A growing number of people, including prominent scientists, are calling for a full retraction of a high-profile study published in the journal Nature in March 2020 that explored the origins of SARS-CoV-2.
The paper, whose authors included immunology and microbiology professor Kristian G. Andersen, declared that evidence clearly showed that SARS-CoV-2 did not originate from a laboratory.
“Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus,” the authors wrote in February.
Yet a trove of recently published documents reveal that Andersen and his co-authors believed that the lab leak scenario was not just possible, but likely.
“[The] main thing still in my mind is that the lab escape version of this is so friggin’ likely to have happened because they were already doing this type of work and the molecular data is fully consistent with that scenario,” Andersen said to his colleagues, according to a report from Public, which published a series of Slack messages between the authors.
Anderson was not the only author who privately expressed doubts that the virus had natural origins. Public cataloged dozens of statements from Andersen and his co-authors—Andrew Rambaut, W. Ian Lipkin, Edward C. Holmes, and Robert F. Garry—between the dates January 31 and February 28, 2020 suggesting that SARS-CoV-2 may have been engineered.
” …the fact that we are discussing this shows how plausible it is,” Garry said of the lab-leak hypothesis.
“We unfortunately can’t refute the lab leak hypothesis,” Andersen said on Feb. 20, several days after the authors published their pre-print.
To complicate matters further, new reporting from The Intercept reveals that Anderson had an $8.9 million grant with NIH pending final approval from Dr. Anthony Fauci when the Proximal Origin paper was submitted.
‘Fraud and Scientific Misconduct’?
The findings have led several prominent figures to accuse the authors of outright deception.
Richard H. Ebright, the Board of Governors Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Rutgers University, called the paper “scientific fraud.”
“The 2020 ‘Proximal Origin’ paper falsely claimed science showed COVID-19 did not have a lab origin,” tweeted Ebright. “Newly released messages from the authors show they did not believe the conclusions of the paper and show the paper is the product of scientific fraud and scientific misconduct.”
Ebright and Silver are among those pushing a petition urging Nature to retract the article in light of these findings.
Among those to sign the petition was Neil Harrison, a professor of anesthesiology and molecular pharmacology at Columbia University.
“Virologists and their allies have produced a number of papers that purport to show that the virus was of natural origin and that the pandemic began at the Huanan seafood market,” Harrison told The Telegraph. “In fact there is no evidence for either of these conclusions, and the email and Slack messages among the authors show that they knew at the time that this was the case.”
Only ‘Expressing Opinions’?
Dr. Joao Monteiro, chief editor of Nature, has rebuffed calls for a retraction, The Telegraph notes, saying the authors were merely “expressing opinions.”
This claim is dubious at best. From the beginning, the Proximal Origin study was presented as authoritative and scientific. Jeremy Farrar, a British medical researcher and now the chief scientist at the World Health Organization (WHO), told USA Today that Proximal Origin was the “most important research on the genomic epidemiology of the origins of this virus to date.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, speaking from the White House podium in April 2020, cited the study as evidence that the mutations of the virus were “totally consistent with a jump from a species of an animal to a human.” Fact-check organizations were soon citing the study as proof that COVID-19 “could not have been manipulated.”
Far from being presented as a handful of scientists “expressing opinions,” the Proximal Origin study was treated as gospel, a dogma that could not even be questioned. This allowed social media companies (working hand-in-hand with government agencies) to censor people who publicly stated what Andersen and his colleagues were saying privately—that it seemed plausible that SARS-CoV-2 came from the laboratory in Wuhan that experimented on coronaviruses and had a checkered safety record.
Indeed, even as media and government officials used the Proximal Origin study to smear people as conspiracy theorists for speculating that COVID-19 might have emerged from the Wuhan lab, a Defense Intelligence Agency study commissioned by the government questioned the study’s scientific rigor.
“The arguments that Andersen et al. use to support a natural-origin scenario for SARS CoV-2 are based not on scientific analysis, but on unwarranted assumptions,” the now-declassified paper concluded. “In fact, the features of SARS-CoV-2 noted by Andersen et al. are consistent with another scenario: that SARS-CoV-2 was developed in a laboratory…”
Despite the many problems with the study’s findings, Monteiro continues to resist calls for retraction—perhaps because Monteiro himself publicly inferred that the lab leak hypothesis was a conspiracy theory in March, 2020.
Whatever the case, it remains unclear how long Monteiro can resist calls for a retraction in face of overwhelming evidence of scientific misconduct.
“There can be no doubt the Proximal Origin authors consciously and inappropriately downplayed the #COVID19 research-related origin hypothesis and coordinated efforts manipulating media coverage,” said Jamie Metzl, a former Clinton administration official and a WHO expert advisory committee on human genome editing appointee.
Power, Accountability, and Impunity
Why there was such intense pressure to declare that SARS-CoV-2 was of natural origin is obvious today.
The federal government was funding risky coronavirus research at Wuhan Institute of Virology, which would make officials complicit to some degree in a leak of a deadly virus. This is no doubt why the government had an interest in funding the study, which gave them a measure of control over its results.
“Jeremy Farrar and Francis Collins [then director of the National Institutes of Health] are very happy. Works for me,” Holmes Slacked his colleagues after the pre-print was submitted.
The Proximal Origin paper increasingly looks like a whitewashing job, and some influential people have noticed.
“This is a huge scandal,” said statistician and FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver. “Scientists like @K_G_Andersen believed a lab leak was extremely plausible, if not likely, they concocted a plan to deceive the public about it, and they’ve been caught red-handed.”
Silver is not wrong; yet so far, no one has been held accountable.
This lack of accountability is concerning, and to understand why it’s worth consulting age-old concepts of power and justice. As FEE’s Dan Sanchez has observed, power is not the mere exertion of unjust force. True power lies in the use of force and the absence of any accountability.
“Systematically getting away with it—or impunity—is where power truly lies,” wrote Sanchez.
In his famous work Republic, Plato showed what raw power looked like. The legendary “Ring of Gyges” did not make one strong. It made one invisible. This did not mean the wearer could do anything he wanted, but it did mean he would never be held accountable for his acts of injustice.
This is the most frightening part of raw state power. The greatest danger is not that people will act unethically. It’s not even that state actors will commit crimes to serve “a greater good.” The real danger begins when people are not held accountable—even when they are caught “red-handed.”