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‘Journalistic Malpractice’: NYT Slammed For Hyping Two Flawed Studies To Downplay Lab Leak Theory

The Daily Caller logo The Daily Caller 3/4/2022 Dylan Housman
Security personnel stand guard outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan as members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus make a visit to the institute in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on February 3, 2021. (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images) © (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images) Security personnel stand guard outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan as members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus make a visit to the institute in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on February 3, 2021. (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)

The New York Times hyped up two new preprint studies claiming COVID-19 originated from a Wuhan wet market, but the article and the papers it was about weren’t well-received by much of the scientific community.

The NYT article cites the two studies as a “significant salvo in the debate” about the origin of the coronavirus pandemic, in which two major camps have emerged: those who believe the virus naturally evolved and jumped from an animal host to humans, likely at a wet market, and those who believe it was being studied by scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and was accidentally released from that facility due to tragic human error.

According to the NYT, multiple independent scientists said the papers offer a “compelling and rigorous” new analysis of available data about the virus and activities at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. The piece immediately cites a comment from University of Arizona evolutionary biologist Michael Worobey, a co-author of both papers.

Worobey isn’t the only researcher involved in both studies. The two share an incestuous author list, which also includes some figures who have been loud in the debate about COVID-19 origins, such as Scripps Research’s Kristian Andersen and Tulane University’s Robert Garry.

Garry and Andersen told Dr. Anthony Fauci in early 2020 that there were genetic qualities to COVID-19 that were “inconsistent” with natural evolution and that it may have escaped from a lab. Following an internal campaign at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to downplay the lab leak theory, Garry and Andersen, who both receive funding from Fauci’s agency, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, became harsh critics of the “crackpot” idea that COVID-19 could have come from a lab.

A number of other independent scientists not consulted by the NYT criticized its report, and some media critics blasted the paper for giving such prominent promotion to two studies that were not yet peer-reviewed and were written by authors with clear conflicts of interest.

Dr. Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, excoriated the papers and the NYT coverage of them in an email exchange with the Daily Caller: “The two Zenodo preprints are opinion pieces masquerading as scientific articles. They contain no new data and no no new analyses.”

“The preprint from the Chinese Center for Disease Control (CCDC) reports new data, reports new analyses, and reaches a conclusion diametrically ***opposite*** to the conjecture of the Zenodo preprints,” he continued. “The two Zenodo preprints were posted a day after the CCDC preprint was posted.”

“Dismayingly, major US media outlets prominently coverage to the two Zenodo prepints — the two opinion pieces masquerading as scientific articles — but ignored, or nearly completely ignored, the CCDC preprint posted the day before the opposite conclusion. This can only be characterized as journalistic malpractice.”

MIT and Harvard Researcher Alina Chan pointed out a major flaw with the data used by the studies, which is that the stalls in the Huanan market were not sampled an equal number of times. “I hope it makes sense that if you sample one stall 100 times, you shouldn’t be shocked to find more positives there compared to another stall that you only sampled 10 times,” she tweeted.

“If a high school or undergraduate researcher had produced this figure for me, I would’ve asked them immediately to go back and remake it after normalizing for the number of samples taken per stall.”

She also pointed out that one of the two authors of the NYT piece, Carl Zimmer, had admitted he was updating the article throughout the day and it appeared he was adding new information as he read the studies.

Chan further highlighted that the authors of the new studies admitted that they could not authenticate the Chinese CDC data their studies were based on.

Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, was quoted by the NYT to say that while the theory presented by the papers could be true, the data within them isn’t good enough to say one way or another. On Twitter, he added that a new study from the Chinese CDC could not identify any specific animals at the Huanan market infected with COVID-19.

The NYT was further bashed by some non-scientists who questioned the media practice of highlighting the studies so prominently. Commentator Brahma Chellaney reminded followers that the NYT long considered the lab leak a “conspiracy theory,” only to now feature “two unpublished, not-peer-reviewed studies that have some common co-authors.”

Alison Young, the Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting at the Missouri School of Journalism, said it was “still not clear” after reading the NYT article three times why it merited a news alert.

Zimmer’s eagerness to downplay the lab leak theory may be due to his previous work profiling Wuhan Institute of Virology bat researcher Shi Zhengli, in which he called the lab leak theory “baseless” and “dangerous.”

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