July 6, 2021 - 8:22pm

Someone needs to tell The Lancet the most basic tenet of crisis management: when in a hole, stop digging. Instead, this world-renowned medical journal seems determined to keep shredding its reputation, in tandem with a group of experts ignorant to the damage they have caused the scientific community as they have stifled debate regarding the pandemic’s origins.

Early last year, just as the world was starting to grapple with the trauma of Covid, The Lancet published a highly-controversial statement in support of Chinese scientists, attacking “conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin” and praising Beijing’s “rapid, open and transparent sharing of data”.

Clearly this was absurd given China’s cover-up, silencing of doctors and deletion of key data. But the statement, signed by 27 prominent experts, played a key role in shutting down suggestions the pandemic might have started with a lab incident, rather than spilling over naturally from animals. Scandalously, we later learned it was covertly drafted by British scientist Peter Daszak, £300,000-a-year president of Eco-Health Alliance charity and long-term partner of researchers at Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Despite the global furore, Daszak’s gang has gone back into battle with a follow-up statement, as I revealed they were planning to do 10 days ago. Even the headline on The Lancet article — Science, not speculation, is essential to determine how SARS-CoV-2 reached humans — seems designed to gaslight their critics, given their previous stance.

This latest statement is more nuanced but again disingenuous. It claims “the strongest clue” is that the virus evolved in nature, while saying suggestions of a lab leak “remain without scientifically validated evidence”. Yet there is zero firm evidence for natural spillover, and significant circumstantial evidence to raise suspicions of a lab incident. Besides, any leak could have involved a virus sampled from nature.

Other scientists, such as Alina Chan from the Broad Institute, have pointed out also that none of the linked articles claiming to support their claims actually provides any evidence of how SARS-CoV-2 might have naturally emerged in Wuhan.

Laughably, the article excuses Daszak’s incredible role in the World Health Organisation mission to probe the origins by saying this was done “as an independent expert in a private capacity” — as though he would have disregarded his personal, professional and financial ties to Wuhan scientists carrying out risky experiments in labs with known safety concerns.

The statement even dares argue it is “time to turn down the heat of the rhetoric and turn up the light of scientific inquiry” when no one has been more forceful in pushing the idea that a possible lab leak was “baloney” and a “conspiracy theory” than Daszak.

Once again, regrettably, The Lancet has failed to detail all the conflicts of interest of these signatories such as a trio with recent or current Eco-Health affiliations. It is a shame also to see Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, and two of his colleagues tarnishing one of science’s finest brands by adding their names again.

Yet the most significant aspect of this latest stunt are that three of the more distinguished signatories of the first statement opted not to sign the follow-up. The reason is simple: they symbolise how this debate has shifted in recent months despite the best efforts of Daszak and his allies. 

Thus the microbiologist Peter Palese is missing after saying he believes a “thorough investigation about the origin of the Covid-19 virus is needed” since “a lot of disturbing information has surfaced since the Lancet letter I signed”.

Also noticeable by his absence is Bernard Roizman, a celebrated virologist at the University of Chicago. “I’m convinced that what happened is the virus was brought to a lab, they started to work with it and some sloppy individual brought it out,” he recently told the Wall Street Journal.

Roizman, who has four honorary professorships from Chinese universities, added that the authorities “can’t admit they did something so stupid”. Whether he turns out to be right or wrong, Beijing is far from alone in its inability to confess big mistakes.

Ian Birrell is an award-winning foreign reporter and columnist. He is also the founder, with Damon Albarn, of Africa Express.