By Zachary Stieber
The Washington Post quietly walked back its claims regarding the theory that the virus that causes COVID-19 escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, China.
The paper in February 2020 published an article claiming the idea was a “conspiracy theory” that had been “debunked.” The article attacked Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who called for an investigation into the origins of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus.
“We don’t know where it originated, and we have to get to the bottom of that,” Cotton said during an appearance on Fox News. “We also know that just a few miles away from that food market is China’s only biosafety level four super laboratory that researches human infectious diseases.”
But The Post alleged the theory the lab was involved was debunked, quoting a political science professor and a professor of chemical biology to support the claim.
“There’s absolutely nothing in the genome sequence of this virus that indicates the virus was engineered,” Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, was quoted as saying. “The possibility this was a deliberately released bioweapon can be firmly excluded.”
The headline for the article was changed in recent days, from “Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked” to “Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus fringe theory that scientists have disputed.”
In addition, The Post added a correction.
“Earlier versions of this story and its headline inaccurately characterized comments by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) regarding the origins of the coronavirus. The term ‘debunked’ and The Post’s use of ‘conspiracy theory’ have been removed because, then as now, there was no determination about the origins of the virus,” the paper said.
The Post did not respond to requests for comment. Neither the paper nor reporter Paulina Milla Firozi have appeared to alert readers to the update. The original tweet promoting the article is still up, without a notice that it has been dramatically altered.
Ebright told journalist Michael Tracey that when he spoke to The Post, he discussed the lab leak theory, but those comments were not included in the paper’s article.
“I again discussed both the genome sequence and the lab-accident hypothesis—this time, both on the record—with WaPo. I was surprised that the February 17, 2020 article in WaPo quoted only my comments on the genome sequence and not my comments on the lab-accident hypothesis,” he said.
Cotton did not return multiple inquiries. The senator on Fox News last week addressed the wave of corrections and updates to stories about the lab leak theory, saying: “The media last year was singing a very different tune. That’s because I was pointing out that common sense says this virus probably came from those labs; I mean, it originated just a few blocks down the road from them in a city larger than New York not exactly known for its large bat population.
“But because the media doesn’t like my politics, and because former President Donald Trump said the same thing, the media lied and they spun and they covered up for the Chinese Communist Party, in effect,” he added. “There needs to be an accounting for all of the reporting from last spring that denied this reality now that almost every mainstream outlet is acknowledging that it is not only possible, it is probably the case that this came from a laboratory in Wuhan.”
Some reporters have said that they disregarded the lab leak theory because Republicans were largely the ones promoting the idea.
Other outlets have also corrected or quietly updated stories, including Vox and Politifact, while Facebook stopped banning posts suggesting the virus was man-made.
U.S. intelligence officials are not sure where, how, or when the CCP virus originated.
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