Handicapped by advocacy and meager reporting skills, science writers settle for constructing and defending “decoy” narratives.

By Paul Thacker

Last summer, Amy Maxmen wrote a couple of audacious articles in Nature attempting to downplay the possibility of a lab accident in Wuhan, China, a narrative hobby horse she has been riding for almost two years. However, a recently uncovered State Department memo dismisses such narratives as a “decoy” to prevent inquiry at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

After one such Maxmen article, Walter Kirn, a former Time Magazine reporter and celebrated book author, tweeted at Maxmen, “Thanks for setting back the entire rationality project ten thousand years or so!”

“I am really sorry that Nature is contributing to such misunderstandings,” tweeted French scientist Virginie Courtier-Orgogozo, responding to another Maxmen piece. “Scientists are afraid to retweet but such biased reporting is hurting the scientific community.”

The article Courtier-Orogozo complained about contained a number of errors and misleading statements. Of obvious concern was this one: “Although lab leaks have never caused an epidemic, they have resulted in small outbreaks involving well-documented viruses.” As I reported last July, this statement is simply inaccurate.

Several media outlets have reported on the 1979 anthrax lab accident in Sverdlovsk, Russia. This includes Frontline (Frontline: The 1979 Anthrax Leak) and Bloomberg (The History of Lab Leaks Has Lots of Entries: Smallpox, anthrax and influenzas have escaped facilities — sometimes with deadly consequences). There was even a study published in Science Magazine (The Sverdlosk anthrax outbreak of 1979).

Not only has Nature refused to correct Maxmen’s error after I contacted them, Maxmen retweeted this disinformation last week. In this case, Maxmen was trying to debunk a New York Times article by promoting a tweet from researcher Gigi Gronvall.

To reinvent the history of the lab accident in Sverdlosk, Maxmen states that she relies on “biosecurity experts.” But Maxmen and Nature’s editors should be a tad more honest and remove the “s” because she really only has one expert—Gigi Gronvall. Nothing Maxmen has published in Nature in an attempt to fabricate the history of the Russian lab accident has cited anyone else.

The entirety of this charade merely involves Maxmen citing Gronvall, then Gronvall citing Maxmen’s reporting, followed by Maxmen promoting Gronvall on Twitter. It’s a scientific merry-go-round.

But why does Maxmen need so desperately to debunk the New York Times? Because the Times article explains quite clearly that the 1979 lab accident and cover-up in Sverdlosk is important in understanding how the COVID-19 pandemic began in Wuhan.

And anything … ANYTHING!!!! … that draws parallels between a lab accident in Sverdlosk and what happened in Wuhan (perhaps even a lab accident), really makes Maxmen and her sources nervous as hell.

Unfortunately for Maxmen, it’s not just the New York Times, Frontline, Bloomberg, and Science Magazine that have reported on the 1979 anthrax lab accident in Russia. Nope. A further publication has also cited the Russian lab accident—Nature. The place where Maxmen works.

No, seriously.

Amy, they’re in the house!

Back in 2000, Nature Medicine published a book review on the 1979 anthrax lab accident. Of course, this was years before Nature was trying to divert attention from lab accidents and a possible screw-up in Wuhan, China. But there it is: Nature’s own discussion of the Sverdlosk anthrax accident.

Here in 1984, Nature Magazine wrote about the anthrax leak in Sverdlosk—yes, the same accident whose existence Maxmen keeps denying. But again, this was back when Nature was doing some reporting; not today, where Nature and Amy Maxmen are trying to invent a narrative that lab accidents are not common, and thus, highly unlikely to have happened in Wuhan.

So what exactly does Maxmen keep denying happened in Sverdlosk?

Back in the 1970s, Soviet scientists engaged in a cover-up (which again, sounds awfully similar to what some think China is doing). In a 2016 article, Sarah Zhang of The Atlantic not only explained what the Soviets did, she also seems to have prophesized Maxmen’s later “post-truth” science writing.

The Atlantic both explained the 1979 lab accident in Russia, and predicted “post truth” Amy Maxmen.

As Zhang detailed in The Atlantic:

It was an accident at a clandestine biological weapons lab that allowed deadly anthrax spores to contaminate Sverdlovsk’s air, as evidence unearthed later would show. Over the years, as DNA sequencing technology has improved, scientists have been piecing together more and more information about the anthrax strain. This year, as Ars Technica recently noted, U.S. scientists finally sequenced the strain—using decades-old autopsy samples Soviet pathologists had saved in secret.

This Soviet 1979 lab accident cover-up sounds eerily similar to what the Chinese Communist Party may be doing today. Thus, the need for Maxmen to play merry-go-round with Gigi Gronvall to promote false narratives that there was no lab accident in Russia.

But Maxmen’s misreporting continues with other decoy narratives in her latest article in Nature.

After naming COVID-19 the “Wuhan Virus,” virologists then blamed Trump for Anti-Asian bias

Perhaps nothing has been so silly as the attempt to lay everything wrong in the pandemic at the feet of Donald Trump. The guy is no longer even President—thank God!—but some science writers remain damaged by Trump Derangement Long-Hauler Syndrome.

In an article she wrote a few weeks ago, Maxmen continued Trump derangement, with a paragraph blaming Trump for causing the Chinese to stop cooperating with a pandemic investigation:

Ray Yip, an epidemiologist and former director of the Beijing branch of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says that China’s approach to COVID-19 origin investigations shifted as anti-Chinese rhetoric mounted over the course of the pandemic. At first, there was former US president Donald Trump’s insistence on using anti-Asian terms for the coronavirus. “I think there was a shift in China’s attitude when they began to feel they were being humiliated or blamed for this pandemic, even though every new disease has to start somewhere,” Yip says.

If Maxmen’s reporting involved anything other than contacting scientists she agrees with for quotes, she would know that it was virologists—not Trump—who began calling the new disease “Wuhan Virus” and “Wuhan Flu.” But again, this would require Maxmen to do reporting.

In early January 2020, the Wellcome Trust’s Jeremy Farrar tweeted about new publications on the “Wuhan Pneumonia” being submitted to journals.

Days after, Larry Madoff with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, announced a new panel on the “Wuhan Virus” at an upcoming infectious disease conference.

Madoff continued to notify followers about the “Wuhan coronavirus” while promoting a CNN tweet.

It’s hard to know if Trump was even paying attention to viruses in January 2020, but Larry Madoff was definitely alarmed about the Wuhan coronavirus.

However, in early February scientists began to orchestrate letters to appear in The Lancet and the journal Emerging Microbes & Infections that referred to any possibility of a lab accident in Wuhan as a “conspiracy theory.” (You may be surprised to learn that both Larry Madoff and Jeremy Farrar signed the orchestrated statement in The Lancet.)

That same month, the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s Shi Zhengli sent an email to American scientists titled, “A unique and unified name is needed for the novel coronavirus from Wuhan.” By this time, almost 40,000 people had been infected and more than 1,000 had died, mostly in China, Shi Zhengli wrote. She added:

All proposed names are either too generic or too similar to previously well-known viruses or contain an Arabic number. This makes it hard to remember or recognize, leading to a tendency among the general population and scientists alike to use the shorthand term such as “Wuhan virus” or “Wuhan pneumonia”. This has, in fact, been the case since it was named 2019-nCoV. This practice would, however, stigmatize and insult the people of Wuhan, who are still suffering from the outbreak.

At no point in her email does Shi Zhengli say anything about President Trump or any American official. In fact, she makes it quite clear that the “general population and scientists” were the ones using the term “Wuhan virus” and “Wuhan pneumonia.”

But for some reason, scientists and the media decided to pivot and make “Wuhan Virus” all about Trump.

In March 2020, Yale University put out a statement that “calling COVID-19 the ‘Wuhan Virus’ or ‘China Virus’ is inaccurate and xenophobic.” Some days later, the New York Times reported that President Trump “defended his increasingly frequent practice of calling the coronavirus the ‘Chinese Virus,’ ignoring a growing chorus of criticism that it is racist and anti-Chinese.”

The issue is not that Trump should be absolved for any failings while President. The point is that scientists were coaching the public and media for weeks on end that COVID-19 was the “Wuhan Virus.” Instead of explaining this, the media decided to blame Trump.

Enough with deflections and decoy theories

Constructing narratives that fabricate history about the lab accident in Russia or place sole blame on Trump should not distract reporters from committing the transgressive act of journalism—that is, of trying to understand how this pandemic began. More than 6.1 million people have died across the planet and we still lack cooperation from China.

A recently uncovered 2020 State Department background memo paints a poor portrait of what went on at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and the Wuhan Center for Disease Control (WCDC)—two institutions that do dangerous virus research, right in the city where the pandemic started.  

The most logical place to investigate the virus origin has been completely sealed off from the outside inquiry by the [Chinese Community Party]. A gag order to both places was issued on 1/01/2020, and a Major General from the [People’s Liberation Army] took over the [Wuhan Institute of Virology] since early Jan. Of the five possible theories [for how the pandemic began] the WCDC and the WIV are most likely yet least investigated. All other proposed theories are likely to be a decoy to prevent inquiry WCDC and WIV.

As the State Department reported, the WIV was taken over by a General with the People’s Liberation Army, meaning that researcher Shi Zhengli has been supervised by the Chinese military. Yet, not a single science writer has dared to commit journalism and ask Shi Zhengli about her virology research under the military.

The most logical place to investigate the virus origin still remains the research labs in Wuhan. Even if Amy Maxmen and other science writers continue to publish decoy narratives to make you think otherwise.

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