Scientists For Science – the “boys will be boys” of science
Feb 10, 2024
The history of the COVID-19 pandemic started long before 2019.
If I were to put a start-date on the series of events leading to COVID-19, I’d start in 2011 when the Dutch scientist Ron Fouchier and his team at Erasmus University acquired a highly pathogenic avian influenza, bred the virus to be more infectious in mammals, and then opted to publish his findings in a scientific journal with global reach.
At many points in the series of events, Dr. Fouchier had other options. I’m also a biologist, I’ve also thought of terrifying things one could make by a mix of genetic engineering and breeding, but unlike Dr. Fouchier I did not act on those horrific impulses, let alone share these ideas in the public domain.
After breeding a potentially pandemic pathogen with ease, Dr. Fouchier had the option of reporting his findings to the Dutch defense and intelligence community in a non-public venue, raising their awareness of a threat without popularizing his handbook for bioterrorists worldwide, thereby increasing the threat itself. Instead, Dr. Fouchier published what one might call a bioterrorism cookbook, complete with a cartoon showing how you can cause a pandemic:
Dr. Fouchier’s Cookbook for Pandemic Pathogens. Aren’t the ferrets cute?
Many scientists were outraged at the dangerous exhibitionism of Dr. Fouchier and his team of researchers at Erasmus University. Are citations and grants and fame really worth the risk of causing a pandemic and killing millions of people?
Most members of the public were not aware of the rhetorical scientific warzone caused by Fouchier’s actions. The bitter debates over risky research that could cause a pandemic happened outside the public eye. Yet, in order to understand the history of the COVID-19 pandemic, a pandemic most likely caused by risky research, it’s important to learn the history of scientists’ disagreements over gain of function research of concern. The debate was so acrimonious, the bitter echoes can still be heard in the halls of the academy. The dividing ethical line that split the field in twain is still there, a 2014 chasm of unreconciled disagreement that fragments the community and determines their views on 2023 COVID origins. On one side, there were scientists with very good reasons to be concerned that such risk-taking, with no tangible benefits, could cause a pandemic that kills millions of people. On the other side, there were researchers who received fame and funding for their scientific stunts enhancing potentially pandemic pathogens, researchers who claimed that this risky work could potentially lead to insights even if it hasn’t yet, and there were funders who were able to increase the size of their portfolios by pointing to the threats conjured into existence by the scientific minds they funded. The more fear scientists could inspire in the hearts of managers by publishing thoughts which threaten global health, the more funding they could request to “mitigate” the threats of ‘bad actors’ doing exactly what they did.
Proximal Origins authors knew exactly who Ron Fouchier was and how predictable his opposition to a lab origin would be.
There is, of course, irony that the US biodefense research led by Fauci started after the anthrax attacks, as the anthrax attacks were carried out by a scientist with a position making it easy for them to acquire anthrax. What could happen if Dr. Fouchier had a bout of cynical depression and decided to tip a vial out of spite?
Opposition to gain of function research of concern recruited many diverse scientists from many diverse fields of study, all of whom could do the obvious arithmetic to see risks » benefits.
The lack of benefits needs to be emphasized. There are no countermeasures or vaccines developed by enhancing potentially pandemic pathogens. While there were questions about whether the H5N1 influenza strain Fouchier bred could become transmissible in mammals, finding that it could become transmissible when forced into a scientists’ breeding regime did not answer the question of whether it would become transmissible in mammals in its natural setting. Whichever strain of influenza starts circulating in humans, whether from swine, birds, or other animals, the virus will be countered by broad-spectrum countermeasures like nucleoside analogs or protease inhibitors that we can improve upon without enhancing pathogens, and we can prevent infections and/or reduce severity with vaccines targeting the same-old H and N antigens we know our immune system recognizes to fend off the flu. Fouchier created something not found in nature, something that took him less than a month to breed has not arisen despite avian influenza circulating for decades, infecting many chicken farms, mink farms, and more, all without actually causing the pandemic pathogen Fouchier made.
The risks, meanwhile, are nearly infinite. The avian influenza Dr. Fouchier started with had a 50% infection fatality rate, over 100x as severe as SARS-CoV-2. Fouchier did not know what would happen with the infection fatality rate at the end of his experiment, only that his breeding program would increase transmissibility in mammals. If a virus like that escaped the lab, it could kill 30% of humanity from infections alone. Such a virus could overwhelm healthcare systems, and as people struggled to breathe and their family members died without being able to seek care, our medical system could shut down, all our economic systems would suffer catastrophic failures from absenteeism, triggering an economic catastrophe affecting the distribution and humans’ ability to acquire food, energy, and other critical supplies. Should one country with nuclear arms come to believe the accidental release of an enhanced potentially pandemic pathogen was an act of war, whatever their logic, whether mistaking the agent for a weapon or the outbreak such a severe harm to their national security they feel the need to retaliate, it’s not inconceivable it could trigger a nuclear conflict. Best case scenario from an unmitigated release of an enhanced potentially pandemic pathogen is something like SARS-CoV-2: the virus, by sheer luck, is far less severe (e.g. SARS-CoV-1 had a 10% infection fatality rate, SARS-CoV-2 1/10-/30th that). Millions die, and if the accident becomes known – which by all accounts it should be for the sake of accountability – then it will leave an historic stain on this small subfield of science studying potentially pandemic pathogens.
Benefits: nothing yet. Risks: from 20 million dead (a relatively benign scenario) to the largest mass casualty event in human history and possibly the end of human civilization. Hence, many reasonable scientists said “No, thank you” to the enhancement of potentially pandemic pathogens.
If these arguments in opposition of gain of function research of concern sound eminently reasonable, it’s because they are. As a quantitative biologist, my job is to estimate the likelihoods of events and the severity of events given they occur. There is no data suggesting this work can reduce the severity of a pandemic. Meanwhile, there are clear data and reasons why this work increases the likelihood of a pandemic and increases the severity of a pandemic caused by a research-related accident if researchers are making pathogens more transmissible and more virulent than those found in nature.
Who opposed such simple arguments against the enhancement of potentially pandemic pathogens? Why? Who funded their work? What systems in science were able to overcome such simple arithmetic to support the risk-taking side with so few rewards?
To understand this pre-history of the COVID-19 pandemic, one must know about “Scientists For Science” and their role as an academic lobby for the enhancement of potentially pandemic pathogens.
“Scientists For Science” – The Pathogenic Academic Lobby
Ron Fouchier’s 2011 work was published in 2012 in Science, the official journal of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, and one of the largest journals in the world. Nowadays, we like to say that “freedom of speech” is not “freedom of reach”; Fouchier’s dangerous work was granted by AAAS the honor of historic reach.
Why would a journal incentivize such dangerous work? For one, journals rely on sales. What better way to drive sales than to publish this gripping exhibitionistic stunt that had scientists everywhere terrified and up in arms? As debate raged on about the ethics of Fouchier’s stunt, did scientists pause their work to wait for some resolution? No.
Instead, in June 2014 a group of scientists led by the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s Yoshihiro Kawaoka created a virus like the 1918 Spanish Influenza virus in the lab. The 1918 virus killed about as many people as WWII. At this fork in the road, researchers saw a signpost pointing towards “Use Biotech Necromancy to Resurrect 1918 Spanish Influenza”, and that’s the path they followed. Why on Earth would someone take any path in research that leads towards those horrors?
Why are these pathogens being created in our universities? For one, they saw the fame and funding that Fouchier received, they saw the publication in Science, they knew this was a hot topic. Great. On a social level, these exhibitionistic scientists made flirting with Pandora’s box a risque fad, a way of grabbing the audience’s attention for their own benefit not too unlike Jackass stunts, like Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O breeding Ebola. Those of us watching with a conscience looked on with sheer horror, unable to stop this reckless, maniacal work.
But really. Why? The researchers claimed an avian influenza virus circulating in birds was similar to the 1918 Spanish Flu, so they did the influenza virus a favor, made it even more similar to this extinct influenza strain that killed 50 million people, and asked “does that make it worse?” I know there are not any dumb questions, but if there were, then this is would be a dumb question because if the answer is “no” then the research was pointless and if the answer is “yes” then it is pointless, obvious, and dangerous. Obviously, if we have one pathogen that is extremely bad, take other not-so-bad pathogens and make them more like the extremely-bad pathogen, that should be expected to make the not-so-bad pathogen worse. Not surprisingly, the 1918-like avian influenza chimeras had intermediate transmissibility. Giving these avian influenza viruses parts of the resurrected 1918 influenza increased the severity of illness in mice infected with these unnatural chimeric viruses. Frankenstein Flu was dangerous, big surprise.
Kawaoka published his paper in June of 2014. Like Fouchier’s stunt, Kawaoka’s exceedingly risky work sparked outrage among scientists observing this work. Making a potentially pandemic pathogen more like a pandemic pathogen had the obvious consequence of making the potentially-pandemic pathogen worse. No countermeasures were developed, no vaccines were developed. Nothing of industrial value was made. The risks were externalized catastrophe, the benefits were internalized academic accolades for Kawaoka: publications, citations, and grants. As Fouchier’s stunt encouraged Kawaoka, perhaps Kawaoka’a stunt piqued the academic interests of others and encouraged them to take more risks, scientists like Ralph Baric, Peter Daszak, and Shi ZhengLi who began considering ways to make coronaviruses more transmissible in humans. The net risk incurred by humanity shot up during the period of time Kawaoka tasked his grad students and post-docs with handling these unnatural pathogens. In a parallel universe, whether from an accident or a disgruntled academic, we could have experienced a surge of influenza-like illness in Madison, Wisconsin in 2014 prior to a pandemic that resulted in historic loss of life.
Thankfully, we didn’t. Nor did we learn the lessons of 2011 and 2014. Why not?
In July of 2014, a group of scientists deeply concerned by Kawaoka’s experiment spoke up. The Cambridge Working Group brought together many scientists from many institutions and many fields of research who signed a consensus statement discouraging the enhancement of potentially pandemic pathogens. The Cambridge Working Group pointed to incidents involving smallpox, anthrax, and bird flu in even the top US laboratories as evidence that the risks of this research could never be reduced even in the most secure environments, and the consequences of a single mistake could be truly catastrophic. In their words:
Experiments involving the creation of potential pandemic pathogens should be curtailed until there has been a quantitative, objective and credible assessment of the risks, potential benefits, and opportunities for risk mitigation, as well as comparison against safer experimental approaches. A modern version of the Asilomar process, which engaged scientists in proposing rules to manage research on recombinant DNA, could be a starting point to identify the best approaches to achieve the global public health goals of defeating pandemic disease and assuring the highest level of safety. Whenever possible, safer approaches should be pursued in preference to any approach that risks an accidental pandemic.
That sounds reasonable to most members of the public, but how did that sound to researchers whose only scientific ideas appear to be ways to make dangerous pathogens more dangerous?
Immediately the Cambridge Working Group, a group sprung up to oppose the Cambridge Working Group. This group called themselves “Scientists For Science”. As the name suggests, they were effectively the “boys will be boys” of science. Ethics and risk assessments be damned! Let scientists do science.
Scientists For Science claimed, without evidence, that they were confident risky research could be conducted safely, that such work is essential for understanding microbial pathogenesis, prevention, and treatment, yet they provide no justification for those claims, no counter to the empirical evidence that such research has led to accidents and no concrete countermeasures or preventions. They claim the benefits are unanticipated and accrue over time. In other words, they admit they can’t anticipate the benefits of such work, and they just need more time to demonstrate these nonexistent, unanticipated benefits. It was for academic interest and unanticipated benefits they wished to resume work that made them famous and endangered humanity.
It’s worth reading the language of Scientists For Science closely, as it reveals the rhetorical origins of language that became familiar – and anathema – to the majority of the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did COVID-19 public health policy mirror Scientists For Science’s unusual cost-benefit analysis where benefits were assumed and costs ignored, but it also centered the careers and desires of academic microbiologists who built their careers doing dangerous work at the expense of the broader public. Scientists For Science argue:
If we expect to continue to improve our understanding of how microorganisms cause disease we cannot avoid working with potentially dangerous pathogens. In recognition of this need, significant resources have been invested globally to build and operate BSL-3 and BSL-4 facilities, and to mitigate risk in a variety of ways, involving regulatory requirements, facility engineering and training. Ensuring that these facilities operate safely and are staffed effectively so that risk is minimized is our most important line of defense, as opposed to limiting the types of experiments that are done.
In this passage, Scientists For Science conflate research on potentially pandemic pathogens with research enhancing potentially pandemic pathogens. Nobody is saying “don’t study Ebola”, we’re saying “don’t let Dr. Johnny Knoxville make Ebola any worse than it already is!” There are no federal laws against mining uranium – after all, it exists in trace amounts in many commonplace soils and rocks – but there are very strict laws against enriching uranium.
After conflating studies of natural pathogens and the enhancement of pathogens to make non-natural biological agents, Scientists For Science proposed that risk can be mitigated by giving them more funding for state-of-the-art equipment and more staff, as opposed to limiting the types of experiments that are to be done. Let Scientists be Scientists, Boys be Boys – don’t draw red tape around enrichment of uranium or enhancement of civilization-ending pathogens, just give academic scientists more funding and more freedom to do this risky work despite the lack of industrial or defensive benefits and the catastrophic risks of such work.
Scientists For Science claimed that existing regulations are already adequate, but they don’t discuss any regulatory gaps, let alone consider the geopolitical consequences of a single accident, let alone weigh the possibility that an accident of such work could be misinterpreted as the use of a biological weapon (or even how an accident resulting in the deaths of the Dear Leader’s loved ones could escalate geopolitical tensions). They close by calling their opponents’ positions dogmatic:
Scientists for Science have a range of opinions on how risk is best assessed. However, maintaining dogmatic positions serves no good purpose; only by engaging in open constructive debate can we learn from one another’s experience. Most importantly, we are united as experts committed to ensuring public health is not compromised and the reputation of science in general, and microbiology in particular, is defended.
Here, we can see the foreshadowing of language that rose to prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We are united as experts” introduces the argument of authority and disciplinary turf-wars that defined COVID-19 science and public health policy deliberations, including claims of a “scientific consensus” on pandemic policy. These experts were committed to “ensuring public health is not compromised”, and “the reputation of science … is defended”. They claim to be open to discussions, but in the same paragraph they call other views dogmatic, not unlike the facade of inclusion and tolerance from many academics who desired “devastating take downs” of pandemic public health and scientific views different from there own. They request discussions take place in their home turf, in journals on which they serve as the editors and peer-reviewers, where they have veto power over the speech that makes it through their paradigmatically intolerant filters.
Scientists For Science were not connected to industry. While they were nominally supported by biodefense funds, they would publish their unnatural horrors in the public domain thereby introducing the threats, popularizing dangerous protocols, instead of merely making our defense or intelligence communities threat-aware. The banality of their esoteric, academic motives for fame and funding, publications, citations, and grants, is equal parts tragic and comical. Had their lobbying efforts failed and our system of science discouraged such dangerous work, we could have laughed at “scientists being scientists”.
Instead, we cry with clenched fists because they succeeded, they engaged in unfathomable risk-taking, and the system of scientists-being-scientists they created likely caused a pandemic resulting in 20 million deaths without adding anything of industrial value to the world. They admitted there was nothing of known industrial value down this path, but they went down that path anyways for banal academic motives. Hence Scientists For Science was, and still is, a pathogenic academic lobby and not a biodefense-industrial lobby. They just wanted to enhance the pathogenicity of pathogens for papers, grants, fame, and an esoteric understanding on the mechanisms of disease without direct application to industry or biodefense. We could’ve had a conversation about biodefense, about the biological weapons convention, the offensive biological weapons programs of Russia and North Korea, but that wasn’t the conversation.
The conversation was about letting public universities make biological agents capable of causing global security, global health, and geopolitical catastrophes… because some scientists wanted terrifying papers that catapult them to fame, and more funding for cooler tech, more staff.
Scientists For Science during the COVID-19 Pandemic
The history of debates over gain of function research of concern helps us contextualize contemporary rhetoric, understand who’s who and why they’re saying what they’re saying in COVID-19 origins debates. Every scientist involved in the acrimonious debates from 2011-2019 was affected by that research ethical battle. The academics behind Scientists For Science were forged in the fires of debate, they formed research cartels defined by shared beliefs, and they despised the people who tried to regulate them back in 2014. The scientific rhetoric of the COVID-19 pandemic was driven by the scientists in charge, and the scientists in charge sided with Scientists For Science.
Co-founders of Scientists For Science include Ron Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka. Joining their ranks are names worth mentioning given their role in our predicament today: Christian Drosten, Vincent Racaniello (advisor to zoonotic-origin bully Angela Rasmussen), David Morens (NIH/NIAID), six other scientists from NIH/NIAID (all with the asterisk that they sign as individuals and not on behalf of NIH/NIAID, yet none from NIH/NIAID did the same for the Cambridge Working Group). We also find in their rosters Cadhla Firth (now at Peter Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance), Stephen Goldstein (co-author of flawed Worobey & Pekar et al.), Ian Lipkin (Proximal Origin author), Volker Thiel, Friedemann Weber, four additional scientists at Erasmus University who are all close collaborators with Marion Koopmans, and more. As we go forward in time, I’ll write in bold the names of Scientists For Science and their close colleagues.
The Cambridge Working Group won the battle of 2014 and secured a moratorium on gain of function research of concern in 2014. However, Scientists For Science, including the 7 NIH/NIAID members in their ranks, continued to lobby officials at NIH and NIAID. Eventually, the head of US biodefense spending, Anthony Fauci, worked with the head of NIH, Francis Collins, to re-define “gain of function research of concern”. They changed the definition by saying it’s not “enhancing potentially pandemic pathogens” if you enhance potentially pandemic pathogens with the goal (or hope) of making a vaccine. In 2016, Peter Daszak at EcoHealth Alliance (where Cadhla Firth now works) thanked his program officers at NIH and NIAID for removing his gain of function funding pause.
Scientists Could Do Science once again!
In 2016, Daszak helped the Wuhan Institute of Virology make a novel infectious clone, rWIV1. In 2017, Daszak helped Ben Hu and colleagues at the Wuhan Institute of Virology swap Spike genes in bat SARS-related coronaviruses, ultimately increasing their transmissibility as intended. They swapped spike genes for the express purpose of finding out which chimeras were the most transmissible, and the predictable consequence of their efforts to raise the bat SARSr-CoV transmissibility ceiling was a chimeric virus that raised the transmissibility ceiling. In 2018, Daszak proposed to raise the ceiling further still by inserting a furin cleavage site in a bat SARSr-COV infectious clone. In 2019, the group Daszak assembled for precisely that work enhancing SARS-related CoVs in Wuhan was all receiving support from NIH and NIAID. In late 2019, a bat-related SARSr-CoV, SARS-CoV-2, emerged in Wuhan, walking distance from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, containing a furin cleavage site never before seen in a SARS-CoV, leaving no trace in animal trade networks, emerging with remarkably high affinity for human receptors, and containing unusual stitches in its genome consistent with an infectious clone.
In January 2020, Kristian Andersen and Eddie Holmes came to believe a lab origin was most likely. They contacted Dr. Fauci, and Dr. Fauci organized a call.
At this pivotal point in history, who did Dr. Fauci invite to this call?
Dr. Fauci invited the head of the Wellcome Trust, Jeremy Farrar. Some context is that the Wellcome Trust is one of the largest health science funders in the world who supported CEPI, CEPI supported the Global Virome Project, and Daszak was treasurer of the Global Virome Project. Farrar was not an expert in forensics or biogengineering, he was a powerhouse running a massive non-profit hedge fund (effectively) that used capital gains to fund science, a fund with financial conflicts of interest connecting Farrar to the Wuhan labs and his British colleagues who collaborated with the Wuhan labs. The three funders in the room all had ties directly to the researchers whose gain of function research of concern may have caused the pandemic. Fauci and Collins were acutely aware that Daszak’s research included gain of function work in Wuhan on SARS-related CoVs, and they were aware that they, in 2017, sided with Scientists For Science and used their official positions of power to overturn the moratorium on this risky research. If Andersen and Holmes were right, then Fauci, Collins and Farrar could all become subjects of investigations and oversight hearings. If Andersen and Holmes were right, history could even hold Fauci, Collins, and Farrar responsible for this outbreak through a mix of their funding for Daszak and their support of Scientists For Science.
At the pivotal moment in history, who did these conflicted funders invite?
They invited Scientists For Science Ron Fouchier, Christian Drosten, Fouchier’s Erasmus University colleague, Marion Koopmans, Wellcome Trust’s Paul Schreier, and a few others. Noteworthy absences on this call include (1) US forensics experts in the FBI, (2) US director of CDC and gain of function research of concern opponent Dr. Robert Redfield, and (3) anybody from the Cambridge Working Group. After the call, Proximal Origin was written and published, ghostwritten by Jeremy Farrar, and co-authored by a Scientist For Science, Ian Lipkin.
About this same time, Peter Daszak began organizing The Lancet letter calling lab origin theories “conspiracy theories”. Daszak conpsires to organize this “Statement” with Ralph Baric and Linfa Wang (two co-authors of the 2018 proposal) without signing it. The list of signatories is below:
Let’s break down these authors.
Hume Field is EcoHealth Alliance’s science and policy advisor for China, William Karesh is EcoHealth Alliance’s executive vice president for health and policy, and Rita Colwell served on the EcoHealth board of directors since 2012.
Suffice to say, EcoHealth Alliance was well-represented in this paper.
We also see Jeremy Farrar, the head of the Wellcome Trust who played an instrumental role in prompting, drafting, ghostwriting, publishing, and popularizing the Proximal Origin Manuscript. Beside Farrar, we can see the distinguished final author, Mike Turner, is the Director of Science at the Wellcome Trust. In other words, on the Proximal Origin call in early February, Farrar brought his brand new (2019) COO Paul Schreier to hear hushed communications about a probable lab origin of SARS-CoV-2, and a few weeks later Farrar brought his brand new (2019) Director of Science Mike Turner to sign Daszak’s statement. Farrar used his clout as head of the Wellcome Trust, one of the largest health science funders in the world with ties to Daszak’ research in SE Asia, to call lab origin theories “conspiracy theories”. Nowhere does he list the connection between WellcomeTrust funding EcoHealth Aliance nor EcoHealth Alliance’s proposal to make a virus like SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan in 2018, and having funding from NIAID in 2019.
The following authors of the paper were also Scientists for Science:
- Ronald Corley
- Christian Drosten (from the Proximal Origin call)
- Josie Golding
- Alexander Gorbalenya, Declared past/ongoing collaboration with coronavirus researchers in China.
- Gerald T Keusch
- Peter Palese
- Kanta Subbarao
The remainder of authors on this paper also have stories, most of them scientific stories overlapping with critical funders, researchers, and research at the heart of lab origin investigation. A quick view of who’s who on The Lancet paper:
- Charles Calisher, a past collaborator of Daszak & Field.
- Dennis Carroll, leader of the USAID’s Global Virome Project, the same project receiving Wellcome Trust funding through CEPI and the project on which Peter Daszak was the treasurer.
- Luis Enjuanes, a past collaborator with Christian Drosten, Peter Daszak, Ralph Baric, and even Ron Fouchier. Declared past/ongoing collaboration with coronavirus researchers in China.
- Bart Haagmans, a collaborator of Drosten, Koopmans, and Fouchier.
- James M Hughes, a longtime collaborator of Peter Daszak
- Sai Kit Lam, a Malaysian virologist and longtime Daszak collaborator
- Juan Lubroth, science and policy advisor of EcoHealth Alliance
- John S Mackenzie, science and policy advisor of EcoHealth Alliance who declared past/ongoing collaboration with coronavirus researchers in China.
- Jonna Mazet, chair of the USAID PREDICT project collaborating with coronavirus researchers in China at the time of writing.
- Stanley Perlman, Declared past/ongoing collaboration with coronavirus researchers in China.
- Leo Poon, Declared past/ongoing collaboration with coronavirus researchers in China.
- Linda Saif, longtime collaborator with Peter Daszak, Ralph Baric, and others.
Lawrence C. Maddoff and Bernard Roizman were two authors that had no obvious connection to Daszak, Baric, Fouchier, Drosten, China, or Scientists for Science that I am aware of.
Again, this pivotal piece denouncing lab origin theories came stacked with Scientists For Science, and not a single member of the Cambridge Working Group.
The USAID PREDICT project shows up a bit here. While PREDICT is in our short-term memory, there’s another communication worth revisiting. Shortly after publishing The Lancet letter, Daszak wrote his PREDICT colleagues at UC Davis, urging them to not publish China Genbank Sequences, as “having them as part of PREDICT will being [sic] very unwelcome attention to UC Davis, PREDICT and USAID.”
To recap, Daszak organized a letter calling all lab origin theories “conspiracy theories”, and on that letter are Daszak’s funders such as Dennis Carroll + Joanna Mazet (USAID) and Jeremy Farrar (Wellcome Trust), as well as seven co-founders and signatories of Scientists For Science.
As I said, the chasm that divided scientists on this risky research pre-COVID defines scientists’ reflexive views on COVID origins today. Contemporary research cartels are formed by shared beliefs, and one side of this chasm secured allies in the heads of the largest health science funders in the world – Fauci, Collins, Farrar (and USAID). That network of scientific allies became a web of conflicts of interests with reputations bound to their promotion of and engagement in risky research. Scientists For Science corrupted scientific power and used their positions in unethical ways such as promoting, promoting, and ghostwriting the false claim that a lab origin is “implausible”, that lab origin theories are “conspiracy theories”.
Anyone attempting to rely on expert testimony on COVID origins must be made aware of this conflict of interest in the hearts and minds of scientists in this field. Their historical conflict of interest underlies their contemporary views and helps us make sense of the landscape of scientific perspectives on COVID origins.
History Reveals What the Public May Have Missed
Most may have missed this historical context when learning about the February call and reading these papers in early 2020. Proximal Origin was presented to the public as experts putting “conspiracy theories” to rest, and the paper appeared independent because Andersen et al. did not disclose the roles of Daszak’s funders at NIH, NIAID, and Wellcome Trust prompting, promoting, ghostwriting the manuscript, and recruiting the historically conflicted Scientists For Science as their ‘independent’ experts on the call. The people tied to Wuhan’s labs misrepresented the science of the matter to claim a lab origin is implausible. Ghostwritten reporting and motivated reasoning intending to deceive the public with scientific claims, coming from people who knew a lab origin was “so friggin likely”, can reasonably be viewed as a disinformation campaign.
Acting as the head of NIAID, Dr. Fauci gave momentum to the disinformation campaign by presenting Proximal Origins on international news, saying he didn’t know who the authors were, thereby giving the illusion the authors were independent of Fauci. However, Dr. Fauci knew Ian Lipkin well enough to email Lipkin a congratulatory remark when Lipkin received a scientific award from China in 2016. Dr. Fauci knew Andersen well enough to call Andersen when Jesse Bloom uncovered deleted sequences complicating our assessment of the early outbreak of SARS-CoV-2. Everybody knew Eddie Holmes, even the People’s Liberation Army and Wuhan scientists knew Eddie Holmes as Holmes was the first westerner to publish the SARS-CoV-2 genome, and Holmes helped Chinese scientists characterize the closest relative to SARS-CoV-2 the WIV has published. I don’t believe Dr. Fauci for a second when he claims he didn’t know who the authors were.
Scientist For Science David Morens has a long paper trail of expressed hostilities towards Richard Ebright, a leader of the Cambridge Working Group.
It takes a scientist in the field to understand just how obvious this dishonesty is, and when one is familiar with the history they can immediately know why. Fauci sided with Scientists For Science in 2014, he overturned the moratorium on gain of function research of concern, and NIAID funded Daszak’s DEFUSE colleagues for work in Wuhan in 2019. Dr. Fauci immediately worried a lab origin could point to his own agency’s programs – after hearing Andersen & Holmes claim this could be a lab leak, Fauci forwarded a Baric paper to Hugh Auchincloss after midnight saying there are urgent tasks that needed to be done (Baric was one of the DEFUSE PI’s). Fauci brought a network of highly conflicted funders together, they brought a network of highly conflicted scientists together and surgically excluded experts without these conflicts of interest, and Drosten, Fouchier, Koopmans et al. used the call to pressure Andersen, Holmes, Lipkin et al towards claiming a lab origin is “implausible”.
After the call, Andersen receives a $9 million grant singed by Fauci’s pen.
Members of the public may have read The Lancet letter without knowing seven co-authors were Scientists For Science who lobbied in 2014 for the work hypothesized to have caused the pandemic in 2019. Many other co-authors of The Lancet paper either worked with the organization that proposed making a virus like SARS-CoV-2 in 2018 (EcoHealth Alliance), were funders of this organization (Wellcome Trust, USAID), were collaborators on relevant work (PREDICT), or were closely tied to this network.
The trail of literature by scientists with similar names & histories continued. Every paper claiming a zoonotic origin received massive international media coverage. If I had to guess, I’d wager some mix of official recommendations by health science funders (Fauci, Collin’s, Morens) for journalists to cover this work and incumbent advantages from media connections granted by Proximal Origin work & Fauci’s prior blessing, played a role in the imbalanced media coverage of this area of science. As academics compete over narratives, there is no power greater than reach, and zoonotic origin papers & their authors were granted a narrative reach that exceeded their empirical grasp more than any other science papers I’ve seen.
The warzone of COVID-19 origins science contained many familiar names. Naturally, Stephen Goldstein would go on to become a co-author of the critically flawed zoonotic origin pieces, along with Fouchier’s close colleague, Marion Koopmans and Vincent Racaniello’s student, Angela Rasmussen. In 2021, while coordinating against “the latest line of attack” David Morens instructed Proximal Origin authors, Stephen Goldstein and others to contact him via gmail and not his NIH/NIAID email address to reduce the risk of these official NIH/NIAID emails being obtained by FOIA.
When Valentin Bruttel, Tony VanDongen, and I published our paper discussing how the BsaI/BsmBI map is unusual among wild coronaviruses and consistent with an infectious clone, who would rebut our claims except Scientists For Science like Friedemann Weber, who misrepresented our work by falsely claiming type IIs enzymes can only be used for No See’Um assembly, missing their documented role in the assembly method we propose pre-COVID as well as even No See’Um techniques often requiring the modification of restriction maps. For what it’s worth, Dr. Bruttel signed the consensus statement of the Cambridge Working Group. Who do you supposed are the peer-reviewers, editors, or board members of journals overseeing the review of Bruttel et al.?
That’s a juicy story for another day.
When Jonathan Latham showed up at a major coronavirus conference and sought to present materials on his own theory of a lab origin of SARS-CoV-2, Volker Thiel was a conference organizer who refused Dr. Latham permission to share his work. What about the “open dialogue” and diverse perspectives Scientists For Science claimed to support? When these scientists sit in positions of power, they exclude diverse perspectives and suppress open dialogue. That is precisely why they encouraged this “open dialogue” occur on their home turf, such as journals of virology on whose editorial boards they serve, or virology conferences they organize.
As a pandemic infected the world, most members of the public were desperate for safety and security. Fauci became “America’s Doctor” without disclosing his conflicts of interest, a small network of academic scientists presented themselves as scientific saviors in the midst of a global crisis their colleagues may have caused, and this highly conflicted set of scientists from one side of the 2014 chasm used their reach to “defend science” and “defend public health” by organizing “devastating take-downs” of diverse views and suppressing the very credible theory that the research they lobbied for may have caused the catastrophic accident everyone warned them about.
The COVID-19 pandemic makes sense in light of the history of Scientists For Science, the conflicts of interest they created, the ethos they established, and the nodes of academic power they secured prior to the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 at the doorsteps of their colleagues’ labs.
The Pathogenic Academic Lobby
History is long, and any story is incomplete. Aristotle preferred Homer over Hesiod, I’m told, because while Hesiod would begin stories from the beginning of the universe, Homer would cut to the chase and present only the facts relevant to understand the story at hand. There are more facts, more history, than the story I’ve presented here, and there is history that traces further back, decades into the past, so consider this historical account as along the rhetorical path Aristotle recommended (so I’m told).
The art of history is compressing the lessons in a way that is short enough to remember. The short, compressed version of this history is that some scientists conducted risky research with a positive feedback loop: the greater the risks taken, the more they scared the crap out of managers, the more funding they would receive. The academics conducting risky work enhancing potentially pandemic pathogens acquired institutional power, including connections at the head of the Wellcome Trust and at NIH/NIAID all the way to the top. They successfully lobbied Fauci and Collins to overturn the moratorium on their work not for clear benefits, but for fame, funding, and other non-industrial, academic wants.
After the moratorium was overturned, funders ranging from NIH and NIAID to USAID, Wellcome Trust (through CEPI) and the Gates Foundation (again through CEPI) supported this work, creating a complex network of conflicts of interest when a pathogen emerged at the doorstep of a lab receiving funding for this work. They also created norms in this field of science that publishing cookbooks for dangerous pathogens was not just acceptable, but it could make you famous and well-funded. These norms rippled around the world as academic labs all over the globe began trying their hand at stunts similar to those of Kawaoka, Fouchier, and Baric.
As evidence mounted of a laboratory origin, Fauci and Collins recruited to the room some of the most conflicted researchers in the world, the heads of the Pathogenic Academic Lobby, co-founders of Scientists For Science like Ron Fouchier, Christian Drosten, and their (and Daszak’s) close colleague Marion Koopmans. These funders masked their roles prompting, ghostwriting, and promoting publications claiming lab origin theories are “conspiracy theories”. These funders used their positions of power to expand the reach of papers they helped write, from Fauci presenting Proximal Origin on national television to Farrar writing editors at Nature, bringing Wellcome Trust affiliates onto Daszak’s “Statement”, and using his position as head of one of the largest health science funders in the world to promote papers he helped ghostwrite, papers calling lab origin theories “conspiracy theories”, a lab origin “implausible”, all without disclosing the Wellcome Trust’s ties to Daszak and the labs in question. Proximal Origin author Kristian Andersen received a $9 million grant from Dr. Fauci’s NIAID shortly after writing the paper Dr. Fauci prompted. Andersen’s grant had been reviewed, but it had not yet been accepted by the time of the February 1 call – it was within Fauci’s power to reject Andersen’s grant, and that is something Andersen would know as he’s sitting in the room with Fauci, Farrar, and Collins, getting berated by Fouchier, Drosten, Koopmans et al.
Outside this web of conflicts of interest surrounding the Wuhan labs, independent scientists stepped up to document evidence consistent with a laboratory origin. Scientists For Science, Daszak, and other colleagues began to use their network (e.g. Racaniello + Rasmussen), their control of scientific positions of power (e.g. Thiel), and their media connections (e.g. Holmes, Andersen et al. positioning papers in The Guardian, NYT, and beyond) to suppress dissent, bully opposition, and mount a disinformation campaign of unprecedented academic reach.
Most of the world entered into the room of virology in 2020, unaware that this field was in the midst of a war over the risks of their research since 2011. At the time of SARS-CoV-2 emergence, the risky research was being funded by Fauci’s NIAID, Collins’ NIH, Farrar’s Wellcome Trust, and more. The risky research was being conducted by Fouchier, Drosten, Thiel, Daszak, and others who established themselves at the helms or in the boardrooms of scientific nodes of power. Most of the world did not know the acrimony and struggles for institutional power that started before COVID-19. Unaware of this history, most of the public was not aware that a pandemic caused by the exact research hypothesized to create SARS-CoV-2 would lead to an historic stain on the reputations of all those who lobbied to “let scientists be scientists”. Scientists For Science, meanwhile, were clearly aware of the reputational risks they faced.
I was not personally involved in these debates – I was busy doing my PhD in 2011-2014, studying evolution and competition at Princeton down the hall from Eddie Holmes’ colleague (and our mutual friend), Brian Grenfell. I heard about the debates from close friends working in the Grenfell & other disease ecology labs. We all discussed the ethics of this work in small venues, in dusty rooms with esoteric mathematical books on the wall. By 2017, I was working on a DARPA YFA on bat virus origins, emergence, and outbreak forecasting, and by 2018 I was helping write a grant for the same DARPA PREEMPT call to which Daszak proposed his DEFUSE grant. I am aware of the debate and familiar with the social network of these scientists but didn’t I stick my neck out then, thus I feel a civic duty to contextualize the present by educating the public this important, esoteric, academic history that defines our modern debates. When I heard Fauci + Farrar invited “Fouchier, Drosten, and Koopmans” to the room, I immediately knew what that meant. The invite list on the Feb 1 call meant they brought in three of the most conflicted scientists in the room, scientists engaged in lobbying and research enhancing potentially pandemic pathogens, scientists whose reputations would fall and whose funding would plummet in the event of a laboratory origin.
I see this social-scientific history everywhere. Indeed, there’s some interesting sociology at play when people like Peter Hotez go around claiming there is an “Anti-Science” movement, because science is so much broader than microbiology, let alone the small subset of microbiology studying potentially pandemic pathogens, let alone the miniscule subset of that seeking to enhance potentially pandemic pathogens. Scientists For Science attempted to center themselves and their work as “Science”, as opposed to acknowledging they are a tiny drop in a large bucket of scientific fields and endeavors. By taking up the mantle of “defending Science” (and not some niche, minuscule subfield), these researchers are attempting to create a false solidarity with other fields of science that have better managed their risks, or fields of science like climatology whose entire purpose is understanding and mitigating risks they couldn’t possibly engineer. Hotez, while not a Scientist For Science, was subcontracting virological work to the Wuhan Institute of Virology at the time of SARS-CoV-2 emergence, including Shi ZhengLi and colleagues who were very interested in proteolysis mediating cell entry and expanding host + tissue tropism, as we see with the furin cleavage site of SARS-CoV-2.
Rasmussen was Racaniello’s student. Koopmans is Fouchier’s close colleague and Daszak’s dear friend. Hotez subcontracted work to WIV scientist Zhou Yusen. These researchers all advocate – and have advocated – for relatively unregulated and better-funded work on dangerous pathogens in academic universities. Angela Rasmussen loves working with Ebola. Do you trust her?
This narrow, tightly connected minority of highly vocal virologists is bound together in conflicts of interest from their research and subcontractors under investigation, reputational risks from past efforts to lobby on behalf of risks for the pathetic benefits of funding and fame. Before COID, they lobbied against regulations of their work. Today, they still lobby to be trusted to oversee their own research. They are aware that laboratory accidents can affect their funding and fame, most of all a laboratory accident resulting in an historic loss of human life. Given their existential and career-shattering conflicts of interest in this matter, they are not the unbiased experts we need, they cannot be trusted by the average citizen to make decisions that are right for everyone, or even our nation, or even our world. They are Scientists For Science, a self-interested academic lobby whose careers will plummet if working with a microscopic organism capable of ending human civilization should require so much as a background check, a clean bill of mental health, a breathalyzer before entering the lab, or other bare-minimum guardrails against the catastrophic risks of their research
As a consequence of their successful lobbying and jockeying for power, they got what they wanted. Their research was heavily funded, their labs staffed, they became famous and centered as “the experts” during a pandemic, and the enhancement of potentially pandemic pathogens proliferated without requiring so much as the background check the same scientists demand for a handgun.
For the same reason we should establish ethics over the adage of “boys will be boys”, we must not let scientists be scientists. We must establish ethical guidelines on the publication of dangerous findings. We must consider laws that don’t let scientists entirely externalize the risks of their risky research while internalizing the rewards of fame and finding. We must formally establish scientists’ duty of care when handling potentially pandemic pathogens to ensure the negligent handling of dangerous pathogens in inadequate biosafety conditions resulting in injury is a crime. We must welcome oversight from independent bodies capable of pausing and stopping research whose benefits don’t outweigh their risks, and the funding for the groups involved in stopping risky research must not depend on the risky research itself. The Cambridge Working Group lost the Battles before COVID as Fauci and Collins used their power to turn the tide in favor of gain of function research of concern. The public must assert its views on this issue as the risks these niche scientists take clearly affect us all, and the policy solutions must be considered democratically.
Will scientists who stood athwart risky research shouting “Halt!” receive reinforcements from the public, now that the public is aware? Or will Scientists For Science continue to use their incumbent advantage in media to mislead the public on the true risks of their research? Will we be able to recruit a mobilized public to the task of managing work, or will Scientists For Science use their incumbent advantage in academic circles to secure nodes of power within virology, suppress open scientific discourse on the probable lab origin of SARS-CoV-2, evade accountability, and succeed in their efforts to lobby for more funding, more staff, and more academic research enhancing potentially pandemic pathogens?
Will we prevent the catastrophic lab accident that has the potential to end human civilization, or will members of the public fear experts enough to avoid this debate, will they Follow The Science and “let scientists do science”, even if these particular scientists could doom us all?
By learning the history of the pathogenic academic lobby, my sincere hope is the public can engage on this topic, identify conflicts of interest even in the scientific community, and understand the urgent need to intervene.
Science is awesome. I love science. However, science, like religion, was a beautiful thing before people got involved. The people involved in this miniscule niche area of science enhancing potential pandemic pathogens have created an unaccountable system with misaligned incentives that undermine national security and global health. Any policies aiming to reduce the risks of lab accidents must contend with Scientists For Science and the system they created, whereby some scientists publish and widely disseminate dangerous work and protocols for the enhancement of pathogens to scare people, use the ensuing fear to boost their funding, use their funding and fame to secure nodes of power within academic communities, and use their power to avoid accountability and oversight.
The people centering themselves as The Science, as the experts, have a history you must know about.