by Ian Birrell
Tuesday, 6
July 2021

Why won’t The Lancet admit it was wrong?

The journal is doubling down on its rejection of the lab leak hypothesis
by Ian Birrell
Credit: Hector Retamal/AFP/ Getty

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.

Join the discussion

  • Such a BIG event has happened affecting the WHOLE world.
    Even for the minutest of crimes or wrong doings there are enquiries, investigations and outrage. How is the journalism on this SO quiet ? This is a crime of several millenniums against humanity. To accidentally or wilfully release a biological germ into society CANNOT be punished by a slap on the hand! Oops , we screwed up!! WOW . The world came to a stand still because of this little mistake.
    Furthermore, oops we wrote that this was only natural ! Oops we have no way of knowing since the country of its origin is not cooperating.

    There has not been a time (historical) that I’ve heard of that the world has come to such a stand still. Can some one point to a virus spreading every where in the WORLD at this speed with such an effect? Is this just a natural virus that is causing havoc because now the world is so interconnected ? The speed of of the spread, the hysteria, the lockdowns, is it all just a chain of bad outcomes? Has nature truly jumped out of the blue at us ? Can viruses evolve naturally with such speed? It defies my logic but I am not qualified to make an assessment . It certainly needs journalists to probe further.

  • I don’t really disagree with you but I would make one comment about house values and mortgage rates. A point little noted about low interest rates is that they enable you to pay off the principal very fast. After five years at 2% you repay 17% of the amount borrowed. If you buy, prices flatline for five years and then crash 17%, you’re unscathed. Yes you’re out the mortgage repayments but you’d have been out the rent otherwise so it balances out.
    At 12% interest you’d have spent 2.5x more on mortgage repayments than in the 2% but you’d have paid off only 4% of the loan. A 17% price fall would leave you totally marooned.
    Expensive as it is, buying is still the best thing to do.

  • I’m not as eloquent as you, Sanford, but I share your concerns about the economy. It very much has a feel of the emperor’s new clothes, aka let’s all stick our heads in the sand and pretend everything’s ok.
    But even if we were to wise up, what are we to do? America is now so divided it seems incapable of coming together behind any set of policies let alone a fundamental restructuring of our economic life which is what I think it will take to address inequality without just throwing money at the problem.
    We’d have to overhaul our immigration policy to limit the influx of low-skilled immigrants. We’d have to invest in apprenticeship schemes and vocational paths for people who don’t want to spend $100k on a useless degree. We’d need a massive revision of our economic, industrial and trading policies in favor of the average American worker. Can you see any of that happening at this moment in time?
    So far as Unherd goes, I’m honestly puzzled by the fact they almost completely ignore economic issues. Perhaps it’s because most of their established contributors focus on the culture wars and UK politics. Maybe it’s too much trouble or expense to bring a couple of economists on board.

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