Li-Meng Yan (simplified Chinese: 闫丽梦; traditional Chinese: 閆麗夢) or Yan Limeng, is a Chinese ophthalmologist and virologist whose 2020 publications and interviews alleging that SARS-CoV-2 was made in a Chinese government laboratory have been widely disputed by the scientific community. Yan claimed in interviews that she became aware of person-to-person transmission of COVID-19 in late December 2019, and that she attempted to communicate the risks to her superiors in late December 2019 or early January 2020. She alleges that the Chinese government and the World Health Organization (WHO) knew about the person-to-person transmission of COVID-19 earlier than they reported or made public, and suppressed both her research and that of others.
|Born||1983/1984 (age 36–37)|
|Education||Central South University (Xiangya Medical College) MD or master's degree|
Southern Medical University PhD in ophthalmology
|Institutions||University of Hong Kong School of Public Health|
|Research||Influenza vaccine, Cell-mediated immunity|
In April 2020, she fled to the United States where she co-authored two preprint research papers,[a] published to the Zenodo platform on September 14 and October 8 respectively, presenting theories about the origin of SARS-CoV-2.
The September 14 preprint said that SARS-CoV-2 had not emerged naturally in a "spillover from animals", but had been produced in a laboratory. According to a scientific review by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, the September paper offered "contradictory and inaccurate information that does not support their argument". Four review articles published in the MIT Press criticised the paper as not demonstrating "sufficient scientific evidence to support its claims." Multiple prominent virologists, such as Kristian Andersen from Scripps Research and Carl Bergstrom from the University of Washington also called it unscientific.
Education and early career
She earned a PhD in ophthalmology from Southern Medical University and sources differ on whether beforehand she received an MD degree or a master's degree in ophthalmology from Xiangya Medical College of Central South University.
Her research includes the study of The inhibition effect of propranolol on the corneal neovascularization in an alkali-induced injury mouse model and the challenges in developing a universal influenza vaccine (2018).
In March 2020, the The Lancet published a three-paragraph-long paper entitled "Viral dynamics in mild and severe cases of COVID-19" that was co-authored by Yan. Four of the nine co-authors were from HKU, including Leo Poon and Malik Peiris, and the remaining five were from the First Affiliated Hospital of Nanchang University. The article dealt with viral shedding patterns observed in COVID-19 patients.
She also co-authored "Pathogenesis and transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in golden hamsters", published in Nature in May 2020 regarding transmission of the virus in hamsters. This paper was also co-authored by her now-former colleagues at HKU. The abstract of the paper states that SARS-CoV-2 has a "high nucleotide identity" to SARS-related coronaviruses detected in horseshoe bats.
Origins of SARS-CoV-2
Since at least February 2020, conspiracy theories as to the origin of the virus had been circulated on cable news and social media, including the idea that it had been manufactured in a laboratory. This was repeated by various US commentators. This hypothesis had been declared unlikely by several scientists, and a March 2020 article in Nature Medicine entitled "The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2" by five prominent microbiologists definitively stated that the virus had not been created in a lab. Shi Zheng-Li, a virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, said that the lab had never had such a virus, and the Nature Medicine article gives several reasons why the virus was likely to have arisen naturally. One reason given was that the RNA of an existing coronavirus is necessary to use as a "backbone" before genetic modifications, and there are no recorded viruses that could have been used as the backbone in the creation of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19). A co-author of the Nature Medicine article, University of Sydney biologist and virologist Edward Holmes published a statement in April 2020 that there was no evidence that the virus was manufactured in a lab, and that all evidence points towards its origin in an animal species. The RaTG13 virus held in the Wuhan lab came from a different province (Yunnan) from that where COVID-19 had first appeared, and "the level of genome sequence divergence between SARS-CoV-2 and RaTG13 is equivalent to an average of 50 years (and at least 20 years) of evolutionary change".
Yan's co-authored September 14, 2020, 26-page preprint research paper, said that—based on genetic evidence—SARS-CoV-2 had not emerged naturally in a "spillover from animals", but had been produced in a laboratory. The preprint—which did not undergo any peer review process—was posted to the Zenodo platform, an open-access repository where anyone can post their research. According to the paper's abstract, "SARS-CoV-2 shows biological characteristics that are inconsistent with a naturally occurring, zoonotic virus" and it could have been created in a lab in approximately six months. Yan said that "evidence of genetic engineering" has been 'censored' in "scientific journals".
Yan's preprint was affiliated with the Rule of Law Society, a political organisation founded by Steve Bannon and Guo Wengui.[b] According to The Daily Beast, the Rule of Law Society had not previously published scientific or medical research. Yan had previously appeared on Bannon's "War Room" podcast.
Three other researchers were listed as co-authors of the September 14 preprint, but the South China Morning Post (SCMP) was unable to find any prior work from them. According to CNN, a source said the three other researchers were Chinese and they used pseudonyms instead of their real names due to a fear of repercussions for their families in China. The use of pseudonyms was not disclosed in the paper. According to experts, it is highly unusual and generally discouraged for researchers to use pseudonyms due to a lack of transparency and accountability.
A week after its release, the September 14 preprint had "been downloaded [from Zenodo] more than half of a million times and received more than 700,000 views". In addition to citing many other unpublished pre-print papers, Yan's September 2020 pre-print cited online blogs and obscure web sites named "Nerd Has Power" and "GM Watch", an anti-genetically modified food website.
In an October 8 Zenodo preprint, Yan and three PhD co-authors claimed SARS-CoV-2 was an "unrestricted bioweapon" made by military research laboratories "under the control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government." The paper alleged "large-scale, organized scientific fraud" and criticized what they described as "the degree of corruption in the fields of academic research and public health", calling for individuals and organizations "who knowingly and collaboratively facilitated the CCP's misinformation campaign and misled the world" to be "held accountable". The paper supported an investigation of the WHO, scientific journals, funding agencies, and other bodies accused of contributing to the cover-up.
Yan, along with three colleagues, co-authored the November 2020 preprint "CNN Used Lies and Misinformation to Muddle the Water on the Origin of SARS-CoV-2", accusing CNN of lying in their coverage of her initial papers. In January 2021, Yan co-authored "Call for the WHO Team to Investigate the Pangolin Coronaviruses and the RmYN02 Bat Coronavirus", referring to the WHO's investigation into the origins of COVID-19.
Responses from the scientific community
Prior to the posting of the September 14 preprint, Yan had participated in a number of interviews, including with Fox News on July 10, in which she said that she had access to information about human-to-human transmission early on because of her work on a WHO project at Hong Kong University (HKU) in December 2019. A July 11, 2020 official online statement issued by HKU, confirmed that Yan had been a post-doctoral fellow at HKU, however, her "report does not accord with the key facts as we understand them. Specifically, Dr. Yan never conducted any research on human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus at HKU during December 2019 and January 2020, her central assertion of the said interview. We further observe that what she might have emphasised in the reported interview has no scientific basis but resembles hearsay." HKU's July 11 statement did not mention when and why Yan left the university. According to the SCMP, the director of HKU's School of Public Health, Keiji Fukuda, said in an internal memo to staff that none of the researchers named by Yan were involved in any cover-up or "secret research".
Immediately after the Zenodo preprint was posted, prominent virologists began to post rebuttals on Twitter, in what National Geographic described as a "firestorm". Immunologist Kristian G. Andersen, a specialist in communicable diseases and genomics for Scripps Research and co-author of the March 2020 article in Nature Medicine (see above), and Yujia Alina Chan, a postdoctoral researcher, both said the paper left out recent data related to coronavirus in pangolins and bats.
On September 15, Andersen said in a tweet that the "Yan Report" was "non-scientific", "false", and had ignored "data disproving their hypotheses." He said that it was "poppycock dressed up as 'science'", that used "technical language" impossible for non-experts to decode. The University of Glasgow's David Robertson said that it "just cherry-picked a couple of examples, excluded evidence, and came up with a ridiculous scenario." The virologists raised concerns that Yan's report ignored the large body of published scientific literature on coronaviruses in general and the origins of SARS-CoV-2 in particular. The report also "whipped up wild conspiracy theories" and wrongly accused scientists of "plotting with conspirators."
In their September 21, 2020 published response to Yan's preprint, four authors from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security said that her paper had not been submitted to a scientific peer-reviewed publication. They said that, "Yan et al refer to an extensive scientific literature providing "genomic, structural, and literature evidence" to counter the prevailing theory in the scientific community that the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is a natural zoonosis, emerging from animals, but they do not cite any references to support their claim—a crucial basic practice for any researcher."
As of early October, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) project called Rapid reviews: Covid-19 (RR:C19), which seeks out preprint papers and reviews them in an attempt to "prevent the dissemination of false or misleading scientific news" although it is "not traditional peer review" has issued four evaluations of Yan's preprint. All four reviewers rated the preprint as "Misleading" on the project's "Strength of Evidence Scale," the lowest-strength rating which is accompanied by the statement "serious flaws and errors in the methods and data render the study conclusions misinformative. The results and conclusions of the ideal study are at least as likely to conclude the opposite of its results and conclusions than agree. Decision-makers should not consider this evidence in any decision."'
Reviewers for the MIT Rapid Reviews: Covid-19 project who analyzed Yan's study issued the following statement jointly:
Given the far-reaching implications of the "Yan Report," RR:C19 sought out peer reviews from world-renowned experts in virology, molecular biology, structural biology, computational biology, vaccine development, and medicine. Collectively, reviewers have debunked the authors' claims that: ⑴ bat coronaviruses ZC45 or ZXC21 were used as a background strain to engineer SARS-CoV-2, ⑵ the presence of restriction sites flanking the RBD suggest prior screening for a virus targeting the human ACE2 receptor, and ⑶ the furin-like cleavage site is unnatural and provides evidence of engineering. In all three cases, the reviewers provide counter-arguments based on peer-reviewed literature and long-established foundational knowledge that directly refute the claims put forth by Yan et al. There was a general consensus that the study's claims were better explained by potential political motivations rather than scientific integrity. The peer reviewers arrived at these common opinions independently, further strengthening the credibility of the peer reviews.
According to Newsweek, several experts in evolutionary biology and infectious disease, including Jonathan Eisen and Carl Bergstrom, said the paper did not include new information, contained multiple unsubstantiated claims and had a weak scientific case. Columbia University virologist Angela Rasmussen said the paper was "basically all circumstantial and some of it is entirely fictional". For example the paper asserts that SARS-CoV-2 has a "unique" furin cleavage site in its protein structure "completely absent in this particular class of coronaviruses found in nature"; however Rasmussen says that many coronaviruses, including the 2012 MERS coronavirus, have these sites and that hence "This proves exactly nothing." Andrew Preston, a biologist at the University of Bath, said the “preprint report cannot be given any credibility in its current form”.
Yan's paper also stated that two strains of bat coronaviruses discovered in China, ZC45 and ZXC21, were "suspiciously" similar to SARS-CoV-2 and these strains could have been used as a template for a deadlier virus. The two strains differed by approximately 3,500 nucleotide base pairs. Several virologists, including Rasmussen, said it would be either inefficient or impossible to engineer a virus where 10% of its genome would have to be replaced. Craig Wilen, at the Yale School of Medicine, said that this kind of genome selection is nearly impossible.
For an article published on October 21, 2020, CNN had interviewed six experts from different institutions, including Rasmussen, University of Michigan's Anna K. Mapp, and Georgetown University's Daniel R. Lucey. All of them said that the methodology Yan had used was "flawed". They described the pre-print as "junk science", "leaps of logic" and "window dressing". Rasmussen said the report is deceptive and was written to spread "political propaganda", and that while her theories could not be completely ruled out, The "extraordinary claim...[shouldn't be made without]...extraordinary evidence", and that she had not supplied credible evidence.
Between July and August, Yan was interviewed by Fox News, Newsmax TV, and the Daily Mail. In her July 10, 2020 interview with Fox News, Yan said that she had worked on a WHO project at HKU in December 2019 where she researched the cluster of SARS-like cases in Wuhan, China, under the supervision of Leo Poon, the Head of the Division of Public Health Laboratory Science of HKU. Yan said that she had heard about human-to-human transmission of the novel disease on December 31, 2019, from one of her many contacts with the mainland China's medical professionals. Yan said that when she reported this to her superiors on January 16, including Poon and Malik Peiris, she was warned by her supervisor "to keep silent and be careful." In a July 13 episode of Bill Hemmer Reports on Fox News, Yan repeated her claims that the Chinese government and her superiors at HKU were aware of human-to-human transmission long before they announced it. She said they could have saved lives if they had made the announcement earlier. Yan said that she and her colleagues had an obligation to tell the world of their research given their status as a WHO reference laboratory. In both interviews, Yan said that she had fled China out of fear of retaliation for exposing what she had learned about the coronavirus. She said her intention for coming to the United States was to deliver her "message of the truth of COVID" and that she would have been "disappeared and killed" in China.
In a Fox News interview with Tucker Carlson, the day after the September 14 preprint had been posted, Yan said she believed the Chinese government intentionally released the virus. By September 16, Instagram and Facebook flagged posts of the interview on Tucker Carlson Tonight as false information about COVID-19, saying that they repeated information “that multiple independent fact checkers say is false.” PolitiFact said her statement on Carlson's show, that SARS-CoV-2 was created in a lab, was "inaccurate and ridiculous" and gave their strongest rating of "Pants on Fire".
On September 15, Yan's Twitter account was suspended, although the reason for the suspension was unclear. She had only four visible posts, one of which linked to the preprint paper. In an interview with Fox News' Tucker Carlson, Yan said her Twitter account had been suspended because "they don't want the people to know this truth". As of October 2020, Yan was back on Twitter.
During an interview with Yan on October 6, Tucker Carlson said "we are not endorsing your findings". Due to her allegations against the Chinese government, Yan said her mother was arrested by Chinese authorities. Carlson made no mention of the rebuttal of her work by Johns Hopkins.
An October 9, 2020 Media, Entertainment, Arts, WorldWide (MEAWW) report quoted University of Southampton's Michael Head, that the "conspiracy around deliberate release from a laboratory has been doing the rounds throughout the pandemic and has been rebutted several times." He added that "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 and thus there will be more death and illness than there needs to be."[unreliable source?]
Dissemination in Australia
In October 2020, the New Federal State of China movement, operating in Australia under the name Himalaya Australia, printed at least 35,000 pamphlets claiming to tell the "truth about COVID-19", and citing Yan's theories. They also promoted the use of hydroxychloroquine to prevent and cure the virus, claiming that high-ranking CCP officials had all taken it and all escaped contracting the virus. The pamphlet was widely circulated by letter-box drop across the country.
- During the coronavirus pandemic, the practice of publishing scientific preprints—early drafts of research findings that are not peer-reviewed—has increased in order to share findings that might have a public benefit, more rapidly. However, Yan's September 14 preprint explicitly claimed that, due to worldwide censorship, papers reaching her conclusions "can only exist as preprints or other non-peer-reviewed articles" and as of September 21 had not been submitted to any peer-reviewed scientific publication and in her October 8 preprint Yan reiterated her claims of censorship.
- Bannon and Guo, an exiled Chinese billionaire, had announced the launch of their nonprofit Rule of Law Society in November 2018, one of their two charities dedicated to investigating "Chinese corruption and financially support victims of the regime". According to Bannon, Guo has "valuable insider information" about the way in which the CCP handled the novel coronavirus, that "could help take down" the CCP.
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This is not traditional peer review. RR:C19 is trying to balance the need for rigor with the need for rapid responses.
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