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A Candid Conversation with Richard Ebright on Science Writers & Researchers Who Created a Conspiracy Arguing Against the COVID19 Pandemic Starting from a Lab Leak
RICHARD EBRIGHT: DICHRON INTERVIEW
9 minute read
For most of last year, anyone questioning if the COVID19 pandemic started from a lab leak was called a “quack” or dismissed as a “conspiracy theorist.” But, in the last couple of months, there were multiple calls for an investigation into the pandemic’s start. A House Committee had its first hearing on the pandemic’s beginning, and some Senators are now calling for a commission, modelled on the 9/11 Commission, to investigate how this virus first crossed over from animals into humans, killing millions across the planet and damaging the world’s economy.
For several decades, Richard Ebright has been a thorn in the side of the government and the biodefense industry, both of which have long ignored the dangers of risky virus research. Experts now question if virus research, funded for years by the US federal government, at a lab in Wuhan, China, could have caused the pandemic after a lab accident.
Richard H. Ebright is Board of Governors Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Rutgers University, and Laboratory Director at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology. Over several phone calls spanning multiple months, The DisInformation Chronicle spoke with Ebright about the year-long campaign by a coterie of scientists and their allies in the science writing community to dismiss the possibility that a lab leak in China may have started the pandemic.
“False narratives were established and enforced by a small number of scientists and their willing soldiers among science writers,” says Ebright. “But the public and the press were not likely to lose interest in an epidemic that has killed so many people and turned the US economy upside down.” Here is an edited and condensed version of our talk.
DICHRON: The issue around a lab leak has changed a bit, where more people are willing to say it might have happened. But the facts really have not changed much.
EBRIGHT: Largely, they have not. Yes.
DICHRON: This makes the case even more solid that virologists were misleading people by loudly exclaiming that the evidence showed the pandemic started by a natural spillover and a lab leak theory was a “conspiracy.” This was always propaganda to protect their funding and colleagues from scrutiny that this may have been a screw up by scientists. They never had any tangible evidence on their side.
Everyone is talking about gain of function research. Does this involve passaging the virus multiple times through a mammal or mammal cells? This would make the virus more used to living in mammals.
EBRIGHT: This is one of several methods to do gain-of-function. One can do it by serial passage. One can do gain-of-function by making chimeric viruses; one can do gain-of-function by starting with a virus and engineering mutations into the virus.
DICHRON: So, gain-of-function means you simply change the virus, regardless of which process you use?
EBRIGHT: It refers to starting with a pathogen and making that pathogen more transmissible, or more lethal, or more able to overcome countermeasures.
DICHRON: Can you explain to people why scientists are doing this research?
EBRIGHT: It is not being done for practical purposes. It has produced no actionable results — no results that would, for example, be useful for preventing or responding to a pandemic. It is being done for career advancement. The experiments are simple to perform. They are highly publishable and highly fundable.
Developing an antiviral drug typically has a timeline of 20 years and a probability of success of one in 20. In contrast, gain-of-function experiments can take just six months, and the probability of success would be nearly 100%.
With gain-of-function, one can move very quickly to results, to publication, and then to a next grant.
DICHRON: And for federal funding, you do not get a grant for 20 years …?
EBRIGHT: For infectious diseases, most research is supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The typical NIAID research grant has a five-year term, which means one cannot discover and develop a new drug or vaccine in a single-grant term.
DICHRON: In April of 2020, three former Obama intelligence officials wrote an essay in Foreign Policy that said, “The COVID19 virus could have come from a lab, or it could have come from a natural infection from bats.”
But this was followed up in The New York Times, Scientific American and other publications as “It could not have possibly come from a lab.”
I read this stuff and I am saying, “Wait, do these reporters not bother to read …? Do they not have an ability to find stuff on Google? Because I can find this stuff.”
EBRIGHT: It is a decision that editors have been making about which narrative to support. Anyone who was in the biosafety and biosecurity community had been discussing since January 2020 the possibility that this could have been a lab accident. In fact, many were convinced that the lab accident scenario made more sense.
DICHRON: One of the former Deputy CIA Directors who signed that letter in April of last year is Avril Haines. She is now President Biden’s Director of National Intelligence. She testified to Congress stating the same thing; that we do not know if this might have come from a lab in China.
EBRIGHT: She said this in testimony. Yes.
DICHRON: So, she has been saying the same thing over and over again?
EBRIGHT: Of course. Anyone who has looked into it, who does not have a vested interest, has been saying that it could have started from a lab accident.
DICHRON: Two days after Haines and other intelligence officials wrote this piece in Foreign Policy back in 2020, one her co-authors, former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell was quoted in Politico saying that if the virus leaked from a Wuhan lab, then the US would shoulder some of the blame since it funded research for that lab through government grants from 2014 to 2019.
EBRIGHT: That is absolutely correct.
DICHRON: The intelligence community is not only saying this could have come from a lab, but it is also pointing the finger right back at the funding sources in the United States.
EBRIGHT: The largest component of funding from the US to the Wuhan lab came from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), channeled through Peter Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance. Additional funding came from NIAID, again channeled through Peter Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance.
Officials at USAID and NIAID, who made these funding decisions, do not want to see any discussion of who made the decisions and why they made the decisions.
DICHRON: As this all kicks off in January 2020, this science writer named Nsikan Akpan authors an article for National Geographic. It says, “New coronavirus can spread between humans, but it started in a wildlife market.”
And in the text of the article, it says over and over again “wildlife market,” “wildlife market.” Never once does Akpan mention the possibly that the virus could have come from a lab.
EBRIGHT: From the beginning, National Geographic has promoted this false narrative that science shows SARS-CoV-2 entered humans through natural spillover. Several of their authors and editors have run interference for EcoHealth Alliance, which funded research in Wuhan.
DICHRON: Even after these intelligence officials write that this could have come from a lab in March 2020, Nsikan Akpan comes back again for another bite at the apple in May, interviewing Anthony Fauci who says that he does not entertain the idea that the virus escaped from a lab.
There is nothing in this article that states, “But intelligence officials say the opposite.” It just quotes Fauci saying something that is totally counter to what the American intelligence community is saying. Nsikan Akpan later pins this nutty tweet to his Twitter arguing that if you say the pandemic started from a lab, then you basically are a climate denialist.
EBRIGHT: Yes. If you have absolute faith in friends at EcoHealth Alliance — particularly if you also want to defend them from any inquiry and want to save them the bother of having to have an inquiry — well, then you do stenography rather than journalism.
DICHRON: In June there was a weird article from Scientific American, which has some of the worst ...
EBRIGHT: Scientific American has covered itself in shame on this subject.
DICHRON: Scientific American published this laudatory article about Shi Zhengli, the scientist who runs the lab in Wuhan that was funded by American taxpayers through EcoHealth Alliance subgrants.
EBRIGHT: Yes, a PR puff piece. Scientific American responded by then putting an editor’s warning on its own site, explaining away its own photos showing Chinese researchers studying bats without proper protective equipment.
DICHRON: They are censoring their own articles.
EBRIGHT: They censored their own article. The scientific journal Nature has done that as well.
In 2015, Shi Zhengli and an American researcher published a paper on chimeric viruses. Nature covered it in their news section. In that story, I said this type of research should not be performed, whereas Peter Daszak said this type of research was crucial because these viruses are a clear and present danger.
If you find that article online today, there is now a note that says, in effect, “You should pay no attention to this article.” [Laughs].
And there was a 2017 news article in Nature on constructing the BSL-4 facility at the Wuhan Institute of Virology with comments from several people, including myself, saying that building this lab was unwise, imprudent, and that it risked release of a potential pandemic pathogen.
That article also has a disclaimer from the editors telling you, in effect, “Pay no attention to this article that appeared in our journal.”
DICHRON: There was this year-long pattern with Peter Daszak being quoted repetitively calling a possible lab leak a “conspiracy theory” whether it was an essay in The Guardian, some article in Nature. Few of these stories mentioned his funding ties to the lab in Wuhan …
EBRIGHT: It is very clear that the term "conspiracy theory" is a term for defaming an idea one disagrees with.
DICHRON: A really interesting piece came out in January in New York Magazine on the possibility of a pandemic having come from a lab leak. What I thought was funny is that as soon as this comes out, Nsikan Akpan, the guy who wrote those awkward pieces for National Geographic … He is obviously disturbed about this article that undermines his prior reporting.
So Akpan tweets, “This article is filled with wild speculation about science of its origins and signifies a lack of understanding around basic genetics and viral evolution.”
Axios points out that Akpan ignored an Associated Press investigation that found China was censoring research into how the pandemic started and was pushing conspiracies that the outbreak may have begun in another country.
DICHRON: What is that about?
EBRIGHT: If you are trying to maintain the false narrative that science shows the virus entered humans through natural spillover, when no such evidence exists, you must gate-keep the narrative by defaming someone suggesting otherwise.
The article in New York Magazine was a something of a turning point. Science writers and others promoting the false narrative attacked New York Magazine on the grounds that the author was not a scientist and had written fiction in the past.
It seems they felt they had to do this, because this time it was not Fox News reporting about a lab leak. The people who read New York Magazine are the same people who read The New York Times, so that article was "dangerous" It allowed bien-pensant people to realize, “Hey, there is another narrative. Why haven't we heard this before?”
DICHRON: What happened next?
EBRIGHT: After the New York Magazine article, a new US president arrives, and a World Health Organization mission goes to Wuhan.
The World Health Organization held a press conference in Wuhan where they claimed a lab accident was "extremely unlikely." But, then in Geneva, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Tedros, said that ruling out a lab accident was premature.
DICHRON: By February, Biden's White House released a statement by their national security advisor expressing concerns about the sloppy WHO investigation in China.
EBRIGHT: At that point,it became clear the new administration would not be playing the “It’s a conspiracy theory; we know the answer” game.
DICHRON: And then?
EBRIGHT: Nicholas Wade’s long read in May on the subject received a very large audience, including consumers of prestige media. Following Wade’s article, more people were now realizing there is something here that they have not heard properly before.
DICHRON: On March 22, investigative journalist Alison Young … there is not a single goddamn reporter in the United States that has done as much investigating labs — there is no reporter who has done anywhere near as much reporting on lab leaks as Young in the United States. In her piece in USA Today, she writes, “Science, like journalism, is supposed to be about facts and about getting the truth. But those who dare seek answers to reasonable questions about any lab accidents in Wuhan are accused of peddling conspiracies.”
She is a professor for one of the most prestigious journalism programs in America and all the science writers ignored what she wrote. Not a single tweet about Young’s article from any science writer at Scientific American, Science or Nature.
EBRIGHT: They're not going to tweet it, because it is an attack on them and their editors. It has been illuminating to see how this first rough draft of history has been written.
DICHRON: On April 5, MIT Technology Review’s Antonio Regalado tweets that something he had said ended up on a Fox News program about a lab leak. And Amy Maxmen, who is at Nature . . .
EBRIGHT: One of the worst.
DICHRON: She is one of the worst, isn't she? Maxmen counters by tweeting that the scientific process involves evidence, not pure conjecture.
And I am thinking, “Is Nature’s Amy Maxmen accusing the intelligence community and the President of the United States of conjecture and not caring about evidence? Is that what she's doing?”
DICHRON: She was on this unhinged podcast …. I mean, isn't she supposed to be reporting? [Laughs] I think she is supposed to be reporting.
EBRIGHT: Did you hear that podcast? It was ghastly.
DICHRON: That is what I was trying to get to. Someone alerted me about it. Maxmen had this podcast back in March that I listened to and it was crazy.
EBRIGHT: Yes. There were some glaring statements in there. One of the people she was interviewing suggested that scientists criticizing high-risk research might be doing so to reduce competition for grant money. Then she and her co-host repeated and amplified and discussed the comment at length, taking what was a tendentious side comment and turning it into a crackpot major theme.
DICHRON: She was trying to do this 180-degree argument, that if you criticize this dangerous lab research, you are conflicted because you are only doing so to get grant money.
EBRIGHT: The actual crackpot claim was that scientists who criticize high-risk research are doing this to try to get grants, by attacking the federal grants that EcoHealth Alliance gets.
I can assure you the worst possible way to position oneself to get NIH grants is to criticize NIH grants. Doing so does not make the NIH your friend.
DICHRON: Do you think all these reporters who spun all this bullshit forever are going to try to pretend that this did not happen? That they did not behave this way?
EBRIGHT: Definitely. It will be, “This never happened. What are you talking about?”
DICHRON: It reminds me of the weapons of mass destruction fiasco in journalism. But that was mostly Judith Miller at The New York Times. Way more reporters peddled nonsense this time.
EBRIGHT: The only difference is that Judith Miller was actually a good writer. Many of these people cannot write, in addition to not being able to report.
So yes, we have seen something like this before. But I have to say, this time around has been worse. It has not just been a few people pushing a narrative, but a much broader group from within journalism.
DICHRON: When you look at the scope of it all, this might be the worst case of science reporting I have ever seen.
EBRIGHT: One can establish false narratives and enforce them for a very long time, particularly if the public loses interest or if the press loses interest. But the public and the press never were not likely to lose interest in an epidemic that has killed so many people and turned the US economy upside down.
False narratives were established and enforced by a small number of scientists and their willing soldiers among science writers. The first false narrative was that science showed that the virus entered humans through natural spillover. The second false narrative is that this was the consensus of the scientific community.
Neither of those narratives was true. There was no scientific evidence that indicates how the pandemic started, and there was no consensus from the scientific community.
A year later, those narratives have collapsed of their own weight.
DICHRON: On the matter of disinformation, which so many of these science writers love to discuss, I’ve noticed they do not seem to care when the disinformation comes from the Chinese government. The Chinese government has been pushing these whacky conspiracies that the virus came from the Ft. Detrick lab in the United States, but I do not see these science writers at Science, Nature, Scientific American or The New York Times getting bothered about this.
So, there is a definite selection of what they think is disinformation that should be highlighted and knocked down. Right?
EBRIGHT: The information that these science writers deem to be "disinformation" is information that could damage their sources and their interests.
The claims by the Chinese that the virus originated in Barcelona, or in Italy, or in the US are nonsensical and are not going to have any impact on the sources and interests that the members of National Association of Science Writers hold dear.
The possibility that the SARS-COV-2 entered the human population due to research, on the other hand, strikes directly at the core values of NASW. The possibility that research could have triggered a pandemic—and even worse—the possibility that decisions and actions of their most prized sources could have triggered a pandemic …
Well, that implicates Science – with a capital "S" – and that could result in all kinds of restrictions on high-risk virus research. And they cannot have that.
This ends part 1 of our candid conversation with Richard Ebright on the coterie of scientists and allied reporters who sought to bury the idea that the pandemic could have started with a lab accident in Wuhan, China. In part 2, Ebright discusses the two-decade history of funding and lack of safety efforts in pandemic research.