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Self-exiled HK scientist: a propaganda puppet for sinophobes

By Md Enamul Hassan (People's Daily Online)    17:41, September 30, 2020

Dr. Li-Meng Yan, a scientist from Hong Kong now self-exiled in the United States (US), has hit the headlines often over the last several months. The turncoat scientist is being lauded as a whistleblower by some media for her anti-China statements about the coronavirus pandemic. 

Through giving an exclusive interview with Fox News, the scientist first came into the limelight in July, 2020. In the interview, she accused China of covering up coronavirus cases and claimed to have fled to the US for her life in April.

Several media outlets have given the interview a high degree of uncritical coverage, without feeling the need to cross-check her statements. However, many scientists around the world have categorically ruled out the authenticity of her claims against China.

While getting rejected and reprimanded for lying against China, Yan and her patrons have been desperate to establish their pack of lies against the country. Now she has come up with a 'research article' claiming that the virus was not of natural origin.

In the article titled 'Unusual Features of the SARS-CoV-2 Genome Suggesting Sophisticated Laboratory Modification Rather Than Natural Evolution and Delineation of Its Probable Synthetic Route,' Yan and her colleagues have claimed the virus was synthesized in laboratories controlled by the military of China.

Prominent scientists, including experts at the Science Medicine Center (SMC) of the UK, have termed her article a preprint, an unpublished non-peer-reviewed paper, which means it has not passed through a peer-review process. Opinions of some experts of the SMC have been incorporated herewith for the understanding of readers. The opinions were published on the website of the center on September 15.

Dr. Gkikas Magiorkinis, assistant professor of hygiene and epidemiology and scientific coordinator of the National Reference Centre for Retroviruses, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, also labeled the article as a preprint publication. The peer-review process is an essential part of scientific publications, it means that independent scientists have read the study and have concluded that it is sufficiently robust and valid. He mentioned that their peer-reviewed article titled 'Full-genome evolutionary analysis of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV)' rejects the hypothesis of the emergence of the virus as a result of a recent recombination event.

"We analyzed the SARS-CoV-2 genome in comparison with available coronavirus sequences and by means of molecular evolution analyses. We saw that the genome of SARS-CoV-2 is more than 95 percent similar to another coronavirus RaTG3 isolated from bats," the Greek scientist said.

Closely related coronaviruses have been retrieved from animals such as bats and pangolins, which makes the scenario of naturally occurring evolution far more likely than any scenario of laboratory manipulation.

"In fact, we have a clear history of the zoonotic origin of lethal coronavirus outbreaks such as SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV. The article by Li-Meng Yan does not provide any robust evidence of artificial manipulation, no statistical test of alternative hypotheses (natural evolution verses artificial manipulation) and is highly speculative," he concluded.

Daniel Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, said analysis of the origins of SARS-CoV-2 has been one of the most contentious areas in research during this pandemic. For his taste, the bulk of the data fit with the consensus that this is a virus transferred to humans from bats or pangolins, where one can find terribly similar coronaviruses. The study by Yan is interesting, but perhaps an outlier opinion.

Dr. Andrew Preston, reader in microbial pathogenesis at the University of Bath, said the preprint article by Yan cannot be given any credibility in its current form. It is not based on an objective interpretation of the SARS-CoV2 genome. The interpretations made are not supported by data, are unsubstantiated and the interpretations are largely stated but not explained.

He mentioned that the language of the article is reminiscent of a conspiracy theory, for example, it says "Although it may be convenient to copy the exact sequence of SARS RBM, it would be too clear a sign of artificial design and manipulation. The more deceiving approach would be to change a few non- essential residues while preserving the ones critical for binding."

The expert has also pointed his finger at the affiliation of Yan with the Rule of Law Society and Rule of Law Foundation, New York. He mentioned that this is an organization whose vision is to permit the people of China to live under a national system based on the rule of law, independent of the political system of the People's Republic of China.

Though I am not an expert on the field, my journalistic mind tends to believe that the affiliation of Yan with an organization whose mission and vision is to interfere in the domestic affairs of China proves her bad intentions to tarnish the image of China with the study and its outcomes. Moreover, Preston has concluded that given the unsubstantiated claims in the publication, which has not been peer-reviewed, the report cannot be viewed with any credibility as it stands.

Dr. Michael Head, a Senior Research Fellow in Global Health, University of Southampton, said this particular conspiracy around the deliberate release from a laboratory has been doing the rounds throughout the pandemic. It has been rebutted several times already. Ultimately, it could be damaging to public health if reported uncritically without looking at the wider evidence. If people are exposed to and then believe conspiracy theories, this will likely have a negative impact on efforts to keep COVID-19 cases low, resulting in more death and illness than there needs to be. The genomics of the virus and likely origins have been disentangled previously, for example, a peer-reviewed paper in Nature states that their analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus. Other evidence also shows that this type of coronavirus has existed in bats for decades. This new manuscript by Yan is not peer-reviewed and obviously does not offer any data that overrides previous research.

Apart from the aforementioned experts from the West, many scientists around the world, including the World Health Organization, have already concluded that the outbreaks of the coronavirus are totally natural. Several Western media outlets have also strongly disagreed with the lies told by Yan against China about the coronavirus pandemic. Popular social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have already banned her for spreading unscientific information about the pandemic.

Meanwhile, while the world has realized that Yan pursues her personal interests by spreading lies against China, some sinophobes are still trying to smear China by using her as a propaganda tool. While a few media outlets are giving her wide coverage out of their anti-China sentiment, many international affairs analysts believe that she is a propaganda puppet for sinophobes playing into the hands of anti-China forces who are determined to contain the rise of China, anxious of replaced by China, the second-largest economy in the world.

The author is the China Correspondent of the Bangladesh Post. 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Hongyu, Bianji)

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