Science editor says his journal’s ‘wet market’ papers are not conclusive

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Food market in Wuhan. (Photo credit: Skoleopgave1 via Wikimedia Commons)

The editor-in-chief of a major scientific journal in a hearing Tuesday distanced himself from prominent claims that two studies in his journal had dispositively proved the pandemic emerged naturally.

Science Editor-in-Chief Holden Thorp testified to the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic in a hearing about the scientific publishing industry’s handling of one of the most controversial scientific questions in decades: how the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Thorp said that two papers published in Science in 2022 pointing to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market as the origin — Worobey et al. and Pekar et al. — provided scientific evidence in favor of a natural origin but that the underlying question remains unresolved.

Thorp emphasized that the peer review process at Science had tempered the claims in the papers and generally criticized how the media covers preprints as sensational.

“At the end of the process, they were edited under my supervision to ensure that the language was consistent with the extent to which the evidence presented was supportive, but not dispositive, of a natural origin,” Thorp said in his prepared testimony. “We made these changes because we felt that lab origin was still a possibility.”

His new statements contrast with the prominent public statements of the virologist authors — both before and after peer review — that their papers were nothing short of conclusive.

“Where did the pandemic begin? Was it from nature or a lab? Since the start this fundamental question has gone unanswered. Until now,” Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada Virologist Angela Rasmussen said in a tweet in 2022. “Out in Science Magazine: SARS-CoV-2 emerged into humans via the live animal trade at the Huanan Seafood Market.”

“Death knell for the lab leak theory,” wrote University of Sydney virologist Edward Holmes in a 2022 editorial.

Thorp also apologized for dismissing the lab leak hypothesis as “a mediocre episode of Homeland” on social media. 

Thorp pointed to a letter published in Science in May 2021 calling for an origins investigation that considers both the natural and lab origin hypotheses.

Thorp also expressed concerns about new revelations that a research proposal involving both American scientists and the Wuhan Institute of Virology was set to occur at inadequate biosafety levels in China. Thorp had previously written off concerns about the research proposal in a prior editorial because it was unfunded.

The “DEFUSE” research proposal is something akin to a “blueprint” for generating a virus like SARS-CoV-2 in the lab, some scientists say. Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know demonstrate that drafts of the proposal indicated an intention to outsource viral synthesis and engineering work to the Wuhan institute’s BSL-2 lab.

“I wasn’t aware of something — something that I agree with you is very important — and that you’ve only recently uncovered, and that is that Dr. Daszak may have had plans other than what was in the proposal,” Thorp said.

The hearing called attention to two other early papers that stifled debate about the origins of the pandemic in the early months of 2020.

A letter in The Lancet in February 2020 dismissed concerns about the Wuhan Institute of Virology as “rumours,” “misinformation” and “conspiracy theories” that unfairly maligned Chinese scientists.

U.S. Right to Know uncovered that the letter had been organized by EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak, a close collaborator of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, including on the DEFUSE proposal. 

A second paper in Nature Medicine published in March 2020 argued that no laboratory origin was plausible. Emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and by the committee revealed that scientific funders who underwrote research collaborations with the Wuhan Institute of Virology and supported research to make viruses more dangerous — including former National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci — were involved with discussions about the paper.

Contemporaneous emails and Slacks also showed the authors had undisclosed concerns about the Wuhan lab and privately described one of the arguments in their paper as “crap.”

Springer Nature Editor-In-Chief Magdalena Skipper and The Lancet Editor-In-Chief Richard Horton were invited to the hearing but declined to participate.

Democrats dismissed the COVID-19 origins investigation as a whole as “extreme,” “partisan,” and “conspiratorial.” They repeatedly defended Collins and Fauci as victims of a politically motivated witch hunt.

The parties debated about how trust in scientific institutions is earned.

Democrats said that the investigation into the scientific publishing industry and the National Institutes of Health unduly hurts public trust in science and institutions. Republicans countered that the silencing of some scientific hypotheses hurts trust.

“Trust suffers because of censorship and a lack of debate,” said Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa.

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