Until very recently, any suggestion of the possibility that a lab leak led to the COVID-19 pandemic would be struck down by many media outlets as a “conspiracy theory.”
This alternative to the natural origin hypothesis received more mainstream recognition after 18 prominent scientists, among them a member of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, published a letter in Science magazine on May 14, saying that the lab incident theory shouldn’t be ignored and that investigation into the virus’s origin should continue.
The idea gained steam in mid-February after WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus contradicted his own agency’s report on the origin of the virus. The report ruled that a lab origin was “extremely unlikely,” while Tedros said that further investigation was needed. WHO’s investigation was marred by a lack of transparency from Beijing and the reported China ties of some of the investigators.
The month of May saw more reversals of the earlier trend to dismiss the lab origin theory, with Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, saying on May 11 that he is now “not convinced” that the virus developed naturally. His comments were in response to a question by a staff member of fact-checking website PolitiFact.
A few days later, PolitiFact quietly retracted a fact check it published in September 2020 in which it labelled as inaccurate and a “debunked conspiracy theory” the claim by a Hong Kong virologist at the time that COVID-19 originated in a lab. In May 2020, Fauci had dismissed the lab leak theory in a National Geographic interview, saying the evidence “strongly suggests” a natural origin.
On May 24, Vox amended an editor’s note on a March 2020 article that claimed the lab leak theory had been “debunked,” stating in its update that “scientific consensus has shifted.”