The Washington Post corrected an article that described COVID-19 emerging from a Wuhan lab as a ‘conspiracy theory’ and ‘debunked’

WaPO
The logo for the Washington Post is displayed outside of its offices on May 1, 2009 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong/Getty Images
  • The Washington Post has corrected a 2020 article about the theory COVID-19 escaped from a lab.
  • The article explored Sen. Tom Cotton’s defence of the theory, which it described as “debunked.”
  • Once dismissed by experts, the lab leak hypothesis is now regarded as a credible possibility.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Washington Post on Tuesday corrected a 2020 article which criticised Republican Sen. Tom Cotton for defending the claim that the COVID-19 virus may have escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan China.

The article had described the claim as “debunked” and a “conspiracy theory.”

  • The original headline of the February 2020 story read: “Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked”
  • The headline was corrected on Tuesday to read: “Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus fringe theory that scientists have disputed.”

In a note explaining the corrections, editors wrote: “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.”

Insider has contacted Cotton’s office for comment.

The correction comes after multiple scientists said it was not possible to rule out the theory that the coronavirus may have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The exact origin of the virus is not known. The genetic evidence so far suggests it emerged in bats and was transmitted to humans, the way many diseases are. (Most scientists have dismissed the notion that the virus was synthetically engineered.) The unanswered question is whether coronavirus jumped into the human population because it escaped from a research lab or whether humans encountered it in the wild.

Facebook has reversed its policy of removing posts claiming the virus escaped from a lab in light of new evidence emerging.

In May, President Joe Biden ordered a 90-day review of intelligence about the likely source of the virus. It came after the Wall St Journal reported that three workers at the Wuhan lab had fallen in and been hospitalized with a mysterious illness weeks before the first recorded cases in a market in the city in November 2020.

In March, a group of prominent scientists in an open letter to the World Health Organization called for a new investigation into the source of the virus. In a report co-authored with Chinese scientists earlier that month the WHO had described the lab leak theory as “extremely unlikely” to be true.

Back in February 2020 some Republicans, including Cotton and former President Donald Trump, had pushed the lab leak theory as they attacked China and its response to the pandemic.

The Post report that was corrected Tuesday had cited a Fox News interview with Cotton in which he pointed out that close to the market where the first cases were recorded was “China’s only biosafety level 4 super laboratory that researches human infectious diseases.” He had also defended the hypothesis in Congress in early February, leading to criticism from China’s ambassador.

In response to the Post’s article that month, Cotton spelled out a number of different possible sources for the virus.

“None of these are ‘theories’ and certainly not ‘conspiracy theories.’ They are hypotheses that ought to be studied in light of the evidence,” he wrote.