No peer review for addendum to prominent coronavirus origins study?

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The journal Nature did not assess the reliability of important claims made in a November 17 addendum to a study on the bat-origins of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, correspondence with Nature staff suggests.

On February 3, 2020, Wuhan Institute of Virology scientists reported discovering the closest known relative of SARS-CoV-2, a bat coronavirus called RaTG13. RaTG13 has become central to the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 originated in wildlife.

The addendum addresses unanswered questions about the provenance of RaTG13. The authors, Zhou et al., clarified they found RaTG13 in 2012-2013 “in an abandoned mineshaft in Mojiang County, Yunnan Province,” where six miners suffered acute respiratory distress syndrome after exposure to bat feces, and three died. Investigations of the symptoms of the sickened miners could provide important clues about the origins of SARS-CoV-2. Zhou et al. reported finding no SARS-related coronaviruses in stored serum samples of the sick miners, but they did not support their claims with data and methods about their assays and experimental controls.

The absence of key data in the addendum has raised further questions about the reliability of the Zhou et al. study. On November 27, U.S. Right to Know asked Nature questions about the addendum’s claims, and requested that Nature publish all supporting data that Zhou et al. may have provided.

On December 2, Nature Head of Communications Bex Walton replied that the original Zhou et al.  study was “accurate but unclear,” and that the addendum was an appropriate post-publication platform for clarification. She added: “With regards to your questions, we would direct you to approach the authors of the paper for answers, as these questions pertain not to the research that we have published but to other research undertaken by the authors, upon which we cannot comment” (emphasis ours). Since our questions related to research described in the addendum, the Nature representative’s statement suggests Zhou et al.’s addendum was not evaluated as research.

We asked a follow up question on December 2: “was this addendum subjected to any peer-review and/or editorial oversight by Nature?” Ms. Walton did not answer directly; she replied: “In general, our editors will assess comments or concerns that are raised with us in the first instance, consulting the authors, and seeking advice from peer reviewers and other external experts if we consider it necessary. Our confidentiality policy means we cannot comment on the specific handling of individual cases.”

Since Nature considers an addendum to be a post-publication update, and does not subject such post publication addenda to the same peer-review standards as original publications, it seems likely that the Zhou et al. addendum did not undergo peer-review.

Authors Zhengli Shi and Peng Zhou did not respond to our questions about their Nature addendum.

Validity of key studies on origin of coronavirus in doubt; science journals investigating

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By Carey Gillam

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, scientists have searched for clues about what led to the emergence of its causative agent, the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Uncovering the source of SARS-CoV-2 could be crucial for preventing future outbreaks.

A series of four high profile studies published earlier this year provided scientific credence to the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 originated in bats and then jumped to humans through a type of anteater called a pangolin — among the world’s most trafficked wild animals. While that specific theory involving pangolins has been largely discounted, the four studies known as the “pangolin papers” continue to provide support for the notion that coronaviruses closely related to SARS-CoV-2 circulate in the wild, meaning the SARS-CoV-2 that caused COVID-19 probably comes from a wild animal source. 

The focus on a wild animal source, the “zoonotic” theory, has become a critical element in global discussion about the virus, directing public attention away from the possibility that the virus may have originated inside a Chinese governmental laboratory – the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) has learned, however, that two of the four papers that make up the foundation for the zoonotic theory appear to be flawed, and that the editors at the journals in which the papers were published – PLoS Pathogens and Nature – are investigating the core data behind the studies and how the data was analyzed. The other two similarly appear to suffer flaws.

The problems with the research papers raise “serious questions and concerns” about the validity of the zoonotic theory overall, according to Dr. Sainath Suryanarayanan, a biologist and sociologist of science, and USRTK staff scientist.  The studies lack sufficiently reliable data, independently verifiable data sets and a transparent peer review and editorial process, according to Dr. Suryanarayanan. 

See his emails with senior authors of the papers and journal editors, and analysis: Nature and PLoS Pathogens probe scientific veracity of key studies linking pangolin coronaviruses to origin of SARS-CoV-2.

Chinese governmental authorities first promoted the idea that the source of the causal agent for COVID-19 in humans came from a wild animal in December. Chinese government-supported scientists then backed that theory in four separate studies submitted to the journals between February 7 and 18.

The World Health Organization’s China Joint Mission Team investigating the emergence and spread of COVID-19 in China stated in February : “Since the COVID-19 virus has a genome identity of 96% to a bat SARS-like coronavirus and 86%-92% to a pangolin SARS-like coronavirus, an animal source for COVID-19 is highly likely.” 

The Chinese-initiated focus on a wild animal source helped chill calls for an investigation into the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where animal coronaviruses have long been stored and genetically manipulated. Instead, resources and efforts of the international scientific and policymaking community have been funneled toward understanding the factors shaping contact between people and wildlife. 

The four papers in question are Liu et al., Xiao et al. , Lam et al. and Zhang et al.  The two that are currently being investigated by the journal editors are Liu et al and Xiao et al. In communications with the authors and journal editors of those two papers, USRTK has learned of serious problems with the publication of those studies, including the following:    

  • Liu et al. did not publish or share (upon being asked) raw and/or missing data that would allow experts to independently verify their genomic analyses.
  • Editors at both Nature and PLoS Pathogens, as well as Professor Stanley Perlman, the editor of Liu et al., have acknowledged in email communications that they are aware of serious issues with these papers and that the journals are investigating them. Yet, they have made no public disclosure of the potential problems with the papers.  

The silence of the journals regarding their ongoing investigations means that wider communities of scientists, policymakers and the public impacted by COVID-19 are unaware of the problems associated with the research papers, said Dr. Suryanarayanan. 

“We believe that these issues are important, since they may shape how institutions respond to a catastrophic pandemic that has radically affected lives and livelihoods worldwide,” he said.

Links to these emails can be found here: 

In July 2020, U.S. Right to Know began submitting public records requests in pursuit of data from public institutions in an effort to discover what is known about the origins of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which causes the disease Covid-19. Since the start of the outbreak in Wuhan, SARS-CoV-2 has killed over a million people, while sickening millions more in a global pandemic that continues to unfold.

On Nov. 5, U.S. Right to Know filed a lawsuit against the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for violating provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., seeks correspondence with or about organizations such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the EcoHealth Alliance, which partnered with and funded the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit investigative research group focused on promoting transparency for public health. You can support our research and reporting by donating here.