Scientists Call for Investigation into Journals That Dismissed Wuhan Lab Theory

POLITICS & POLICY
Workers in protective suits stand at a makeshift hospital in Wuhan, China, April 11, 2020. (Aly Song/Reuters)

One aspect of the growing support for an investigation into the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s potential role in COVID-19’s origin is the way in which certain scientific journals laundered the arguments made by those who had an interest in diverting attention from the lab-origin hypothesis.

Pro-China ideologues and well-regarded medical researchers with an apparent interest in ensuring that U.S.–China cooperation on coronavirus research continued worked with prominent medical journals, such as the Lancet, to cast the idea as a conspiracy theory that inflames anti-Asian sentiment.

Now, as wider acceptance of the lab-leak theory has taken hold, scientists are calling for a congressional investigation into the tangled web of journals, researchers, and others who sought to muddle the debate about the deadly disease’s origins.

Voice of America spoke to Richard Ebright, a Rutgers University microbiologist and outspoken lab-leak proponent, and Nikolai Petrovsky, a professor at Flinders University in Australia, about prominent medical journals’ rejection of articles that didn’t fit the supposed scientific consensus before the lab-leak explanation went mainstream:

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Scientists skeptical from the start of the natural-spillover theory, including Petrovsky, Ebright and a so-called Paris Group of scientists, which drafted two open letters on the origins of coronavirus, say an inquiry into the role of major science journals is in order. Much of the focus has been on The Lancet and Nature but other leading  journals have come under criticism, including Science, an academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“This pandemic has exposed just how vulnerable our scientific institutions including our academies, universities and scientific journals are to politicization and covert influence,” says Petrovsky. “At the same time as exerting undue influence over Western journals, China is launching hundreds of its own journals over which it will have direct control and are offering easy routes to publication and incentives for scientists to publish in them,” he adds.

“An inquiry by Congress into this might be a good first step although this is also a much broader international issue, that should ultimately involve an international effort to fix these problems,” he told VOA.

Petrovsky says he and others faced tremendous hurdles in getting published papers casting doubt on the natural-spillover theory. He says if a rare paper was initially accepted for consideration, it fell at the second stage when it was sent to reviewers to consider its merits and would then be rejected. “Almost all the scientific community, from which reviewers are selected, had been indoctrinated by the misleading and heavily manipulative early Lancet and Nature Medicine commentaries that suggested any questioning of the origins should be seen as an attack by conspiracy theorists from the extreme right,” he says.

The worry expressed by Ebright and Petrovsky in the article is that these publications’ business interests in China prevented a fair reckoning with a theory that has cast the Chinese Communist Party’s actions in a negative light. These concerns are not unwarranted: As VOA notes, the publisher of Nature and Scientific American censors articles considered sensitive by the Party.

Ebright told National Review in April that leading figures associated with the Lancet’s COVID commission propagated the false idea that there was a scientific consensus on the disease’s origins. “No such consensus existed then. No such consensus exists now.”

Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee already are investigating one such researcher, Peter Daszak, chairman of the commission’s subcommittee on COVID’s origins, and his organization, EcoHealth Alliance. On April 18, they sent Daszak a request for documents, though that request centers on grants issued by the National Institutes of Health and not Daszak’s contribution to the scientific debate.

Given the egregious way in which a clique of researchers created the widely accepted false impression that the lab-leak explanation is a kooky conspiracy theory, the public deserves answers, and Congress should help answer the question of whether deference to Beijing’s political sensitivities shaped editorial decisions about global public health during a devastating pandemic.

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