Paul Thacker | 20 Sep 2022
For over two years, the virologist posed as a fact checker and biosafety expert on China, without disclosure of grants involving risky gain of function studies.
Shortly after people began dying from the COVID-19 virus in early 2020, virologist Danielle Anderson began attacking media accounts that questioned if the pandemic could have started in a lab in Wuhan, China.
In a fact check for Health Feedback, Anderson repudiated a New York Post article that questioned if the “coronavirus may have leaked from a lab” claiming it was false to label the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) a bioweapons research lab, while adding that the Post article was “appalling.” This censorial fact check helped limit the audience for the Post article on social media—but then, less than a year later, Anderson’s claims fell apart when the State Department declassified information on the WIV’s ties to military research and Facebook ceased censoring statements that COVID-19 was man-made or manufactured.
Unpersuaded by facts, Anderson stuck to her story, making a media splash throughout the summer of 2021 as the “last—and only—foreign scientist in Wuhan” and the victim of an online harassment campaign by “conspiracy theorists.” Anderson’s tale of online persecution then made its way into a Nature Magazine article last October that went on to win a journalism award.
There is, however, a glaring omission from the media’s portrayal of Anderson as brave truth speaker. None of the fact checks or news stories disclose that her name has appeared on multiple grants for projects aiming to manipulate coronaviruses, including a National Institutes of Health award to Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance, and a grant that was rejected by the U.S. military research agency DARPA, in part for risky gain of function research.
Despite these obvious conflicts of interest and a history of questionable claims, Anderson managed to promote her views in the media throughout the first two years of the pandemic, perhaps explaining, in part, journalists’ reluctance to report how COVID-19 may have arisen from lab research in Wuhan. While not a central player, Anderson serves as another example of a conflicted virologist, who escaped accurate media scrutiny, while possibly misleading public discourse.
Anderson did not reply to repeated requests to explain why she apparently did not disclose her work in risky virus research to fact checking sites and journalists.
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In the confusing early days of the pandemic, most media outlets accepted scientists’ assertion that the pandemic started from a natural spillover from animals to humans. Virologists enforced this narrative by placing essays in The Lancet and Emerging Microbes & Infections which “debunked” the idea of a lab accident, although both essays were subsequently exposed as being orchestrated for public relations purposes.
However, in late February 2020, the New York Post’s Steven Mosher published a tentative essay that pointed to a possible lab accident— “Don’t buy China’s story: The coronavirus may have leaked from a lab.” The article offered a hodgepodge of reasons for why the virus may have escaped from a Wuhan lab and quickly drew the attention of Health Feedback, which in their fact check cited Anderson as one of their experts. Health Feedback is run by Emmanuel Vincent, who has been hiding around Paris to avoid appearing in court.
“Overall, this is an appalling article,” Anderson wrote for Health Feedback, in a fact check titled, “Viral New York Post article perpetuates the unfounded claim that the virus that causes COVID-19 is manmade.”
“Designating the Wuhan Institute of Virology as ‘one of only two bioweapons research labs in all of China’ is simply false, as is stating [that Maj. Gen. Chen Wei is] the ‘People’s Liberation Army’s top expert in biological warfare,’” Anderson wrote in her analysis. “It is difficult to respond to this article because it is infuriating on a personal and professional level.” Health Feedback’s fact check was then cited by another fact checking outlet “Politifact” which is run by the Poynter Institute.
A separate page for Health Feedback rates as “incorrect” the New York Post claim that “evidence points to SARS-CoV-2 research being carried out at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.” However, this fact check is simply wrong
In a January 2020 email only made public in the last month, NIH officials created talking points for Anthony Fauci that discussed how his NIH institute had funded Peter Daszak’s group for coronavirus research in Wuhan for several years
We now know that much of Anderson’s claims about the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s work with the military is also false, or a “decoy” narrative. In April of this year, a State Department background memo from early 2020 became public and documented secret research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and the Wuhan Center for Disease Control (WCDC)—two institutions that do dangerous virus research.
The most logical place to investigate the virus origin has been completely sealed off from the outside inquiry by the [Chinese Community Party]. A gag order to both places was issued on 1/01/2020, and a Major General from the [People’s Liberation Army] took over the [Wuhan Institute of Virology] since early Jan. Of the five possible theories [for how the pandemic began] the WCDC and the WIV are most likely yet least investigated. All other proposed theories are likely to be a decoy to prevent inquiry to WCDC and WIV.
To emphasize, this State Department backgrounder only became public earlier this year. However, Anderson’s expert claims took a serious hit in January 2021, when the State Department declassified intelligence concerning secret military activity at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). Among the intelligence declassified at that time:
- For more than a year, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has systematically prevented a transparent and thorough investigation of the COVID-19 pandemic’s origin, choosing instead to devote enormous resources to deceit and disinformation.
- The WIV has a published record of conducting “gain-of-function” research to engineer chimeric viruses.
- Despite the WIV presenting itself as a civilian institution, the United States has determined that the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military. The WIV has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.
A few months after the State Department’s memo, Politico reported that Facebook was “no longer treating ‘man-made’ Covid as a crackpot idea” and had ceased censoring news like the New York Post article that Anderson had found so appalling.
Around that same time, Anderson published a preprint that attempted to place blame for the transmission of COVID-19 on frozen foods. As a means to distract from a possible lab accident, many virologists at the time were arguing that frozen foods could have transmitted the virus to Wuhan and started the outbreak. Although Anderson retracted the preprint shortly after publishing it, the conclusions miraculously appeared in a joint World Health Organization and China report on the origins of the pandemic.
Anderson’s preprint survives in that report to this day, buttressing the hoary argument that frozen foods transported to Wuhan could have caused the outbreak.
Narrative reset: last foreigner in Wuhan
The opening months of 2021 were not especially friendly to virologists downplaying a possible Wuhan lab accident. In early January, New York Magazine published a blockbuster essay that laid blame for the pandemic on virus research in Wuhan, while The Daily Mail reported that Peter Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance had been funneling NIH grant money to Shi Zhengli, Daszak’s collaborator at the WIV. And that March, several scientists signed a letter calling for an open investigation of COVID-19’s origins.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post’s editorial board demanded a serious investigation of research at the WIV where “Shi Zhengli was working on ‘gain of function’ experiments, which involve modifying viral genomes to give them new properties, including the ability to infect lung cells of laboratory mice that had been genetically modified to respond as human respiratory cells would.”
As demands for transparency began to pile up, Anderson refashioned herself in the summer of 2021 as the last foreigner in Wuhan and the victim of an online harassment campaign by “conspiracy theorists.”
“Half-truths and distorted information have obscured an accurate accounting of the [Wuhan] lab’s functions and activities, which were more routine than how they’ve been portrayed in the media,” reported Bloomberg in a June 2021 profile of Anderson. “It’s not that it was boring, but it was a regular lab that worked in the same way as any other high-containment lab,” Anderson told Bloomberg, in reference to the WIV. “What people are saying is just not how it is.”
In the interview, Anderson batted down pretty much every piece of intelligence that the State Department declassified, while positioning herself as a reluctant spokesperson for science.
One of a dozen experts appointed to an international taskforce in November to study the origins of the virus, Anderson hasn’t sought public attention, especially since being targeted by U.S. extremists in early 2020 after she exposed false information about the pandemic posted online. The vitriol that ensued prompted her to file a police report. The threats of violence many coronavirus scientists have experienced over the past 18 months have made them hesitant to speak out because of the risk that their words will be misconstrued.
The Bloomberg story spurred a copycat article in Newsweek, and in the following months, Anderson appeared in several other media outlets to denigrate the possibility of a lab accident, including SheThePeople and the Sydney Morning Herald where she was feted as a “conspiracy-buster.”
“My opinion is based on the evidence I have in front of me, and my collective research background. Virology training is my background and I am using that to make my decisions, not a politician saying, ‘This is what we should think.’”
In late October, Anderson’s tale of woe made an appearance in a Nature Magazine article that highlighted a variety of purported scientist truth tellers, many of whom, like Anderson, had been reportedly verbally attacked for speaking out against a possible lab accident in Wuhan.
Whereas some scientists have put up with abuse, others have excluded themselves from commenting even on relatively uncontroversial topics. Nature’s survey found instances of scientists staying quiet: a few anonymous respondents wrote that they were hesitant to speak about some topics because they saw abuse being meted out to others. Anderson says her experience has changed how she communicates science, and she now declines most media interviews.
Nature’s article became part of a package the journal then submitted for a journalism award, later won by editor Helen Pearson. Ironically, like other outlets Nature left out some glaring conflicts of interest. While posing as a disinterested expert, Anderson apparently failed to disclose that she is named as a researcher on an NIH grant awarded to Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance.
The grant’s biosketch lists Anderson’s other funding sources, which includes a grant from the Chinese Academy of Sciences—yes, the science institution run by the Chinese Communist Party.
When Daszak’s NIH grant was first made public by The Intercept, several scientists said that studies described in the grant meet the definition of risky gain of function research.
And years before Anderson began making fact checks in early 2020, her name appeared on a 2018 grant submitted by Peter Daszak to the U.S. military research agency DARPA. The DARPA submission was leaked to the public last September and shows that Daszak proposed collecting bat viruses to create and study chimeric versions—making the viruses more transmissible or virulent.
Anderson appears in the DARPA proposal’s management plan as working under Linfa Wang.
In a monograph published last year, researchers at the National University of Singapore documented Linfa Wang’s collaborations with researchers at the WIV on gain of function studies, as well as the WIV’s ties to the Chinese military and extensive linkages to the Chinese Communist Party.
A DARPA official rejected Daszak’s proposal and added that the EcoHealth Alliance would need a gain-of-function “risk mitigation plan” if DARPA later funded part of the research that involved making chimeric viruses.
However, Anderson’s involvement in these grants was not revealed by any of the fact checkers nor any media outlet that interviewed her, which chose instead to morph the financially conflicted virologist into a “conspiracy buster.” Oddly enough, Bloomberg announced last December that their fact-addled profile of Anderson was one of their top five reads of 2021.
When fact-checkers hide their own facts, and thus cow inexpert reporters into avoiding uncomfortable subjects, actual inquiry into the truth begins to die a slow death.