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Column: Two Rutgers professors are accused of poisoning the debate over COVID's origins. Here's why

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Column: Two Rutgers professors are accused of poisoning the debate over COVID's origins. Here's why

In a Dec. 2 tweet, Richard H. Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, stated that Anthony Fauci, the respected virologist and retired official of the National Institutes of Health, “is likely a murderer and provably a felon.”

In another tweet a few weeks earlier, he had compared Fauci to the Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, who was responsible for the genocidal massacre of as many as 2 million people in the 1970s.

Referring to an event at Case Western Reserve University honoring Fauci, Ebright wrote: “You may have missed the chance to hobnob with Pol Pot, but, Case Western will give you the chance to hobnob with Fauci, whose policy violations … likely killed 20 million.”

Every time I speak publicly, I now have a thought that there might be someone who has ingested this steady stream of distortions who might shoot me while I’m speaking.

— Michael Worobey, University of Arizona

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In a tweet Aug. 25, 2022, Ebright’s colleague Bryce Nickels, a professor in the Rutgers department of genetics, called the “coordination” among virology researchers including Angela Rasmussen of the University of Saskatchewan and Michael Worobey of the University of Arizona an example of “pure, unfiltered evil.”

He illustrated the tweet with a GIF from the 1976 movie “Marathon Man” showing Dustin Hoffman being tortured by a character played by Lawrence Olivier and plainly inspired by Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.

This is the landscape on which a conflict over two theories about the origin of COVID-19 has been waged. One theory attributes the origin to unregulated trading in China of disease-susceptible wildlife, from which the virus that causes the disease is thought to have leaped to humans in a process known as a zoonotic spillover.

The other, the lab leak hypothesis, posits that the virus escaped from a virology lab in Wuhan, China, where it may have been deliberately concocted.

Let’s be clear: There is no evidence for a lab leak. No one has ever produced anything in its favor other than innuendo and conjecture. By contrast, evidence for a zoonotic transfer is almost overwhelming, has grown ever stronger over the years and is widely accepted by virologists and epidemiologists.

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Ebright and Nickels are advocates of the lab-leak theory. For years they have been posting online insinuations or outright accusations of fraud, perjury, felonies and murder aimed at scientists who advocate for the zoonotic transfer theory.

Now a dozen scientists, some of whom have been direct targets of Ebright and Nickels, have called on Rutgers to open a formal investigation into whether its two faculty members have crossed the line distinguishing between responsible scientific debate and defamation, harassment, intimidation and threats.

Among the concerns the signatories aired in their March 14 complaint letter is that the professors’ actions and “inflammatory language,” such as “comparisons of working scientists to historical war criminals and mass murderers,” could “put some of us and … our colleagues in physical danger.”

Ebright’s and Nickels’ behavior, the complaint says, has unfolded in an atmosphere that had already produced “harassment including threats of death and/or violence because of our … scientific research.”

Ebright and Nickels say the complaint misrepresents their words and activities. “I never have compared any of the signatories to Josef Mengele or Pol Pot, and I never have characterized any of the signatories as murderers,” Ebright told me by email. He adds, “I also never have threatened or incited violence against any of the signatories.”

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He did acknowledge calling four signatories “fraudsters,” based on their authorship of a 2020 scientific paper that favored zoonosis as the origin of COVID-19 and dismissed the lab-leak theory as implausible. “I stand by this characterization,” he wrote. He called the complaint “an effort to silence opponents and to prop up a collapsing narrative.”

Nickels told me by email, “the assertion that I have labeled any of the 12 signatories as murderers or endangered them or their colleagues is false and is defamatory with malice.” In his email, he accused the same four signatories mentioned by Ebright of fraud.

More on that shortly.

The complaint letter says that Ebright and Nickels have engaged in online harassment, intimidation and threats for years. According to Kristian Andersen, an evolutionary biologist at Scripps Research in La Jolla and the organizer of the complaint, a new element in their approach recently appeared: encouraging their followers to engage in physical contact with zoonosis advocates.

On March 12, Nickels tweeted a notice of a scientific conference in Washington at which Peter Daszak, the head of a research funding organization who has long been the target of vituperation by lab-leak advocates, would appear on a panel.

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“Don’t miss your chance to meet Peter Daszak, author of the grant many consider the ‘Blueprint’ for SARS-CoV2!” he wrote. The reference was to a groundless accusation beloved by lab-leak advocates that a grant proposal sponsored by Daszak’s organization involved creating a virus in a Chinese lab that became SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID. Virologists say the grant proposal would not have produced such a virus. In any event, it was not funded.

“That was so far outside of what I would consider to be normal and ethical conduct in science that I said, we need to file a formal complaint,” Andersen told me. The scientists’ letter to Rutgers administrators doesn’t ask for any disciplinary action, but calls for “immediate and serious review by the administration” of public behavior by Ebright and Nickels.

The call by Ebright and Nickels for followers to show up at a talk by Daszak stepped up the anxiety many scientists feel about their own public appearances.

“Every time I speak publicly, I now have a thought that there might be someone who has ingested this steady stream of distortions who might shoot me while I’m speaking,” says Worobey, a signatory of the complaint whose research helped to establish a seafood and wildlife market in Wuhan, not a lab, as the likely site of the first zoonosis transfers. “With those escalations recently, I thought it was time to deal with it head-on.”

Vaccine science, immigration and elections are all battlegrounds for the war between information and disinformation today. The temperature of debates on these topics is only heightened by the tendency of social media platforms such as Twitter (now X) to encourage intemperate speech. But science and health seem to be areas especially vulnerable to efforts at falsification.

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A brief primer on the lab-leak hypothesis may be useful here. During the earliest weeks of the COVID pandemic, many virologists examining the SARS-CoV-2 virus, including Andersen, spotted unfamiliar features, some so unusual that they conjectured the features might have been man-made.

Further research in the ensuing weeks revealed, however, that these features were not unusual, but common, and that they could develop in viruses such as SARS2 through natural processes. Andersen and others eventually concluded that a laboratory role in COVID’s emergence was implausible.

That conclusion was written into a seminal paper on the virus published in Nature Medicine on March 17, 2020, and titled “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2.” Its authors included Andersen, Robert F. Garry of Tulane University, Andrew Rambaut of the University of Edinburgh and Edward C. Holmes of the University of Sydney.

All four signed the complaint letter to Rutgers. They’re the four scientists Ebright and Nickels accused of fraud in their emails to me, based on the Rutgers scientists’ claim that the proximal origin paper was fashioned to serve what Ebright and Nickels assert was the authors’ and Fauci’s desire to downplay
Fauci’s role in funding virology research in China.

Ebright further accused Andersen and Garry of perjury, based on their denials at a congressional hearing in July that Fauci pressured them to advocate for the zoonosis theory in their paper.

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After the paper’s publication, the lab-leak hypothesis moved into the partisan political realm. Republicans in Congress cherish the notion that Andersen and his colleagues deliberately minimized a laboratory role at Fauci’s behest.

There is not a scintilla of evidence for that assertion, as Andersen and Garry made clear by cogently explaining at the July hearing called by conspiracy-addled House Republicans how the normal process of scientific research led them to the paper’s conclusions.

Last March, FBI Director Christopher Wray stated in an interview with Fox News that the bureau had concluded with “moderate confidence” that the virus had escaped from the Chinese lab, but he cited no evidence and didn’t explain its grounds.

The FBI’s assessment had been part of a survey of all U.S. intelligence agencies that largely contradicted the FBI’s position. In June, it was further contradicted by a report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which refuted claims that the Chinese lab had played a role in the pandemic.

That brings us back to Ebright and Nickels. Although insults and invective are hardly uncommon in exchanges over COVID’s origins, their contributions have often carried a remarkably noxious tone.

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The defense by both that they never compared the complainants to Pol Pot or Mengele or characterized them as murderers may be true as far as it goes. But it’s too clever by half. The complainants didn’t say in their letter to Rutgers that they themselves were necessarily the targets of Ebright’s and Nickels’ odious comparisons. Their complaint says the pair had “made comparisons of working scientists” — i.e., other scientists — “to historical war criminals and mass murderers.”

So let’s look at the record.

Ebright has repeatedly intimated that Fauci is a murderer, based on his view that his agency funded dangerous virology research in the Chinese lab that produced the pandemic. There is no evidence that any research the U.S. government funded in China produced the SARS-CoV-2 virus, or even that any such research at that lab was scientifically possible.

On Nov. 13, Ebright wrote of Fauci, “any person whose violations of U.S. government policies … resulted in 20 million deaths is, by any rational standard, a murderer.” It’s unclear what “violations” he was referring to.

In a June 27 tweet, Ebright described Fauci as “an octogenarian serially misfeasant, serially malfeasant, serially perjurious, former bureaucrat likely to face criminal charges after Jan 2025” (i.e., presumably assuming that Donald Trump would then take office again).

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On Dec. 23 he tweeted that the “only option” to “mitigate the negative effects” of the proximal origin paper was the referral of Andersen and his colleagues “for criminal prosecution.”

On July 10, 2021, Ebright responded with the following comment to a tweet that apparently had alluded to critics of the lab-leak theory: “Sociopaths will be sociopaths … See Mengele. See Ishii.” The latter reference is to Shirō Ishii, who headed Japan’s World War II bioweapons program, which has been blamed for the deaths of as many as 300,000 people.

On Sept. 5 and 6, 2022, Ebright summarized the case for the lab-leak hypothesis, which he tied to “labs conducting world’s largest research program on bat SARS-like coronaviruses.” He ended the thread with the phrase “The banality of evil” — philosopher Hannah Arendt’s description of the impression left on her by Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the Nazi program of Jewish genocide, whose trial in Israel she reported on.

Nickels, in addition to posting the Mengele-linked film clip, earlier this month tweeted “massive respect to … military veterans that have taken a stand” against scientists he asserted had lied about research “impacting national security.” He called the behavior of such scientists “treasonous” and he specifically named among those deserving respect, one Andrew G. Huff.

One day earlier, Huff, who labels the zoonosis theory a “lie,” tweeted a call for Fauci, Daszak and virologist Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina to be hauled before a military tribunal. Subsequently, he tweeted that his followers had voted in an online poll that if convicted, they should be hanged. He illustrated that tweet with a film clip of three people plunging to their deaths on a gallows.

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The ball is now in Rutgers’ court. The university says the complaint “will be forwarded to the appropriate offices for review.” It didn’t say what issues would be considered. But certainly a determination would be warranted of whether its faculty members’ actions conform to the school’s policy on free expression, which frowns on actions or behaviors that “threaten individuals or cause an injury to someone” or “harass, threaten violence, or intimidate others.”

Whatever the outcome is of any such inquiry, the scientific community is right to be appalled by Ebright’s and Nickels’ activities. There’s vast latitude in science for disagreement and debate, but calling one’s adversaries or critics criminals or traitors, or placing them in the same category as Mengele, Eichmann and Pol Pot? That isn’t scientific debate.

In the world of science, the reputations of Andersen, Worobey, Garry, Holmes and Rambaut are secure; their finding that COVID most likely originated in the wildlife trade has not only held up over time but also been validated by subsequent studies. The same is true of the other eight signatories of the complaint letter, and Fauci and Daszak (who are not signatories).

Ebright and Nickels? They may be a different story.

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Opinion: Most older Americans who need hearing aids don't use them. Here's how to change that

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Opinion: Most older Americans who need hearing aids don't use them. Here's how to change that

Having depended on hearing aids for nearly three decades, I’m astounded by the lack of Medicare coverage for devices that can solve a problem afflicting tens of millions of older Americans.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans over age 70 have some degree of hearing loss, and over half of those 75 and older experience impairment serious enough to be considered disabling. But most don’t wear hearing aids.

Because the legislation that created Medicare nearly 60 years ago specifically excluded hearing aids, those who rely on the program’s traditional coverage must pay for them out of pocket. That expense is among the chief barriers to wider use of the devices.

Age-related hearing loss impedes basic communication and the relationships that depend on it. Expanded access to hearing aids could therefore do no less than enable more older Americans to establish and maintain the social connections that are essential to a meaningful life.

Hearing loss is like an invisible, muffling curtain that falls in front of anyone speaking. Asking people to repeat themselves can yield irritated and hurtful responses. And it’s hopeless to ask a soft-spoken person to speak up. Sometimes it’s easier just to nod and smile.

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Many older people I know choose to avoid social gatherings altogether because they can’t hear well. Without hearing aids, I’d stay home too.

Hearing loss can harm one’s health in other ways. For example, I’ve written about the need for a comprehensive approach to reducing cancer risk at older ages, including preventive services such as colorectal cancer screening. But these services rely on conversations between patients and their healthcare providers. An older patient’s ability to hear and understand such conversations shouldn’t be taken for granted or ignored.

The Food and Drug Administration did improve access to hearing aids by making some of them available without a prescription in 2022, but the over-the-counter devices are inadequate for serious hearing loss like mine. My private health insurance, meanwhile, started covering hearing aids a few years ago, providing up to $2,500 for them every five years. One hearing aid alone can cost that much or more, however.

Despite its limitations, my private coverage for hearing aids is better than nothing, which is what traditional Medicare provides.

Hearing loss is more common among lower-income people and those without advanced education. The toll from noisy workplaces compounds age-related hearing loss for some. One analysis found that most Americans with a serious hearing disability can’t afford the typical price of hearing aids.

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Many of the older adults who can’t come up with these significant out-of-pocket expenses spent their working years in low-wage jobs that our country depends on. Denying them treatment for their hearing loss is a lousy way to treat people who gave years of service to our society.

Although some older adults with hearing loss won’t benefit from hearing aids, Medicare coverage for the devices might encourage more beneficiaries to get their hearing tested so they can get the treatment that’s right for them. And while Medicare coverage alone won’t address the stigma some people associate with hearing aids, the availability of newer, more comfortable and less obvious technology might win over some refuseniks.

Legislation reintroduced with bipartisan support last year would finally correct this glaring gap in Medicare coverage by removing the hearing aid exclusion from the law. There’s no reason to delay action on this any longer. Are our representatives listening?

Mary C. White is an adjunct professor of environmental health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, a Public Voices fellow at AcademyHealth in partnership with the OpEd Project and a former federal epidemiologist.

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Second human case of bird flu detected in Michigan dairy worker

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Second human case of bird flu detected in Michigan dairy worker

A second human case of bird flu in a diary worker has been confirmed in Michigan, state and federal health officials announced Wednesday.

The symptoms were mild, consisting of conjunctivitis. The Texas dairy worker who contracted the virus in March also came down with pink eye.

At a press call on Wednesday, Nirav Shah, principal deputy director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the finding was “not unexpected” and that it was a scenario “that we had been preparing for.”

He said that since the discovery of H5N1 in dairy cattle, state and federal health officials have been closely monitoring farmworkers and slaughterhouse workers and urging farmers and farmworker organizations to “be alert, not alarmed.”

Federal officials say they still believe the human health risk of bird flu is low; however, it underscores the need for people who are interacting with infected or potentially infected farm animals or birds to take precautions, including avoiding dead animals and wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) if there’s a need to be in close contact.

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Though a nasal swab from the person in Michigan tested negative for influenza, an eye swab from the patient was shipped to the CDC and tested positive for influenza A(H5N1) virus.

This is the third case of H5N1 reported in the United States. A poultry worker in Colorado was identified in 2022.

Although the symptoms in the three farmworkers in the U.S. have been mild, people elsewhere in the world have suffered more severe illness, including death. According to the World Health Organization, between Jan. 1, 2003, and March 28, 2024, there have been 888 cases of human infection from 23 countries; 463 were fatal.

In preparation for a more widespread outbreak, the CDC updated its guidance for PPE in dairies and issued a nationwide order for healthcare providers to be on the lookout for novel influenza.

On Tuesday, the CDC asked clinical laboratories and health departments to increase the number of influenza samples being analyzed “to maximize the likelihood of catching a case of H5N1 in the community,” Shah said.

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The US Department of Agriculture is also expanding its surveillance and support by providing $1500 to non-infected farms to beef up biosecurity, and $100 to producers who want to buy inline samplers to test their milk. The agency will also provide $2000 per farm to cover veterinary fees for testing, as well as shipping costs to send those tests to laboratories for analysis.

There have been no cases of H5N1 detected in California’s dairy herds.

Officials said ongoing analysis of the nation’s dairy supply suggests it is safe to consume, Despite the risk to human health being low, an official with the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response said it will make Tamiflu available upon request “to jurisdictions that do not have their own stockpile and are responding to pre-symptomatic persons with exposure to confirmed or suspected infected birds, cattle or other animal exposures.”

Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary of the preparedness agency, said it started the “fill and finish” process for approximately 4.8 million doses of vaccine “that is well matched to the currently circulating strain of H5N1 through the national pre-pandemic influenza vaccine stockpile program.”

She said the decision to get started on H5N1 vaccines was not a response to any heightened concern, but since it takes several months to fill and finish vaccine doses, the agency “thought it made sense given what we were seeing.”

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Gas stoves may contribute to early deaths and childhood asthma, new Stanford study finds

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Gas stoves may contribute to early deaths and childhood asthma, new Stanford study finds

Lung-irritating pollution created by cooking with gas stoves may be contributing to tens of thousands of premature deaths and cases of childhood asthma in the United States, according to a new study published in the journal Science Advances.

For decades, scientists have known the flames from a gas stovetop produce nitrogen dioxide, a pungent gas that can inflame a person’s lungs when inhaled. But for the first time, a team of researchers from Stanford University and Oakland-based research institute PSE Healthy Energy published a nationwide estimate of the long-term health consequences associated with cooking with natural gas and propane stoves.

Researchers concluded that exposure to nitrogen dioxide emissions alone may contribute to nearly 19,000 premature deaths in the United States each year. It has also resulted in as many as 200,000 current cases of pediatric asthma compared with cooking with electric stoves, which do not produce nitrogen dioxide.

Aggressive and impactful reporting on climate change, the environment, health and science.

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Stanford researcher Yannai Kashtan noted higher levels of pollution were correlated with the amount of gas that was burned. But pollution also accumulated at higher levels inside smaller homes.

“If you live in a smaller house, you’re exposed to more pollution, and that can lead to income and racial disparities in exposure,” Kashtan said. “In general, folks living in neighborhoods with higher levels of outdoor pollution also tend to have higher indoor pollution. So this environmental injustice extends indoors as well.”

The American Gas Assn., a trade organization representing more than 200 local energy companies nationwide, dismissed the findings as “misleading and unsupported.”

“Despite the impressive names on this study, the data presented here clearly does not support any linkages between gas stoves and childhood asthma or adult mortality,” the association’s president and CEO, Karen Harbert said in a statement earlier this month.

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The study is the latest examining the serious health effects associated with breathing fumes from gas stoves, which release planet-warming carbon emissions and a variety of air pollutants. In recent years, the popular household appliance has become a political hot-button issue as policymakers and regulators have weighed environmental impacts against consumer choice.

Many large cities in California, including Los Angeles, have moved toward phasing out gas stoves in newly constructed residences. Earlier this month, the California Assembly advanced a bill to the Senate that would require gas stoves to come with warning labels detailing the pollution and health effects that can arise from cooking with gas.

Gas stoves emit a variety of pollutants, including asphyxiating carbon monoxide, cancer-causing formaldehyde and benzene. The flame also creates nitrogen dioxide, a precursor to smog and a pollutant that can cause difficulty breathing.

Environmental groups say consumers should be notified about these pollutants and the potential harm they can cause.

“Gas stoves create pollution in our homes, increasing the risk of childhood asthma and other respiratory problems for our families,” said Jenn Engstrom, state director for California Public Interest Research Group. “However, this risk has largely been hidden from the public. Consumers deserve the truth when it comes to the danger of cooking with gas. Warning labels will give consumers what they need to make informed decisions when they purchase appliances for their homes.”

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Kashtan and other researchers had previously discovered cooking with gas stoves presented a similar cancer risk as inhaling second-hand cigarette smoke. They also found some gas stoves leaked contaminants even when the burners were off.

The effects are especially devastating to children, whose smaller and still-developing lungs need to take more breaths than adults, Kashtan said. Older adults, especially those with cardiovascular or respiratory illness, are also more vulnerable to pollution from gas stoves.

To alleviate indoor air pollution, experts recommend using ventilation hoods and opening windows while cooking,

Starting in 2008, California required new and redeveloped homes to have ventilation that could prevent pollution from building up indoors. But during their research, measuring emissions in more than 100 households across the country, Yannai said they found many kitchens didn’t have ventilation hoods at all.

Although the health effects of breathing these pollutants are clear, researchers still wonder to what degree these conditions could be reversible. As communities take steps to mitigate their exposure or transition away, he said we could soon see the results.

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“It’s never too late to stop breathing in pollution,” he said.

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