18 June 2021

Science journals, Wuhan and a truly bizarre Twitter episode

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One of the subtexts of the debate over the origin of the pandemic concerns the role of the scientific journals. The magazines that publish scientific papers have become increasingly dependent on the fees that Chinese scientists pay to publish in them, plus advertisements from Chinese firms and subscriptions from Chinese institutions. In recent years observers have noticed that the news coverage of China in these magazines has begun to look a little less objective than it once did. 

Springer-Nature, the Anglo-German publisher of the world’s leading scientific journal Nature, announced in 2017 that in some of its publications it was censoring articles that used words like “Taiwan”, “Tibet” and “cultural revolution”, when printing in China. In April 2020 Nature ran an editorial apologising for its “error” in “associating the virus with Wuhan” in its news coverage.

Around the same time Nature also attached an editorial note to a number of its old articles reading:

We are aware that this story 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.”

The headline on one such article, from 2015, read: ‘Engineered bat virus stirs debate over risky research’, and it concerned an experiment done by a team partly from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Sceptics have noticed that any paper arguing against a lab leak is rushed into print in days, while ones that argue for a lab leak are rejected or delayed for months. Elsewhere a paper about pangolins and the coronavirus has been exposed as rehashing data from an older paper, but has not been retracted.

Now, in an episode that would be farcical if it was not about such a serious topic, one of Nature’s journalists has got in a muddle contradicting herself in a bid to distance herself from one of the scientists most vocally defensive of China.

She denied having ever met him, then claimed that a picture of them together was “doctored” by rightwing media. She now admits she met him but claims she forgot.

The journalist in question, Amy Maxmen, has been covering the issue of the origin of the virus for Nature and on May 27 she published an article headlined: ‘Divisive COVID ‘lab leak’ debate prompts dire warnings from researchers’, in which she reported that scientists found the speculation about the possibility of a lab leak “unsettling” and that they were warning “that the growing demands are exacerbating tensions between the United States and China”, while the debate “has grown so toxic that it’s fuelling online bullying of scientists and anti-Asian harassment in the United States, as well as offending researchers and authorities in China whose cooperation is needed.” (When I was a journalist, offending authorities was a badge of honour.)

On June 8 a photograph and film emerged of Dr Peter Daszak, the researcher who collaborates with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, helps to fund its research and has been campaigning for months to quash rumours of a lab leak and insist on the innocence of his Chinese colleagues. Speaking at a scientific conference in 2016 and discussing his collaboration with the Wuhan virologists, he says: “my colleagues in China did this work, you create pseudoparticles, you insert the spike proteins from those viruses, see if they bind to human cells and each step of this you move closer and closer to: this virus could really become pathogenic in people”.

Sitting next to Dr Daszak on the panel at the conference and listening intently to him is Amy Maxmen. Shown the photograph, she responded on Twitter: “I want to make clear that this is a doctored photo of me from an outlet run by the former EIC of Breitbart News. I’ve never met Daszak.” She has since deleted this tweet.

The event in question, on February 23, 2016, was organised by the Pulitzer Center at the New York Academy of Medicine and entitled ‘Where will the next pandemic come from?’.  Until a few days ago, the page describing the debate on the Pulitzer Center’s site made no mention of Dr Daszak’s name – you’ll see it there now, but the internet archive Wayback Machine reveals it was only inserted on June 14 of this year. Quite why the Pulitzer Center tried to obscure his participation is a mystery, especially given that an account of the meeting on the NYAM’s site had already mentioned Dr Daszak’s appearance on the panel: “the panel includes Peter Daszak…and Amy Maxmen”.

What’s more, a tweet sent on February 26, 2016 confirms that he did indeed show up, and that the photograph and film of the event are not deep fakes: “Honored to sit beside such experts in cholera, Zika, HIV & more @soniashah @PeterDaszak Ian Lipkin @NYAMHistory”. The sender of the tweet? Amy Maxmen herself.

When this was pointed out Dr Maxmen then claimed to have forgotten about the event, which is hardly persuasive. The bizarre part of this whole saga is that there is nothing wrong with Amy Maxmen having met Peter Daszak or shared a platform with him. His remarks quoted above are not some giveaway, because the “pseudoparticles” he describes cannot reproduce or transmit between people. This was not in itself a dangerous experiment, though it was part of a program that did include riskier experiments.

It’s Dr Maxmen’s strange initial claim that the photo was doctored which raised the suspicion of those of us trying to figure out what happened in Wuhan: why is Nature’s reporter so keen to deny having met a scientist at the centre of a debate?

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Amy Maxmen, as well as deleting her tweet about the doctoring of the photograph, also deleted older tweets from 2016. We accept that this is not true and apologise to Dr Maxmen.

Nature has issued a response to this piece, which is published below:

On 10 June, a Twitter user posted a photo of Amy next to Peter Daszak, with a “National Pulse” logo in the corner, and wrote: “She’s got connections.” Amy has no ties to Daszak and did not remember sitting next to Daszak when she spoke about Ebola on a panel with him and three other scientists and journalists six years ago. This tweet was also one of many that week intended to demean and silence her.  She thought the photo must be doctored, and wrote this on Twitter. Within minutes of posting, she realised her mistake, deleted her tweet to stop the spread of misinformation and sent direct messages explaining the mistake to the handful of people who had liked or commented on the post. A screenshot of the mistaken tweet continued to be shared, so she replied to several tweets within hours of her original post, explaining her honest mistake.

Amy is an outstanding reporter who has covered public health and infectious disease for 13 years. She has won six awards for her outbreak reporting from well-recognized journalistic and scientific organisations including the AAAS Kavli Foundation, the National Association of Science Writers and the Association of Health Care Journalists. She and her editors at Nature go to great lengths to ensure that their coverage of the pandemic is balanced, accurate and authoritative.

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Matt Ridley is a journalist and author.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.