Beijing’s useful idiots

Published by UnHerd (8th June, 2021)

Just over a year ago, I stumbled across an intriguing scientific paper. It suggested the pandemic that was ripping around the world was “uniquely adapted to infect humans”; it was “not typical of a normal zoonotic infection” since it first appeared with “exceptional” ability to enter human cells. The author of the paper, Nikolai Petrovsky, was frank about the disease when we spoke back then, saying its adaptability was either “a remarkable coincidence or a sign of human intervention”. He even broke the scientific omertà by daring to admit that “no one can say a laboratory leak is not a possibility”.

But even though Petrovsky has excellent credentials — professor of medicine at a prominent Australian university, author of more than 200 papers in scientific journals and founder of a company funded by the US government to develop new vaccine technologies — I was still anxious when my story went global. His original document had been posted on a pre-print site, so had not been peer reviewed, unlike if it had been published in a medical or scientific journal. These sorts of sites allow researchers to get findings out quickly. Petrovsky told me his first attempt to place these seismic findings was on BioRxiv, run by prominent New York laboratory. But it was rejected; eventually he succeeded on ArXiv, a rival server run by Cornell University. Last week, however, he told me this important origins modelling paper had finally been accepted by Nature Scientific Reports after “a harrowing 12 months of repeated reviews, rejections, appeals, re-reviews and finally now acceptance”.

This acceptance is one more sign of the changing political climate as suddenly it is deemed permissible to discuss the possibility that the virus causing havoc around the world might have emerged from a laboratory.Petrovsky has had to endure what he calls “the legitimacy” of his paper as a peer-reviewed publication being denied for a critical 12 months — and he is far from alone. “I have heard all too many tales from other academics who have been equally frustrated in getting their manuscripts dealing with research into the origins of the virus published,” he said.

Bear in mind that in the heat of this pandemic, papers printed in important journals were peer-reviewed within 10 weeks; one rattled through the process in just nine days for Nature. But, like Petrovsky, I have heard similar stories from many other frustrated experts who confronted the conventional wisdom that this lethal virus was a natural spillover event. Some could not even get letters published, let alone challenge those key papers promoting the Chinese perspective which have since turned out to be flawed or wrong.

Only now is acceptance emerging that the science establishment colluded to dismiss the lab leak hypothesis as a conspiracy theory, assisted by prominent experts with clear conflicts of interest, patsy politicians and a pathetic media that mostly failed to do its job. And yet, at the heart of this scandal lie some of the world’s most influential science journals. These should provide a forum for pulsating debate as experts explore and test theories, especially on something as contentious and fascinating as the possible origins of a global pandemic. Instead, some have played a central role in shutting down discussion and discrediting alternative views on the origins, with disastrous consequences for our understanding of events.

Many scientists have been dismayed by their actions. “It is very important to talk about the scientific journals — I think they are partially responsible for the cover-up,” said Virginie Courtier-Orgogozo, a leading French evolutionary biologist and key member of the Paris Group of scientists challenging the established view on these issues. The rejection of the lab leak hypothesis, she argues, in many places was not due to Trump’s intervention but the result of “respectable scientific journals not accepting to discuss the matter”.

The Paris Group, for instance, submitted a letter to The Lancet in early January signed by 14 experts from around the world calling for an open debate, arguing that “the natural origin is not supported by conclusive arguments and that a lab origin cannot be formally discarded”. This does not seem contentious. But it was rejected on the basis it was “not a priority for us”. When the authors queried this decision, it was reassessed and returned without peer review by editor-in-chief Richard Horton with a terse dismissal saying “we have agreed to uphold our original decision to let this go”. The authors ended up publishing their statement on a pre-print site.

Yet this is the same prestigious journal that published a now infamous statement early last year attacking “conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin”. Clearly, this was designed to stifle debate. It was signed by 27 experts but later turned out to have been covertly drafted by Peter Daszak, the British scientist with extensive ties to Wuhan Institute of Virology. To make matters worse, The Lancet then set up a commission on the origins — and incredibly, picked Daszak to chair its 12-person task force, joined by five others who signed that statement dismissing ideas the virus was not a natural occurrence.

Horton has been scathing about British government failures on the pandemic, even publishing a book lambasting them. Perhaps he would do well to turn his critical fire on his own journal’s failings as its 200th anniversary approaches. This is, remember, the same organ that inflamed the anti-vaccine movement by promoting Andrew Wakefield’s nonsense on MMR jabs — and then took 12 years to retract the damaging paper. But it is far from alone. The Paris Group has been collecting details of dissenting scientists, whose letters or critical articles were rebuffed by key journals which include Nature and Science, another two of the world’s most influential vehicles for scientific debate.

Nature’s stance has been especially questionable. Around the same time as Daszak’s letter was printed, a statement started appearing at the top of some previously-published papers such as one on “gain of function research” by US virologist Ralph Baric and Shi Zhengli, the “batwoman” expert from Wuhan, entitled “A SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses shows potential for human emergence”. This carefully-crafted note said such papers were being used as “basis for unverified theories that the novel coronavirus causing Covid-19 was engineered”, adding “there is no evidence that this is true; scientists believe that an animal is the most likely source of the coronavirus”.

Nature also published a landmark paper from Prof Shi and two colleagues, sent to them on the same day last January that China belatedly admitted to human transmission. This detailed the existence of a virus called RaTG13 that was taken from a horseshoe bat and stored at Wuhan Institute of Virology. It was said to be the closest known relative to Sars-Cov-2 with more than 96% genetic similarity. This was highly significant since it underlined that such diseases occur in nature, yet although closely related, would have taken decades to evolve in the wild and seemed too distant to be manipulated in a laboratory.

Some experts were immediately suspicious over the lack of information on this new strain. The reason soon became clear: its name had been changed from another virus identified in a previous paper but — unusually for such a publication — this was not cited in Nature. This masked a link to three miners who had died from a strange respiratory disease while clearing out bat droppings in a cave in south China, which was hundreds of miles from Wuhan but used by Shi and her colleagues to collect samples from bats. The Wuhan researchers even admitted they had eight more undisclosed Sars-like viruses from the mine. But despite a barrage of complaints that began within weeks of publication, it took Nature 10 months to publish her addendum, which only raised more questions that remain unanswered to this day.

Nature Medicine, its sister publication, was also home for the second key commentary that set the tone in the scientific community after Daszak’s outing in The Lancet. “The proximal origin of Sars-CoV-2″ bluntly concluded that “we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible”. Critics pointed out it was questionable to claim there was any “evidence” proving that Sars-CoV-2 is not a purposefully manipulated virus. Others noted that the statement mentions the mysterious furin cleavage site — which Nikolai Petrovksy drew attention to as allowing the spike protein to bind effectively to cells in human tissues yet which is not found in the most closely-related coronaviruses — but downplays its potential significance. The statement suggests “it is likely that Sars-CoV-2-like viruses with partial or full polybasic cleavage sites will be discovered in other species”. This has not happened so far.

This document — whose five signatories include one expert who was handed China’s top award for foreign scientists after nearly 20 years work there, and another who is a “guest professor” for the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention — has been accessed 5.4 million times and cited almost 1,500 times in other papers. It is so influential that when I emailed Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and one of The Lancet signatories, to see if his stance remained the same, he pointed me to this paper that he called “the most important research on the genomic epidemiology of the origins of this virus”.

The lead author was Kristian Andersen, an immunologist at Scripps Research Institute in California who has been a very active voice on social media condemning the lab leak theory and confronting its proponents. Yet the recent release of emails to Anthony Fauci exposed that Andersen had previously admitted to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director that the virus had unusual features that “(potentially) look engineered” and which are “inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory”. He claimed last week the discussion was “clear example of the scientific process” but as another top scientist said to me: “What a smoking gun!”. Now Anderson’s twitter account has suddenly disappeared.

There are many more examples. For instance, China pointed the finger at animals sold at the Huanan Seafood Market two days after admitting there was human transmission of the virus. Within weeks, four manuscripts describing a pangolin virus with a similar spike receptor-binding domain to Sars-Cov-2 were submitted to journals, all relying heavily on data published by one group of Chinese scientists the previous year. Two of these papers on pangolin coronaviruses were run by Nature. Inevitably, the articles sparked intense global discussion over whether pangolins sold at the market were the missing zoonotic link between bats and human beings, similar to civet cats with the first Sars epidemic.

The pangolin link was a false trail laid from China. Nature, however, rejected a submission from another key scientific dissident that showed how all four papers primarily used samples from the same batch of pangolins and that key data was inaccurately reported in two of these papers. Richard Ebright, a bio-security expert and professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, argues that such tolerance of “material omissions and material misstatements” expose a massive issue. “Nature and The Lancet played important roles in enabling, encouraging, and enforcing the false narrative that science evidence indicates Sars-CoV-2 had a natural-spillover origin points and the false narrative that this was the scientific consensus”.

Or as another well-placed observer put it: “The game seems to be for Nature and The Lancet to rush non-peer revised correspondences to set the tone and then delay critical papers and responses.”

But why would they do this? This is where things become even murkier. Allegations swirl that it was not down to editorial misjudgement, but something more sinister: a desire to appease China for commercial reasons. The Financial Times revealed four years ago that debt-laden Springer Nature, the German group that publishes Nature, was blocking access in China to hundreds of academic articles mentioning subjects deemed sensitive by Beijing such as Hong Kong, Taiwan or Tibet. China is also spending lavishly around the world to win supremacy in science — which includes becoming the biggest national sponsor of open access journals published by both Springer Nature and Elsevier, owner of The Lancet.

One source estimated that 49 sponsorship agreements between Springer Nature and Chinese institutions were worth at least $10m last year. These deals cover the publishing fees authors would normally pay in such journals, so they smooth the path for Chinese authors while creating a dependency culture. They have worked well for both sides: they offer the publishers access to the surging Chinese market and its well-resourced universities, while offering international recognition and status in return. But we know President Xi Jinping demands compliance with his world view, even from foreign-owned companies — and especially on an issue as sensitive as his nation’s possible role in unleashing a global catastrophe.

Critics fear these corporate links to China compromise output and distort agendas. “Scientific publishing has become a highly politicised business,” argues Petrovksy. “Clearly there needs to be an international investigation launched into the role of scientific publishers, their increasingly powerful influence as the major publishing houses buy out many of the smaller independent journals, together with their growing politicisation and susceptibility to overt influence. We need to examine what impact this may have had in the pandemic and what impact it could have on science in the future.”

Certainly it is valid to ask where was the real conspiracy in this tawdry saga that has stained so many reputations?

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