Distinguished professor smeared

Daily Telegraph’s claim of “Aussie link to China military lab” a tale of skewed facts and innuendo that preceded a campaign of violent threats against a world-renowned scientist

9 December 2020 | Marcus Reubenstein

Eminent Australian scientist, Professor Edward Holmes led the team at the University of Sydney which was the first in the world to release the genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2a and thus enabled the rapid development of COVID-19 diagnostic tests.

Whilst lauded in the global scientific community, a story in News Corp’s Daily Telegraph named Professor Holmes under a claim the China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was “involved” in his research.

Following that story Holmes became the target of an online smear campaign that included threats of violence, including death, against him and his research staff.   

In early May, Murdoch reporter Sharri Markson, co-author of the front-page story about Holmes, wrote a series of stories claiming that COVID-19 had leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Her source of information appeared to be an unclassified US State Department reference paper. 

This theory has been dismissed by at least nine major mainstream news outlets who had interviewed scientific experts.

As the Guardian noted, material relevant to the Wuhan lab leakage theory makes up only a small portion of the 15-page file, and it does not include any conclusive findings.

ABC’s Media Watch conducted a comprehensive analysis of Markson’s theories, citing numerous scientific sources who said her claims did not stand up.

In discrediting Markson, ABC host Paul Barry quoted from the research of Professor Edward Holmes

Seven days later, on May 11 Markson and colleague Ashleigh Gleeson filed their story naming Holmes in the Daily Telegraph under the headline “The Covid Files: How the Red Army oversaw coronavirus research”.

The subheading proclaimed that “China’s People’s Liberation Army has been involved in scientific research, co-funded by the Australian Government, into the origins of the coronavirus.”

In the article Markson and Gleeson write, “In an explosive revelation, a [University of Sydney] study relied on a key laboratory in an institute in the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy.”

The story went on to say that genome research at the University of Sydney had been conducted by “Professor Edward Holmes in conjunction with researchers in China, who received funding from the Chinese government”.

The University of Sydney has made it clear that Holmes’ research was conducted independently and that there was no funding from the Chinese government.

The Chinese connection

The main image of the Telegraph’s online story shows two Chinese scientists, professors Yi-Gang Tong and Wu-Chan Cao, posing in military uniforms, which would have left many readers to conclude their work was sinister in nature.

As is common for Chinese scientists, Cao and Tong hold ceremonial ranks in the Chinese Army but do not belong to a military unit. Both men are globally recognized researchers into coronaviruses, having conducted extensive work on Ebola and SARS.

Chinese scientists Tong Yi Gang and Cao Wu Chan, ‘linked’ to Wuhan lab, work 1,200km away in Beijing

In the image the pair are receiving a major national award for their research into the Ebola virus, protocol requires they wear dress uniforms on such occasions.

A second image shows the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but Professor Tong and Professor Cao do not work there but at the Beijing Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology, 1,200 kilometres away.

How Professor Holmes was set up

For two weeks leading up to the publication of this article, Markson’s stories in the Telegraph, often with follow-up interviews on her program on Sky News, pointed to numerous ‘links’ between the outbreak of COVID-19 and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

She had also appeared on Murdoch’s Fox News network in the US, telling host Tucker Carlson that Chinese scientists were “genetically modifying bat-like coronaviruses to make them even more deadly”.

By the time Markson’s piece on Professor Holmes appeared, her regular readers and viewers would have reasonably assumed that Chinese government scientists, either deliberately or through negligence, had unleashed COVID-19 from a laboratory.

Nine paragraphs into the “Red Army Virus Probe” story, buried under the line of ‘explosive’ revelations, Markson declares, “There is no suggestion that Professor Holmes’ own contribution to the research project was anything but independent, ethical and of the highest scientific standards.”

However, Markson goes on to refer to a research paper produced by Holmes, stating, “The Daily Telegraph can reveal that the “sequencing” and “virus isolation” on which the study relied was done by laboratories run by the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] in China.”

Comment was included from a spokesperson for the University of Sydney but that came at the end of story—by which time the damage to Holmes, and his reputation, had been done.  

Smear escalates to threats

In October Senator Kim Carr told a Senate Estimates committee hearing that Holmes had “been subject to death threats [and] his team have been subject to rape threats”.

A spokesperson for the University of Sydney said they did not dispute comments made by Senator Carr that Holmes had been subjected to threats.

Holmes has since been named NSW Scientist of the Year, for a large body of work including his research into the novel coronavirus. That award has been widely reported in academic journals and science publications, as a well as a feature length radio report on the ABC.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Kate Aubusson chronicled, in great detail, Holmes’ world-leading research into the coronavirus and that he’d been subjected to “unrelenting online attacks” that had continued for months after the Telegraph story appeared. 

No Murdoch publication reported that Holmes had been named Scientist of the Year. The Markson piece remains online.

When asked for comment Markson and co-reporter Ashleigh Gleeson refused to respond.