At the government level, pandemic preparedness is as much about protecting critical supply chains as it is about administering medical treatments. What the COVID-19 pandemic showed is that the flow of information, which may be the single most vital resource in the supply chain, is utterly broken. In many cases, it was actively undermined by senior public health officials including the former chief medical adviser to the president, Dr. Anthony Fauci.
New emails released in a congressional probe show that Fauci helped direct the publication of “The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2,” an influential scientific paper published in Nature Medicine on March 17, 2020, that claimed COVID-19 could not have leaked from a laboratory. Fauci then cited the paper—in effect quoting himself, since he coordinated the article behind the scenes and was given final approval before it published—as if it was an independent source corroborating his assertions that COVID could only have come from a bat and not from a lab.
“There was a study recently that we can make available to you, where a group of highly qualified evolutionary virologists looked at the sequences there and the sequences in bats as they evolve,” Fauci said at a presidential briefing on April 17, 2020, exactly one month after “Proximal Origin” was published. “And the mutations that it took to get to the point where it is now is totally consistent with a jump of a species from an animal to a human.”
But why would Fauci go to so much trouble to control the information surrounding the origins of the virus while sending the message to Americans that the idea that COVID had come from a lab was a conspiracy theory? And why would science journalists and peer-reviewed science publications go along with the effort?
Fauci, it appears, may have been trying to hide his connections to the Wuhan Laboratory of Virology (WIV). For years, according to a report at The Intercept, the National Institutes of Health (where Fauci served as a director) directed government grants to the Chinese facility where multiple investigations by federal agencies have now concluded the virus likely originated—specifically to fund the controversial gain of function (GoF) research that intentionally engineers deadly viruses in order to study them. Even if this was all merely a coincidence, it certainly looked bad. Fauci seemed so alarmed by the optics that in January 2020, he sent an email to his deputy, Hugh Auchincloss, with the single-word, all-caps subject line “IMPORTANT”—something he does not do in the hundreds of pages of other emails released to the public via FOIA requests. The email Fauci sent contained a link to a scientific study that was then spreading across the internet, which had originally been published in 2015 at the Wuhan Institute of Virology by the WIV’s Shi Zhengli and pioneering American GoF researcher Ralph Baric. In the body of the email, Fauci wrote to Auchincloss, “It is essential that we speak this AM. Keep your cell phone on …You will have tasks today that must be done.”
What were those tasks? It’s impossible to know from the email but one can speculate that if Fauci wanted to control the narrative about the outbreak of COVID-19 it would have been a monumental and near impossible task. Reporters could find public records showing the connections between his office at the NIH and China’s WIV. Fauci might be able to find a few journalists credulous enough to simply dismiss the fact that COVID was first reported in the city containing China’s largest facility for producing coronaviruses, but surely there was no way he could get the entire media to go along. If he had, he may have revealed just how dysfunctional and bought-off science journalism has become, a reality that Americans would be well advised to confront before the next pandemic.
The deeper phenomenon at work, however, is that in the U.S. a large number of professionals who cover science for general readers and for news publications like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal are not—and do not pretend to be—journalists per se. They are science writers whose field is science communications—a distinction with a huge difference. They see their role as translating the lofty work of pure science for a general audience, rather than as professional skeptics whose job is to investigate the competing interests, claims, and billion-dollar funding streams in the messy world of all-too-human scientists.
From the beginning of the pandemic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and other leading mainstream outlets were taking their cues—including their facts and their seemingly unflappable certainties—from peer-reviewed publications with authoritative professional reputations like Nature, Science, and The Lancet.
It was this small handful of peer-reviewed science and medical journals—and to a shocking extent just these three—on which the consumer media based key narratives, like the idea that SARS-CoV-2 could not possibly have come from a lab. Boiled down, “the science” on a given issue was often conclusively reduced to whatever these journals published.
But for the establishment science publishing community, the pandemic also had an unintended consequence. Through journalistic investigations, often powered by FOIA requests that ensnared hundreds of email exchanges with scientists and science writers, a spotlight was turned on science journalism itself. Writers like Paul Thacker, a contributor to The BMJ, Emily Kopp, a reporter for the watchdog group U.S. Right to Know, Michael Balter, who has contributed dozens of pieces to Science magazine, and the powerful decentralized group of COVID investigators called DRASTIC, exposed the inner workings of an industry that claims to speak for science but often works for political and corporate interests.
In many instances, pandemic-related science journalism smacks of questionable motives. The most high-profile example of this was the now infamous letter by 27 scientists published in The Lancet on March 7, 2020, asserting that they “overwhelmingly conclude” that the pandemic had a natural origin, and condemning the suggestion that the virus emerged in a lab as “conspiracy theories” that put scientists lives at risk. What the 27 scientists neglected to mention is that their statement was organized by Peter Daszak, a co-author of the letter who is also the president of the NGO that facilitated U.S. government funding to the lab in Wuhan that the FBI and Department of Energy have concluded is the likely source of the pandemic.
While Daszak’s Lancet letter resembled a partly savvy (and partly clumsy) effort at PR-style crisis management, a paper published in one of the world’s most prestigious science journals would be both more significant in its impact and possibly more compromised in its creation. That paper, the aforementioned “The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2” published in Nature Medicine, a peer-reviewed (and less prestigious) sister publication of Nature, in March of 2020, was authored by a distinguished but relatively young evolutionary biologist named Kristian Andersen, along with a number of equally accomplished virologists. The paper is filled with complex analyses of the SARS-CoV-2 genome, but in its short abstract it stated the upshot in language even a harried consumer journalist could easily grasp: “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”
Putting aside problems with that claim (for example, a wave-making preprint last year pointed to indications that SARS-CoV-2 was indeed made in a lab), the origins of this paper, which became a touchstone for those arguing against the lab-leak theory, were deeply unethical.
Most of the questions surrounding “Proximal Origin” concern a Feb. 1, 2020, teleconference called by Fauci and joined by his boss, NIH then-Director Francis Collins, and other top scientists, including Andersen and a number of his “Proximal Origin” co-authors.
As emails obtained from Freedom of Information requests revealed, Fauci arranged the call just days after receiving an email from Andersen expressing concerns he shared with several other prominent virologists that parts of the virus looked engineered. Andersen wrote that he and a few fellow researchers “all find the [SARS-CoV-2] genome inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory.”
If that claim ever reached the public, it might have permanently altered the discourse surrounding the origins of the pandemic. But after the conversation with Fauci, it never did get out. Instead, Andersen, Holmes, and Gary (in addition to Andrew Rambaut) began circulating a draft of “Proximal Origin” three days later, making claims that contradicted the findings Andersen had presented to Fauci in his initial email less than a week prior. In a Feb. 4 email to Peter Daszak, Andersen communicated that he and his co-authors had already begun circulating drafts of a paper proposing the exact opposite—that COVID-19 had emerged naturally—which would become “Proximal Origin.”
Andersen would later explain to The New York Times that his initial conclusions were made “in a matter of days, while we worked around the clock” and the subsequent revised position was the result of “more extensive analyses, significant additional data, and thorough investigations to compare genomic diversity more broadly.” Despite this claim, however, “Proximal Origin” was written “in a matter of days,” with a draft complete by Feb. 4 and the paper accepted by Nature Medicine by March 6.
“Thank you for your advice and leadership as we have been working through the SARS-CoV-2 ‘origins’ paper,” Andersen wrote to Fauci and Collins. “We’re happy to say that the paper was just accepted by Nature Medicine and should be published shortly (not quite sure when).”
The question about what, exactly, happened on that crucial conference call has remained a subject of intense speculation. Virtually all the sections of FOIA-released emails related to the call were redacted by the NIH, leaving large blocks of blacked-out text that remind one of the 9/11 Commission Report.
Just as suggestive, however, was the chain of events that set the conference call in motion. On the evening of Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, Fauci received an email from an NIH communications officer that contained, copied in full, a Science article published that day. The article, written by one of the magazine’s senior correspondents, Jon Cohen, explored various theories concerning the origin of the pandemic. The article made mention of the aforementioned 2015 scientific study at the Wuhan Institute of Virology by the WIV’s Shi Zhengli and pioneering American GoF researcher Ralph Baric. This might very well have triggered the email that Fauci sent to his deputy, Hugh Auchincloss, with the subject line “IMPORTANT.”
That paper, which would later be described by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as providing a “prototype” for making SARS-CoV-2 in the Wuhan lab, evidently alarmed Fauci. In response to emails received from Fauci, Auchincloss wrote back on the evening of Feb. 1. “The paper you sent me says the experiments were performed before the gain of function pause but have since been reviewed and approved by NIH. Not sure what that means since [NIAID official] Emily [Erbelding] is sure that no Coronavirus work has gone through the P3 [Potential Pandemic Pathogens] framework. She will try to determine if we have any distant ties to this work abroad.” And, as it turns out, they did: The NIAID/NIH had funded the study in question.
Today, the 2015 paper resulting from that study resembles a kind of publishing Frankenstein, with a series of amendments, including an editor’s note, author correction, “Corrigendum,” and update, all stitched onto the original version. On its own, any one of these features would be noteworthy. Together, they are almost comical.
Among the amendments is a revelation that the genome produced by the study was never uploaded to GenBank, the NIH’s global database for genetic sequences. The paper also mislabeled the name of the virus created by the study, part of a pattern of oddly mislabeled papers, or of missing genomes and viruses in WIV studies related to COVID-19.
The editor’s note, published less than two weeks after “Proximal Origin” was originally published in Nature Medicine, offered readers a stern warning: “We are aware that this article is being used as the basis for unverified theories that the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 was engineered. There is no evidence that this is true; scientists believe that an animal is the most likely source of the coronavirus.” As we now have good reason to assume, it only appeared that they did because journals like Nature and The Lancet acted as gatekeepers of “the science,” while taking direction and performing public relations for Fauci, Collins, and other members of the U.S. government.
Furthermore, Nature Medicine had failed to note that the 2015 study had received U.S. government funding allocated to the WIV by EcoHealth Alliance, an NGO run then as now by Peter Daszak, the organizer of the Lancet letter.
While Fauci’s discovery of Jon Cohen’s article set off the flurry of events that would lead to “Proximal Origin,” it would be Cohen who—inadvertently, and, seemingly, involuntarily—provided the most insight into what had taken place on the decisive Feb. 1 conference call with Fauci, Andersen, and other key scientists.
In July 2020, Cohen received an email from an anonymous source, which was revealed in one of the NIH FOIA releases. In the first line of the email, the anonymous source wrote, “Hello Jon, Given your recent mentions of the origin of SARS-CoV-2 I thought you might be interested to hear the bizarre back-story of the paper ‘The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2.’”
Noting the “incredibly” strange history of the “Proximal Origin” paper and the Fauci-led conference call, the anonymous source alleged that Andersen and the other writers of the paper were not its true authors. “[A]sk yourself how this group of authors, none of whom work on coronaviruses, could have such detailed arguments about why SARS-CoV-2 was not human-engineered,” the anonymous source wrote. “The answer is that they couldn’t (and didn’t)—they were schooled by the coronavirus experts on the call.”
The coronavirus experts that the anonymous source alluded to include Dutch virus researcher Ron Fouchier and his boss, Marion Koopmans, and German virologist Christian Drosten. These scientists were named in a letter issued by House Republicans, and all have ties to the lab in Wuhan. Marion Koopmans, Fouchier’s boss, is director of Erasmus University’s viroscience department, which lists EcoHealth Alliance—the funding vehicle that funneled NIH money to the lab in Wuhan—as first on its list of collaborators. According to U.S. Right to Know, the public accountability nonprofit, Christian Drosten “served on a bat conference advisory committee with the Ecohealth Alliance and Dr. Zhengli Shi of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.” More importantly, they have all had a hand in developing some of the world’s most deadly lab-engineered viruses.
It was a grenade of an allegation—that the claims in the most important paper concerning the origin of the pandemic were shaped by GoF researchers who had, in some instances, partnered with the Wuhan lab. Moreover, those arguments were formulated on a call with Fauci, who had overseen NIAID, which is one of the world’s largest funders of risky virus research. This would be a conflict of interest of massive proportions.
Cohen was handed an opportunity that most journalists can only dream of—a potentially career-making scoop dropped in his inbox by a seemingly knowledgeable anonymous source—and a scoop, it turns out, that was in many ways correct. But he never pursued the story. Additionally, he forwarded the anonymous email to Kristian Andersen, writing: “Here’s what one person who claims to have inside knowledge is saying behind your backs …”
Asked about this decision, Cohen told Tablet: “The people who have exaggerated the significance of the anonymous email—which, I will reiterate, offers no insights whatsoever about the origin of this pandemic—have used my decision to not write about the credit dispute as a cudgel, manufacturing wildly inaccurate and unfair assertions about my motives and my credibility. It speaks to the mob mentality that Twitter encourages, to the certainty some people have about the lab leak, and to the deep emotions that surround the origin debate, which too often has led to speculations pretending to be evidence.”
Nevertheless, it was Cohen’s decision to send this email to Andersen that ultimately made the email public since Andersen promptly forwarded it to Fauci, making it susceptible to a future FOIA request. Around the time that the NIH was going to remove the redactions from the anonymous source’s email, Cohen published a blog post titled “Obtain but verify,” which included the full text of the email. (Cohen told Tablet he published the post “in sync with this panel I helped organize about media coverage of origins.”)
In the post, Cohen defended his actions, and claimed that the foreboding message he sent to Andersen was a “cheeky” way of asking for a reply. However, in the original version of the “Obtain but verify” apologia, Cohen left three critical paragraphs out of the anonymous source’s email. In these paragraphs, the anonymous source claims that “Proximal Origin” was initially submitted to Nature—not its more specifically focused (and less prestigious) subsidiary, Nature Medicine. This makes sense. Given that this was a group of the world’s foremost virus researchers issuing a key paper on the origin of the worst pandemic in generations, one would expect it to appear in the largest possible outlet.
According to the anonymous source, the editor at Nature responsible for handling the submission had heard about what went on during the teleconference and had also found that the “Proximal Origin” authors had been “schooled” by scientists whose names weren’t on the paper. She, according to the tipster, then rejected the paper. When contacted for comment as to whether they would be adding Anthony Fauci to the list of contributors to the “Proximal Origins” paper, a spokesperson from Nature Medicine told Tablet:
“I hope it’s helpful to note that the publication you are referring to is a correspondence published in Nature Medicine. The correspondence section provides a forum for discussion or to present a point of view on issues that are of interest to the readership of Nature Medicine. We work with the manuscript and accompanying information as it is presented to us and all authors are expected to fulfil the criteria laid out in our authorship policy. The responsibility for reflecting substantive contributions to manuscripts through authorship lists lies with the authors themselves and we have received no communications from any researchers suggesting that their contributions have not been appropriately recognised.”
Cohen, for his part, told Tablet that he never took a position on the origins of COVID-19, and points to his publications at Science, which he says covered the “lab origin possibility and also question [the] role of the Huanan market.”
The same FOIA dump that revealed Cohen’s letter to Andersen also reveals that The New York Times’ former lead pandemic reporter, Donald McNeil, wrote a ponderous Feb. 25, 2020, email (in which he also accuses Americans of acting like “selfish pigs”) to Fauci in which he flatters the pandemic czar’s performance at a press conference. “[The] only time the tone was right [was] when you were the third to take the mike and explain things …” In another email, McNeil confesses that he has purchased not one but two Fauci bobbleheads, one for himself and one for someone whose name is, weirdly, redacted.
Fauci was not immune to the flattery, and returned it in kind. At one point he dashed off a missive to McNeil about an interview the Times reporter had conducted. “Donald: Your interview with [WHO official] Bruce Aylward was the best discussion of COVID-19 that I have seen thus far. Great job!” Fauci signed the email “Tony.”
As a product of its own hype, the science media has been granted a kind of epistemological special status on science-related issues. On matters related to science, the thinking among consumer journalists goes, surely the science writers will have more, and better, things to say. That might be true, but on issues where science, money, power and crisis collide, it almost certainly is not. And no issue brought together those four horsemen of enlightened corruption more dramatically than the COVID-19 pandemic.
A previous version of this article suggested that the use of the plural “backs” in Jon Cohen’s email to Dr. Kristian Andersen indicated that Cohen believed other people mentioned in the anonymous source’s letter would read the email. Cohen has clarified that he had sent this message to Dr. Andersen and Dr. Eddie Holmes, and thus used “backs” in the plural.
Ashley Rindsberg is the author of The Gray Lady Winked: How The New York Times’s Misreporting, Distortions and Fabrications Radically Alter History (2021).