August 13, 2021

Nine months ago, the scientific establishment’s determined efforts to stifle debate on the origins of the pandemic began to crumble with the revelation that Peter Daszak, a British scientist with long-standing links to Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), had secretly orchestrated a landmark statement in The Lancet. Published last February, this influential missive, signed by 27 leading public health experts, infamously attacked “conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin”, saying they only spread “fear, rumours, and prejudice.” Incredibly, it also praised Beijing’s “rapid, open and transparent” sharing of data.

The clandestine involvement of Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance charity, was exposed in a batch of emails obtained by US Right To Know. This tenacious body has played an important role in opening up global debate on the pandemic’s origins, chipping away with freedom of information requests to draw out crumbs of evidence exposing attempts by leading scientific figures to shut down talk of any lab-related incident. And the more we discover from such efforts, the murkier the events early last year seem to appear.

The investigative body’s most recent cache of documents — published this week — involve emails obtained from Ohio State University virologist Shan-Lu Liu. They reveal a senior Chinese researcher was infected with Covid-19 in a leading Beijing virology laboratory soon after the Wuhan outbreak, highlighting the risks of inadvertent laboratory transmission. They also suggest that, according to Prof Liu, WIV “has many bat samples not yet worked out or results published”.

Yet perhaps most significantly, the emails from early last year expose yet again how key science journals, supposed to promote unfettered debate among experts, instead pushed the idea that anyone questioning the notion of natural transmission from animals was a wild-eyed conspiracy nut. There has been alarm over The Lancet, along with the likes of Nature and Scientific American, for their roles in inflaming such myopic viewpoints, sparking concern over the Chinese ties of their corporate owners. Such fears are heightened when even Peter Ben Embarek, head of the World Health Organisation’s patsy study into the origins, suddenly turns round — as he did yesterday — and says Patient Zero in the pandemic may be a worker at a Wuhan laboratory after all.

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But these latest emails provoke serious questions over another influential journal, Emerging Microbes & Infections, which is printed by Taylor & Francis, the blue-chip British publisher with roots stretching back to the eighteenth century.

Last February, this journal published a widely-cited commentary by four US-based scientists under the title: “No credible evidence supporting claims of the laboratory engineering of Sars-CoV-2.” The newly obtained emails show the article was “invited” by Shan Lu, a professor in Massachusetts who co-edits the journal. Later, Prof Liu mentions comments and changes suggested by Shi Zhengli, the WIV virologist nicknamed “Batwoman” whose research was backed by Daszak. The pair found scores of Sars-like viruses in the bat caves of southern China, hundreds of miles from Wuhan.

The commentary appears to be carefully crafted to skirt around vexatious issues that might raise concerns over possible laboratory links. For instance, the emails show that the title was changed from “Sars-CoV-2: no evidence of laboratory origin”. This was suggested by Prof Liu since “we cannot rule out the possibility that it comes from a bat virus leaked out of a lab”. Later, he acknowledged rumours that the “furin cleavage site” — which allows the spike protein to bind efficiently to cells in human tissues — “may be engineered”. Similarly, another author admitted this could be “a marker for where the virus came from — frightening to think it may have been engineered”. Strangely, despite these emails, there was no mention of this furin site in the final statement, although it is one of the most striking aspects of the new virus and not found in similar coronaviruses.

The correspondence also shows a trio of US-based experts discussing whether to mention the risks of working with contagious coronaviruses in the statement. One suggested they should emphasise that “although Sars-CoV-2 shows no evidence of laboratory origins, viruses with such great public health threats must be handled properly in the laboratory and properly regulated”. This appeared in the final version.)

The journal’s Shanghai-based editorial office accepted the article within 12 hours. Such alacrity does not suggest the most rigorous peer review process, although one peer reviewer still hailed the “timely commentary” with a suggestion it must be published “right away”. Indeed, it’s curious that the newly obtained email chain shows editor Shan Lu telling two of the authors he would share a “secret” with them — that Taylor & Francis could become “very suspicious” when he pushed “a super fast review and accept (basically no review)”.

Their correspondence does not stop there. Linda Saif, another Ohio State University virologist, was asked to sign the commentary “to dispute some rumors”. She agreed by saying “I too feel strongly about denouncing this” — so strongly, in fact, that she also signed The Lancet commentary.

Another signatory was Lishan Su, a Chinese-born virologist then working at the same University of North Carolina as a prominent epidemiologist called Ralph Baric, who carried out hugely controversial research with Shi Zhengli that spliced a pair of coronaviruses to create a powerful chimeric version with potential to infect human airways.

Apologies for this blizzard of names, but bear with me. For the emails indicate that Baric was also consulted to review the Emerging Microbes & Infections statement before publication. Editor Shan Lu said, however, that they did not want to “appear that we are defending Ralph even though he did nothing wrong.” (Baric, incidentally, went on to sign a significant letter with 17 other prominent figures to Science three months ago, which helped change the dominant narrative by insisting “theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable”.)

But let’s return to that cutting-edge research by Baric and “Batwoman”. For another set of emails obtained by Buzzfeed have revealed that a copy of their paper — published in 2015 — was sent to Anthony Fauci, the leading US infectious diseases expert, at the end of January last year with a magazine article on how researchers were trying to unravel the pandemic origins that mentioned Shi’s work with Daszak. Fauci instantly circulated them around top US officials. He also contacted Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, who agreed to host a conference call the next day with eleven other experts. Lo and behold, within days some of these key figures had discounted previous strongly-held concerns about possible laboratory link — and then started attacking such “conspiracy theories” in journals, debates and on social media.

The dates of these events are intriguing. Five days after that conference call, Daszak started circulating the draft of the proposed Lancet statement — which was signed also by Farrar and two Wellcome Trust colleagues. This was published on February 19. One week later, Emerging Microbes and Infections printed its own commentary adopting a similar standpoint. The following month, four of the five participants on the conference call published another important commentary in Nature — which Farrar later admitted he convened — stating firmly that they did not believe “any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible”.

Why might a reputable British publisher act in such a manner? Well, it is worth noting that Emerging Microbes & Infections is published with a Chinese firm. It may not be the world’s best-known journal, but this commentary has been viewed 81,000 times and was the third most downloaded article last year for Taylor & Francis, a firm that publishes more than 2,500 academic journals. It’s also striking that members of the Emerging Microbes & Infections editorial board include a scientist who is a colonel in the People’s Liberation Army and was second in command of the military team sent into Wuhan to respond to the crisis, as well as two scientists who sought to change the name of the new virus to distance it from China and a top public health official in Beijing involved in the World Health Organisation’s inquiries into the origins.

Taylor & Francis did not respond to any of my queries on these issues. But on its website, it talks boldly of “enabling the latest academic thinking and discovery to be shared and built on”. Certainly it has pushed hard into the Chinese market — alongside its owner, the British-based exhibitions giant Informa — since opening an office in Shanghai in 2005. Indeed, the publisher has been criticised in the past for dropping dozens of journals from its offerings to Chinese libraries at the Communist regime’s request. The firm has denied bowing to censorship.

But it is hard to disagree with the conclusion of of Gary Ruskin, executive director of US Right To Know, on this latest twist in the origins saga: “The fact that Emerging Microbes & Infections solicited the commentary denying lab engineering of Sars-CoV-2, and expedited it with cursory review, suggests its editors may have intended to make a political point that was highly valuable to the Chinese government.”

So whose interests have the academic publishing sector and scientific establishment really been serving in this crisis? Sadly, it does not seem to have been always the noble ideal of furthering the global quest for scientific knowledge, let alone pushing our understanding of the origins of this cruel pandemic.