World’s most famous medical journal is accused of doing China’s dirty work – by denouncing the Covid lab leak theory as a conspiracy
Published by The Mail on Sunday (27th June, 2012)
Earlier this year, the prominent German psychiatrist Thomas Schulze sent a proposal to Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of world-renowned medical journal The Lancet, suggesting they start a debate over the complicity of Chinese scientists in the persecution of Uighurs.
His idea arose amid alarm over repressive surveillance, garnering of genetic data, enforced sterilisation and organ harvesting of prisoners locked away in brutally repressive concentration camps.
‘We believe that the human rights situation in China has become unbearable and of unprecedented scope that we cannot stay silent any longer and at least need to have an open discussion in the best academic tradition,’ wrote Prof Schulze.
He knew The Lancet did not shy away from political controversy, having signed a statement published by the journal last year calling on Britain to end the ‘torture and medical neglect’ of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, held in prison over US extradition demands.
But he was staggered by the response from Horton who said he did not ‘wish to do anything that might imperil’ his editor in China. ‘Publishing a call for a boycott might well make her situation untenable,’ he wrote.
As Schulze says, this was ‘clear admission of kowtowing’ to Beijing. ‘Scientific independence and freedom of speech are integral to Western society and influential journals should not be in situations that compromise their integrity.’
He is right. Yet few scientists dare voice criticism in public given the power of journals like The Lancet to make or break careers – despite many others sharing his alarm over its editor’s seeming enthusiasm for the Chinese regime.
This 198-year-old journal is now at centre of growing global questions over the role of supposedly authoritative scientific media in appeasing China’s Communist regime and stifling debate on suggestions that Covid could have leaked from a Wuhan lab.
And the heat is on Horton, a combative character who has edited The Lancet for 26 years. He has been prominent in the pandemic, lashing out at the British and US governments for policy failures, while defending China – even insisting it was unfair to blame it as the virus source or to hunt for Patient Zero.
At the core of the concern is possibly the most controversial article in any science journal since the pandemic’s start: what The Lancet billed as a ‘statement in support of the scientists, public health professionals and medical professionals of China’ published last February.
The authors attacked what they described as ‘conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin’.
They praised Beijing’s ‘rapid, open and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak’ but warned this was ‘threatened by rumours and misinformation’ on the origins – rather than by a dictatorship that silenced doctors, hid data and buried evidence.
The Lancet letter, signed by 27 experts, played a key part in silencing scientific, political and media discussion of any idea that this pandemic might have begun with a lab incident rather than spilling over naturally from animals.
It was even reportedly used by Facebook to flag articles exploring the lab leak hypothesis as ‘false information’ before the social media giant dramatically changed tack last month.
Yet it emerged later that The Lancet statement was covertly drafted by British scientist Peter Daszak – a long-term collaborator with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which was carrying out high-risk research on bat coronaviruses and had known safety issues.
Daszak is the £300,000-a-year president of EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based charity that funnelled funds to his friend Shi Zhengli, the Wuhan virologist known as ‘Batwoman’ for her work in collecting samples from bats.
Four months later, The Lancet set up a ‘Covid-19 Commission’ to assist governments and scrutinise the origins.
It was led by Jeffrey Sachs, the celebrity economist and author who campaigns on aid with rock star Bono. Sachs recently dismissed claims that China is committing genocide on the Uighurs, adopting Beijing’s line that it is confronting Islamic militancy.
Incredibly, he backed Daszak to lead his commission’s 12-person taskforce investigating Covid’s origins – joined by five fellow signatories to The Lancet statement. Daszak’s conflicts of interest were exposed by this newspaper six months ago.
Last week The Lancet finally ‘recused’ him from its commission and published an ‘addendum’ to its statement detailing some of his Chinese links.
Yet critics say the journal has still failed to admit that six more signatories to that February statement have ties to Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance as directors or partners.
‘It would have been better for The Lancet to have stated that Daszak’s and other signers’ previous declarations were untruthful and to have attached an editorial expression of concern,’ said Richard Ebright, a bio-security expert and professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Now The Mail on Sunday has learned that The Lancet is set to publish a second statement by these signatories that presses the case that Covid probably emerged through natural ‘zoonotic’ transmission from animals to humans.
‘We consider that it seems more likely a transmission through an intermediate mammalian host, although other possibilities can’t be fully excluded,’ said one, adding that they were still ‘missing some signatures’.
Four of The Lancet’s original experts seem to have since shifted their position, including Charles Calisher, a Colorado virologist. He admits ‘there is too much coincidence’ to ignore the lab leak hypothesis and that ‘it is more likely that it came out of that lab’.
Bernard Roizman, based at the University of Chicago, has also become convinced the virus was taken to a lab, worked on and then ‘some sloppy individual’ let it out.
Such is the furore aroused by this single Lancet statement 16 months ago that one of the scientists who signed it told me: ‘It’s a wonder no one has burned a cross on my lawn or threatened my family’.
Yet Horton, a former doctor, is no stranger to controversy – most notoriously as publisher of the discredited paper by a former hospital colleague in London that fuelled the global anti-vaccination movement.
This 1998 paper by Andrew Wakefield – later found guilty by a medical inquiry of dishonesty – falsely claimed a link between MMR jabs and autism, provoking fear among families, a sharp fall in vaccinations and lethal outbreaks of measles.
It took Horton 12 years to retract this toxic study, which still reverberates today as the anti-vaccination lobby promotes concerns over Covid jabs. ‘The Wakefield debacle alone should have finished his tenure,’ said one leading US biologist.
Curiously, on January 24 last year – as news seeped out from Wuhan about a deadly new virus – Horton rounded on the rest of the media for ‘escalating anxiety’ in a tweet that insisted there was ‘no reason to foster panic’ over a disease with ‘moderate transmissibility and relatively low pathogenicity’.
Yet he was soon blaming Ministers for thousands of fatalities due to their ‘slow, complacent and flat-footed’ reaction, while condemning their scientific advisers for complicity in what he called ‘the greatest science policy failure for a generation’.
He drove home his message in frequent broadcasts, newspaper columns and even a book called The Covid-19 Catastrophe.
Meanwhile, he appeared on Chinese state television to praise the Beijing government for ‘acting tremendously decisively’.
‘We have a great deal to thank China for the way it handled the outbreak in Wuhan,’ he said – despite evidence that its officials delayed warning the world, lied about the onset and covered up crucial evidence of human transmission.
Horton has mentioned concerns over China’s behaviour yet he attacked US politicians ‘for giving credibility to conspiracy theories’ after President Donald Trump suggested the virus could have emerged from a Wuhan lab.
‘Instead of joining the chorus of criticism against Beijing, one should perhaps try to put oneself in the position of Chinese policymakers,’ he wrote in The Guardian.
Horton’s admiration for China is not new. In 2015, the year he received a top honour from Beijing, he told Lancet readers that ‘China’s emphasis on friendship, and the free flow of critical ideas that such friendship encourages, might offer lessons to other nations about how scientific co-operation can accelerate social and political change’.
Meanwhile, he has used his magazine to pursue political causes, with endorsement of Extinction Rebellion and a heavily contested claim that civilian deaths related to the Iraq War were massively undercounted.
Those seeking to offer alternative views on the origins debate have been frustrated. One group submitted a letter signed by 14 global experts in January, arguing that ‘the natural origin is not supported by conclusive arguments and that a lab origin cannot be formally discarded’.
It was rejected by The Lancet on basis that it was ‘not a priority for us’.
Fiona Godlee, editor-in-chief of the rival British Medical Journal, said she thought it was fine to publish the Daszak article but the conflicts of interest should have been stated clearly.
‘But it’s not so good for the editor to then give such unequivocal support for China, telling people to back off from criticism, when the facts about the origins of the pandemic were far from established.
‘All journals get accused of taking positions. The challenge is to keep the journal open as a platform for all sides of a debate until the scientific facts have been established beyond doubt.’
Others are scathing in their criticism of Horton. ‘Thinly veiled political activism has ruined the reputation of the journal, possibly irreparably,’ said one US scientist. ‘The only saving grace is that many other journals have done only marginally better.’
‘The editor of The Lancet seems to have been a key figure in the smothering of debate,’ said Tory MP Bob Seely, who accused Horton of ‘totally unacceptable’ actions in putting politics and possible commercial interests over the search for truth.
‘The claims of a cover-up over the most important scientific issue of our time grow stronger by the day. It is vital we get to the truth over what appears to have been a cover-up on the pandemic origins with the collusion of journals such as The Lancet.’
Behind such concerns lies fear these influential organs are pandering to China to protect commercial interests as the ascendant superpower spends billions in its bid to dominate science for economic and military advantage.
The German psychiatrist Schulze could not persuade any journal to touch his idea of a debate over scientific ties to the atrocities being inflicted on Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
The wider scientific journal Nature has also been accused of stifling debate on the lab leak theory.
Nikolai Petrovsky, an Australian professor of medicine and vaccine researcher who was among the first experts to raise concerns over the nature of the new virus, said his landmark paper was rejected by The Lancet in just two days as a ‘hot potato’ that might offend China.
‘We thought The Lancet would be interested since they had been publishing on the other side of the origins debate, including the scientifically unfounded Peter Daszak propaganda piece,’ he said. ‘But they couldn’t have rejected it faster.
‘Under the current leadership, The Lancet seems to have turned from a reputable leading clinical journal into a journal more interested in publicity than good science and increasingly beholden to Chinese influences in its publication policies.’
The Lancet is owned by the London-based RELX group. It has a wide range of undertakings in China, including one to disseminate health information in China with Tencent, the tech giant that plays a central role in rigid government censorship.
A statement from The Lancet said its commissions brought together experts to address pressing issues in health and medicine. ‘All final decisions about commissioners and contributors are made by the Chair,’ it said.
It insisted the journal was editorially independent, setting ‘extremely high standards’ with papers selected ‘based on the strength of the science and the credibility of the scientific argument’.
A spokeswoman declined to comment on unpublished papers, questions around the Daszak paper, and over Horton’s defensive approach to China.