ProPublica and Vanity Fair are pushing the COVID lab-leak theory, but their exposé is a train wreck

Since its founding in 2007, the independently funded investigative organization ProPublica has exposed wrongdoing at all levels of government and shined a light on corporate misbehavior, collecting six Pulitzer Prizes in the process and securing a reputation for painstaking, accurate journalism.

An article that ProPublica published Friday, pushing the claim that COVID-19 escaped from a Chinese virus lab before going on to infect the world, doesn’t fall into that category.


It is, to be charitable, a train wreck.

The article is based heavily on Chinese-language documents that appear to have been mistranslated and misinterpreted, according to Chinese language experts who have piled on via social media since its publication.

It also takes as gospel a report by a rump group of Republican congressional staff members asserting that the pandemic was “more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident.”

That conclusion runs exactly counter to the overwhelming weight of opinion among scientists in the fields of virology and evolutionary biology.

The scientists conclude that COVID reached humans via zoonotic pathways, that is, directly from an animal host or hosts. Their conclusion is that the spillover was centered on the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, China, where animals susceptible to COVID infection were for sale.

As a team of 18 scientists reported in a paper in Science on July 26, “our analyses indicate that the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 [COVID-19] occurred through the live wildlife trade in China and show that the Huanan market was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

A companion paper with 29 authors published simultaneously by Science provides further circumstantial evidence pointing to the Huanan market as the site of at least two zoonotic events.

By contrast, there is no evidence that COVID escaped from the Chinese lab — none, only innuendo and claims by data crunchers with no expertise in the relevant scientific fields.

You wouldn’t know that from reading the ProPublica/Vanity Fair article. The article asserts the existence of “a bitter battle … between a group of virologists who assert their research points to a market origin and an alternate group of academics and online sleuths who argue there’s been an attempted cover-up of a more likely lab origin.”

The editors and authors of the ProPublica/Vanity Fair article don’t seem to notice the mismatch in expertise between the proponents of these theories: On the one hand, virologists and biologists publishing in peer-reviewed journals; on the other, “academics and online sleuths.” (Those “academics” tend to work in fields other than virology or evolutionary biology.)

There’s reason to be concerned about the promotion of an unproven theory about COVID’s origins. The attention devoted to the claim that a Chinese virus lab was responsible diverts remedial efforts from the proper target for regulation, which is overly loose regulation of contacts between humans and disease-carrying wildlife.

Another point of concern is the performance of ProPublica. Its cadre of first-rate reporters and editors has worked hard to acquire the credibility and respect it holds among journalists and readers. But it doesn’t take much to shatter one’s credibility.

ProPublica appeared to place its reputation at stake with an article that elevates a partisan view of a public health crisis over the work of experienced scientists. That’s not what one has come to expect from the organization.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Star-Advertiser's TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email