Science & Tech

Scientist Says Some Colleagues Were Hesitant to Legitimize Lab-Leak Theory Out of Fear They Would Be ‘Associated with Trump’

Then-President Trump holds a press conference at the White House in Washington, D.C., August 23, 2020. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

Editor’s NoteA previous version of this article incorrectly claimed that Chan “waited” to legitimize the lab-leak theory until President Trump left office because she didn’t want to be “associated” with him. In fact, Chan was referring to other scientists, and not herself, in the NBC interview and actually called for a full investigation into the lab-leak theory in May 2020. We regret the error.

A scientist who recently endorsed the possibility that COVID-19 originated in a Chinese lab has revealed that some of her colleagues were hesitant to legitimize the hypothesis while President Trump was in office for fear they would be “associated” with him.

Alina Chan and 18 fellow scientists published a letter in the journal Science last month demanding a thorough inquiry into the virus’s origin, including the possibility that the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The document was one of the catalysts that helped reinvigorate debate around the lab-leak theory, which was dismissed for more than a year as a conspiracy theory by much of the mainstream press and censored as disinformation by social media giants.

Unlike her more unconvinced peers, Chan was one of the lone wolves pioneering real consideration of the lab-leak possibility in the early days of the pandemic. She authored a May 2020 paper, with the collaboration of a colleague who conducted computational genetic analysis, challenging the scientific consensus that COVID was zoonotic, meaning it had originated in animals.

It presented the revelation that the explanation that the virus leapt from animals to humans in a Wuhan seafood market could very well be erroneous. The paper considered three potential explanations, the former two it deemed unlikely. The last lent credence to the idea that the virus was engineered as a result of an unintentional lab accident, as it seemed curiously “well-adapted for human transmission,” she wrote in the study.

A couple weeks after the paper’s release, Newsweek ran a story with the headline “Scientists Shouldn’t Rule Out Lab as Source of Coronavirus, New Study Says.”

In response to that article, Chan tweeted, “On the front page of Newsweek. Tbh shocked from all the media attention, but would appreciate if their scientists would tell us what was unconventional about our approach and how to do better using the current data.”

Many researchers, not Chan included, said the scientific evidence actually changed little over the course of the year, however, “the context and circumstances of the origin debate have changed,” NBC reported. One of the most notable changes in the “context” of the debate for some scientists, according to Chan, was Trump’s departure from the White House.

Chan told NBC that some scientists had apprehensions about publicly discussing the lab leak possibility out of concern that their statements would be manipulated to suggest they were endorsing “racist” language about COVID’s origins in China — an apparent reference to Trump’s use of the phrase “Wuhan virus.”

“At the time, it was scarier to be associated with Trump and to become a tool for racists, so people didn’t want to publicly call for an investigation into lab origins,” Chan said in the interview.

Chan’s revelations come as more information surfaces about the major players involved in the early days of the pandemic, including some who deliberately helped ensure the lab-leak theory remained underground.

President of the research nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance Peter Daszak, who helped funnel millions in NIH money to the Wuhan lab to fund research of bat coronaviruses, organized a statement published in the medical journal The Lancet in March 2020 calling the possibility of a lab-leak a “conspiracy theory.”

The Lancet letter likened the theory to the “xenophobic cousin to climate change denialism and anti-vaxxism” and “effectively ended the debate over COVID-19’s origins before it began,” Vanity Fair reported as part of a deep investigation into how the narrative around COVID’s origins was formed.

Emails acquired by the watchdog group Right to Know also indicated that Daszak attempted to obscure his role in whipping support for the statement among fellow scientists, six of whom later became members of the WHO investigative team which dismissed the lab-leak theory as “extremely unlikely.”

Gilles Demaneuf, a New Zealand–based data scientist who objected in a February letter to Daszak’s lack of intellectual honesty and transparency, was one of the first scientists to speak out against the silencing of dissent and articulate what a real investigation into COVID’s origins might entail. Demaneuf was disturbed by Daszak’s failure to disclose his conflict of interest and the way he appointed himself chief representative of the independent investigative team, painting a false picture of unanimous consensus among them, and he vocalized it.

“He had a conflict of interest and then he acted on this conflict of interest,” Demaneuf told National Review in reference to Daszak. “This is someone with a conflict of interest acting in a very specific way, which is basically to shut down a line of investigation.”

Demaneuf then joined senior Atlantic Institute fellow and WHO adviser Jamie Metzel and 24 fellow scientists in writing their own letter calling for a thorough investigation of the lab-leak theory.

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