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Proximal Origins and when Narrative Control Succeeds too Well
Yesterday, The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic held a hearing titled, “Investigating the Proximal Origin of a Cover Up.” I previewed the hearing last week, where I labeled the alleged “cover up” as Covidgate. I won’t repeat that background here (but please do read that post if you haven’t already).
The “cover up” involves an academic paper published in Nature Medicine that was titled, “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2”, and which concludes of the potential origins of COVID-19:
“[W]e do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”
However, thanks to various documents obtained by the U.S. Congress and journalists under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), we know with absolute certainty that the authors of the paper did not in fact believe what they wrote about a “laboratory-based scenario.” In fact, they each believed exactly the opposite. Instead of telling the truth, they sought to craft a narrative to serve political ends.
In my hearing preview last week, I commented that the narrative creation and promotion was far too successful in that it profoundly shaped the subsequent public and political discussion, to a degree that mention of even the possibility of a research-related origin became verboten.
In his interview with the House Select Subcommittee, Bob Garry suggests much the same to explain the apparent contradictions between the private discussions among authors and what ultimately appeared in the paper:
You know, I think the paper has sort of taken on a life of its own, as we might all acknowledge here. And so, you know, those kinds of things about transparency and all that, I don't think they would've entered into our mind. I don't think we were going to think that this paper was gonna quite, you know, end up as the sort of focal point for a lot of discussion . . .
One lesson that we should all take from the Proximal Origins saga is that important scientific assessments to support policy making must be produced under the utmost care and standards of integrity. Proximal Origins was a form of shadow science advice expressly designed for purposes of advocacy — it was not a careful scientific assessment designed to reflect the diversity of views found across the relevant scientific community. Shadow science advice is of course common and can be done in ways that are constructive or pathological. Proximal Origins has proven to be deeply pathological.
After watching the hearing and reading the dueling reports issued by House Democrats and Republicans (PDF), along with the interviews so-far published by the committee of four key scientists, I can tell you that not only do I stand by the Covidgate label, but that the new evidence released yesterday indicates clearly that a small group of scientists, funders and government officials sought to corrupt the scientific literature as a way of controlling a public narrative to influence policy.
According to the report produced by the Democrats on the House Select Committee, that effort was led by Jeremy Farrar of the Wellcome Trust, who applied what we might call a no-see-um approach to his ghost role. Farrar is up to his ears in questionable ethical behavior, which so far has been largely ignored by his peers and science journalists. Some fish are apparently too big to fry.
The Proximal Origins authors achieved their goal of influencing the public narrative, and then some. We can (and, yes, we will) later discuss the roles of funders and government officials in motivating, endorsing and promoting the narrative, but for today, I simple want to establish — in the authors own words — how they justified publishing a paper that stated exactly the opposite of what they believed.
Yesterday, two of the paper’s five authors – Kristian Andersen and Robert Garry, shown at the top of this post – testified before the Select Subcommittee. In emails and messages between Proximal Origins authors, released by the subcommittee (by both Republicans and Democrats), Andersen has this to say to his colleagues as they were drafting the paper, on 2 February 2020:
“The main issue is that accidental escape is in fact highly likely – it’s not some fringe theory. I absolutely agree that we can’t prove one way or the other, but we will never be able to – however, that doesn’t mean that by default the data is much more suggestive of a natural origin as opposed, e.g., to a passage. It is not – the furin cleavage site is very hard to explain.”
A bit later in the conversation, Andersen writes to his colleagues:
“Natural selection and accidental release are both plausible scenarios explaining the data – and a priori should be equally weighed as possible explanations. The presence of furin a posteriori moves me slightly towards accidental release, but it’s well above my pay grade to call the shot on a final conclusion.”
Another author, Andrew Rambaut responds immediately to make a case for not playing things straight:
“Given the shit show that would happen if anyone seriously accused the Chinese of even accidental release, my feeling is that we should say that given there is no evidence of a specifically engineered virus, we cannot possibly distinguish between natural evolution and escape so we are content with ascribing it to natural processes.”
Andersen concurred, and explained why they needed to “inject” politics into their science:
“Yup, I totally agree that’s a very reasonable conclusion. Although I hate when politics is injected into science – but it is impossible not to, especially given the circumstances.”
It is of course perfectly legitimate for anyone, expert or not, to have strong views about the origins of COVID-19. The issue here is not simply the validity of the various claims made in the Proximal Origins paper, but rather that the authors decided to put forward an argument that they themselves did not believe at the time of writing the paper in order to shape a political narrative.
In fact, in his testimony yesterday, Andersen repeated his belief that a research-related origin remained possible, referring back to comments he had made in his emails, such as those excerpted above:
"As I also correctly stated in my email, however, “the scientific evidence isn't conclusive enough” to disprove a “lab leak”. That was correct at the time and is correct today."
This measured view stands in stark contrast to what is written in Proximal Origins:
“[W]e do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible”
Indeed, Andersen has long been active on Twitter claiming that any suggestion of a lab-based origin is a conspiracy theory, and often denigrates his peers who suggest that as a possibility. Here is an example (of very many) from June 2021:
“Most hypotheses around a potential lab leak are conspiracy theories - given current knowledge, using a strict definition, all are by now.”
The significance of the Proximal Origins narrative went far beyond the scientific literature and mean Tweets.
In her incredible book, What Really Happened in Wuhan, Sharri Markson documents how Proximal Origins was used by scientists — who we now know included Andersen and others — to lobby U.S. intelligence agencies that the idea of a research-related incident was a conspiracy theory, and thus should not be further considered.
A State Department official told Markson:
“Little did we know that prominent Lancet and Nature [Medicine, i.e. Proximal Origins] authors had made the rounds in the IC [intelligence community] to get them on board and to stifle any dissent.”
This raises the very real possibility that when we hear that some U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed COVID-19 to have a natural origin, they are simply parroting what they have been told by who they believe to be the experts — that is, the authors of Proximal Origins. From these agencies, we may not be hearing any intelligence at all, but rather, echoes of the Proximal Origins narrative.
We also know that Anthony Fauci and Francis Collins use Proximal Origins to promote the idea that the question of origins was settled. In fact, Proximal Origins dominated discussions of COVID-19 origins for years, casting a dark shadow upon anyone with the apparent ignorance or kookiness to suggest otherwise. Leading science journalists took up the cause and amplified the Proximal origins narrative, as if their job is to promote the views of their favorite scientists, rather than actually do journalism. Some journalists continue to do this (literally) today.
Another Proximal Origins co-author, Andrew Rambaut wrote in the emails that the paper was needed before discussions of a research-related origin possibility “gets out of hand (and causes more formal investigations” of COVID-19 origins. Another participant in the original conference call that prompted the paper, Ron Fouchier, believed that a paper that dismissed a laboratory origin would “limit the chance of new biosafety discussions that would unnecessarily obstruct future virus culturing for research and diagnostic purposes for any (emerging/zoonotic) virus.”
Expressed in each of these views is a desire for the narrative to influence future decision making on COVD-19 origins and research regulation.
Upon reading a draft of the Proximal Origins paper, Jeremy Farrar, the ghost author and “father figure” of the paper, asked if the authors could “dampen down further the ‘conspiracy’ idea,” according to Eddie Holmes in an email to colleagues. Similarly, Andersen and Garry reported at the hearing yesterday that as a condition of publication, they believed that Nature Medicine required them to more forcefully rule out a research-related incident, based upon an anonymous reviewer’s comments. One has to wonder if that anonymous reviewer was on the original conference call or a colleague of someone who was (as it turns out, this is not so far fetched).
We have established, beyond a reasonable doubt, that proximal origins was drafted to shape a narrative and that narrative was highly influential in public and policy discussions of the origins of COVID-19, perhaps even shaping how U.S. intelligence agencies have viewed the issue.
A next topic to discuss is the abject failures of the U.S. government to solicit and secure scientific advice with integrity, instead, choosing to rely on bespoke advocacy coordinated by a ghost author, alongside influential U.S. government health officials. Stay tuned for that.
PS. The quote that is the title of this post comes from one of the messages among Proximal Origins authors.
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