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Daily Telegraph Sensationalises and Misleads on Covid-19 Origin and “Lab Escape” Claim

A “huge if true” headline at the Daily Telegraph:

Exclusive: Coronavirus began ‘as an accident’ in Chinese lab, says former MI6 boss

Sir Richard Dearlove tells Telegraph’s Planet Normal podcast that new scientific report suggests key elements of the virus were ‘inserted’

The initial impression here is that Dearlove has been given access to bombshell privileged information, and indeed the story has been promoted as such all over Twitter. The problem, though, is that the scientific report does not make the headline claim, and Dearlove and the Telegraph hack Bill Gardner appear to have misunderstood the significance of the word “insertions”.

Also, it should be noted that Dearlove was prompted to comment about the report by the Planet Normal presenters – Allison Pearson raises the subject, and Dearlove just happens to have read it. This suggests some prior co-ordination between the presenter and the interviewee, and details in the Telegraph article such as a reference to “correspondence seen by The Telegraph” regarding the report suggest that Gardner is in contact with its authors directly, Thus it appears that the quote from Dearlove was simply secured to bolster the story about the report, trading on the mystique of intelligence.

The scientific paper, “Biovacc-19: A Candidate Vaccine for Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2) Developed from Analysis of its General Method of Action for Infectivity”, was published earlier this week in the academic journal QRB Discovery (or Quarterly Reviews of Biophysics Discovery, an off-shoot off a journal called Quarterly Reviews of Biophysics). It is available on open access here, and its current status is as an “Accepted Manuscript for QRB Discovery as part of the Cambridge Coronavirus Collection. Subject to change during the editing and production process.”

The title is unexpected given the incredible revelation it supposedly contains. One would have expected something more like “Evidence that Covid-19 was Man-Made and Escaped from a Lab”. But that’s because the paper is not about that, but rather concerned with a vaccine proposal. The abstract, though, does mention the following:

…We show the non-receptor dependent phagocytic general method of action to be specifically related to cumulative charge from inserted sections placed on the SARS-CoV-2 Spike surface in positions to bind efficiently by salt bridge formations; and from blasting the Spike we display the non human-like epitopes from which Biovacc-19 has been down-selected.

Gardner writes this up as follows:

In their paper, the scientists claim to have identified “inserted sections placed on the SARS-CoV-2 Spike surface” that explain how the virus binds itself to human cells.

It is also noted in the text of the paper:

It is a matter of fact that there are unique inserts in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein when they are aligned with other SARS-CoV sequences as shown in (Zhou et al., 2020)…. Figure 1 shows 6 alignments with inserts. The first 5 inserts are pointed out by (Zhou et al., 2020) and located
near/around position 72, 150, 250, 445, 471 while the insert around 680 is pointed out by (Coutard et al., 2020) as a furin-like cleavage site with cleavage between R and S. 

Relevant here is a quote from Zhou et al., whose paper was published in Nature (emphasis added):

The S genes of 2019-nCoV and RaTG13 are longer than other SARSr-CoVs. The major differences in the sequence of the S gene of 2019-nCoV are the three short insertions in the N-terminal domain as well as changes in four out of five of the key residues in the receptor-binding motif compared with the sequence of SARS-CoV (Extended Data Fig. 3). Whether the insertions in the N-terminal domain of the S protein of 2019-nCoV confer sialic-acid-binding activity as it does in MERS-CoV needs to be further studied.

This is difficult to follow for a non-scientist, but the reason that these “insertions” are not big news is that the original context demonstrates the word does not indicate human agency at work. It appears, then, that such “insertions” are a natural phenomenon. Some are aligned with other coronaviruses, others are unique.

The QRB Discovery paper is authored by Birger Sørensen, Andres Susrud and Angus Dalgleish. According to the Telegraph, a fourth author, “John Fredrik Moxnes, the chief scientific adviser to the Norwegian military, asked for his name to be withdrawn from the research, throwing its credibility into doubt”.The Telegraph also tells us that

An earlier version, seen by The Telegraph, concluded that coronavirus should correctly be called Wuhan virus; and claimed to have proven beyond reasonable doubt that the Covid-19 virus is engineered

“An earlier version” here means “an earlier version that was rejected from peer review”. So, it’s bait-and-switch: we’re supposed to be impressed that the paper was published in prestigious journal (“chaired by leading scientists from Stanford University and the University of Dundee”), but the key point stressed by Dearlove and the Telegraph did not get through. Further, the reference there to “Wuhan virus” is purely polemical, and it is perhaps relevant here that Dalgleish was a 2015 political candidate for UKIP.

The Telegraph continues:

A further analysis produced by Prof Dalgleish and his colleagues, due for release in the coming days, claims the Covid-19 virus has “unique fingerprints” that cannot have evolved naturally and are instead “indicative of purposive manipulation”.

Entitled “A Reconstructed Historical Aetiology of the SARS-CoV-2 Spike”, the new study, seen by The Telegraph, suggests the virus is “remarkably well-adapted virus for human co-existence”; and is likely to be the result of a Wuhan lab experiment to produce “chimeric viruses of high potency”,

We’re not told where this paper will appear, yet the claim is now out there with a “big name” endorsement and given a spurious authority before it can be scrutinised by others. Looks like a strategy.

As regards Dearlove’s involvement in all this, one commentator advises on Twitter:

Sir Richard was “C” at the time of the Iraq war, so when he starts talking about weapons of mass destruction we should all make sure we treat him with the respect he deserves.

In fact, Dearlove rejects the idea that the virus was created specifically as a weapon, but the general cautionary point still stands.