A controversial study credited with fueling the notion that COVID had natural origins was just a “point of view” rather than a research project, the medical journal that published the paper is now saying.
Nature Medicine’s fresh characterization of the “Proximal Origin” report, as conveyed in a story from The Telegraph published over the weekend, stands in stark contrast to how chief editor Joao Monteiro pitched the findings when they were published in March of 2020 during the early stages of the pandemic.
“Let’s put conspiracy theories about the origin of #SARSCoV2 to rest and help to stop [the] spread of misinformation,” Monteiro said in tweet trumpeting the study at the time.
The study returned to the spotlight earlier this month after the GOP-led Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic released internal messages between the authors of the paper before some of them testified before the panel. The messages indicate a desire to downplay the Chinese lab leak theory over concerns about international fallout, or, as Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-KY) put it, showed a “preferred political narrative.”
One of the authors, Dr. Andrew Rambaut, said on February 2, 2020, “given the s*** show that would happen if anyone serious accused the Chinese of even accidental release, my feeling is we should say that given there is no evidence of a specifically engineered virus, we cannot possibly distinguish between natural evolution and escape so we are content with ascribing it to natural process.”
In response, Dr. Kristian Andersen said, “Yup, I totally agree that that’s a very reasonable conclusion. Although I hate when politics is injected into science – but it’s [sic] impossible not to, especially given the circumstances.”
There are several more exchanges that have raised eyebrows, including a Slack message in which Rambaut said he personally thought “we should get away from all the strange coincidence stuff. I agree it smells really fishy but without a smoking gun it will not do us any good. The truth is never going to come out (if escape is the truth). Would need to be irrefutable evidence.”
Andersen and Robert Garry, another author on the paper, both testified under oath that they stand by their report’s ultimate conclusion that COVID was not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus — despite the Chinese lab leak theory appearing to have gained traction over the natural emergence theory among agencies in the U.S. intelligence community — and pushed back against the idea that the likes of Dr. Anthony Fauci sought to steer the direction of their work.
Still, the internal messages among the “Proximal Origin” authors, in addition to concerns about undue influence from the National Institutes of Health, have prompted a push for Nature Magazine to retract the study.
Helping to lead the charge is Richard Ebright, the lab director for the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University, who said it is “deeply disingenuous for a scientific journal that allowed a fraudulent paper to pose as scientific research, for three years — and to influence opinion and policy for three years — would now refuse to retract the fraudulent paper on the grounds it was ‘not a research study.'”
Data journalist Nate Silver, who founded FiveThirtyEight, said the messages reveal a “huge scandal.” Scientists such as Anderson “believed a lab leak was extremely plausible, if not likely, they concocted a plan to deceive the public about it, and they’ve been caught red-handed. There’s not really any ambiguity here. They are [as] unethical as it gets,” he added.
Andersen, who is a professor in the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at Scripps Research, has argued the internal messages have been taken out of context.
“These perfect examples of science in progress have been hijacked by grifters and conspiracy theorists, and turned into a nonsensical political circus where individual scientists (i.e., human beings) are being targeted and harassed,” he contended in a tweet.
In a statement declaring that there would not be a retraction of the study, Nature Medicine’s top editor Monteiro also warned against taking messages at face value.
“Concerns raised about any type of article in our journal are always considered carefully,” Monteiro said, according to The Telegraph.
“However, when it comes to expressing opinions, it is our position that it is the authors’ prerogative to balance their views in a way that reflects the body of robust scientific knowledge available at the time of publication, as well as the impact of their findings,” Monteiro added. “Neither previous out-of-context remarks by the authors nor disagreements with the authors’ stated views, are, on their own, grounds for retraction. We have therefore concluded that retraction is not warranted at this time.”