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In an interview with Minerva last week, the well-known Norwegian vaccine researcher and physical chemist Birger Sørensen argued that the novel coronavirus is not natural in origin.
The well-known Norwegian virologist Birger Sørensen and his colleagues have examined the corona virus. They believe it has certain properties which would not evolve naturally. These conclusions are politically controversial, but in this interview he shares the findings behind the headlines.
Together with his colleagues Angus Dalgleish and Andres Susrud – the latter in a data analytical role as statistician and data miner – Sørensen has written a series of journal articles that put forward arguments for why the most likely explanation for the origin of the coronavirus is a laboratory.
If such findings were confirmed, there could be political ramifications. Naturally, therefore, Sørensen, Dalgleish and their unpublished paper have been mired in controversy ever since Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of the MI6, endorsed their conclusions. The authors themselves suspect that the controversial conclusions and the heated debate may have made journals reluctant to evaluate their paper objectively. However, tons of scientific articles are rejected for any number of reasons.
By tracing the writing of articles, the contact between the authors and the journals, and reviewing the findings, this article aims to shed light on a troubling question for the scientific community during the Corona crisis: One the one hand, there is an overabundance of papers and findings of highly variable quality – some of which fuel conspiracy theories. On the other hand, the question of the origin of the Corona virus has become a fraught political question, with the Chinese government clamping down on independent research, and president Donald Trump claiming that the virus originated in a Chinese lab without producing any evidence to back up the assertion.
With the consent of Mr. Sørensen and his co-authors (henceforth: Sørensen and Dalgleish), Minerva has obtained a full print of the article, to be read freely by our readers – and by scientists, who may then discuss and dissect the paper.
It started out with something less controversial: Originally, the authors were engaged in analysis of the virus with the aim to create a vaccine. The discoveries that the authors claim to be relevant for determining the origin of the virus came as a by-product of this research.
In fact, Sørensen and Dalgleish have managed to get a paper on the corona virus peer reviewed and published, in Quarterly Reviews of Biophysics Discovery. This article, which is more closely linked to their vaccine development, deals with observations of the virus and the receptors that the virus can attach to in humans. Sørensen and Dalgleish do indeed believe that these properties indicate a lab origin for the virus. However, the article itself avoids any mention of this implication of the discovered properties.
Originally, the findings which are now published in Quarterly Reviews of Biophysics Discovery were part of a more condensed article, which included the lab origin hypothesis. To make this argument, the three have now instead written a second article, “The Evidence which Suggests that This Is No Naturally Evolved Virus”, that puts forward their arguments on why they believe the virus is likely to be a laboratory construct, by combining insights from the first paper with what is known from lab work on corona viruses.
However, this second article is yet to be accepted by a scientific journal – having been rejected at different times and formats by three leading journals. Sørensen states that he is presently in dialogue with other journals regarding publication. A third paper on a related topic also taken from the original argument, is yet to be submitted.
Before we move on, let’s take a look on some of the reactions from within the scientific community. Sørensen has received both severe criticism and partial support.
Professor Kristian Andersen at the department of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research, a medical research facility in California, was lead author on the article “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2” where he states that his “analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus”.
Andersen last week told Sky news that Sørensen’s and Dalgleish’s work was “complete nonsense, unintelligible, and not even remotely scientific – leading the authors to make unfounded and unsupported conclusions about the origin of SARS-CoV-2”. However, Andersen has not had an opportunity to read the second, unpublished article.
Minerva has, however, shared that second article with Birgitta Åsjö, a professor emerita in virology at the university of Bergen. She is puzzled by Andersen’s comments, and rejects the notion that Sørensen’s and Dalgleish’ work is unscientific nonsense. “Andersen is harsh, I don’t know why he’s so harsh. I don’t want to dismiss it completely”, she told Minerva in an interview.
Åsjö does not consider the article to contain conclusive evidence that the novel coronavirus has a lab origin, but adds that she considers the article to contain “interesting findings”. She is herself critical of some of the arguments presented in Andersen’s own article on the origin of the virus.
In particular, Åsjö is interested in Sørensen’s and Dalgleish’ findings concerning properties of a swine corona virus detected in connection with an outbreak among piglets in Guandong in 2016–2017, and its possible significance for the present SARS-CoV-2 virus. So far, the controversy seems to resemble other controversies between academics who rarely hesitate to describe rivalling theories in the harshest possible terms. Indeed, Sørensen and Dalgleish originally intended to publish their arguments as a stark critique of the article by Andersen et al in Nature and what they describe “as puzzling errors in their use of evidence”.
With this aim, Angus Dalgleish wrote a letter to the editor in Nature on April 2, requesting that journal to publish an earlier version of these arguments.
This article was rejected by Nature five days later, on April 7. Announcing the rejection, João Monteiro, chief editor in Nature Medicine, wrote to Dalgleish:
“While we appreciate that the points you have raised extend the discussion about the origin of SARS-CoV2 further our opinion is that the content complements other viewpoints that have been considered and published elsewhere, and therefore would be as appropriate for publication in the specialized literature. Please note that this is not a criticism regarding the importance of the matter or the quality of your analyses, but rather an editorial assessment of priority for publication, in a time when there are many pressing issues of public health and clinical interest that take precedence for publication in Nature Medicine, and limited space in the journal.”
Monteiro ended the email by encouraging Dalgleish to post his comments in one of “the accepted preprint repositories so that it remains visible and adds to the discussion about the origin of the virus.”
A clearly angered Dalgleish then wrote a response stating: “Thank you for your extraordinarily unhelpful replies. We can only conclude that the Nature editorial team does not understand that there is no scientific issue in the world at present more important than establishing with scientific precision the aetiology of the Covid-19 virus.”
After the first rejection by Nature, the authors approached another premier journal, Journal of Virology. However, by April 20, the first version of the paper had been rejected there as well. A few days later, this version of the paper was put to death by a rejection from bioRxiv, a non-peer-reviewed preprint repository. The stated reason for rejection was that the format of the paper did not conform to a normal, full research paper, with sections such as «Methods» and «Results».
The first iteration of rejections thus seem to fit into a typical pattern: Scientists with overconfidence not only in the quality of their own research, but also its relevance and significance, encountering journals with strict guidelines for format, each with its own mission and focus, and not very patient with professors that flaunt formal requirements.
Still, it seems that the actual arguments put forward might not have been properly evaluated, or could not be properly evaluated in this setting. And the findings, if correct, would seem to merit some sort of scientific attention. How to proceed?
After the initial round of rejections, the authors made several revisions to their original article, with the arguments sectioned into separate articles. The first article – an analysis of the novel coronavirus, for the purpose of vaccine design, without making the argument that the virus is engineered – was published June 2 in the Quarterly Reviews of Biophysics Discovery which is one of the top peer-reviewed science journals in the world.
Having achieved this publication, and presumably regained confidence that the scientific quality of the work was all right, Sørensen and Dalgleish again reached out to several of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals. Now they wanted to publish the second article, which builds on the first, already accepted article, and presents their arguments for why the coronavirus is of a non-natural origin.
However this article was again rejected by Nature on June 24 – without being sent out to peer review. The rejection, written by Senior Editor Clare Thomas, states: .
It is our policy to decline a substantial proportion of manuscripts without sending them to referees so that they may be sent elsewhere without further delay. In making this decision, we are not questioning the technical quality or validity of your findings, or their value to others working in this area, only assessing the suitability of the study based on the editorial criteria of the journal. In this case, we do not believe that the work represents a development of sufficient scientific impact such that it might merit publication in Nature. We therefore feel that the study would find a more suitable audience in another journal.
On July 1, Sørensen and his colleagues therefore challenged Science, another scientific journal to publish his article. Arguing for the publication of the article Sørensen wrote in an e-mail to editor Professor Holden Thorp:
“Now that Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has indicated that WHO will pursue a long-overdue inquiry into the aetiology of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which we welcome, we hope that you will support the very necessary debate that is now breaking in a second wave, following the publication of our vaccine. We are aware of significant responsible mainstream media interventions that are imminent. We are glad that this important question will now be addressed where it should be, in mainstream media and science journals, and not left to internet speculations, some of which have been both uninformed and therefore unhelpful, in our view.”
However, Sørensen was rebuffed also by Science the very next day. In an email to Sørensen, Professor Throp wrote that the article was unfit for publishing in Science, due to the fact that it criticizes work published in another journal.
Thank you for your interest. We do not publish papers that are critiques of works in other journals, so we cannot consider something along these lines.
On the rejections from the scientific journals co-author Angus Dalgleish told Sky News: “I thought the whole point of a scientific journal was that you put forward some speculation and you opened it up to debate”, said Professor Dalgleish.
Agree or disagree with Dalgleish’s description of what a scientific journal does, the new round of rejections complicate the picture from the first round. A major part of the argument was accepted by a respectable journal – the one that didn’t spell out the implications for the origin of the virus. The article that did spell it out, was now rejected twice, without peer review, and the second rejection on purely formal grounds that the authors vehemently contest, arguing that the paper in its current form is not first and foremost a critique of the Andersen et al. paper.
Minerva has asked both Nature and Science to elaborate on the reasons for why the articles by Sørensen and his co-authors have been rejected. Both Science and Nature have declined to comment on the specific rejection of the article as they view this information as confidential. However, Executive Director of the Science Press Package Meagan Phelan, replied that “Science receives upwards of 11,000 manuscripts per year, and the acceptance rate is 6%, so the vast majority of papers are rejected for one reason or another. Science’s acceptance rate for COVID-19-related submissions is even lower, at 4%. The journal continues to receive an exceptionally high volume of COVID-19-related submissions each week.”
At press time, the second article is still in search of a scientific journal willing to publish – or, at least, to subject it to peer review.
Correction: The name Quarterly Reviews of Biophysics has been changed to Quarterly Reviews of Biophysics Discovery