The two most famous British medical journals are The Lancet (founded in 1823) and The BMJ (founded in 1840). The Lancet – which is arguably the more famous of the two – has come under criticism in recent months for publishing a letter that dismissed the lab leak as a “conspiracy theory”.
Now the Editor-in-Chief of The BMJ has written a surprisingly bold editorial, which is titled ‘Covid 19: We need a full open independent investigation into its origins’. Referencing a longer BMJ article by the science journalist Paul Thacker, she notes that “suppression of the lab leak theory was not based on any clear evaluation of the science.”
She goes on to say, “We don’t know which theory is right, but a lab leak is plausible and worthy of serious inquiry.” And she concludes by calling for a “a full, open, and independent investigation.”
Thacker’s article, which is much longer, examines the role that scientific journals and journalists played in shaping the now-punctured narrative that COVID-19 couldn’t possibly have leaked from a lab in Wuhan.
The story begins with the aforementioned Lancet letter, published in February of last year. That letter, it subsequently transpired, had been organised by Peter Daszak – president of EcoHealth Alliance – who has funded controversial gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Daszak’s letter helped to stifle debate on COVID origins for more than a year. As the molecular biologist Richard Ebright told Thacker, ‘conspiracy theory’ is a “useful term for defaming an idea you disagree with”. Ebright, incidentally, blames not only The Lancet, but also Nature and Science – the world’s two preeminent scientific journals – for suppressing the lab leak theory.
As an aside, Nature’s role in suppressing the lab leak has been covered extensively by the journalist Ian Birrell. As he notes, “Allegations swirl that it was not down to editorial misjudgement, but something more sinister: a desire to appease China for commercial reasons.”
Returning to Thacker’s article, he suggests two main reasons for the “U turn”, whereby the lab leak went from “conspiracy theory” to plausible hypothesis. The first is that Trump lost the election. Because Trump had endorsed the lab leak theory, Thacker argues, “Daszak and others used him as a convenient foil to attack their critics”. (So much for guilt-by-association being a logical fallacy.)
The second factor is that the WHO investigation into COVID origins, which had gone looking for evidence of zoonotic spillover, came back pretty much empty handed. “More worryingly,” Thacker notes, “members were allowed only a few hours of supervised access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
In the final part of the article, Thacker documents the various media outlets and “fact-checking” organisations that have scrambled to retroactively cover their anatomy. For example, Vox added a correction noting, “Since this piece was originally published in March 2020, scientific consensus has shifted.”
Thacker’s article offers a case study in what happens when scientific journals and journalists neglect their duty of independence, and instead become purveyors of an official narrative. It is worth reading in full.