The DARPA Letters

Why have several researchers with close ties to defense contracting been undermining the dissemination of peer reviewed research which looks at a lab origin and gain-of-function research?

Catch up on the first round of letters here, where the initial contact by this group of defense-connected researchers is explained:

“…shortly after our paper was published, a handful of random folks emailed us. My assumption initially and for months afterwards was that at least one of them had been an old colleague of my father’s, since I mean after you have your PhD for about 40 years you tend to build up a fairly long list of contacts.

However once a few months had passed and I thought about it, I wasn’t aware of my dad ever significantly interacting with a former Secretary of the Navy and Obama advisor directly attached to defense work, a federal global technology S&T researcher interested in engaging with China and who it’s hard to imagine hasn’t been extensively involved with defense programs, an MIT artificial intelligence and cyber-security wonk with extensive ties to the defense industry, and a scientist part of another team which denigrated my father’s career and said he never should’ve written a paper like ours also with extensive ties to DARPA and the defense industry.

And so as his email to them below recounts, their contact with has become even stranger considering what’s happened since, and what hasn’t happened. Instead of our ideas being embraced by the wider scientific community like I would’ve expected from my childhood, they’ve been marginalized and our voices largely ignored…”


Richard Danzig responded to that email chain below:

Saturday, Jan 23, 10:14 AM

Karl,

When I read your and your son’s paper I wrote to you about what seemed a mistaken description of a previous paper. You quite properly wrote back acknowledging the mistake. I haven’t written further because there doesn’t seem more that I can contribute. I am not a scientist, but rather simply someone with some expertise on national security questions who wants to understand what is happening in relevant domains of science and technology. As shown in my message, I copied several scientists who I knew were interested in this topic. They do not constitute “a group” and hadn’t seen my message before I sent it. I cannot speak for them. I have copied these others on this email and also included John Mallery who ably supervises the “biosecurity analysis” mailing list. As John has said he does not want these communications directly circulating on that list, I leave to him whether he wants to circulate this further. I hope this addresses your concerns about my original message and why you have heard no more (save for this!) from me. 

Sincerely,

Richard


Since all this seemed to do was dodge any sort of explanation, Dr. Sirotkin tried again below:

Sunday, Jan 31, 9:37 PM

Dr. Danzig, Dr. Kwik-Gronvall, Mr. Triolo, Dr. Leighton, and Mr. Mallery:

Dr Danzig, Your courtesy is appreciated, but not of the questions I’ve ask have been addressed, so apparently, I need to be more direct.

I’m including the bio-security mailing list in this distribution since there are unanswered questions here that go well beyond SARS2’s origins and affect National Security from the biotechnology perspective. Dr. Danzig, you sent the first email to a handful of people as well as a email list of anonymous recipients in what seemed to be an attempt to sideline our work and push aside questions about gain of function research – we should be able to answer to that same distribution, especially because in your follow up to that same distribution, you seemed to say we agreed we were mistaken in the context of pandemic influenzas viruses. But the only mistake was a missing citation, we never agreed that any of the conclusions were mistaken, nor have we seen any criticism of the logic and conclusion of our August 2020 Bioessays peer reviewed publication. A letter is in press that adds the citation, and goes into more signs regarding serial passage and this novel coronavirus.

And we address you along with everyone else, Dr. Danzig, because these questions don’t relate to granular scientific issues but instead are more ones of integrity and the common public good. By the way, for a non-scientist you really must have been following the scientific field closely both to spot our paper and notice it was missing a citation.

Due to the number of lives on the line, and that fundamental issues of scientific and professional integrity seem to be in question, I hope you can provide direct answers to the following questions which I’ve tried to make as clear as possible. Some questions only a few on the initial distribution will be able to answer, but I hope those on the mailing list will respond as well since these questions obviously relate to bio-security and go way beyond SARS2’s origins.

In my more than four decades as a practicing scientist I have never felt this sense of bewilderment and concern over the conduct of other professionals, and especially now in the middle of a pandemic that has no end in sight – to have the scientific community act with such apparent duplicitous intent, in a possible effort to secure their own access to billions of dollars of funding is truly disconcerting, a feeling I would expect to be shared by everyone who considers themselves a part of the wider scientific community.

Question 1:  What were the context of the discussions were that lead you to initially use the rather broad email distribution that you usedas well as the national security list? I also want to restate for this question that the missing citation did not cause any of our logic or conclusions to be compromised, it did not affect our analysis of the current pandemic, instead only provided a nice narrative parallel to it. However, you decided to contact us in the first place, and include others on that initial email distribution which also included a broad anonymous list, so out of professional courtesy and transparency I’m simply asking how the decision was made to contact us, with such a broad distribution list and then to avoid answering our questions? 

Question 2: At least two of you appear associated with the Johns Hopkins team which stated that I was unqualified to write a paper covering the origins of SARS2. Why did your team make that judgment? What made your group more qualified than myself when my experience includes teaching molecular virology, molecular biology, and performing nearly two decades of genetic engineering wet-work, and as a bioinformatics scientist I have much longer tenure in the field than anyone on that report’s author list. Why has the entire John Hopkin’s COVID-19 tracking unit been either pretending that our paper does not exist, or actively trying to undermine its credibility – when they’re obviously entirely aware of it, and how sound it is? To the point of not even citing us in their list of peer reviewed literature citations?

Question 3: How much more death is needed before the discussion around gain-of-function work is opened back up and the moratorium against it (or at the very least monitoring by those who do not have a conflict of interest) is reconsidered? And shouldn’t there be intense, independent scientific scrutiny of all gain-of-function genome-altering work that asks, not only: “What might be the benefit?” but also, “What can possibly go wrong?” We cannot help but wonder if the DARPA-funded Foundry , or work on the recent Apollo report, played a role in what appeared to be an attempt to discredit us, and if this distribution list has an interest in that work going forward, and is part of the efforts to minimize such moratoriums or safety monitoring?

I sincerely hope everyone on this list has National Security interests foremost in your priorities and we are wrong to be worried about your desire to continue the inadequately monitored gain-of-function work which puts humanity at such terrible risk.

Question 4: How is it that all of you are concerned enough about academic integrity to contact us about a missing citation, but have sat back and done nothing as our peer-reviewed work is appropriated in the popular press? And since this is so obviously a public health issue, do you believe that journalists should report on the peer reviewed science, or be encouraged to make their own opinions about what the state of the science really is?  This would not be an issue for me, if any honest detailed criticism of our paper at all was known to me, however since it is not – If academic integrity was at the heart of your initial contact with us, why have you been sitting back spectating as our ideas have been stolen and misrepresented to the general public at large by multiple mainstream outlets?

We look forward to your responses.

Karl Sirotkin, PhD


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