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The New York Times’ science reporters have provided outstanding coverage of Covid-19 since the earliest days in 2020, including how the pandemic started. Unfortunately, the paper’s opinion desk has had a far more checkered record, culminating in two highly controversial essays that were released online last week and co-published in a two-page spread in the print edition on Sunday, June 9. The Times has made it clear to colleagues that it is not interested in considering articles that rebut these two essays. Despite that attitude, the outlandish nature of the two articles does require a public reckoning.

The essay by Alina Chan reiterates speculation that the Covid-19 pandemic originated via a leak of an infectious virus from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. There is no new information in her essay, as it reiterates points made on multiple occasions elsewhere, including in her book. She adds into the mix the persistent allegation that NIH-funded research was instrumental in the creation of the coronavirus that sparked the pandemic. These are extraordinary claims: Science, and US tax dollars, are being blamed for a pandemic that has killed over 1.1 million Americans, and perhaps as many as 20 million people worldwide. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and there is no verifiable proof that what Chan alleges actually happened. Multiple US intelligence agencies have investigated the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic. None of them has been able to come up with a definitive answer as to what happened, a reflection of the lack of evidence. Some intelligence community (IC) reports favor a lab leak, but without high confidence, but a majority of the IC reports suggest that a natural origin, via animal-to-human transmission in a Wuhan market, is the more likely explanation that is consistent with all the scientific evidence we have to date. There remains uncertainty about happened, which may never be resolved because only the Chinese government has access to more definitive information – and it’s not releasing what it may know. That lack of surety is why it remains valid to consider both the lab leak and “natural origins” as on the table.

Despite the evidence gaps, Chan, however, has written an essay that is deeply slanted towards the lab leak hypothesis. To her, speculation, however much it has been debunked over the past 4 years, becomes fact – or as near to it as makes no difference. The “science” she presents, the underlying virology of what she claims happened at the WIV, has all been debunked over and over again, both in the science literature and in online essays. Chan highlights at considerable length what’s not known about the “natural origin” hypothesis, implying that the absence of evidence is in some way sinister – while skating over the much bigger evidence gaps involved in her preferred lab leak explanation. The alleged role played by the NIH in funding dangerous virology experiments at the WIV has also been thoroughly refuted. Of note is that the WIV’s funding for coronavirus research came overwhelmingly from the Chinese government; if something problematic did in fact happen, to blame the NIH is to entirely miss the main point. Here is but one example of the fallacious thinking inherent to Chan’s analyses. She, correctly, states that pandemic started in Wuhan, and that the WIV is located in Wuhan. But she then asserts that these two facts must be inter-connected. That’s false logic. Let’s pose another hypothetical: If a new pandemic were first identified via samples collected in a food court at Hartsdale International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, would we conclude that a leak from the CDC’s laboratory in that cite was responsible? Or would we factor in that Hartsdale is America’s busiest airport, and hence a potential source of virus dissemination between humans? Overall, Chan seeks to blame science for the pandemic, but she can offer no proof that adequately underpins her opinions.

The accompanying essay by Zeynep Tufekci blames scientists and public health specialists in the Trump administration for poor decision-taking and messaging in the tumultuous early months of the pandemic. Having 20/20 hindsight about 2020 is all very well, but not to us, who also remember what it was like in February through April of that year. Decisions had to be taken under circumstances where hard evidence was hard or impossible to come by. It was entirely reasonable (and the only option) to base decisions on the assumption that CoV-2 would behave like SARS-CoV-1 and/or influenza. In early 2020, nobody knew then what only became clear very much later about how the virus was transmitted under what circumstances. That kind of knowledge only emerged over time. The fuss Dr. Tufekci makes about the “6-foot rule” for social distancing is way wide of the mark. Of course there was no hard evidence about 6-foot, as opposed to 5- or 7-, 4- or -8. How could there be at that time? But the recommendation was neither irrational nor unreasonable, as it was based on available information about other viruses. We also now know, in mid-2024, that masks do in fact reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission. Obtaining, collating and understanding the data on complex social topics isn’t a rapid process. Criticizing good faith decisions made at a time of international crisis is simply not helpful.

The leading European democracies, Canada, and other nations all made decisions comparable to what was done in the USA. Indeed, many public health specialists, and ongoing national enquiries (e.g., in the UK), have concluded that lockdowns, masking recommendations and other restrictions were generally applied too little and too late – and this was at a time when American cities were seeing bodies pile up in refrigerated trucks. It should also be recalled that American public health officials were working in the administration of a President, Trump, who had no understanding of the science and who was susceptible to the pseudoscience and quackery poured into his ears by other administration officials, Republican politicians, and a grab-bag of business people whose only interest was in corporate profits. How could a science-based, public health agenda ever predominate in that environment? Why blame the rational officials who did their best in impossible circumstances? And why did Dr. Tufekci ignore the one true public health fiasco in the early days – the CDC’s appalling failure over COVID tests under the supine leadership of Dr. Robert Redfield?

Tufekci makes favorable comments on how the UK handled key aspects of Covid, based on a brief visit she made to London in 2021. One of us is British by birth and has many family members and friends in that country. First, the UK’s initial response to Covid was, if anything, worse than the USA’s – leading to a 2020 death rate that was among the worst in Europe. Poor leadership from Prime Minister Johnson was to blame, as is now also becoming clear from the UK’s national Covid inquiry. Dr. Tufekci suggests that trust in the National Health Service was at the heart of why Britons embraced the Covid vaccines more than in the USA. The reality, however, is that all three of the UK’s main political parties, and every leading newspaper, supported the vaccine rollout in 2020-2021. In the UK, there was little or none of the politically motivated vaccine polarization that we saw in the USA, a phenomenon that created “Red Covid” (i.e., Republican voters were persuaded to forego the Covid vaccines, and hence died of Covid at a sadly disproportionate rate). Indeed, the right-of-center Conservative party has even expelled a member who spread anti-vaccine propaganda. Is there a universe in which our Republican party would kick out, for example, Marjorie Taylor Greene for expressing similar views? Yes, disinformation about Covid exists in the UK, but not at the level we now experience in America.

It is disinformation about COVID-19and particularly vaccines that has so damaged “public trust” in science and public health, particularly among Republican voters and the consumers of information (sic) pumped out by right-wing media. In her essay, Dr. Tufekci badly misses this key point when she focuses her criticism on the actions of Trump administration scientists and public health specialists during the first months of the pandemic. The real villains lie elsewhere. Accordingly, Dr. Tufekci has done our professions a great disservice. And, sadly, she was enabled by The New York Times opinion desk editors. What has this “paper of record” now become? Does it value online clicks over accuracy? Has it become merely a vehicle that backs its outstanding and very popular Games Apps? Does the Times truly seek to energize the anti-science agenda that is now such a feature of right-wing media outlets such as the New York Post, the Washington Examiner, the Epoch Times? It would not have surprised us to see the Chan and Tufekci essays on those websites. But to see them in The New York Times was simply shocking.

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Authors

  • John Moore

    John P. Moore is a Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, where he oversees an HIV-1 vaccine and virology research program. He has also been a frequent commentator and editorial writer on Covid-19 vaccines and related topics.

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  • Gregg Gonsalves

    Gregg Gonsalves is an Associate Professor in the Department of the Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases at Yale School of Public Health and an Associate Professor (Adjunct) at Yale Law School. He is a 2018 MacArthur Fellow.

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Posted by John Moore

John P. Moore is a Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, where he oversees an HIV-1 vaccine and virology research program. He has also been a frequent commentator and editorial writer on Covid-19 vaccines and related topics.