Since it started in 2001, Wikipedia has been notably good at handling controversial topics. It does so by having a surveillance system of adminstrators who can ultimately enforce the rules by way of sanctions. One of the most controversial topics on the project, for example, has been the article on Race and intelligence, whose Talk Page has 103 archived pages of discusssions. The lab leak hypothesis is not that controversial, but it has had its moments of heated confrontation.
In chronological order, I will summarize the carefully selected disputes, citing the corresponding Wikipolicy that was invoked by the opponents of the lab leak and, to balance it out, I'll also present how experienced Wikipedians argued against this policies in order to save the lab leak from being quasi-censored from Wikipedia.
1) Date: May 27 2020
Description of the dispute: A few editors proposed in late April 2020 on the talk page of "COVID-19 pandemic" to include a mention of the possibility that the virus originated in a lab leak. The facts to be included were based mostly on early reports from Daily Mail or Vanity Fair. At that time, the source of this hypothesis was British intelligence sources.
Editors reacted by calling the lab leak a conspiracy theory, and mentioning sources such as Vox as evidence that the hypothesis was already debunked (Vox has recently evolved on its views on the legitimacy of the subject by adding a clarification note to its original article).
It was at this moment, in April 2020 that I proceeded to run a Request for Comment (RFC) to try to reach consensus on this proposal. The RFC failed, and the almost unanimous result was to omit any mention of the lab leak at the COVID-19 pandemic page, at least until further notice.
Wikipolicy enforced: Wikipedia:Fringe theories
Here is a summary of how this wikipolicy work, in this particular case. Scholarly opinion, which are generally the most authoritative source, identified as the mainstream view on the origin of SARS-CoV-2 the natural origin hypothesis. The lab leak departed significantly from this mainstream hypothesis given that it proposed artificial manipulation of the virus in a laboratory in Wuhan.
Because reliable sources had said (this was back in May 2020) that the lab leak hypothesis was pseudoscientific or fringe, Wikipedia editors were careful not to present lab leak views alongside the natural origin view as though they are equal. While the lab leak hypothesis may have been, in some cases, significant to the COVID-19 pandemic article, it should be either mentioned so as not to obfuscate the description or prominence of the natural origin, or omited.
Since the lab leak hypotheses had the dual nature of having a substantial following but also having critics describing it as pseudoscience, the COVID-19 pandemic article was allowed (per this policy) to contain information to the effect that the lab leak was questionable science; as long as it wasn't described as unambiguously pseudoscientific (given that reasonable amount of academic debate still existed on that point). Despite this window of opportunity for a brief mention, the decision reached was to omit it entirely.
A notable experienced editor who stood up for the lab leak theory in this dispute was:
"At least one major intelligence agency in the world is investigating whether the virus accidently escaped a lab. Other reputable reports in the media show that U.S. intelligence is taking this seriously. Regardless of whether this theory is proven true or false, it's being taken seriously and thus doesn't meet the definition of being 'fringe' or a 'conspiracy theory'."
2) Date: February 19 of 2021
Description of the dispute: In February 10 2021, a draft on "COVID-19 lab leak hypothesis" was submitted to the "Miscellany for deletion" section of Wikipedia, a place to discuss whether drafts merit deletion on the basis of Wikipolicies. The draft contained a summary of the lab leak hypothesis based on many sources, mostly from the popular press. As seen from the previous dispute in this blog post, to include a bare mention of the lab leak in Wikipedia was considered controversial, and when someone boldly put a draft of a whole page devoted to it, of course it encountered fierce opposition. The community reached a consensus to delete the draft, after only nine days of deliberation.
Wikipolicy enforced: Point of view (POV) forks
A POV fork arose when a Wikipedia editor by the alias of ScrupulousScribe disagreed about the content of the COVID-19 Misinformation article which dismissed the lab leak theory as a conspiracy. Instead of resolving that disagreement by consensus, another article on the same subject was created by ScrupulousScribe to be developed according to the particular point of view that the lab leak theory was a legimitate scientific hypothesis. This second article is known as a "POV fork" of the first, and is inconsistent with policy: all facts and major points of view on a certain subject should be treated in one article. As Wikipedia does not view article forking as an acceptable solution to disagreements between contributors, such fork was nominated for deletion.
The anti-fringe brigade of editors rushed to refer to the fork as "POV" because they saw evidences of persistent disruptive editing.
ScrupulousScribe tried to include his personal theory that the lab leak theory was legitimately scientific in the existing article about COVID-19 pandemic, and a consensus of editors rejected it as complete nonsense. This defeat was not justification to create an article named "Unanswered questions about legitimacy of the lab leak theory" to expound the rejected personal theory. In this case, the fork was titled "COVID-19 lab leak hypothesis".
ScrupulousScribe maybe was sincerely convinced that there was so much information about the lab leak theory that it justified a separate article. However, any daughter article that deals with opinions about the subject of parent article must include suitably-weighted positive and negative opinions, and/or rebuttals, if available, and the original article should contain a neutral summary of the split article. Despite that a legitimate fork could have been made to adjust to these guidelines, the community overwhlemingly voted to delete the draft entirely.
A notable defender of the lab leak theory in this dispute was this Wikipedian:
"Even though there is a lot of crazy that feeds into the the umbrella of "Covid-19 lab leak", the idea is not unscientific.
There are many scientists who have described the conjectured event of a leak as improbable, but not so many who say it is impossible.
The question of the furin cleavage site is one factor that is described as having arisen in coronaviruses many times. This removes any necessity for it to have been inserted by genetic engineering as claimed by some. However we know that the virus existed in a post-bat reservoir (where the furin site would have been useful) before coming to attention in Wuhan. This reservoir may have been in a lab, or may have been in the wild, or in livestock.
Another argument given is that "no-one" was working on this type of project, in the Wuhan labs. It's by no means clear that we know what everyone in these labs was working on.
The RaTG-13 published datasets appear to be contaminated with both hoseshoe bat and Malayan pangolin DNA, implying that pangolins were involved in the science at some point, which has not been disclosed.
It should be noted that there are also ideas that the outbreak may have originated in Guandong or elsewhere, and only become widespread in Wuhan."
3) Date: June 12 2021
Description of the dispute: There is a divergence in the way the lab leak theory is presented in news sources as opposed to scientific literature. On news sources, there is abundant information on the lab leak theory, but in the scientific literature (by a cursory Google Scholar search with the key words "covid lab leak", for example) shows almost no results. Secondary sources such as scientific literature reviews that have addressed the origin of SARS-CoV-2 omit completely the possibility of a lab leak. This are the most important sources to use in articles about biomedical information. On other topics, to have just secondary sources (reputable articles in news outlets) should suffice to backup edits in Wikipedia articles. On the basis of this divergence, many editors had different opinions on whether to rely exclusively on scientific literature reviews to source the articles on SARS-CoV-2 origin, or to allow the rest of reliable sources to have their information included. Since no agreement was reached in Talk Pages, a Dispute Resolution Mechanism was started on one aspect of this controversy: should the page that list what information requires scientific literature reviews (MEDRS in Wikipedia jargon) include explicitely the origins of a pandemic?
This dispute is still ongoing so I can not cite the result, except to note that most editors have voted opposing the explicit and unambiguous inclusion of the origins of a pandemic in the list.
A notable defender of the lab leak theory in this dispute has been this Wikipedian:
"There's abundant evidence that normally excellent MEDS sources aren't reliable on the COVID origin issue. Also, Chinese blocking the road to the bat cave isn't biomedical information. Scientists getting death threats after expressing counter-"consensus" opinions isn't biomedical information. Funding for gain-of-function research isn't biomedical information. Lacking sufficient biomedical information to conclusively determine the SARS-CoV-2 virus and COVID-19 pandemic origin, we must rely on such non-biomedical information to describe the efforts to determine the origin, until more conclusive biomedical information emerges."
This dispute may serve as good argument against asking that every aspect of an article about the origin of a pandemic requires MEDRS sources, which has important implications for the way in which the lab leak hypothesis is depicted in Wikipedia.