Some scientists, conspiracy theory experts and the media have responded to the USRTK’s sudden interest in virology by pointing to the group’s ties to anti-vaccine campaigners. This is a clever attempt to discredit the USRTK and its allies, but ultimately it is a mistake that ignores what anti-GMO activists are doing with their lab leak plea.
Groups like the USRTK have always framed their anti-technology agenda in terms – “seeking truth and transparency in public health” – that resonate with most Americans. They start again using the pandemic to attack all biotechnology. Tying these activist outfits to anti-vaccines will not prevent them from gaining the support of a certain segment of the general public for this agenda, which should concern everyone in the scientific community.
Abusing the theory of laboratory leaks
No one knows if SARS-CoV-2 naturally passed from animals to humans or if it somehow “escaped” from a lab, and we may never know for sure. But a lab leak is a plausible scenario that has been investigated by famous voices in scientific and geopolitical circles. Respected science writer Matt Ridley and Broad Institute molecular biologist Alina Chan may be many things, but they aren’t wacky conspiracy theorists and their arguments should be taken seriously.
The real problem is that many activist groups have supported the lab leak scenario because it fits their more comprehensive and decidedly unscientific anti-biotech agenda. This is what the media missed in their coverage of anti-GMO groups endorsing a lab leak. It’s a “controversial” idea to begin with, The Daily Beast reported recently, and US Right to Know is promoting it because they have moved from agitation against biotech crops to giving a burst of legitimacy to the conspiratorial thoughts of their main donor, the Organic Consumers Association. Beast of the day:
“Like the USRTK, the 23-year-old Organic Consumers Association started out as a group concerned about pesticides and genetically modified organisms. But by enlisting financial support from ultra-rich donors in the wellness sector… he adopted their anti-vaccine conspiratorial views…
Earlier this year, OCA founder Ronnie Cummins, who also put forward “true” 9/11 accounts, co-wrote a book with [Joe] Mercola who claimed to expose “The big reset, the blockages, the passports for the vaccines and the new normal”. The book’s footnotes included multiple quotes from USRTK research into the origins of COVID-19, and, when promoting the book last month, Cummins called the USRTK a “long-standing ally. “.
The conspiratorial tendencies of the anti-biotech movement are known for many years; highlighting them is no longer useful. Our real concern should be that the USRTK and others use the theory of laboratory leaks to arouse opposition to a wide range of important, if not life-saving, biotechnologies.
Consider the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT), but another group of activists funded by Joe Mercola and closely linked to the Non-GMO project. Whatever the IRT thinks about the pandemic, note that their fundraising letters are clearly designed to alert people to issues that have little to do with the pandemic. The Lab Leak Theory is a useful rhetorical tool, labeled almost as an afterthought:
The IRT’s mission is to spread the word against the REPLACEMENT OF NATURE [emphasis in original]. Can you help us make a difference? Just consider a few applications of this new gene-editing technology known as GMO 2.0… Are any of these new technologies making you a little nervous? Join us in preventing a genetically modified future and raise awareness of research on gain functions? [my emphasis]
The engineering of disease-fighting insects or livestock crops adapted to different environments has almost nothing in common with research into gain of function, which “aims or should (and / or, perhaps, does ) increase the transmissibility and / or virulence of pathogens. While this could be considered a genetic modification, it serves a very different purpose and carries risks that are unrelated to other biotechnology applications. However, such nuances are irrelevant to the IRT and its allies, as their ultimate goal is to prevent “a genetically modified future” – period.
Why is this important? There are millions of Jaded Americans suffering from pandemic fatigue. Fed up with lockdowns, travel restrictions and mandatory vaccinations, they are once again inclined to take the anti-GMO movement seriously. Indeed, the fact that mainstream science doesn’t like the USRTK might even help the group’s cause among those enraged by the pandemic response. The scientific community should therefore fight the misconception that a theory of laboratory leaks compromises the safety of biotechnology more generally.
A familiar model
This cohort of militant groups is adept at reclaiming public concerns. When reporter Matt Taibi suggested in April that Google had censored the USRTK, group co-founder Gary Ruskin told him that:
I really believe in the First Amendment really strongly, and I’ve been concerned throughout this time probably that the censors are coming for someone, they could easily come for you tomorrow.
Taibbi was apparently unaware that the USRTK existed to harass and intimidate scientists in silence. It’s frankly disturbing how far Ruskin’s group has gone in his efforts silence academics who speak publicly about biotechnology: publish their emails, write articles about them and even leaked documents to propaganda outlets like Russia Today (RT), which will promote the same anti-GMO agenda.
In other words, the USRTK and its allies are not on the warpath against censorship, nor are they campaigning for safer virology research in a significant sense. But they will use these issues to gain public sympathy. Pointing out their ties to anti-vaccine activists is fun, but mostly unnecessary as a way to broaden public acceptance of biotechnology.
Cameron J. English is the Director of Biosciences at the American Council on Science and Health. Visit their website and follow ACSH on Twitter @ACSHorg
A version of this article originally appeared in the United States Council on Science and Health and is republished here with permission. The American Council for Science and Health can be found on Twitter @ACSHorg