The discussion over the lab leak COVID-19 origin theory has bubbled up once again thanks to the GOP-led House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic (HSSCP) and The New York Times opinion section. One might be led to believe this means there is new information pointing to a definitive answer on how the pandemic emerged, but one would be mistaken.

Two recent NYT opinion pieces, Alina Chan’s “Why the Pandemic Probably Started in a Lab, in 5 Key Points” and Zeynep Tufekci’s “An Object Lesson From Covid on How to Destroy Public Trust,” have been discussed by Gregg Gonsalves and John Moore both here and in The Nation.


This Week in Virology as well as Kristian Andersen provided helpful pushback on the factual issues with Chan’s buzzy OpEd. As I do not have advanced training in virology or immunology like the team at TWiV and Andersen do, respectively, I defer to their expertise and commentary on the scientific subject matter.

Gonsalves and Moore’s articles did an excellent job contextualizing the issues arising from Chan and Tufekci’s recent publications in today’s polarized political and media landscape. Having written about the right-wing pandemic disinformation machine that Chan and Tufekci’s articles feed, regardless of their intention, I would like to add to this part of the discussion. 

In political theater, timing is everything

The publishing of Chan’s OpEd on the eve of Dr. Anthony Fauci’s hearing before the HSSCP harkens back to another buzz-generating article on the lab leak theory in February 2023. Two days before the HSSCP’s opening hearing, the Wall Street Journal published “Lab Leak Most Likely Origin of Covid-19 Pandemic, Energy Department Now Says.” The article – but not the headline – discussed how the conclusion was updated with only “low confidence” and did not include the report from the department itself. But the story blew up online just in time for political theater show time.

As Gonsalves and Moore discussed, most of the US intelligence organizations hold that a natural origin from animal spillover, as has been seen in previous pandemics, is most likely. This is in line with the majority of virologists (see here, here, here, here, here, and here) and there is plenty of evidence against the lab leak theory. Frustratingly, no one has a definitive answer to the exact mechanism of the origins, and, as former Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams said recently, we may never reach one thanks to China withholding and destroying information.

This lack of cooperation does not excuse then-President Trump’s racist commentary regarding China during the outbreak. It does not make disinformation-spewing, MAGA mastermind Steve Bannon’s promotion of Chinese virologist Li-Meng Yan and her conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was a bio-weapon intentionally released by the Chinese Communist Party to momentary right-wing media stardom any less devious. And it does not make the Pentagon’s secret anti-vaccine campaign in the Philippines to undermine faith in Chinese science any less abhorrent.

Road map to an alternate reality

A month before the WSJ lab leak article and HSSCP season opener, the right-wing Heritage Foundation published their 80-page “Forging a Post-Pandemic Policy Agenda: A Road Map for COVID-19 Congressional Oversight.” It lists “veiling the origins of COVID-19” alongside “suppressing of scientific dissent” from the authors of the scientifically rebuked, pro-economy/anti-lockdown, Koch-tied Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) as “key weaknesses” in the federal pandemic response.

GBD authors Dr. Jay Bhattacharya and Martin Kulldorff as well as frequent Fox News guest and WSJ contributor Dr. Marty Makary testified at the HSSCP’s first hearing. All three are members of the Norfolk Group, which was created to provide the subcommittee with aligned “experts.” This group was formed through a meeting organized by the dark money funded, anti-science pushing outfit the Brownstone Institute, which bills itself as the “spiritual child” of the GBD. Bhattacharya and Kulldorff, who worked with Trump in the White House, have written for Brownstone and were involved in a right-wing legal effort regarding “censorship” on social media (which was just knocked down by the Supreme Court).

The Heritage “Road Map” states, “By 2021, rather than being dismissed as a baseless conspiracy theory or a product of former President Trump’s undisguised hostility to Red China’s dictatorship, the lab leak theory had become progressively respectable.” That year, President Biden ordered the US intelligence organizations to increase investigation into COVID-19 origins and “continue to press for China to participate in a full investigation.” This did not mean the lab leak origin theory was any more likely.

Spinning the narrative

An outstanding 2021 WIRED article, “The Covid-19 Lab Leak Theory Is a Tale of Weaponized Uncertainty,” explained how the lack of definitive answer regarding the pandemic origins is mined by the political Right. This pairs with the crying of censorship in order to create mistrust in the “establishment,” which has been seen with the GBD and their “silenced” authors as well as by pushers of failed COVID-19 pharmaceutical cures who Brownstone and Heritage continue to support.

This is all deeply political, something a sociologist such as Tufekci should understand. In this intensely polarized political climate – in a key election year, no less – we cannot ignore the GOP’s conspiracy elephant in every media room. The spin doctors are ready and waiting to misconstrue any headline – especially if it comes from as big a name source as the NYT – for their narrative.

Emotions over facts

Which is why it is particularly disappointing that virologist Jim Alwine claims the NYT has rejected his and his colleagues’ pro-zoonosis articles – including an attempted rebuttal of Chan’s flawed OpEd. The response the NYT did publish rehashed her points alongside some arguments for natural origins – hardly a counterbalance to Chan’s one-sided piece.

As Alwine said, “The lab leak theory is great clickbait, a flashy tale with intrigue and purported villains. But the presentation of scientific facts and truths will never make the Hollywood screen.” Whether or not it is the intention of the NYT opinion editors, prioritizing engagement in this way serves the political party that plays to emotions over facts.

Big money and the erosion of public trust

Compared to American politics, science is pretty boring. Throughout the pandemic, scientists have had to fight a David vs. Goliath battle against the deep-pocketed right-wing disinformation machine to get high-quality messaging out to the public. This has played a key role in the erosion of public trust in science and our American scientific institutions – which plays into a larger attack on our institutions (the courts, education, the election system, etc.).  

The Heritage Foundation is also behind Project 2025, the truly frightening policy roadmap for a second Trump presidency, which essentially aims to take a sledgehammer to our institutions and democracy. Their road map for the congressional COVID-19 inquiry in the lead-up to the election supports Trump’s campaign by distracting from his absolute failure of leadership during the pandemic outbreak, which hit as he was gearing up for his last election and desperate for COVID-19 to simply disappear.

Competing narratives and media fatigue

The HSSCP’s similarly named, Democrat-led predecessor, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis (HSSCC), published three key reports in the summer and fall of 2022 on the Trump administration’s interference with the federal pandemic response before the Left lost control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections. Unfortunately, due to media fatigue with the pandemic and likely thanks to being overshadowed by the prime time January 6th Committee Hearings, these reports got little, if any, media attention.

These key HSSCC reports detail the pushing of the herd immunity strategy (this report names Bhattacharya and Kulldorff), the antagonism of the Food and Drug Administration over Trump’s false miracle cure hydroxychloroquine, and the unprecedented interference with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s public messaging. Ideally we would have a House subcommittee continuing the investigations into such issues today, but the HSSCP appears to be following the Heritage script.

Wild accusations

This Heritage HSSCP is going beyond weaponized uncertainty of the pandemic’s origins, claiming scientists such as Fauci and EcoHealth Alliance president Peter Daszak are the “villains” responsible for COVID-19 and covering up its origins. As Gonsalves and Moore said regarding the lab leak theory, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” – and neither the HSSCP nor Chan have the proof to back them up. Yet the personal consequences for the scientists they implicate and demonize are very real.

HSSCP Republicans frankly embarrassed themselves during the Fauci hearing (looking at you, MTG) with their lack of evidence for extreme accusations of wrongdoing regarding ties to research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and this supposed cover-up. There is, however, plenty of evidence to pin avoidable deaths on Trump’s mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak and the MAGA movement’s anti-science crusade.

Failed leadership

It is important to investigate the pandemic’s origins – to the extent that we can, given China’s lack of transparency – in order to learn as much as possible to safeguard the future as much as is humanly possible. But regardless of how COVID-19 came to be, we would have been a whole lot safer with almost anyone but Trump in the Oval Office. 

This is not to say that the Biden administration has handled the pandemic situation they inherited perfectly. But we need a proper post-mortem on the Trump administration’s myriad failures in the crucial early days in order to learn from them and try to heal as a nation. We clearly cannot expect this investigation to come from the HSSCP, so we must lean on the media to fulfill this need. As the “paper of record,” the NYT is failing in its leadership role on this and exacerbating an already out of control political problem.

Avoiding a dystopian future

There has been deserved recent media coverage of Heritage’s Project 2025. A preview of the dystopian future that awaits us should there be a second Trump presidency is playing out with the dragging of scientists – who have already suffered years of death threats due to the right-wing pandemic disinformation machine – before the HSSCP for Stalinist show trials.

This should shock and deeply disturb the public, but first the public needs to be made aware of what exactly is going on and who is pulling the strings. If the media needs a tale of intrigue and villains to care, well, here it is. But it never should have reached this point, and the complicit mainstream media bears some of the blame.

I wish I could end this on a more uplifting note, but all I can do is put out a plea to leaders in the media to do better by your nation’s weary scientific community and the American public before it’s too, too late. It’s already too late.



  • Allison Neitzel MD is a physician-writer who focuses on disinformation, dark money, and politics in public health with a focus on COVID-19, inspired by her medical school experience during the pandemic in Wisconsin.

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Posted by Allison Neitzel

Allison Neitzel MD is a physician-writer who focuses on disinformation, dark money, and politics in public health with a focus on COVID-19, inspired by her medical school experience during the pandemic in Wisconsin.