implied China was responsible, "science" had to be the opposite. Now NPR and the rest of the media look ridiculous after the Department of Energy concluded the virus did indeed most likely arise from a laboratory leak in China, at the Wuhan Institute of Virology biolab, and not from a nearby wildlife market (the “zoonotic origin” theory).

But even as the facts have changed, NPR still maintains the same dismissive line. The February 27 edition of All Things Considered included this question to Dr. Michael Osterholm:

Host Ari Shapiro: I know you're not a political analyst, but there is a political element to this. China has rejected the Department of Energy's findings. And meanwhile, some American politicians who have been skeptical at best and xenophobic at worst about COVID's origins are latching onto this report as what they call proof that they were right all along about it coming from a lab in Wuhan. Does this actually bolster their case in the way they say it does?

Osterholm: I don't think it does at all. But, again, there is a very different type of theater being played out here. It's not one that's based on science….

Credit Susan Davis, host of a February 28 NPR podcast, for sticking up for maligned Sen. Tom Cotton, though she doesn’t talk about her own outlet’s coverage when she talks about "xenophobic" accusations.

Let’s make clear that the science and the politics here can often be in conflict. There is some vindication here for Republicans. I'm thinking of people like Sen. Tom Cotton, the Republican from Arkansas, who very, very early on raised questions about a possible lab leak. And a lot of these voices were completely dismissed. They were accused of being conspiracy theorists. Some were accused of raising racist or xenophobic sentiments. And now there are at least two credible government agencies - the FBI and the Department of Energy - who are saying, look. Like, we don't have a high level of confidence, but this is not some insane, crazy-eyed theory here.

NPR senior correspondent Geoff Brumfiel filed a report on April 22, 2020, "Scientists Debunk Lab Accident Theory of Pandemic Emergence." (Hat tip Drew Holden.) Host Alisa Chang's first question to Brumfiel sounded puzzled: “So how did this idea that all of this started in some lab, how did that even gain traction in the first place?”

Perhaps most cringeworthy was a December 30, 2020 story by NPR’s Joel Rose on Morning Edition, “Even If It's 'Bonkers,' Poll Finds Many Believe QAnon And Other Conspiracy Theories.” Yes, NPR likened the now respectable “lab leak theory” of the coronavirus to “bonkers” QAnon wackiness.

The accompanying tweet looks mortifying now:

A new poll finds 40% of respondents believe in a baseless conspiracy theory that the coronavirus was created in a lab in China. There is zero evidence for this. Scientists say the virus was transmitted to humans from another species.

On the air, Rose lumped the “lab leak” theory with the kooky “QAnon” conspiracies, two of the subjects of an NPR/IPSOS poll on “misinformation.”

“This is something that people said they were really worried about, 80% say they’re concerned about false information, specifically around COVID and the vaccines. But at the same time, 40% one of the biggest conspiracy theories that’s out there about the virus, that it was made in a lab in China. There is no evidence for this, and scientists say that the virus was transmitted to humans from another species. But I talked to people all over the country who responded to our poll, and they still believe this.”

(Rose wrongly conflated “made in a lab in China” with “the virus was intentionally released by China.”)