Elite journals under scrutiny over role in Wuhan lab leak debate

Critics argue that The Lancet failed to disclose potential conflict of interest when dismissing the leak theory

June 7, 2021
Peter Daszak (left), a member of the WHO team investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, speaks at Wuhan’s airport in China on February 10, 2021, at the end of the WHO mission
Source: Getty
Questions about Sars-CoV-2’s origins have put focus on Peter Daszak’s (far left) work in Wuhan

Just a month ago, the idea that coronavirus came from an accidental lab leak in Wuhan was derided by much of the press as a fringe conspiracy theory and banned on Facebook as a form of misinformation.

Now, a host of distinguished scientists, including Anthony Fauci, the US White House’s chief medical adviser, credit the idea as plausible, if far from proven, and are calling for more openness from the lab at the centre of the theory, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

This extraordinary about-turn has critics asking hard questions, including of elite academic journals, about whether it was right to have shunted the lab leak theory into the fringes in the first place.

Journalists who have rehabilitated the lab leak theory in recent months point the finger at The Lancet for allowing Peter Daszak, president of research funder the EcoHealth Alliance, to squash notions of a lab leak early on – without disclosing that he had a significant potential conflict of interest.

In February 2020, just as the Western world was waking up to the pandemic’s spread, Dr Daszak, a British zoologist who has become a controversial central figure in the origins debate, organised and signed a letter – along with a who’s who of pandemic experts – in The Lancet to “strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin”. The letter has been mentioned in news stories more than 350 times so far.

While a “natural origin” might technically include a virus that was captured in the wild and then leaked, un-engineered, from the lab – a kind of “lab leak lite” hypothesis – this prospect was not addressed in the letter. Recently released emails show that, in April 2020, Dr Daszak wrote to Dr Fauci to thank him for publicly dismissing the idea of a “lab release”. 

Dr Daszak chairs The Lancet’s task force looking into the origins of the pandemic. He was also part of the international team of experts who probed Wuhan for the World Health Organisation – and concluded a lab outbreak was “extremely unlikely”, despite the WHO’s own director general saying the team had not been allowed access to all data at the WIV.

But nowhere did The Lancet disclose a critical fact: Dr Daszak had for years funded and worked with WIV researchers to collect bat coronaviruses from the wild – in order to get ahead of them before they spread to humans – and led National Institutes of Health-funded work on, among other things, “virus infection experiments across a range of cell cultures from different species and humanized mice” to assess how they might spread.

“If the SARS2 virus had indeed escaped from research he funded, Daszak would be potentially culpable. This acute conflict of interest was not declared to The Lancet’s readers,” said an investigation into the theory published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in early May.

A spokeswoman for The Lancet said that Dr Daszak “is one of the world’s leading experts on zoonotic diseases, including coronaviruses, with experience working in China” and that his task force would assess “all leading hypotheses” including “laboratory release”. Dr Daszak did not respond to a request for comment.

Rossana Segreto, a former researcher at the University of Innsbruck, said that in January The Lancet rejected a letter by her and colleagues calling for an “open scientific debate” about the origins of the virus. A spokeswoman for the journal said that it did not comment on papers not published.

Dr Segreto also pointed a critical finger at Nature Medicine, which in March 2020 added an “editors’ note” to a 2015 paper documenting the creation of a “chimeric virus” from a bat coronavirus in work done in collaboration with the WIV. The note stresses that there is “no evidence” coronavirus was engineered.

But this 2015 paper, critics argue, is exactly the kind of research that could lead to a risky new virus, and the paper itself has been tweeted tens of thousands of times.

“That message in Nature should now be corrected,” said Dr Segreto. But a spokeswoman for the journal said that it would not amend the note “at this time and will continue to follow the scientific developments related to this topic”.

However, some prestige journals have also rehabilitated the lab leak theory, not just thrown cold water over it.

A turning point in the theory’s credibility came on 14 May, when Science published a letter signed by 18 eminent coronavirus experts arguing that the leak was a “viable” theory.

This was not the result of a change of policy by the journal to start taking the leak theory seriously, said Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals. “This letter was signed by important figures in the Covid story, and we decided to publish it,” he said. “We didn’t get anything prior to this that made it through our process.”

Magdalena Skipper, editor-in-chief of Nature, said that the Science letter was a “very legitimate call” for further investigation, and that no discussions about the origin of the virus had been “taboo” at Nature.

But she said she was “puzzled as to why we’re having [the debate] again in the absence of new evidence”.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Elite journals scrutinised in Wuhan lab leak debate

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Reader's comments (6)

We're having the debate again because the was never a deate. Also, this article is welll behind the curve in that emails obtained through a FOI request by mainstream newspapers in the US show colusion between Daszak and Fauci with the former thanking the latter for his brave support in the media. Of course it was Fauci's section of the NIH who channelled money to Wuhan via Daszak's private foundation. The reason that there is now a debate is that the original evidence was buried by the anti-Trump lobby, and that included the so-called scientific press. Also, there was some obvious closing of ranks by scientists who feared that if the public realised what they were playing at with gain of function research, there may be calls to defund all of them. Worse, someone may ask for a list of the potential benefits of the work, beyond the military applications. This work continued to be funded by the NIH, even when it was clear that military scientists from the PLA were involved. Indeed, one of them filed a patent for a SARS-Cov-2 vaccine in February 2020, a remarkable feat considering the official novelty if the infection. It's now time for truly open access and scientific debate, along with scepticism/cynicism of the imprimaturs bestowed by the increasingly politicised "top" journals who still make scientists pay to read their own work.
Second only to the leak of the virus in the first instance, the deliberate cover up by the scientific community with the collusion of the world's media is the most serious scandal of this century. When Daszak and other corrupt scientists dismissed the lab leak hypothesis as a "conspriacy theory", why did the media not ask itself: what conspiracy? A conspiracy theory requires the theorist to state that there is a conspiracy. In the case of the lab leak such a conspiracy obviously does not exist. Suggesting that a virus leaked from a lab known to be performing experiments on such viruses is clearly and catagorically a reasonable suggestion, not a conspiracy theory. Alarm bells should have rung among the media. The fact that Daszak, Fauci, as well as, apparently, Jeremy Farrar and Patrick Vallance, rubbished the idea of a lab leak is further and incontrovertible evidence that science is utterly corrupt, highjacked by groupthink, money and politics. I believe almost nothing the scientific establishment says because they are peddling their agendas, not science.
I'm a scientist and so while I agree with what you say, I would defend the ideals of the scientific method and those who practice it rigorously and honestly. What is clear is that truth in any field can't survive politicization and its propaganda, and propaganda rules a lot more than the scientific branch of academia.
Fauci and Daszak both supported gain-of-threat experiments. https://peterdaszak.com
"Magdalena Skipper, editor-in-chief of Nature, said that the Science letter was a “very legitimate call” for further investigation, and that no discussions about the origin of the virus had been “taboo” at Nature. But she said she was “puzzled as to why we’re having [the debate] again in the absence of new evidence”." WHAT DEBATE? Perhaps this explains, in part, why Nature still seems to be singing from the now highly questionable, if not yet fully discredited, Fauci/Daszak hymn sheet? Or is it they are in the CCP's pocket?
Clearly there is malfeasance going on here. But why stop here. I suggest that this probing of origins should not be restricted to probing the laboratory origin of SARS-CoV-2. Doubts arose about the natural zoonotic origin of MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV-1 as well; surely now is the time to re-open them to investigation. And why stop there? There’s HIV, Hendra, Ebola, Nipah and Zika; origins as some form of a conspiracy were quashed for these too. And let’s not forget that SARS-CoV-2 and MERS-CoV are not the only beta-corona viruses found recently to infect humans, there is also HCoV-HKU1, HCoV-NL63, HCoV-OC43 and HCoV-229E. Does anyone find it suspicious that these were identified in humans before SARS-CoV-2? Obviously the Wuhan Institute of Virology was gradually working up to perfecting a more dangerously infective version. Just like they gradually produced new and more infective versions in sequence, alpha to delta. Seriously, though, the basis for much of this, the Nash opinion piece in Bull. Atom. Sci., is seriously flawed. His inadequacies in ALL the science is perhaps forgivable since he is not a viral geneticist, is unfamiliar with molecular genetic techniques, has problems with mathematics and probabilities and misunderstands evolution by natural selection. Not forgivable is his passing off the lack of discovery, in a year and a half, of a firm chain of transmission for SARS-CoV-2 as suspicious; as a science journalist he must know this took a decade and a half to achieve (provisionally) for SARS-CoV-1. Even less forgivable is his dismissal of the paper in Nature Medicine by Andersen et al as mere opinion, not research, because it appeared as a letter. He worked for Nature and he cannot have been unaware that short research articles of wide interest are still called “Letters” in Nature, an antiquated practice several of the longest established science journals still adhere to. This is an intentional attempt to deceive because, understandably, most readers would not know such esoteric details of journal nomenclature, just as they would be unaware of the publication dates of papers of interest, or the details of molecular genetics. But readers should expect the highest standards of truthfulness and competence, and this Nicholas Nash did not supply. But he certainly got what he wanted by being the new darling of the "China dun it" lobby. That this theory has attained significant and indeed saturating airtime is politically driven. Of course it is permitted by the very language of science which almost never absolutely rules something out. But not ruling something “out” does not mean that everything is “in” at equal probability.

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