Ian Birrell Explains the Science Media's Misreporting of Chinese Research
Has Chinese financing influenced publishing by prominent medical and scientific journals? And why are science writers disinterested in following the money?
9 minute read
Before the public became aware of the pandemic, Ian Birrell began filing stories on the COVID-19 virus, first reporting in February 2020 that China’s autocratic government silenced a physician who warned students about people getting sick from a virus. Three weeks after the government summoned the physician to a police station to sign a statement denouncing his ‘misdemeanour’ in spreading false rumors, China ordered a lockdown in Wuhan.
A year and a half later, Birrell has written dozens of stories, many now focused on the misleading articles and financial ties to China by science and medical journals which misinformed the public about the possibility that the virus could have come from a lab in Wuhan.
“I felt very nervous when I began, because you are going against the conventional wisdom and the scientific establishment,” Birrell tells The DisInformation Chronicle. “But I always thought that science journals and medical journals were incredibly reputable—checked things and were cautious. I have been really, really shocked to see how some journals have handled this.”
Birrell is a contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday on foreign affairs and investigations, writes a weekly column in the ‘i’ paper, and is a regular columnist for UnHerd. In prior years, he held senior executive positions at several British newspapers, and did a brief stint as adviser and speech-writer for Prime Minister David Cameron. Here is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
DICHRON: News about the pandemic began hitting around February of last year. What got you interested so early? At the start of 2020, all the articles were about science.
BIRRELL: I do a lot of foreign work, which got me started. I did a piece in February of 2020 on the Chinese doctor who had died after warning people about the outbreak. That got me interested in the Chinese repression saga.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is from Ethiopia and runs the World Health Organization. I’ve done a fair bit on Ethiopia and was very critical of the previous regime, of which Tedros was health minister and then foreign minister. It was a very thuggish, totalitarian, one-party state.
I did a couple of pieces in April 2020, the first in UnHerd, on the WHO and their links to China. I think Trump picked up on the second one, which ran in the Mail on Sunday and looked at Tedros and his apologist nature toward China.
I'm not a science journalist. All the respectable scientific magazines, journals, and scientists were saying it was conspiracy theory to say it leaked from a lab. At the beginning, everything made me very skeptical that it could be a lab leak.
But then I started looking at the studies, and I was quite intrigued by whether the media’s narrative was flawed. I came across a paper by Alina Chan and two colleagues which showed that the theory this pandemic started in a market was basically wrong. I wrote about that a year ago in May.
About two or three weeks later, China admitted that the market theory was wrong. There was some brilliant investigative journalism by Chinese journalists in the very first weeks of the pandemic which has since been censored. But you can get ahold of it if you have the right contacts.
Right after Chan’s paper in May 2020, I saw the paper by Nikolai Petrovsky, an Australian vaccine scientist and professor. It said that the virus was very well adapted to human transmission and didn’t seem natural. Petrovsky was bold enough to say that you shouldn't rule out the idea that it might not be a natural zoonotic spillover event.
The more I began to talk to people, and look into the extraordinary coincidence of this virus starting in Wuhan, a places hundreds of miles away from where the bat’s natural habitat is … I became convinced that the idea that it was definitely a natural spillover event was wrong.
We still have no idea about the origin of the virus.
DICHRON: In April 2020, three former CIA Deputy Directors wrote a piece in Foreign Policy that basically said, “We don't know where this came from.” One of the authors was Avril Haines, and she's now head of intelligence for President Biden.
But after these intelligence officials wrote this piece, James Gorman, a science writer for The New York Times, writes an article that states, “Virologists and intelligence agencies agree that the virus evolved in nature and spread from animals to humans.”
How did intelligence agencies agree to what Gorman wrote, when three former Deputy Directors of the CIA said the opposite only a month prior? Who are Gorman’s sources? Who did the New York Times confirm this story with?
Just a couple of months ago, Avril Haines testified before the Senate, stating the same thing as she wrote last year. “The intelligence community does not know exactly where, when or how Covid-19 was transmitted initially.”
But science writers ignored this for the better part of year to push their own narrative.
BIRRELL To be fair, there have been one or two American news organizations which have done well. The Washington Post has obviously been quite distinctive on this. And ever since the revelation in February about the WHO’s visit to Wuhan and the concerns over safety, their editorials have been quite good.
The Wall Street Journal has pressed away at this. So there has been some good reporting. But equally, in the UK a lot of people have gone along with the conventional narrative and forgotten that the job of journalism is to question, and to follow evidence.
If it does turn out to be a lab leak—and that remains an “if”—it is a major situation for science. Because science causing this catastrophe would have huge repercussions on the funding of scientific research and the use of gain of function experiments.
DICHRON: The way these science journalists hopped in line with the science community. We had a very similar problem with the 2008 economic meltdown. After this happened, people began questioning, “Well, how did this happen that the economy crashed, and we didn't see this coming?”
It came out later that a lot of the reporters who cover Wall Street were on overly friendly terms with the people they covered. Looked up to them as Masters of the Universe. Watchdog was lap dog, hoping for master’s approving pat on the head.
We're seeing the same problem with science writers and scientists.
BIRRELL: I think it's always a problem with journalism, that you get to know people, you get close to your contacts. It is sometimes hard to keep your distance, and you see it with specialisms, such as politics, science, such as business. And if you are a science journalist and all the people who are the leaders in the field are telling you this is a conspiracy theory by Donald Trump; it's nonsense; it’s anti-China, et cetera, et cetera. It's easier to go along with that.
The scientific establishment was pushing one theory and they persuaded the scientific journals and the science media to go along with it. But when you don't follow the money…
DICHRON: Seeing the media in lockstep must have affected you.
BIRRELL: I felt very nervous when I began, because you are going against the conventional wisdom and the scientific establishment. You're going up against some of the top scientists in the world.
I used to be a speechwriter for Prime Minister David Cameron. So I have quite good political sources, and I did get some encouragement from one or two of them which helped.
DICHRON: I spent several years out of journalism running investigations in the Senate on corruption in science in medicine. I’m pretty used to having academic or government scientists try to mislead me. I expect it.
Yet, I've seen repetitive stories where writers have quoted Peter Daszak or someone working with him, and will not highlight that he has a huge financial conflict of interest. He has direct financial ties to one of the labs in Wuhan.
At a minimum, they might mention it in passing to cover their asses, but these same reporters have no problem screaming on Twitter if a politician has financial conflicts or campaign funding from corporations. They see that very, very clearly.
BIRRELL: Peter Daszak is so conflicted in terms of his interests on this. I cannot see any serious journalist, or journal, magazine, or newspaper mention him in relation to these issues without noting that he has financial and scientific links with one of the laboratories in question.
DICHRON: When I contacted you for an interview, you sent me an essay Daszak had written for The Guardian where he called the lab leak idea a “conspiracy” that people should ignore. The Guardian did not initially note Daszak’s financial ties, which I just found preposterous.
BIRRELL: This is the legacy of the toxicity of Trump. My instincts originally were if Trump is saying it, then to go against it. And that's true of many other people.
The fact that Trump supports it makes it harder for progressive people to stand up and say, “Well, hang on. He might be right on that.”
DICHRON: In America, the Daily Mail is considered right wing, conservative, and screws up science. And yet its sister paper The Mail on Sunday has been getting it right. And Fox News has had really good pieces on this, pieces that scientists and physicians have been sending me.
I look at people I know in the media and think, “How does it feel that you got beat by Fox News, that Fox News reported this better than you did?”
BIRRELL: Alina Chan was queried on Twitter because she was sharing some stuff from Fox. She answered that you have got to look at the journalist. She learned that some journalists get things right and some get them wrong. And you have to follow the journalist.
DICHRON: There are terrible reporters at reputable outlets and vice versa.
BIRRELL: Generally, I would still look at the place the person is writing and I would draw some comfort from that. But people can write for very reputable magazines or newspapers and still not be people worth following.
The shocking thing to me has actually been the medical press. Newspapers, TV companies, and such, they're churning out stuff day in, day out. And we'll make mistakes because you're operating so fast.
BIRRELL: But I always thought that science journals and medical journals were incredibly reputable—checked things and were cautious. I have been really, really shocked to see how some scientific journals have handled this.
Regardless of whether we discover the virus origins, one of the big reckonings we need to face up to is with some of these journals, which have not been doing their job properly.
DICHRON: One of the people saying this obliquely is Filippa Lentzos of Kings College.
BIRRELL: She’s been great.
DICHRON: She’s guarded in how she says it, but she’ll mention that there are problems with the “publishers.” It’s been explained to me that this is code for “The Lancet, Science, and Nature.”
BIRRELL: Yes. The Lancet commission looking into the origins is headed by Jeffrey Sachs, a man who has been proved wrong time and time again, as he flips from one specialism to another. I don't know if you’ve seen what he's been saying about China, the Uighurs, and the origins, but it's highly questionable to put him in charge of the commission.
I thought the Lancet is way up there in terms of trustworthy and respectfulness. There are few publishers in the media that I would have held in higher regard, before this.
They fooled us.
DICHRON: The other thing that shocked me … I went back and looked at that statement The Lancet published in February 2020, that Peter Daszak orchestrated behind the scenes. Some of the signatories …
For instance, Rita Colwell signed that letter as professor at the University of Maryland without disclosing that she’s also on the board of EcoHealth Alliance—Peter Daszak’s outfit. Colwell ran the National Science Foundation and is very well respected. I can’t believe she would behave this way.
BIRRELL: Right. Or Edward Holmes, who I think is one of the better people in all this. But he is affiliated with the Chinese CDC in Beijing.
DICHRON: Holmes forgot to disclose that in his Nature paper absolving China of a lab leak, and science writers keep “forgetting” to note this when they quote Holmes. I just don't understand how people have been getting away with this. Science writers were allowing Peter Daszak to say whatever he wanted until around January. Now he’s being called corrupt every day on Twitter.
BIRRELL: I think the emails released in November by US Right to Know were very damaging to him. I did a big piece in January off the back of that, which went quite big, because it looked at Daszak’s conflicts of interest.
DICHRON: Well, after US Right to Know sent the freedom of information requests to get those emails, Daszak ran to Nature magazine and complained last August. He said a “politically motivated organizations” sent Freedom of Information requests to get his his e-mails. And he also cried about conspiracies.
The title of that Nature piece was so embarrassing and tabloidish, “Heinous!’: Coronavirus researcher shut down for Wuhan-lab link slams new funding restrictions.”
Daszak has been pivoting between calling any criticism “political motivated” or a “conspiracy.”
BIRRELL: It's unclear why that narrative doesn't change. When David Relman came out with that paper in November saying that we have to figure out how this pandemic started, I thought, “Maybe we are right. We should be pushing this lab leak as theory to be discussed.”
He was just laying out the facts. When you got people of that quality, how can anyone still think of conspiracy theories? It's just nonsense.
DICHRON: You had a pretty stunning piece “Beijing’s Useful Idiots” looking at the financial ties between China and Springer Nature, which publishes Nature and Scientific American.
Springer Nature, the German group that publishes Nature, was blocking access in China to hundreds of academic articles mentioning subjects deemed sensitive by Beijing such as Hong Kong, Taiwan or Tibet. China is also spending lavishly around the world to win supremacy in science — which includes becoming the biggest national sponsor of open access journals published by both Springer Nature and Elsevier, owner of The Lancet.
One source estimated that 49 sponsorship agreements between Springer Nature and Chinese institutions were worth at least $10m last year. These deals cover the publishing fees authors would normally pay in such journals, so they smooth the path for Chinese authors while creating a dependency culture.
There’s this pretense within science that it’s just facts and data and that money doesn’t buy influence. Like they’re immune to normal human impulses.
BIRRELL: I was struck by how some science and medical journals have played such a key role in tandem with the scientific establishment in stifling debate rather than encouraging it, which is their job — especially on one of the most important and fascinating issues of our time.
You must ask why. And it is hard not to wonder about the influence of their owners, with extensive interests in China.
DICHRON: March of this year, Alison Young, a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri, who’s spent over a decade reporting on lab accidents, and who has more experience than any other reporter in the United States covering these labs…
She writes this piece saying, “Science, like journalism is supposed to be about facts and about getting to the truth. But those who dare seek answers to reasonable questions about lab accidents and Wuhan are accused of peddling conspiracies.” Young pointed out that reporters are not reporting and are acting with derision toward the idea of a lab escape.
And yet the nonsense continued. The editor in chief of Scientific American tweeted that the former CDC director shared the “conspiracy” theory that the virus came from a lab.
Some of these science writers don't even care.
BIRRELL: I know. Alison Young is right and has been impressive throughout this debacle. We know that that lab leaks happen. So how can it be totally ruled out? The thing began in Wuhan—well, that’s a strange place to begin anyway. And we know labs leak. Therefore, you shouldn't rule it out unless you have good evidence.
DICHRON: I keep seeing this disagreement between the intelligence community and the scientists. Last January, The Guardian reported that the White House said it's imperative we get to the bottom of how COVID started and worried about misinformation coming from China.
On February 13th, the Biden White House released a statement about the WHO's investigation, that it's not independent and that China must make its data available. There’s also testimony by security officials saying they have not discounted a lab leak.
Yet you still hear these scientists getting away with calling it a conspiracy.
BIRRELL: The intelligence stuff comes out in dribs and drabs and it's very unspecific and unclear. There was also the letter from the NIH asking Daszak for more details about their links, which was quite significant when that leaked, although most reporters ignored it.
DICHRON: There have been several letters from scientists calling for a real investigation.
BIRRELL: It's just a handful of scientists who have shown guts. As I started writing on this, I got help from scientists who didn't want to put their head over the parapet, but would say, “Have you seen this?” Or they would point me to something.
There are still people who don't feel able to go public with their concern.
DICHRON: You wrote a piece for UnHerd about the World Health Organization’s non-investigation of the COVID outbreak in Wuhan. And then Facebook came after you.
BIRRELL: That was on the day of the World Health Organization’s announcement of their findings. I took that apart in an article. UnHerd posted the article on Facebook and it got slapped with that notice saying that it was being taken off. I immediately complained to the head of Facebook in Europe.
They quickly apologized and rectified it. But Facebook, and I think Instagram as well, still seem to see anything that questions the conventional wisdom on all this stuff as a conspiracy theory. And it has been reported that Facebook relied on the Daszak-organised statement to The Lancet that talked of conspiracy theories.
DICHRON: Dismissing something as a “conspiracy theory” has become common and dovetails with social media companies deplatforming people. The intersection of the conspiracy label with social media companies’ control worries me.
BIRRELL: Obviously, I wasn't overjoyed to be labeled by Facebook as a conspiracy theorist. And I do think there are issues there. They do have a lot of control over the narrative. Generally, they're in a pretty difficult situation because they're caught at the center of free speech debate in America and the UK.
DICHRON: What is going on in the last year about the term conspiracy? We used to have a majority view on an issue and then there would be minority views. Now it seems there’s a majority view and anything else is a conspiracy. The term has been drained of all meaning. It's just a label you slap on things you don't like.
BIRRELL: The idea the election was stolen in America is a conspiracy theory. Q’Anon is conspiracy theory. The horrible dismissal of the shooting at Sandy Hook school is a conspiracy theory. So there are some conspiracies. But it's also become a method to spray labels and call your opponents “conspiracy theorists” to close down debate.