Scientists who have been challenging the theory that the coronavirus emerged naturally and couldn’t have leaked from a Chinese lab are calling for an inquiry into the role played during the pandemic by leading Western science and medical journals, including Nature and The Lancet.
They say the editors of the influential journals rebuffed dozens of critical articles which raised at least the possibility of the coronavirus being engineered and that it might have subsequently leaked from a lab in Chinese city of Wuhan.
“The managers of these journals may have wanted to appease the Chinese Communist Party, as China is where an increasing proportion of their revenue comes from, and China has made it clear that those journals it supports must agree to adhere to its policy agendas,” Nikolai Petrovsky, a professor of medicine at Australia’s Flinders University, told VOA.
“So many papers questioning the origins were quickly rejected by the journal editors at Nature and Lancet, etc. without even being sent for review. This early rejection was therefore presumably largely not on scientific grounds but on political or other grounds determined at a high level within those journals,” he says.
The editors of The Lancet and Nature reject the complaints, saying scientific merit determines the submissions they pick to publish and not politics.
A World Health Organization-led team earlier this year ruled the lab-leak theory “extremely unlikely,” and favored the prevailing standard narrative that the coronavirus most likely originated in a Wuhan wet market, jumping from an animal, likely a bat or pangolin, to humans. But the WHO inquiry has come under increasing criticism from some prominent Western scientists — as well as Western governments — who say the Chinese authorities blocked the WHO team during a four-week visit to Wuhan in January making the international probe worthless.
Petrovsky is one of dozens of scientists skeptical of the natural-spillover theory who say their efforts to point out inconsistencies in the quickly established standard narrative was met with silence, rejection and hostility by the editors of major Western science journals.
Day of reckoning
Another, Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University in New Jersey, says there should be a “day of reckoning.” In an email exchange with VOA he said: “Untruthful statements and improper actions by scientists and science journalists who established and enforced the false narrative extended far beyond refusing to consider papers challenging the false narrative.”
Ebright and others allege some non-peer-reviewed were rushed into print, if they supported the conventional narrative. Those articles in turn set the tone for general media coverage, they add. “Starting in January 2020 and continuing through early 2021, a small group of scientists, and a larger group of science journalists, established and enforced the false narrative that scientific evidence supported natural spillover and a false narrative that this was the scientific consensus,” says Ebright.
But Magdalena Skipper, editor-in-chief of Nature, says this is not so. “I would like to be very clear that Nature has never rejected a paper on the basis that it does not fit with a particular narrative or conventional wisdom; certainly not on my watch,” she told VOA.
In an email exchange, she added: “We make decisions based solely on whether research meets our criteria for publication — robust original scientific research (where conclusions are sufficiently supported by the available evidence), of outstanding scientific importance, which reaches a conclusion of interest to a multidisciplinary readership; and we remain completely independent. All editors consider all submissions on the basis of their scientific merits alone and no subject is ever excluded from publication because the conclusions may be controversial.”
Last month, U.S. President Joe Biden instructed American intelligence agencies to investigate whether the virus may have been engineered and leaked from a Chinese lab. Biden has given the agencies three months to report back.
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The central focus of the investigation is on the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China as suspicions mount that the novel bat-derived virus roiling the world, and which has led to at least four million deaths, may have leaked from its lab, a claim Beijing has furiously denied.
Biden’s order came after U.S. intelligence discovered more details about three researchers at the Wuhan lab who fell ill in November 2019, several weeks before the first identified case of the outbreak — and more than a month before China informed WHO of “cases of pneumonia” of an “unknown cause” had been detected. The researchers were hospitalized with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, but also with common respiratory illnesses, according to the intelligence report first publicly disclosed by The Wall Street Journal.
Britain’s intelligence agencies — along with other Western European security services — are assisting the new American-led probe, according to officials on both sides of the Atlantic.
China’s authorities have denied there was any leak from the Wuhan lab, which conducts research on viruses and receives some funding from the U.S. government. Last year, Chinese propagandists blamed the coronavirus outbreak on an American Army sports delegation, which visited Wuhan just before the outbreak, and have also touted several other theories, which have been subsequently discredited by prominent virologists and epidemiologists.
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.
Magdalena Skipper, the British geneticist and the first woman to edit Nature in its 150-year history, says editorial decision-making is kept strictly separate from the wider commercial interests of Springer Nature, the German-British academic publisher that owns Nature.
“We have always been and continue to be scrupulous in keeping any business commercial interests Springer Nature may have, in China or anywhere else, totally separate from our editorial processes,” she said. Nature and its sister titles have sought to reflect “the science of the pandemic, as new evidence has come to light,” Skipper adds.
Springer Nature has offices spread across the world and publishes around 3,000 journals, including Nature and Scientific American. Four years ago following a Financial Times report, the company acknowledged it had been blocking access in China to hundreds of academic articles touching on subjects seen as sensitive by the Chinese Communist government. The company said less than one percent of its content available online in global markets had been impacted.
Springer Nature has dozens of cooperation and sponsorship agreements with Chinese educational and government institutions. So, too, does the owner of The Lancet, Elsevier, a Netherlands-based publishing company specializing in scientific, technical, and medical content.
The Lancet also told VOA that neither politics nor commerce play any part in shaping editorial policies. In a statement it said: “The Lancet is an editorially independent journal. Scientific discussion and debate are an important part of the scientific process, and the Lancet journals welcome responses from readers and the wider scientific community to content published in the journals. The Lancet journals set extremely high standards and papers are selected for publication based on the strength of the science and the credibility of the scientific argument.”