• First published in 2004 as Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion (BNOR).

    Previously at:
    blogs.salon.com/0003494
    barthsnotes.wordpress.com

    Email me
    (Non-commercial only)

  • Archives

  • Twitter

  • Supporting

  • Recent comments

Some Notes on the Media and Wuhan “Lab-Leak” Claims

From the Daily Mail, last week:

Rand Paul says Fauci LIED to Congress by insisting US never funded gain-of-function research at Wuhan lab after newly unearthed grant proposal reveals how scientists studied bat coronavirus with American money

Dr. Anthony Fauci has been accused of lying to Congress by claiming the US did not fund gain-of-function research after newly unearthed documents regarding the grant proposal a study at the Wuhan lab blamed for creating COVID were made public for the first time.

The files were obtained by The Intercept as part of an FOI request to drill down the possible root of COVID and whether the US had any role in it.

…Nowhere in the report are the words gain-of-function used to describe the project.

The only mention of it is the NIH’s addition that ‘no funds are provided and no funds can be used to support gain-of-function research’.

Framing the story via an allegation by a politician is less of a risky investment, but it also shows a certain lack of confidence in the claims; and the NIH quote specifically ruling out gain-of-function research is something of an anti-climax. Oddly, the quote was not even mentioned by the original Intercept article, although it refers a different part of the same document:

The bat coronavirus grant provided EcoHealth Alliance with a total of $3.1 million, including $599,000 that the Wuhan Institute of Virology used in part to identify and alter bat coronaviruses likely to infect humans. Even before the pandemic, many scientists were concerned about the potential dangers associated with such experiments. The grant proposal acknowledges some of those dangers: “Fieldwork involves the highest risk of exposure to SARS or other CoVs, while working in caves with high bat density overhead and the potential for fecal dust to be inhaled.”

“Alter” here hints at “gain of function”, but of course the word has wider meanings. But why does the article follow “the potential dangers associated with such experiments” with a quote about the (well-known) potential dangers of harvesting samples in the wild? It’s a non-sequitur, and so weird that it undermines confidence in the authors.

The article also refers to “900 pages of information”, a rhetorical strategy that implies a mass of pertinent evidence rather than a few points that may be relevant to the discussion here and there. I expressed some frustration about this on social media to Richard Ebright, one of the more high-profile “lab-leak” proponents, and was  surprised to get a personal response, which was that I was a “troll” and “stupid“. Despite this irascibility, however, Ebright also kindly directed me to the Intercept‘s follow up article, a more discursive discussion with a range of views as to what “gain of function” actually entails (1).

Claims about “gain of function” at Wuhan seem to me to be compensatory for the failure to establish firm evidence of human manipulation in samples of SARS-CoV-2. This is also why lab-leak proponents have positioned themselves having overcome a “cover-up”. Thus the Daily Telegraph last month, reporting on a Channel 4 documentary:

Scientists created false narrative over suspected Covid leak from Wuhan lab, say experts

Last February, a group of 27 scientists, including Sir Jeremy Farrar, president of the Wellcome Trust, wrote a letter in The Lancet stating: “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin.”

However, it later emerged that one of the key people behind the letter was Peter Daszak, who had worked closely with Wuhan scientists researching Sars-related coronaviruses in bats. An addendum to The Lancet letter setting out his links to the Chinese lab was not published until June this year.

A further article published in Nature Medicine also claimed there was no evidence to suggest that the virus had been manipulated. But scientists told filmmakers it was wrong to draw such conclusions based on the available evidence.

David Relman, professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University, who advises the US government on biological threats and risks, said: “I was a little perplexed and a little bit upset with five very good scientists, some of whom I know well, who I thought stepped way out beyond what they should have been saying, based on the data available to all of us.”

Richard Ebright, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, added: “These were not scientific papers, they did not present scientific evidence, they did not analyse and support scientific data, they were presenting opinion, they did not belong in scientific journals.

“A small group of scientists, aided by journalists, established and enforced a false narrative that science showed Sars-Cov-2 was a natural zoonotic spillover and a further false narrative that this was the scientific consensus.”

Both the letter and the short article were published in the correspondence sections of their respective journals, which undermines Ebright’s complaint – of course they “present opinion”, that’s what that part of an academic journal is for.

The Lancet letter appeared during a period in which conspiracy theories were rife – a PolitiFact page from a month before lists all kinds of wild claims, including far-reaching “bioweapon” allegations that were being promoted by Steve Bannon and Miles Guo. Given this context, it was perfectly reasonable to refer to “conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin”. When Bannon and Guo went on to produce a supposed whistleblower named Li-Meng Yan, she was all over the media with extraordinary claims that the chimerical nature of the virus was blatantly obvious and that the only reason other scientists weren’t saying so was because of the influence of the Chinese Communist Party (2). If more nuanced “lab-leak” or “infected scientist” theories (not all of which require a non-natural virus) weren’t gaining traction, I suggest that this kind of sensationalist material was the reason, rather than the media being overawed and cowed by a letter in the Lancet. Lab-leak claims were promoted in particular by the UK Mail on Sunday during the months that followed the Lancet letter. (3)

There have also been attempts to personally discredit the Lancet letter writers, the suggestion being that they failed to disclose their own links to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. This formed the basis for an attack piece that appeared in the Daily Telegraph on Friday (syndicated to Yahoo! News here), which has now been followed up with a piece in the Daily Mail. The articles do not reveal anything not already in the public domain and some of the linkages are tenuous or by second-degree. The Lancet letter includes a reference to “our colleagues on the frontline”, which wouldn’t have been included had the authors been attempting to give a false impression of personal distance. A mountain range is being made out of molehills.

The new Telegraph article also includes exultant commentary from two scientists the newspaper has promoted previously:

Angus Dalgleish, professor of oncology at St Georges, University of London, and Norwegian scientist Birger Sorensen, who struggled to have work published showing a link between the virus and Wuhan research, said there had been an “extreme cover-up”.

Commenting on the discovery that so many of the signatories were linked to China, they said: “This article is the first to show beyond reasonable doubt that our entire area of virus research has been contaminated politically. We bear the scars to show it.”

The “struggle” here appears to mean the usual peer review process, and no evidence is provided that well-grounded arguments were excluded unfairly. And I’m wary of a lecture on “political contamination” from a former UKIP candidate.

The Telegraph‘s previous article on Dalgleish and Sorensen emerged out of a Telegraph podcast involving Richard Dearlove, the retired former head of MI6. Dearlove was impressed by their work, and his endorsement has given “lab leak” claims the mystique of intelligence, even though he doesn’t know anything more about it than the general public. The authority of intelligence agencies also forms the basis for a new book by an Australian journalist named Sharri Markson, entitled What Really Happened In Wuhan. Speaking recently to Maajid Nawaz on LBC, Markson said that she had spoken to people who had seen “top secret” intelligence:

“I’ve interviewed President Trump, I’ve interviewed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, twice over the past six months, I’ve interviewed John Ratcliffe, who was the director of national intelligence in the United States, along with many others including Sir Richard Dearlove… who was the head of British intelligence, and all of these people… give it very high probability that it leaked from a lab.”

Back in May, however, it was reported that Markson’s

exclusive about a “chilling” document produced by Chinese military scientists is based on a discredited 2015 book containing conspiracy theories about biological warfare which is freely available on the internet.

The book itself is out later this month from HarperCollins (4).

Notes

1. I got off lightly with Ebright – someone else who made a similar point to me got “shit-for-brains idiot” in reply. In fairness, though, variations of this stock insult are also deployed liberally by Ebright against anti-vaxxers and the likes of Sebastian Gorka.

2. Yan has since fallen out with Guo, a development that doesn’t appear to have caught much media interest.

3. In August 2021, Peter Embarek, Head of the WHO Mission to Wuhan, told a Danish interviewer that a Chinese scientist being infected while harvesting samples in the field is a “likely hypothesis” for the origins of SARS-CoV-2. Even though this was just a casual comment provided months after the WHO’s report, the The Times mispresented it as the organisation’s new official position, with the sensational headline “First Covid carrier probably Chinese scientist, says WHO”. The paper also used a file photo of Embarek holding up a scientific diagram, thus falsely giving the impression that he was presenting new findings rather than speaking informally. Of course, the headline on its own also implies the possibility of a lab-leak, although Embarek’s opinion is that this is “unlikely” (downscaled from the WHO report’s “highly unlikely”).

4. Markson’s choice of publisher shows how the world has changed over the years. Way back in 1998 Rupert Murdoch told the company not to publish a book about China by Chris Patten, as he feared it might damage his prospects of doing business in the country.