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The “Boys Will Be Boys” of Science

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Stock photo.

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:

COVID science opinion

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. 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 splits the fragments of the community and seems to determine 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.

COVID science opinion

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 that 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 that 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.

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 “1918 Spanish Influenza” – why on Earth would someone take any path in research that leads towards those horrors? Why are these pathogens being created in our universities?

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.

Obviously, if you have one pathogen that was extremely bad, take other 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 had intermediate transmissibility, and giving these avian influenza viruses parts of the 1918 influenza increased the severity of illness in mice infected with these unnatural chimeric viruses.

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, but rather there were academic accolades for Kawaoka, publications, citations, and grants, and perhaps this work piqued the academic interests of others.

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 student who failed their qualification exams, 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, they petition:

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.

Shots fired. Immediately afterwards, 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 calling to 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 that they wished to resume work that 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 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 freedom despite the lack of industrial or defensive benefits and the astronomical risks of such work.

Scientists For Science claimed that existing regulations are already adequate without addressing the regulatory gaps, let alone considering the geopolitical consequences of a single accident, let alone an accident that may be misinterpreted as the use of a biological weapon. 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.”

Scientists For Science were not connected to industry. While they were nominally supported by biodefense funds, they would publish the horrors they made in the public domain thereby introducing the threats instead of merely making our defense or intelligence communities threat-aware. The banality of their esoteric, academic motives is equal parts tragic and comical – had their lobbying efforts failed and our system of science discouraged such dangerous work, we could have laughed.

Hence this is a pathogenic academic lobby and not a pathogenic-industrial lobby. They just wanted papers, grants, fame, esoteric understanding on the mechanisms of disease without direct application to 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 agents capable of causing 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

Defend science. Call people who disagree Anti-Science. Let Scientists be Scientists.

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.

Who do we find among the co-founders of Scientists For Science but 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), Cadhla Firth (now at Peter Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance), Stephen Goldstein (co-author of flawed Worobey and Pekar et al.), Ian Lipkin (Proximal Origin author), Volker Thiel, Friedmann Weber, four additional scientists at Erasmus University who are 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 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 redefine “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 (gain-of-function research of concern). In 2018, Daszak proposed to insert a furin cleavage site in a SARS-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, 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 that supported CEPI, CEPI supported the Global Virome Project, and Daszak was treasurer of the Global Virome Project. Farrar was not an expert in forensics, he was someone with financial conflicts of interest connecting him to 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, the funders and organizers of the call, could be subjects of investigations and oversight hearings, and history could even hold them responsible for this outbreak.

At the pivotal moment in history, who did these conflicted funders invite?

They invited 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 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:

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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 Keusc
  • 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:

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.

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.

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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 and 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 dividing scientists on this risky research pre-Covid defines us. 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, corrupted scientific power used in unethical ways to push a false claim that a lab origin is “implausible,” that lab origin theories are “conspiracy theories.”

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 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 to claim a lab origin is implausible – by many accounts, such ghostwritten reporting and motivated reasoning, coming from people who knew a lab origin was “so friggin likely” can 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. 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.

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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 as, after hearing Andersen and 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 Drosten, Fouchier, Koopmans et al. used the call to pressure Andersen, Holmes, Lipkin et al towards claiming a lab origin is “implausible”.

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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 and 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 to cover this work and incumbent advantages from media connections granted by Proximal Origin work and Fauci’s 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 had a reach that exceeded their 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 attackDavid 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 Friedmann 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 suppose 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.

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 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.

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 and 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, New York Times, 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 Grenfell, and 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.

As someone who is aware of the debate but didn’t stick his neck out then, I feel a civic duty now to contextualize the present by educating the public this important, esoteric, academic history that defines our modern debates. When I heard Fauci and Farrar invited “Fouchier, Drosten, and Koopmans” to the room, I immediately knew what that meant – it meant they brought in three of the most conflicted scientists in the room, scientists whose reputations would fall and whose funding would plummet in the event of a laboratory origin.

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 which actually seeks to enhance potentially pandemic pathogens. Scientists For Science attempted to center themselves as “Science,” and in so doing they 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.

the boys will be boys7 the boys will be boys8

This narrow minority of highly vocal virologists is all bound together in conflicts of interest, reputational risks from past efforts to lobby on behalf of risks for the pathetic benefits of funding and fame. Before Covid, they lobbied against regulations and today they still lobby to be trusted to oversee their own research. They are aware that laboratory accidents can affect their funding and fame, and given their conflicts of interest in this matter 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, or a breathalyzer before entering the lab.

As a consequence of their successful lobbying and jockeying for power, they got what they wanted – their research was heavily funded, their labs staffed, and the enhancement of potentially pandemic pathogens proliferated without requiring so much as the background check the same scientists demand for a handgun.

We should not let scientists be scientists. We should establish ethical guidelines on the publication of dangerous findings. We should consider laws that don’t let scientists entirely externalize the risks of their risky research, formally establishing scientists’ duty of care when handling potentially pandemic pathogens. We should 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 should 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.

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 and see 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 particular miniscule niche area of science 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.

Image credit: Unsplash+

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Where is/was/are the FBI? Surely this should have been investigated 4 years ago. I had seen the links between these dick scientists by April/May 2020. Why were they able to pull the wool over the eyes of law enforcement and media so easily?

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