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US De-Funding of Coronavirus Research: The Mail on Sunday Connection

From Buzzfeed, 29 April:

Right-wing media and conspiracy theorists have seized on a series of grants awarded over the course of six years to study coronaviruses to undermine Dr. Anthony Fauci… The narrative moved to the spotlight at the White House when, during a press conference on April 17, a reporter with Newsmax asked President Donald Trump about the grants, totaling $3.7 million since 2014.

…The Daily Mail, a British tabloid known for publishing unreliable stories, first reported the $3.7 million figure on April 11. The paper wrote a story on the funding, parts of which went to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. Although the article stated that there’s no evidence the novel coronavirus leaked from the lab, it implied a correlation between the grants and the pandemic: “The revelation that the Wuhan Institute was experimenting on bats from the area already known to be the source of COVID-19 — and doing so with American money — has sparked further fears that the lab, and not the market, is the original outbreak source.”

The story actually appeared in the Mail on Sunday, but the paper shares its website with the Daily Mail and Mail Online and the three titles are frequently conflated. The MoS boasted of its role a week later:

Last week, this newspaper also disclosed that the institute had undertaken corona-virus experiments on bats captured more than 1,000 miles away in Yunnan, funded by a $3.7 million grant from the US government.

…Our revelations led to Donald Trump being quizzed at a press conference last week about the leak theory, to which the President replied: ‘We are doing a very thorough examination of this horrible situation.’

The result was that Trump ordered the cancellation of National Institutes of Health funding to the EcoHealth Alliance in New York, which had been cooperating with the Wuhan institute.

In fact, though, only about $100,000 a year went to the institute, through collaborative efforts. Peter Daszak, the head of EcoHealth, has now spoken about this in an interview for CBS’s 60 Minutes:

I can’t just show up in China and say, “Hi, I wanna work on your viruses.” I have to do this through the correct channels. So, what we do is we talk to NIH, and they approve the people we can work with in China. And that happened. And our collaboration with Wuhan was preapproved by NIH.

The 60 Minutes segment undercuts claims that the virus was created by human manipulation (it lacks tell-tale markers), or that it was a natural virus that escaped from the lab. On this latter suggestion, Daszak explains:

The closest known relative [in the Wuhan lab inventory] is one that’s different enough that it is not SARS-CoV-2. So, there’s just no evidence that anybody had it in the lab anywhere in the world prior to the outbreak.

The lab escape theory has also been heavily pushed by the Mail on Sunday.

In Daszak’s assessment:

This politicization of science is really damaging. You know, the conspiracy theories out there have essentially closed down communication between scientists in China and scientists in the U.S. We need that communication in an outbreak to learn from them how they control it so we can control it better. It’s sad to say, but it will probably cost lives.

Or as the CBS headline puts it more bluntly:

Trump Administration Cuts Funding for Coronavirus Researcher, Jeopardizing Possible COVID-19 Cure

This has apparently so upset Trump that he has issued a Tweet accusing CBS of defending China for business reasons.

CBS traces the grant cancellation back to a 14 April appearance by Matt Gaetz on Tucker Carlson Tonight; but that was already several days after the MoS article, which was part of a series written by the paper’s political editor Glen Owen. Owen’s journalism consists to a large extent of conveying political messages from people in government, such as a piece just yesterday undermining Health Secretary Matt Hancock, apparently for the benefit of cabinet rivals (and perhaps even Boris Johnson himself).

Why was Owen tasked with the job of probing virology in China and coming up with sensational stories (e.g. here and here)? It is reasonable to suppose that the material was suggested to him by a political contact, and given that his series kicked off with “Downing Street says China faces a ‘reckoning’ over their handling of coronavirus” on 28 March, citing “Boris Johnson’s allies”, we may suspect Downing Street sources. Classic Dom?

Footnote

Last week also saw a flurry of interest in a supposed “leaked intelligence dossier” reported in Australian media. As reported by the UK Guardian,

[Intelligence] sources… insisted that a “15-page dossier” highlighted by the Australian Daily Telegraph which accused China of a deadly cover up was not culled from intelligence from the Five Eyes network, an alliance between the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

…One told the Guardian they believed the information that appeared in the News Corp title was most likely to have originally come from the US: “My instinct is that it was a tool for building a counter-narrative and applying pressure to China. So it’s the intent behind it that’s most important. So possibly open source leads with a classification slapped on it.”

The Australia Daily Telegraph report was the subject of an ABC Media Watch segment that can be seen here. According to the Sydney Morning Herald (link added):

The episode highlights the danger of mischaracterising the work of intelligence agencies. Some of the footnotes in the document contained references to US media reports that were based on unsubstantiated assertions from the US government – the same kind of circular intelligence which resulted in the “children overboard” affair in 2001.

One wonders if British media reports also featured. The origins of the dossier are obscure, but it is thought to have emerged from the US Embassy in Canberra. Did a staffer there cobble it together, or was it a freelance effort by some third-party bad actors that was pressed into service? Either is possible.

The dossier has also been heavily promoted by the US Christian right, with one neo-Pentecostal prophet claiming that “on April 23, the Holy Spirit showed me China is hiding information that needs to be released in the next 30 days”. She claimed that the dossier was a “partial fulfillment” of this.

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