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Lancet Covid letter isn’t about science — no empirical evidence, no disclosure of bias

More and more evidence is mounting in favour of a non-zoonotic laboratory origin for the killer virus. 

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The Covid pandemic devastated the world in a profound manner. Each one of us can count our losses. For me it has been one uncle, one cousin, one beloved colleague, one good friend, one mentor of yesteryears and his spouse, five significant acquaintances—the list goes on.

We are all familiar with the dreadful impact of Justinian’s Plague, the Black Death, the Spanish Flu, and similar occurrences in history. In the classic Kannada novel and movie, Samskara, we are shown how a plague that works through rural Mysuru in some indeterminate year, more than a century ago, destabilises individuals wrapped in stable social cocoons. The fictional account, as is many times the case, captures the collective trauma much better than newspaper prose. I was reminded that Camus’ allegorical La Peste compared a plague to the Nazi occupation of France.

One suspects that for years, even decades to come, Covid will be an important source for novelists, playwrights and performance artists. After all, the best representations of the Great Madras Famine of the second half of the nineteenth century are not to be found in the dry shelves of the government archives in Egmore in Chennai. They are to be discovered in the several outstanding scripts used by therukoothu performers. Therukoothu literally translates to street dance-drama.

We are still in the phase of statistical obsession where we are focused on unexplained differential death rates, vaccine efficacy rates, lost GDP and so on. The tryst with persistent nightmares and lost dreams will continue for a long time to come and will be described in street theatre performances which our descendants will watch.

Also Read: WHO questions China on ‘delay & transparency’ as Covid data from 2020 is uploaded in 2023, then deleted

The Lancet letter

While one can continue to talk about the comparisons with Justinian’s world, there is something else about Covid that requires our immediate and rather painful attention.

In 2021, ThePrint’s editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta wrote about the revelations of journalist Nicholas Wade regarding the mysterious origins of Covid. Nicholas Wade is by all accounts an eminent journalist and a serious student of science and the scientific method. He was for many years the Science Correspondent of the New York Times. And yet, when Wade put together his sober and well-researched account, his piece was not in the New York Times. Thanks to the internet, Wade was heard, but perhaps not as widely as he should have been.

Contrast this with an early letter in the prestigious scientific journal Lancet which accused anyone even mildly raising questions about a possible non-zoonotic origin of being a conspiracy theorist. The Lancet is a well-known British publication with a reputation for being the last word on issues associated with medicine, surgery, and health. No wonder the pro-zoonotic letter in the Lancet was taken seriously and widely publicised by a lot of outlets, including the New York Times and the BBC.

And now comes the denouement. It turns out that the Lancet letter was wrong and that the wide publicity it received was misplaced. More and more evidence is mounting in favour of a non-zoonotic laboratory origin for the killer virus.

Now we all know that mistakes can happen and even a prestigious self-proclaimed defender of the truth like the Lancet can make a mistake. To err is human after all, even granting that the Lancet’s usual ex-cathedra prose style attempts to position itself as above us humans.

What is chilling is that at the time of the publication of its well-publicised letter, the authors had no evidence at all to substantiate their claim. It was simply a bald assertion on their part; it was too early in the research process to make the claim; and it now turns out to be questionable. The whole world respects the British scientific establishment. The Royal Society is considered one of the finest scientific institutions in the world. In the field of medicine, the Lancet is recognised as nonpareil. What then was the hurry to indulge in hysterical name-calling even before the relevant data was in?

The entire basis of the empirical scientific method is to rely on verified and verifiable data. In its absence, how could the editors publish such a letter, concerning a disease which was not affecting half a dozen persons in some remote corner of the world, but was spreading like wildfire across the whole planet? The editors cannot blame some lowly assistant. Such a letter required the involvement of the entire editorial board. Was it absent? Was it present? In which case, why were elementary scientific principles ignored? Have the editors of the Lancet not read Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum? The Lancet is to medicine what Lords is to cricket. How can there have been such sacrilege in such a sacred temple?

It turns out that the sacrilege is even worse than the mere publication of an ill-researched, hasty, polemical, scientifically inappropriate letter. One of the signatories of the letter, and the alleged primary author of the same, Peter Daszak, is riddled with blatant conflict of interest. He has allegedly distributed US taxpayer funds to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where research on bat viruses has been carried on for years. American State Department officials have gone on record regarding the poor safety standards at this Institute. No wonder this individual had an interest in maintaining the zoonotic origin theory and rubbishing the possibility of a laboratory origin. Did the Lancet editors fail even in doing minimal due diligence regarding the authors to whom they were giving valuable and valued space?

It does not end there. It gets worse. Almost all such letters are accompanied by full disclosure of the antecedents of the authors and of possible biases and conflicts of interest. This is considered essential even by the august Medical Journals of Never-Never Land and the Forest of Arden. Are we to now think of the Lancet as not even in their league?

Too early as far as evaluation of empirical evidence goes; no scientific basis; mere assertion of a bland opinion; no due diligence on the biases and interests of the authors; no disclosures that are considered essential and routine. And to top it all, no editorial discretion even in dealing with the prose style.

Expressions like “conspiracy” have no place in dignified scientific discourse. Ad hominem attacks on dissidents are the very negation of science. On top of all of this, the sheer comical fact that the vociferous, sanctimonious Lancet was wrong really makes for a tragic farce.

The indictment of the Lancet’s editors, and need I add, their conviction, has dealt a body blow to science, to scientific discourse and to the principle of integrity in communications. We are left to wonder whether the Covid victims have died in vain. For along with them have died some of the most important hard-won enlightenment tenets of the world of science.

Also Read: FBI director says lab leak from China’s Wuhan likely caused Covid-19 pandemic

A hit to credibility 

I have argued elsewhere that the New York Times which mysteriously did not publish Wade’s piece, and which trumpeted the fallacious Lancet letter should change its name to Pravda, because it is now firmly in the Leninist propaganda camp. The BBC too has been busy latching on to the unproven zoonotic theory.

We have seen the steady suppression of ‘news’ and the proliferation of ‘views’ among so many media outlets. One would not mind so much if the “views” were well-argued and put forth as legitimate opinions not as facts and not as weapons to hysterically attack, on an ad hominem basis, persons who may have a differing view.

The NYT and the BBC can be dismissed as comical and increasingly irrelevant. It is indeed sad that journals like the Lancet are now in the same slot.

The British scientific establishment is now on notice. It needs to make a supreme effort to go back to supporting slow, methodical, fully referenced, rigorous, research where biases are reduced and at a minimum completely disclosed.

As for the Lancet itself, it might not be a bad idea to spend a few years concentrating on simple clinical studies instead of straying into the field of public health where its editors have already performed an act of great disservice.

For a long time to come, the Lancet will be read with suspicion rather than with interest. Perhaps the masthead can be changed to read as follows: “Lancet Journal: A Victim of Covid”.

Jaithirth Rao is a retired businessperson who lives in Mumbai. Views are personal.

(Edited by Theres Sudeep)

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