Get the Hell out of Her Way, Lindsay Beyerstein Is Having Another Pandemic Opinion
Whether the topic is opioids or COVID, details do not seem to matter when Beyerstein needs to be heard.
In the pantheon of angry, fact-addled book reviews, few can compete with Lindsay Beyerstein’s essay in The New Republic about “Viral,” a book by Alina Chan and Matt Ridley. I use the term “essay” because it was not really a “book review,” more like a reason for Beyerstein to start a political rant, a habit at which she excels.
And as with most rants, Beyerstein gets a few details wrong. Which makes it clear that The New Republic no longer employs fact checkers.
Shortly out of the gate, Beyerstein accuses the authors of refusing to “make the case” for how the pandemic began and whether the “virus jumped naturally from animals to humans like the first two pandemic coronaviruses, SARS and MERS and countless new human viruses throughout history.”
This was a bit too much for reporter Helen Branswell, who just won a Polk Award for her investigative coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Branswell tweeted to Beyerstein, “SARS and MERS were not pandemic coronaviruses.”
Beyerstein’s essay remains uncorrected, but get ready because here come more errors.
A few paragraphs later, Beyerstein writes that bat viruses discovered in Laos make “obsolete” claims that the pandemic could have started from a lab accident in Wuhan, China. What Beyerstein fails to mention is that Peter Daszak of the Ecohealth Alliance reported to the National Institutes of Health that back in 2014 he had sampled bat viruses from Laos. You may be shocked to learn that Daszak’s collaborator on that grant was Shi Zengli of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
In other words, bat viruses from Laos were brought to the Wuhan Institute of Virology almost six years ago for study. This fact is underlined in a paper published last July by scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology who studied bat coronaviruses collected between 2006 to 2016 from Laos.
But again. These are just facts—minor obstacles that never get in the way of Beyerstein and her laptop when she is needing to have an opinion.
Beyerstein then launches into another claim that supposedly nails the authors of “Viral” against the wall: an opinion piece in Science Magazine, by Michael Worobey. Wrapping her arms around this Science essay, Beyerstein writes that Worobey “has confirmed the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market as the likely site of a zoonotic spillover event.”
In short, the pandemic could not have started in a Wuhan lab, because it began in a seafood market. But unfortunately for Beyerstein, Worobey didn’t “confirm” what she claims. What he wrote was much more circumspect:
[C]onclusive evidence of a Huanan Market origin from infected wildlife may nonetheless be obtainable through analysis of spatial patterns of early cases and from additional genomic data, including SARS-CoV-2–positive samples from Huanan Market, as well as through integration of additional epidemiologic data. Preventing future pandemics depends on this effort.
And on Twitter, Worobey later admitted that he needed to correct his essay, adding that the “jury is still out” on how the pandemic began.
Aside from the obvious errors, Beyerstein is infatuated with labeling, underlining, and boldfacing any claim of a lab leak as a conspiracy theory. She does this no less than 11 times in her tirade against the authors of “Viral.” It’s an odd emotional tic.
Last October, U.S. intelligence agencies reported that they are divided on whether the pandemic started naturally or from a lab leak. This report concludes, “All agencies assess that two hypotheses are plausible: natural exposure to an infected animal and a laboratory-associated incident.”
This raises some obvious questions. In Beyerstein’s world, are the U.S. intelligence agencies spreading conspiracy theories? Maybe they are just less informed than the very opinionated Lindsay Beyerstein? Or perhaps … perhaps … is this evidence that Lindsay Beyerstein relies on name calling when she needs to have an opinion?
But this is not Beyerstein’s first time voicing strong judgement about an epidemic and flubbing on facts. She did the same thing years ago on opioids.
Beyerstein doesn’t want the drug companies blamed for causing the opioid epidemic
During the height of the opioid crisis in 2016, former FDA commissioner David Kessler wrote an essay in the New York Times excoriating the drug industry for unleashing an epidemic of death and misery on Americans, by selling high-dose opioids based on flimsy scientific evidence that patients would not become addicted.
What we have learned with addictive substances is that how society perceives them will predict how widely they will be used. For decades, cigarettes were made out to be something that we wanted and would give us pleasure. Then that perception changed as people came to understand that cigarettes actually were deadly addictive products that had no place in a healthy life. Opioids are trickier because they have some value in certain conditions. But we need to view them for what they are: addictive and potentially deadly drugs.
Something about this essay triggered Beyerstein to vomit up an opinion. She responded in an awkward article for The Observer where she accused the former FDA commissioner of “slandering pain patients.” Never mind that slander is “spoken” not “written” defamation. Again, Beyerstein is having an opinion.
In the process, Beyerstein also posed as a physician, quoting from various studies and medical literature, as if she, like David Kessler, had attended medical school. In one example—not surprisingly—she misleads readers.
There is a misconception that chronic pain patients account for the bulk of drug overdoses victims. In fact, most overdoses are caused by people using diverted drugs recreationally. One study found that only 13 percent of overdose victims had a chronic pain diagnosis.
The study Beyerstein links to was published in JAMA Internal Medicine. But if you bother to read it (obviously her editor didn’t) it doesn’t say much about chronic pain diagnoses or whether overdoses happened because of “diverted drugs.” What it does conclude is “Most patients in our sample overdosed on prescription opioids, suggesting that further efforts to stem the prescription opioid overdose epidemic are urgently needed.”
Pretty much the exact point that Kessler made.
Beyerstein also attempted to make an even more bizarre point when she ranted:
It seems far-fetched to think that all of these patients and their doctors are deluded by drug company propaganda. A more likely scenario is that many patients accept opioids, with their well-known side effects and their very real risks, because there [sic] are suffering terribly and these drugs are the best available option.
Years before Beyerstein wrote this essay in The Observer, multiple outlets had exposed this exact form of drug industry propaganda that Beyerstein claimed was “far-fetched.” In 2011, ProPublica reporters Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber highlighted the American Pain Foundation, a nonprofit which described itself as the nation’s largest advocacy group for pain patients.
The foundation collected nearly 90 percent of its $5 million funding last year from the drug and medical-device industry -- and closely mirrors its positions, an examination by ProPublica found.
Although the foundation maintains it is sticking up for the needs of millions of suffering patients, records and interviews show that it favors those who want to preserve access to the drugs over those who worry about their risks.
Months after the ProPublica expose, the American Pain Foundation shut down.
As for Beyerstein’s claim that opioids are the “best available option” for pain patients, that had been dismissed a few months before she wrote her essay, in a press briefing by Tom Frieden, who was then Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
[T]he evidence on treatment of chronic pain is not as robust as we would like. There are a limited number of studies that have looked at the effectiveness for long-term pain. And those studies have generally not found effective-positive outcomes in terms of improvement in functioning or reduction in pain in the long term.
Since Beyerstein’s clumsy defense of opioid overprescribing, several books have been published that place blame on the drug industry for the opioid crisis, such as the New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe’s “Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty.”
Thankfully, nobody let Beyerstein write a book review/rant about that one.
“Journalists who write about health care should rely on science not anecdote,” said Andrew Kolodny, medical director of opioid policy research at Brandeis, in an interview with The DisInformation Chronicle. “Most patients on long-term opioids for chronic pain started taking opioids after an injury or surgery and never came off. And many never would have wound up stuck on opioids if their doctors hadn't been influenced by a brilliant multi-faceted campaign that downplayed the risk of addiction and exaggerated the benefits of long-term use.”
Too much of what passes for journalism today is just someone hopping on a platform and typing out whatever passes through their head. But editors should at least require these people to stick to the facts.
Please. Do this soon. Before Beyerstein needs to have another opinion.
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