Complaint to BBC about an item on Newsnight (6 March 2023)

By David Morrison

In the item on the origins of Covid-19, Kirsty Wark said:

“We still have no clear idea about the origins of Covid-19 despite the fact that it killed many millions around the world.   On Thursday’s program, we examined the two main theories: that it jumped from animals to humans via the wet market for livestock and fish in the Chinese city of Wuhan, as has been widely believed at the start of the pandemic, or that it was developed in government labs in Wuhan and somehow leaked out, a possibility initially disregarded by several experts but has now been rising in prominence.”

There, and in the item as a whole, these two possibilities are presented as equally likely, despite the fact the BBC website at presents evidence that such a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology could not have happened. 

I quote from your website:

“Concerned to rule out her lab’s involvement in the outbreak, according to the Scientific American interview, she [Prof Shi Zhengli] began “frantically” searching the experimental records and samples already stored in her lab.

“Her February paper reported what she said was the closest match she was able to find.  A virus, which she named RaTG13, collected from a bat in 2013, showed a 96.2% similarity to Sars-CoV-2.  Although that sounds close, the 3.8% genetic difference between the two would, estimates suggest, take decades of evolutionary change to occur in nature.”

“If Sars-CoV-2 had leaked from her collection of coronaviruses, the lab would have contained either Sars-CoV-2 itself, or something much, much closer related.

“‘That really took a load off my mind,’ Prof Shi told Scientific American. ‘I had not slept a wink for days.’”

Why is Newsnight giving the impression that a leak from the Wuhan lab is as likely as a natural, spillover event from animals to humans when the BBC’s website presents evidence that such a leak could not have happened?

Response by BBC

Reference: CAS-7495564-H9D3K2 

I’ve reviewed the broadcast, during which presenter Kirsty Wark explored how the US House of Representatives was beginning its first hearing into the origins of Covid.

Kirsty explained that the “two main theories” for Covid-19’s origins is that it either jumped from animals to humans or that it was developed in a government laboratory in Wuhan.

I appreciate you query how to reconcile this with the online article, Wuhan: City of Silence.

This article, however, was published 7 July 2020.

Kirsty was clear in her introduction that the “animals to humans” theory has been “widely believed” since the start of the pandemic, whereas the “government lab” theory was “initially disregarded by most experts” but has been rising in prominence.

Regarding the online article, I should also note that our complaints framework states “if you make a complaint about content currently published on a BBC website you should make it within 30 working days of the date when it first appeared online.”

That said, I truly hope this clarifies the issue.

Comment by me

The BBC response simply omitted to address the complaint – that whereas BBC Newsnight said that there were two equal likely possibilities for the origin of Covid-19, the BBC website at presented evidence that such a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology could not have happened.  That was the case at the time of my complaint and it is still the case today.

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