This is the story of how our inability to confront our racist history is fueling a right-wing misinformation campaign against our schools, resulting in contentious, partisan school board elections in district after district around the country.
School board elections tend to be low turnout, non-partisan events. But for many districts, this year is different. On Long Island where I live, one of those races is taking place in the Smithtown Central School District. Three challengers are trying to unseat the incumbents who are up for reelection on May 18th in a campaign unlike any school board election Smithtown has ever seen.
This was before vaccines and when the CDC was still recommending six feet between desks. The only way to achieve that was to have half the usual number of children in the classroom at any given time. The schools had moved from all remote learning at the beginning of the lockdown to the hybrid model last fall, just like the vast majority of schools in Suffolk County, but these protesting parents claimed that the board wasn’t trying hard enough to bring their children back full time. They did not view the decision as being in good faith. They claimed it was a conspiracy between the board and the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) to favor teachers over students.
This past spring, all students came back full time, with almost all teachers and staff being vaccinated and new CDC guidelines. But that did not quiet the protests or the spread of misinformation. They evolved from COVID to the right’s newest boogeyman, critical race theory (CRT). If you are not a consumer of Fox News and other right-wing media, where it has been a major focus for years, you probably never heard of CRT until recently. I know I had not.
Last month, Newsweek focused on states, such as Idaho, passing laws banning CRT from their schools. Below is an excerpt from that article:
Kendall Thomas, a law professor at Columbia University and co-editor of Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, told Newsweek: “CRT maps the nature and workings of ‘institutional racism.’ CRT challenges us to see that racial injustice in America is not, and has never been, just a problem of isolated instances of individual bias and private prejudice which we can solve by enacting ‘color-blind’ laws and policies.”
He added, “The right-wing weaponization of CRT aims to shut down a difficult but necessary conversation about race, racism and the future of democracy in America. The architects of these anti-CRT laws want Americans to stop talking about institutional racism, even if it means trafficking in the reckless politics of racial division they say they oppose.”
The Washington Post published a lengthy article this week about the CRT controversy under the headline, “As schools expand racial equity work, conservatives see a new threat in critical race theory.” It opens with the following sentence: “The nation’s reckoning over race has reached thousands of U.S. schools, and so, too, has a conservative backlash.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2021/05/03/critical-race-theory-backlash/
Michelle Goldberg, in a May 3rd column in The New York Times, entitled, “Why the Right Loves Public School Culture Wars,” wrote, “The Christian Coalition took off during Bill Clinton’s presidency, when the religious right engaged locally because it felt shut out of national power. Clearly some conservatives think that opposition to critical race theory could be the seed of something similar. Telling parents that liberals want to make their kids hate their country and feel guilty for being white might be absurd and cynical. It also looks like it might be effective.” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/03/opinion/public-school-culture-wars.html
I read all the articles. I understood what the right hoped to gain from weaponizing the fears of their base. But I still did not understand why CRT, in and of itself, was controversial. The country was founded on protecting slavery, a Civil War was fought over it and Jim Crow was a Supreme Court sanctioned system of apartheid. Of course, we have systemic racism. Is it better than it was? No one is claiming it isn’t. But to deny that systemic racism still exists in our institutions seems, to me, to require a willful blindness.
As Charles Blow, columnist for The New York Times explained in a column this week, entitled,” Is America Racist?”, “Some will concede the historical point and insist on the progress point, arguing that was then and this is now, that racism simply doesn’t exist now as it did then. I would agree. American racism has evolved and become less blunt, but it has not become less effective. The knife has simply been sharpened. Now systems do the work that once required the overt actions of masses of individual racists.” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/02/opinion/america-racism.html
One sign of just how charged this issue has become was my inability to convince anyone I spoke to about the Smithtown school board race to go on the record. People supporting the incumbent school board members only felt comfortable speaking to me on background. They were too afraid of being targeted if their names were used. People aligned with the challengers refused to speak to me at all.
When was the moment that the Smithtown parent protests morphed from focusing on COVID to the school board race and CRT? The earliest sign I found was a website called Save Our Schools that went online the end of last year. You might remember the Save Our Schools phrase from a movement a few years ago that supported higher pay for teachers and more equity in public education. This new SOS website had nothing to do with that movement, other than appropriating the name. It was filled with inflammatory rhetoric and accusations that sounded a lot like McCarthy-era fearmongering:
Critical Race Theory was polished in the 1950s and by the time the counterculture phenomena exploded in the 1960s with postmodernism’s entrance into the world’s philosophical framework in the 1970s, it had become a guiding manifesto for action by radical elements like the terrorists at the Black Panther Movement. Today, its contemporary offspring, Black Lives Matter (BLM) along with its symbiotic associate, Antifa, continue the “war of liberation”. https://saveourschools.me/knowledge-is-power/
I came across an earlier newsletter that was circulating on social media, but was no longer on the website. This one specifically tied the three school board challengers to the SOS website. One of the challengers, Stacy Murphy, is the parent who spoke during the 5 Days to Thrive protests. Below are screenshots of that three-page earlier newsletter.
The website and the newsletter were not the only sources online. Partisan groups started posting about it on social media, all of them spreading the same misinformation about CRT and the school district. They included: Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin, who represents Smithtown, and has announced he is running for governor of New York next year; a fringe group of the Smithtown Republican Party; and the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association (PBA), the police union.
It was highly unusual for any organization, other than NYSUT, to endorse school board candidates. It was particularly upsetting for some residents to see the police union get involved. One Suffolk PBA post went so far as to name a Smithtown teacher and labeled him anti-police because he had signed an online Black Lives Matter petition against having armed policemen, as opposed to security guards, in the school. The PBA used this one teacher as their example of the school’s war on police, which could be stopped only by voting for the three challengers.
I called up the Suffolk PBA and asked for the press office. I stated that I am a journalist with an online blog and I was working on an article about the Smithtown School Board election. I had two questions. Why was the police union getting involved and could you please take down the post that named the teacher? Given the climate, it felt dangerous to me. I was told that the teacher’s social media post was public and therefore fair game. He then said he had no comment for my article and hung up the phone.
I reached out to the three challengers’ campaign through their Facebook page and asked them for an interview. I posed the same question, asking why was the police union getting involved? They did not respond.
The Smithtown BOE tried to remain positive and stick with an upbeat campaign for the three incumbents running for reelection. I shared their virtual postcard on Facebook. The postcard features the incumbents’ accomplishments and the text that accompanied it reminded residents to vote on May 18th for a board that had shown their support for public education.
But by this time, the anti-CRT messages were going viral on social media. In public and private Facebook groups, heated discussions were taking place for and against CRT, even though there was no evidence that critical race theory was even taught in the Smithtown schools. At the recent school board meetings, the challengers’ supporters were loud and confrontative. It seemed to take the board, which had only just come back to in-person meetings, by surprise. Recordings of the meetings are on the BOE website. http://www.smithtown.k12.ny.us/boardofeducation/board_meeting_audio.
It became clear that the board needed to address the misinformation powering the challengers’ campaign head on. They released the following letter to all Smithtown residents, in both an email and on the district’s public Facebook page.
How astonishing that a school board needed to publicly explain what they were not doing. Will the letter be enough? There is one more school board meeting, on May 11th, for them to make their case to the public and for parents to ask more questions. The more people understand what is driving this challenge, the more they can make an informed decision. While Smithtown is a conservative-leaning community, a Republican stronghold, I highly doubt they want school board members influenced by misinformation and conspiracies making decisions about the welfare of the teachers and students in their school system.
And for the rest of us, we need to keep a close eye on this new right-wing dog whistle and how it is being employed. In 2009, the Tea Party ran a racially charged misinformation campaign against the first African American president and the passing of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Then, their dog whistles were “birtherism” “death panels” and “socialism.” They successfully rode that campaign back to power, taking back the House in the 2010, the Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016. I have no doubt that is the intent here.
In a recent letter to the editor, David Pappert, Andrew Sheridan, Rick Gagliardi and Kathy Malenick endorse Rep.Lee Zeldin for governor.
Let me remind readers that this is the same Lee Zeldin who joined with 125 other GOP members of the House to overturn the 2020 election. Even though there was no credible evidence of election fraud, even though 60 court cases on the issue were lost, even though AG Barr and the Supreme Court determined there was no election fraud, even though Trump’s own cybersecurity official claimed this was the safest election in history, Lee Zeldin parroted the Trump line and voted to overturn the will of the people.
Zeldin’s support of Trump’s Big Lie extends to the support he offered Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene when she was removed from committee assignments based on her hateful speech and her support of conspiracy theories. Zeldin’s defense was this: “I strongly disagree with Congresswoman Greene’s statements prior to her entry to Congress, which peddled bizarre conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic tropes, and perpetuated dangerous falsehoods about the September 11 attacks. They were indefensible, wacky, harmful, and wrong.”
Yet, he voted to support her.
In my view, any legislator who participates in the fabrication that Biden is not duly elected president of the United States is not fit to serve as Governor of New York. Any legislator who puts loyalty to a defeated and disgraced (twice impeached) former president above the rule of law is not fit to serve as governor. Zeldin is a Trump cult member, and as such, in my view, he does not even deserve to serve in Congress let alone become governor of New York.
I certainly hope the GOP comes up with a more worthy candidate.
Reprinted with permission. First appeared in medium.com here and in the bulletin.org here. Check out the comments at both of these sites.
Members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus arrive by car at the Wuhan Institute of Virology on February 3. (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted lives the world over for more than a year. Its death toll will soon reach three million people. Yet the origin of pandemic remains uncertain: The political agendas of governments and scientists have generated thick clouds of obfuscation, which the mainstream press seems helpless to dispel.
In what follows I will sort through the available scientific facts, which hold many clues as to what happened, and provide readers with the evidence to make their own judgments. I will then try to assess the complex issue of blame, which starts with, but extends far beyond, the government of China.
By the end of this article, you may have learned a lot about the molecular biology of viruses. I will try to keep this process as painless as possible. But the science cannot be avoided because for now, and probably for a long time hence, it offers the only sure thread through the maze.
The virus that caused the pandemic is known officially as SARS-CoV-2, but can be called SARS2 for short. As many people know, there are two main theories about its origin. One is that it jumped naturally from wildlife to people. The other is that the virus was under study in a lab, from which it escaped. It matters a great deal which is the case if we hope to prevent a second such occurrence.
I’ll describe the two theories, explain why each is plausible, and then ask which provides the better explanation of the available facts. It’s important to note that so far there is no direct evidence for either theory. Each depends on a set of reasonable conjectures but so far lacks proof. So I have only clues, not conclusions, to offer. But those clues point in a specific direction. And having inferred that direction, I’m going to delineate some of the strands in this tangled skein of disaster.
A tale of two theories. After the pandemic first broke out in December 2019, Chinese authorities reported that many cases had occurred in the wet market — a place selling wild animals for meat — in Wuhan. This reminded experts of the SARS1 epidemic of 2002, in which a bat virus had spread first to civets, an animal sold in wet markets, and from civets to people. A similar bat virus caused a second epidemic, known as MERS, in 2012. This time the intermediary host animal was camels.
The decoding of the virus’s genome showed it belonged a viral family known as beta-coronaviruses, to which the SARS1 and MERS viruses also belong. The relationship supported the idea that, like them, it was a natural virus that had managed to jump from bats, via another animal host, to people. The wet market connection, the major point of similarity with the SARS1 and MERS epidemics, was soon broken: Chinese researchers found earlier cases in Wuhan with no link to the wet market. But that seemed not to matter when so much further evidence in support of natural emergence was expected shortly.
Wuhan, however, is home of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a leading world center for research on coronaviruses. So the possibility that the SARS2 virus had escaped from the lab could not be ruled out. Two reasonable scenarios of origin were on the table.
From early on, public and media perceptions were shaped in favor of the natural emergence scenario by strong statements from two scientific groups. These statements were not at first examined as critically as they should have been.
“We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” a group of virologists and others wrote in the Lancet on February 19, 2020, when it was really far too soon for anyone to be sure what had happened. Scientists “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife,” they said, with a stirring rallying call for readers to stand with Chinese colleagues on the frontline of fighting the disease.
Contrary to the letter writers’ assertion, the idea that the virus might have escaped from a lab invoked accident, not conspiracy. It surely needed to be explored, not rejected out of hand. A defining mark of good scientists is that they go to great pains to distinguish between what they know and what they don’t know. By this criterion, the signatories of the Lancet letter were behaving as poor scientists: They were assuring the public of facts they could not know for sure were true.
It later turned out that the Lancet letter had been organized and drafted by Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York. Daszak’s organization funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. If the SARS2 virus had indeed escaped from research he funded, Daszak would be potentially culpable. This acute conflict of interest was not declared to the Lancet’s readers. To the contrary, the letter concluded, “We declare no competing interests.”
Virologists like Daszak had much at stake in the assigning of blame for the pandemic. For 20 years, mostly beneath the public’s attention, they had been playing a dangerous game. In their laboratories they routinely created viruses more dangerous than those that exist in nature. They argued that they could do so safely, and that by getting ahead of nature they could predict and prevent natural “spillovers,” the cross-over of viruses from an animal host to people. If SARS2 had indeed escaped from such a laboratory experiment, a savage blowback could be expected, and the storm of public indignation would affect virologists everywhere, not just in China. “It would shatter the scientific edifice top to bottom,” an MIT Technology Review editor, Antonio Regalado, said in March 2020.
A second statement that had enormous influence in shaping public attitudes was a letter (in other words an opinion piece, not a scientific article) published on 17 March 2020 in the journal Nature Medicine. Its authors were a group of virologists led by Kristian G. Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute. “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus,” the five virologists declared in the second paragraph of their letter.
Unfortunately, this was another case of poor science, in the sense defined above. True, some older methods of cutting and pasting viral genomes retain tell-tale signs of manipulation. But newer methods, called “no-see-um” or “seamless” approaches, leave no defining marks. Nor do other methods for manipulating viruses such as serial passage, the repeated transfer of viruses from one culture of cells to another. If a virus has been manipulated, whether with a seamless method or by serial passage, there is no way of knowing that this is the case. Andersen and his colleagues were assuring their readers of something they could not know.
The discussion part of their letter begins, “It is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus.” But wait, didn’t the lead say the virus had clearly not been manipulated? The authors’ degree of certainty seemed to slip several notches when it came to laying out their reasoning.
The reason for the slippage is clear once the technical language has been penetrated. The two reasons the authors give for supposing manipulation to be improbable are decidedly inconclusive.
First, they say that the spike protein of SARS2 binds very well to its target, the human ACE2 receptor, but does so in a different way from that which physical calculations suggest would be the best fit. Therefore the virus must have arisen by natural selection, not manipulation.
If this argument seems hard to grasp, it’s because it’s so strained. The authors’ basic assumption, not spelt out, is that anyone trying to make a bat virus bind to human cells could do so in only one way. First they would calculate the strongest possible fit between the human ACE2 receptor and the spike protein with which the virus latches onto it. They would then design the spike protein accordingly (by selecting the right string of amino acid units that compose it). Since the SARS2 spike protein is not of this calculated best design, the Andersen paper says, therefore it can’t have been manipulated.
But this ignores the way that virologists do in fact get spike proteins to bind to chosen targets, which is not by calculation but by splicing in spike protein genes from other viruses or by serial passage. With serial passage, each time the virus’s progeny are transferred to new cell cultures or animals, the more successful are selected until one emerges that makes a really tight bind to human cells. Natural selection has done all the heavy lifting. The Andersen paper’s speculation about designing a viral spike protein through calculation has no bearing on whether or not the virus was manipulated by one of the other two methods.
The authors’ second argument against manipulation is even more contrived. Although most living things use DNA as their hereditary material, a number of viruses use RNA, DNA’s close chemical cousin. But RNA is difficult to manipulate, so researchers working on coronaviruses, which are RNA-based, will first convert the RNA genome to DNA. They manipulate the DNA version, whether by adding or altering genes, and then arrange for the manipulated DNA genome to be converted back into infectious RNA.
Only a certain number of these DNA backbones have been described in the scientific literature. Anyone manipulating the SARS2 virus “would probably” have used one of these known backbones, the Andersen group writes, and since SARS2 is not derived from any of them, therefore it was not manipulated. But the argument is conspicuously inconclusive. DNA backbones are quite easy to make, so it’s obviously possible that SARS2 was manipulated using an unpublished DNA backbone.
And that’s it. These are the two arguments made by the Andersen group in support of their declaration that the SARS2 virus was clearly not manipulated. And this conclusion, grounded in nothing but two inconclusive speculations, convinced the world’s press that SARS2 could not have escaped from a lab. A technical critique of the Andersen letter takes it down in harsher words.
Science is supposedly a self-correcting community of experts who constantly check each other’s work. So why didn’t other virologists point out that the Andersen group’s argument was full of absurdly large holes? Perhaps because in today’s universities speech can be very costly. Careers can be destroyed for stepping out of line. Any virologist who challenges the community’s declared view risks having his next grant application turned down by the panel of fellow virologists that advises the government grant distribution agency.
The Daszak and Andersen letters were really political, not scientific, statements, yet were amazingly effective. Articles in the mainstream press repeatedly stated that a consensus of experts had ruled lab escape out of the question or extremely unlikely. Their authors relied for the most part on the Daszak and Andersen letters, failing to understand the yawning gaps in their arguments. Mainstream newspapers all have science journalists on their staff, as do the major networks, and these specialist reporters are supposed to be able to question scientists and check their assertions. But the Daszak and Andersen assertions went largely unchallenged.
Doubts about natural emergence. Natural emergence was the media’s preferred theory until around February 2021 and the visit by a World Health Organization (WHO) commission to China. The commission’s composition and access were heavily controlled by the Chinese authorities. Its members, who included the ubiquitous Daszak, kept asserting before, during, and after their visit that lab escape was extremely unlikely. But this was not quite the propaganda victory the Chinese authorities may have been hoping for. What became clear was that the Chinese had no evidence to offer the commission in support of the natural emergence theory.
This was surprising because both the SARS1 and MERS viruses had left copious traces in the environment. The intermediary host species of SARS1 was identified within four months of the epidemic’s outbreak, and the host of MERS within nine months. Yet some 15 months after the SARS2 pandemic began, and after a presumably intensive search, Chinese researchers had failed to find either the original bat population, or the intermediate species to which SARS2 might have jumped, or any serological evidence that any Chinese population, including that of Wuhan, had ever been exposed to the virus prior to December 2019. Natural emergence remained a conjecture which, however plausible to begin with, had gained not a shred of supporting evidence in over a year.
And as long as that remains the case, it’s logical to pay serious attention to the alternative conjecture, that SARS2 escaped from a lab.
Why would anyone want to create a novel virus capable of causing a pandemic? Ever since virologists gained the tools for manipulating a virus’s genes, they have argued they could get ahead of a potential pandemic by exploring how close a given animal virus might be to making the jump to humans. And that justified lab experiments in enhancing the ability of dangerous animal viruses to infect people, virologists asserted.
With this rationale, they have recreated the 1918 flu virus, shown how the almost extinct polio virus can be synthesized from its published DNA sequence, and introduced a smallpox gene into a related virus.
These enhancements of viral capabilities are known blandly as gain-of-function experiments. With coronaviruses, there was particular interest in the spike proteins, which jut out all around the spherical surface of the virus and pretty much determine which species of animal it will target. In 2000 Dutch researchers, for instance, earned the gratitude of rodents everywhere by genetically engineering the spike protein of a mouse coronavirus so that it would attack only cats.
Virologists started studying bat coronaviruses in earnest after these turned out to be the source of both the SARS1 and MERS epidemics. In particular, researchers wanted to understand what changes needed to occur in a bat virus’s spike proteins before it could infect people.
Researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, led by China’s leading expert on bat viruses, Shi Zheng-li or “Bat Lady,” mounted frequent expeditions to the bat-infested caves of Yunnan in southern China and collected around a hundred different bat coronaviruses.
Shi then teamed up with Ralph S. Baric, an eminent coronavirus researcher at the University of North Carolina. Their work focused on enhancing the ability of bat viruses to attack humans so as to “examine the emergence potential (that is, the potential to infect humans) of circulating bat CoVs [coronaviruses].” In pursuit of this aim, in November 2015 they created a novel virus by taking the backbone of the SARS1 virus and replacing its spike protein with one from a bat virus (known as SHC014-CoV). This manufactured virus was able to infect the cells of the human airway, at least when tested against a lab culture of such cells.
The SHC014-CoV/SARS1 virus is known as a chimera because its genome contains genetic material from two strains of virus. If the SARS2 virus were to have been cooked up in Shi’s lab, then its direct prototype would have been the SHC014-CoV/SARS1 chimera, the potential danger of which concerned many observers and prompted intense discussion.
“If the virus escaped, nobody could predict the trajectory,” said Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.
Baric and Shi referred to the obvious risks in their paper but argued they should be weighed against the benefit of foreshadowing future spillovers. Scientific review panels, they wrote, “may deem similar studies building chimeric viruses based on circulating strains too risky to pursue.” Given various restrictions being placed on gain-of function (GOF) research, matters had arrived in their view at “a crossroads of GOF research concerns; the potential to prepare for and mitigate future outbreaks must be weighed against the risk of creating more dangerous pathogens. In developing policies moving forward, it is important to consider the value of the data generated by these studies and whether these types of chimeric virus studies warrant further investigation versus the inherent risks involved.”
That statement was made in 2015. From the hindsight of 2021, one can say that the value of gain-of-function studies in preventing the SARS2 epidemic was zero. The risk was catastrophic, if indeed the SARS2 virus was generated in a gain-of-function experiment.
Inside the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Baric had developed, and taught Shi, a general method for engineering bat coronaviruses to attack other species. The specific targets were human cells grown in cultures and humanized mice. These laboratory mice, a cheap and ethical stand-in for human subjects, are genetically engineered to carry the human version of a protein called ACE2 that studs the surface of cells that line the airways.
Shi returned to her lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and resumed the work she had started on genetically engineering coronaviruses to attack human cells. How can we be so sure?
Because, by a strange twist in the story, her work was funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a part of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). And grant proposals that funded her work, which are a matter of public record, specify exactly what she planned to do with the money.
The grants were assigned to the prime contractor, Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance, who subcontracted them to Shi. Here are extracts from the grants for fiscal years 2018 and 2019. (“CoV” stands for coronavirus and “S protein” refers to the virus’s spike protein.)
“Test predictions of CoV inter-species transmission. Predictive models of host range (i.e. emergence potential) will be tested experimentally using reverse genetics, pseudovirus and receptor binding assays, and virus infection experiments across a range of cell cultures from different species and humanized mice.”
“We will use S protein sequence data, infectious clone technology, in vitro and in vivo infection experiments and analysis of receptor binding to test the hypothesis that % divergence thresholds in S protein sequences predict spillover potential.”
What this means, in non-technical language, is that Shi set out to create novel coronaviruses with the highest possible infectivity for human cells. Her plan was to take genes that coded for spike proteins possessing a variety of measured affinities for human cells, ranging from high to low. She would insert these spike genes one by one into the backbone of a number of viral genomes (“reverse genetics” and “infectious clone technology”), creating a series of chimeric viruses. These chimeric viruses would then be tested for their ability to attack human cell cultures (“in vitro”) and humanized mice (“in vivo”). And this information would help predict the likelihood of “spillover,” the jump of a coronavirus from bats to people.
The methodical approach was designed to find the best combination of coronavirus backbone and spike protein for infecting human cells. The approach could have generated SARS2-like viruses, and indeed may have created the SARS2 virus itself with the right combination of virus backbone and spike protein.
It cannot yet be stated that Shi did or did not generate SARS2 in her lab because her records have been sealed, but it seems she was certainly on the right track to have done so. “It is clear that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was systematically constructing novel chimeric coronaviruses and was assessing their ability to infect human cells and human-ACE2-expressing mice,” says Richard H. Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University and leading expert on biosafety.
“It is also clear,” Ebright said, “that, depending on the constant genomic contexts chosen for analysis, this work could have produced SARS-CoV-2 or a proximal progenitor of SARS-CoV-2.” “Genomic context” refers to the particular viral backbone used as the testbed for the spike protein.
The lab escape scenario for the origin of the SARS2 virus, as should by now be evident, is not mere hand-waving in the direction of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It is a detailed proposal, based on the specific project being funded there by the NIAID.
Even if the grant required the work plan described above, how can we be sure that the plan was in fact carried out? For that we can rely on the word of Daszak, who has been much protesting for the last 15 months that lab escape was a ludicrous conspiracy theory invented by China-bashers.
On December 9, 2019, before the outbreak of the pandemic became generally known, Daszak gave an interview in which he talked in glowing terms of how researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology had been reprogramming the spike protein and generating chimeric coronaviruses capable of infecting humanized mice.
“And we have now found, you know, after 6 or 7 years of doing this, over 100 new SARS-related coronaviruses, very close to SARS,” Daszak says around minute 28 of the interview. “Some of them get into human cells in the lab, some of them can cause SARS disease in humanized mice models and are untreatable with therapeutic monoclonals and you can’t vaccinate against them with a vaccine. So, these are a clear and present danger….RELATED:Uncanceled: Banned from Facebook, Trump reaches millions on TV
“Interviewer: You say these are diverse coronaviruses and you can’t vaccinate against them, and no anti-virals — so what do we do?
“Daszak: Well I think…coronaviruses — you can manipulate them in the lab pretty easily. Spike protein drives a lot of what happen with coronavirus, in zoonotic risk. So you can get the sequence, you can build the protein, and we work a lot with Ralph Baric at UNC to do this. Insert into the backbone of another virus and do some work in the lab. So you can get more predictive when you find a sequence. You’ve got this diversity. Now the logical progression for vaccines is, if you are going to develop a vaccine for SARS, people are going to use pandemic SARS, but let’s insert some of these other things and get a better vaccine.” The insertions he referred to perhaps included an element called the furin cleavage site, discussed below, which greatly increases viral infectivity for human cells.
In disjointed style, Daszak is referring to the fact that once you have generated a novel coronavirus that can attack human cells, you can take the spike protein and make it the basis for a vaccine.
One can only imagine Daszak’s reaction when he heard of the outbreak of the epidemic in Wuhan a few days later. He would have known better than anyone the Wuhan Institute’s goal of making bat coronaviruses infectious to humans, as well as the weaknesses in the institute’s defense against their own researchers becoming infected.
But instead of providing public health authorities with the plentiful information at his disposal, he immediately launched a public relations campaign to persuade the world that the epidemic couldn’t possibly have been caused by one of the institute’s souped-up viruses. “The idea that this virus escaped from a lab is just pure baloney. It’s simply not true,” he declared in an April 2020 interview.
The safety arrangements at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Daszak was possibly unaware of, or perhaps he knew all too well, the long history of viruses escaping from even the best run laboratories. The smallpox virus escaped three times from labs in England in the 1960’s and 1970’s, causing 80 cases and 3 deaths. Dangerous viruses have leaked out of labs almost every year since. Coming to more recent times, the SARS1 virus has proved a true escape artist, leaking from laboratories in Singapore, Taiwan, and no less than four times from the Chinese National Institute of Virology in Beijing.
One reason for SARS1 being so hard to handle is that there were no vaccines available to protect laboratory workers. As Daszak mentioned in the December 19 interview quoted above, the Wuhan researchers too had been unable to develop vaccines against the coronaviruses they had designed to infect human cells. They would have been as defenseless against the SARS2 virus, if it were generated in their lab, as their Beijing colleagues were against SARS1.
A second reason for the severe danger of novel coronaviruses has to do with the required levels of lab safety. There are four degrees of safety, designated BSL1 to BSL4, with BSL4 being the most restrictive and designed for deadly pathogens like the Ebola virus.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology had a new BSL4 lab, but its state of readiness considerably alarmed the State Department inspectors who visited it from the Beijing embassy in 2018. “The new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory,” the inspectors wrote in a cable of January 19, 2018.
The real problem, however, was not the unsafe state of the Wuhan BSL4 lab but the fact that virologists worldwide don’t like working in BSL4 conditions. You have to wear a space suit, do operations in closed cabinets, and accept that everything will take twice as long. So the rules assigning each kind of virus to a given safety level were laxer than some might think was prudent.
Before 2020, the rules followed by virologists in China and elsewhere required that experiments with the SARS1 and MERS viruses be conducted in BSL3 conditions. But all other bat coronaviruses could be studied in BSL2, the next level down. BSL2 requires taking fairly minimal safety precautions, such as wearing lab coats and gloves, not sucking up liquids in a pipette, and putting up biohazard warning signs. Yet a gain-of-function experiment conducted in BSL2 might produce an agent more infectious than either SARS1 or MERS. And if it did, then lab workers would stand a high chance of infection, especially if unvaccinated.
Much of Shi’s work on gain-of-function in coronaviruses was performed at the BSL2 safety level, as is stated in her publications and other documents. She has said in an interview with Science magazine that “[t]he coronavirus research in our laboratory is conducted in BSL-2 or BSL-3 laboratories.”
“It is clear that some or all of this work was being performed using a biosafety standard — biosafety level 2, the biosafety level of a standard US dentist’s office — that would pose an unacceptably high risk of infection of laboratory staff upon contact with a virus having the transmission properties of SARS-CoV-2,” Ebright says.
“It also is clear,” he adds, “that this work never should have been funded and never should have been performed.”
This is a view he holds regardless of whether or not the SARS2 virus ever saw the inside of a lab.
Concern about safety conditions at the Wuhan lab was not, it seems, misplaced. According to a fact sheet issued by the State Department on January 21, 2021, “The U.S. government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”
David Asher, a fellow of the Hudson Institute and former consultant to the State Department, provided more detail about the incident at a seminar. Knowledge of the incident came from a mix of public information and “some high end information collected by our intelligence community,” he said. Three people working at a BSL3 lab at the institute fell sick within a week of each other with severe symptoms that required hospitalization. This was “the first known cluster that we’re aware of, of victims of what we believe to be COVID-19.” Influenza could not completely be ruled out but seemed unlikely in the circumstances, he said.
Comparing the rival scenarios of SARS2 origin. The evidence above adds up to a serious case that the SARS2 virus could have been created in a lab, from which it then escaped. But the case, however substantial, falls short of proof. Proof would consist of evidence from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or related labs in Wuhan, that SARS2 or a predecessor virus was under development there. For lack of access to such records, another approach is to take certain salient facts about the SARS2 virus and ask how well each is explained by the two rival scenarios of origin, those of natural emergence and lab escape. Here are four tests of the two hypotheses. A couple have some technical detail, but these are among the most persuasive for those who may care to follow the argument.
1)The place of origin. Start with geography. The two closest known relatives of the SARS2 virus were collected from bats living in caves in Yunnan, a province of southern China. If the SARS2 virus had first infected people living around the Yunnan caves, that would strongly support the idea that the virus had spilled over to people naturally. But this isn’t what happened. The pandemic broke out 1,500 kilometers away, in Wuhan.
Beta-coronaviruses, the family of bat viruses to which SARS2 belongs, infect the horseshoe bat Rhinolophus affinis, which ranges across southern China. The bats’ range is 50 kilometers, so it’s unlikely that any made it to Wuhan. In any case, the first cases of the COVID-19 pandemic probably occurred in September, when temperatures in Hubei province are already cold enough to send bats into hibernation.
What if the bat viruses infected some intermediate host first? You would need a longstanding population of bats in frequent proximity with an intermediate host, which in turn must often cross paths with people. All these exchanges of virus must take place somewhere outside Wuhan, a busy metropolis which so far as is known is not a natural habitat of Rhinolophus bat colonies. The infected person (or animal) carrying this highly transmissible virus must have traveled to Wuhan without infecting anyone else. No one in his or her family got sick. If the person jumped on a train to Wuhan, no fellow passengers fell ill.
It’s a stretch, in other words, to get the pandemic to break out naturally outside Wuhan and then, without leaving any trace, to make its first appearance there.
For the lab escape scenario, a Wuhan origin for the virus is a no-brainer. Wuhan is home to China’s leading center of coronavirus research where, as noted above, researchers were genetically engineering bat coronaviruses to attack human cells. They were doing so under the minimal safety conditions of a BSL2 lab. If a virus with the unexpected infectiousness of SARS2 had been generated there, its escape would be no surprise.
“When I first saw the furin cleavage site in the viral sequence, with its arginine codons, I said to my wife it was the smoking gun for the origin of the virus,” said David Baltimore, an eminent virologist and former president of the California Institute of Technology, often known as CalTech. “These features make a powerful challenge to the idea of a natural origin for SARS2,” he said. (1)
2)Natural history and evolution. The initial location of the pandemic is a small part of a larger problem, that of its natural history. Viruses don’t just make one time jumps from one species to another. The coronavirus spike protein, adapted to attack bat cells, needs repeated jumps to another species, most of which fail, before it gains a lucky mutation. Mutation — a change in one of its RNA units — causes a different amino acid unit to be incorporated into its spike protein and makes the spike protein better able to attack the cells of some other species.
Through several more such mutation-driven adjustments, the virus adapts to its new host, say some animal with which bats are in frequent contact. The whole process then resumes as the virus moves from this intermediate host to people.
In the case of SARS1, researchers have documented the successive changes in its spike protein as the virus evolved step by step into a dangerous pathogen. After it had gotten from bats into civets, there were six further changes in its spike protein before it became a mild pathogen in people. After a further 14 changes, the virus was much better adapted to humans, and with a further four, the epidemic took off.
But when you look for the fingerprints of a similar transition in SARS2, a strange surprise awaits. The virus has changed hardly at all, at least until recently. From its very first appearance, it was well adapted to human cells. Researchers led by Alina Chan of the Broad Institute compared SARS2 with late stage SARS1, which by then was well adapted to human cells, and found that the two viruses were similarly well adapted. “By the time SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in late 2019, it was already pre-adapted to human transmission to an extent similar to late epidemic SARS-CoV,” they wrote.
Even those who think lab origin unlikely agree that SARS2 genomes are remarkably uniform. Baric writes that “early strains identified in Wuhan, China, showed limited genetic diversity, which suggests that the virus may have been introduced from a single source.”
A single source would of course be compatible with lab escape, less so with the massive variation and selection which is evolution’s hallmark way of doing business.
The uniform structure of SARS2 genomes gives no hint of any passage through an intermediate animal host, and no such host has been identified in nature.
Proponents of natural emergence suggest that SARS2 incubated in a yet-to-be found human population before gaining its special properties. Or that it jumped to a host animal outside China.
All these conjectures are possible, but strained. Proponents of a lab leak have a simpler explanation. SARS2 was adapted to human cells from the start because it was grown in humanized mice or in lab cultures of human cells, just as described in Daszak’s grant proposal. Its genome shows little diversity because the hallmark of lab cultures is uniformity.
Proponents of laboratory escape joke that of course the SARS2 virus infected an intermediary host species before spreading to people, and that they have identified it — a humanized mouse from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
3)The furin cleavage site. The furin cleavage site is a minute part of the virus’s anatomy but one that exerts great influence on its infectivity. It sits in the middle of the SARS2 spike protein. It also lies at the heart of the puzzle of where the virus came from.
The spike protein has two sub-units with different roles. The first, called S1, recognizes the virus’s target, a protein called angiotensin converting enzyme-2 (or ACE2) which studs the surface of cells lining the human airways. The second, S2, helps the virus, once anchored to the cell, to fuse with the cell’s membrane. After the virus’s outer membrane has coalesced with that of the stricken cell, the viral genome is injected into the cell, hijacks its protein-making machinery and forces it to generate new viruses.
But this invasion cannot begin until the S1 and S2 subunits have been cut apart. And there, right at the S1/S2 junction, is the furin cleavage site that ensures the spike protein will be cleaved in exactly the right place.
The virus, a model of economic design, does not carry its own cleaver. It relies on the cell to do the cleaving for it. Human cells have a protein cutting tool on their surface known as furin. Furin will cut any protein chain that carries its signature target cutting site. This is the sequence of amino acid units proline-arginine-arginine-alanine, or PRRA in the code that refers to each amino acid by a letter of the alphabet. PRRA is the amino acid sequence at the core of SARS2’s furin cleavage site.
Viruses have all kinds of clever tricks, so why does the furin cleavage site stand out? Because of all known SARS-related beta-coronaviruses, only SARS2 possesses a furin cleavage site. All the other viruses have their S2 unit cleaved at a different site and by a different mechanism.
How then did SARS2 acquire its furin cleavage site? Either the site evolved naturally, or it was inserted by researchers at the S1/S2 junction in a gain-of-function experiment.
Consider natural origin first. Two ways viruses evolve are by mutation and by recombination. Mutation is the process of random change in DNA (or RNA for coronaviruses) that usually results in one amino acid in a protein chain being switched for another. Many of these changes harm the virus but natural selection retains the few that do something useful. Mutation is the process by which the SARS1 spike protein gradually switched its preferred target cells from those of bats to civets, and then to humans.
Mutation seems a less likely way for SARS2’s furin cleavage site to be generated, even though it can’t completely be ruled out. The site’s four amino acid units are all together, and all at just the right place in the S1/S2 junction. Mutation is a random process triggered by copying errors (when new viral genomes are being generated) or by chemical decay of genomic units. So it typically affects single amino acids at different spots in a protein chain. A string of amino acids like that of the furin cleavage site is much more likely to be acquired all together through a quite different process known as recombination.
Recombination is an inadvertent swapping of genomic material that occurs when two viruses happen to invade the same cell, and their progeny are assembled with bits and pieces of RNA belonging to the other. Beta-coronaviruses will only combine with other beta-coronaviruses but can acquire, by recombination, almost any genetic element present in the collective genomic pool. What they cannot acquire is an element the pool does not possess. And no known SARS-related beta-coronavirus, the class to which SARS2 belongs, possesses a furin cleavage site.
Proponents of natural emergence say SARS2 could have picked up the site from some as yet unknown beta-coronavirus. But bat SARS-related beta-coronaviruses evidently don’t need a furin cleavage site to infect bat cells, so there’s no great likelihood that any in fact possesses one, and indeed none has been found so far.
The proponents’ next argument is that SARS2 acquired its furin cleavage site from people. A predecessor of SARS2 could have been circulating in the human population for months or years until at some point it acquired a furin cleavage site from human cells. It would then have been ready to break out as a pandemic.
If this is what happened, there should be traces in hospital surveillance records of the people infected by the slowly evolving virus. But none has so far come to light. According to the WHO report on the origins of the virus, the sentinel hospitals in Hubei province, home of Wuhan, routinely monitor influenza-like illnesses and “no evidence to suggest substantial SARSCoV-2 transmission in the months preceding the outbreak in December was observed.”
So it’s hard to explain how the SARS2 virus picked up its furin cleavage site naturally, whether by mutation or recombination.
That leaves a gain-of-function experiment. For those who think SARS2 may have escaped from a lab, explaining the furin cleavage site is no problem at all. “Since 1992 the virology community has known that the one sure way to make a virus deadlier is to give it a furin cleavage site at the S1/S2 junction in the laboratory,” writes Steven Quay, a biotech entrepreneur interested in the origins of SARS2. “At least 11 gain-of-function experiments, adding a furin site to make a virus more infective, are published in the open literature, including [by] Dr. Zhengli Shi, head of coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
4)A question of codons. There’s another aspect of the furin cleavage site that narrows the path for a natural emergence origin even further.
As everyone knows (or may at least recall from high school), the genetic code uses three units of DNA to specify each amino acid unit of a protein chain. When read in groups of 3, the 4 different kinds of DNA can specify 4 x 4 x 4 or 64 different triplets, or codons as they are called. Since there are only 20 kinds of amino acid, there are more than enough codons to go around, allowing some amino acids to be specified by more than one codon. The amino acid arginine, for instance, can be designated by any of the six codons CGU, CGC, CGA, CGG, AGA or AGG, where A, U, G and C stand for the four different kinds of unit in RNA.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Different organisms have different codon preferences. Human cells like to designate arginine with the codons CGT, CGC or CGG. But CGG is coronavirus’s least popular codon for arginine. Keep that in mind when looking at how the amino acids in the furin cleavage site are encoded in the SARS2 genome.
Now the functional reason why SARS2 has a furin cleavage site, and its cousin viruses don’t, can be seen by lining up (in a computer) the string of nearly 30,000 nucleotides in its genome with those of its cousin coronaviruses, of which the closest so far known is one called RaTG13. Compared with RaTG13, SARS2 has a 12-nucleotide insert right at the S1/S2 junction. The insert is the sequence T-CCT-CGG-CGG-GC. The CCT codes for proline, the two CGG’s for two arginines, and the GC is the beginning of a GCA codon that codes for alanine.
There are several curious features about this insert but the oddest is that of the two side-by-side CGG codons. Only 5 percent of SARS2’s arginine codons are CGG, and the double codon CGG-CGG has not been found in any other beta-coronavirus. So how did SARS2 acquire a pair of arginine codons that are favored by human cells but not by coronaviruses?
Proponents of natural emergence have an up-hill task to explain all the features of SARS2’s furin cleavage site. They have to postulate a recombination event at a site on the virus’s genome where recombinations are rare, and the insertion of a 12-nucleotide sequence with a double arginine codon unknown in the beta-coronavirus repertoire, at the only site in the genome that would significantly expand the virus’s infectivity.RELATED:Why choose a career in art over nuclear policy? The money
“Yes, but your wording makes this sound unlikely — viruses are specialists at unusual events,” is the riposte of David L. Robertson, a virologist at the University of Glasgow who regards lab escape as a conspiracy theory. “Recombination is naturally very, very frequent in these viruses, there are recombination breakpoints in the spike protein and these codons appear unusual exactly because we’ve not sampled enough.”
Robertson is correct that evolution is always producing results that may seem unlikely but in fact are not. Viruses can generate untold numbers of variants but we see only the one-in-a-billion that natural selection picks for survival. But this argument could be pushed too far. For instance, any result of a gain-of-function experiment could be explained as one that evolution would have arrived at in time. And the numbers game can be played the other way. For the furin cleavage site to arise naturally in SARS2, a chain of events has to happen, each of which is quite unlikely for the reasons given above. A long chain with several improbable steps is unlikely to ever be completed.
For the lab escape scenario, the double CGG codon is no surprise. The human-preferred codon is routinely used in labs. So anyone who wanted to insert a furin cleavage site into the virus’s genome would synthesize the PRRA-making sequence in the lab and would be likely to use CGG codons to do so.
A third scenario of origin. There’s a variation on the natural emergence scenario that’s worth considering. This is the idea that SARS2 jumped directly from bats to humans, without going through an intermediate host as SARS1 and MERS did. A leading advocate is the virologist David Robertson who notes that SARS2 can attack several other species besides humans. He believes the virus evolved a generalist capability while still in bats. Because the bats it infects are widely distributed in southern and central China, the virus had ample opportunity to jump to people, even though it seems to have done so on only one known occasion. Robertson’s thesis explains why no one has so far found a trace of SARS2 in any intermediate host or in human populations surveilled before December 2019. It would also explain the puzzling fact that SARS2 has not changed since it first appeared in humans — it didn’t need to because it could already attack human cells efficiently.
One problem with this idea, though, is that if SARS2 jumped from bats to people in a single leap and hasn’t changed much since, it should still be good at infecting bats. And it seems it isn’t.
“Tested bat species are poorly infected by SARS-CoV-2 and they are therefore unlikely to be the direct source for human infection,” write a scientific group skeptical of natural emergence.
Still, Robertson may be onto something. The bat coronaviruses of the Yunnan caves can infect people directly. In April 2012 six miners clearing bat guano from the Mojiang mine contracted severe pneumonia with COVID-19-like symptoms and three eventually died. A virus isolated from the Mojiang mine, called RaTG13, is still the closest known relative of SARS2. Much mystery surrounds the origin, reporting and strangely low affinity of RaTG13 for bat cells, as well as the nature of 8 similar viruses that Shi reports she collected at the same time but has not yet published despite their great relevance to the ancestry of SARS2. But all that is a story for another time. The point here is that bat viruses can infect people directly, though only in special conditions.
So who else, besides miners excavating bat guano, comes into particularly close contact with bat coronaviruses? Well, coronavirus researchers do. Shi says she and her group collected more than 1,300 bat samples during some eight visits to the Mojiang cave between 2012 and 2015, and there were doubtless many expeditions to other Yunnan caves.
Imagine the researchers making frequent trips from Wuhan to Yunnan and back, stirring up bat guano in dark caves and mines, and now you begin to see a possible missing link between the two places. Researchers could have gotten infected during their collecting trips, or while working with the new viruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The virus that escaped from the lab would have been a natural virus, not one cooked up by gain of function.
The direct-from-bats thesis is a chimera between the natural emergence and lab escape scenarios. It’s a possibility that can’t be dismissed. But against it are the facts that 1) both SARS2 and RaTG13 seem to have only feeble affinity for bat cells, so one can’t be fully confident that either ever saw the inside of a bat; and 2) the theory is no better than the natural emergence scenario at explaining how SARS2 gained its furin cleavage site, or why the furin cleavage site is determined by human-preferred arginine codons instead of by the bat-preferred codons.
Where we are so far. Neither the natural emergence nor the lab escape hypothesis can yet be ruled out. There is still no direct evidence for either. So no definitive conclusion can be reached.
That said, the available evidence leans more strongly in one direction than the other. Readers will form their own opinion. But it seems to me that proponents of lab escape can explain all the available facts about SARS2 considerably more easily than can those who favor natural emergence.
It’s documented that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were doing gain-of-function experiments designed to make coronaviruses infect human cells and humanized mice. This is exactly the kind of experiment from which a SARS2-like virus could have emerged. The researchers were not vaccinated against the viruses under study, and they were working in the minimal safety conditions of a BSL2 laboratory. So escape of a virus would not be at all surprising. In all of China, the pandemic broke out on the doorstep of the Wuhan institute. The virus was already well adapted to humans, as expected for a virus grown in humanized mice. It possessed an unusual enhancement, a furin cleavage site, which is not possessed by any other known SARS-related beta-coronavirus, and this site included a double arginine codon also unknown among beta-coronaviruses. What more evidence could you want, aside from the presently unobtainable lab records documenting SARS2’s creation?
Proponents of natural emergence have a rather harder story to tell. The plausibility of their case rests on a single surmise, the expected parallel between the emergence of SARS2 and that of SARS1 and MERS. But none of the evidence expected in support of such a parallel history has yet emerged. No one has found the bat population that was the source of SARS2, if indeed it ever infected bats. No intermediate host has presented itself, despite an intensive search by Chinese authorities that included the testing of 80,000 animals. There is no evidence of the virus making multiple independent jumps from its intermediate host to people, as both the SARS1 and MERS viruses did. There is no evidence from hospital surveillance records of the epidemic gathering strength in the population as the virus evolved. There is no explanation of why a natural epidemic should break out in Wuhan and nowhere else. There is no good explanation of how the virus acquired its furin cleavage site, which no other SARS-related beta-coronavirus possesses, nor why the site is composed of human-preferred codons. The natural emergence theory battles a bristling array of implausibilities.
The records of the Wuhan Institute of Virology certainly hold much relevant information. But Chinese authorities seem unlikely to release them given the substantial chance that they incriminate the regime in the creation of the pandemic. Absent the efforts of some courageous Chinese whistle-blower, we may already have at hand just about all of the relevant information we are likely to get for a while.
So it’s worth trying to assess responsibility for the pandemic, at least in a provisional way, because the paramount goal remains to prevent another one. Even those who aren’t persuaded that lab escape is the more likely origin of the SARS2 virus may see reason for concern about the present state of regulation governing gain-of-function research. There are two obvious levels of responsibility: the first, for allowing virologists to perform gain-of-function experiments, offering minimal gain and vast risk; the second, if indeed SARS2 was generated in a lab, for allowing the virus to escape and unleash a world-wide pandemic. Here are the players who seem most likely to deserve blame.
Chinese virologists. First and foremost, Chinese virologists are to blame for performing gain-of-function experiments in mostly BSL2-level safety conditions which were far too lax to contain a virus of unexpected infectiousness like SARS2. If the virus did indeed escape from their lab, they deserve the world’s censure for a foreseeable accident that has already caused the deaths of three million people. True, Shi was trained by French virologists, worked closely with American virologists and was following international rules for the containment of coronaviruses. But she could and should have made her own assessment of the risks she was running. She and her colleagues bear the responsibility for their actions.
I have been using the Wuhan Institute of Virology as a shorthand for all virological activities in Wuhan. It’s possible that SARS2 was generated in some other Wuhan lab, perhaps in an attempt to make a vaccine that worked against all coronaviruses. But until the role of other Chinese virologists is clarified, Shi is the public face of Chinese work on coronaviruses, and provisionally she and her colleagues will stand first in line for opprobrium.
2. Chinese authorities. China’s central authorities did not generate SARS2, but they sure did their utmost to conceal the nature of the tragedy and China’s responsibility for it. They suppressed all records at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and closed down its virus databases. They released a trickle of information, much of which may have been outright false or designed to misdirect and mislead. They did their best to manipulate the WHO’s inquiry into the virus’s origins, and led the commission’s members on a fruitless run-around. So far they have proved far more interested in deflecting blame than in taking the steps necessary to prevent a second pandemic.
3. The worldwide community of virologists. Virologists around the world are a loose-knit professional community. They write articles in the same journals. They attend the same conferences. They have common interests in seeking funds from governments and in not being overburdened with safety regulations.
Virologists knew better than anyone the dangers of gain-of-function research. But the power to create new viruses, and the research funding obtainable by doing so, was too tempting. They pushed ahead with gain-of-function experiments. They lobbied against the moratorium imposed on Federal funding for gain-of-function research in 2014, and it was raised in 2017.
The benefits of the research in preventing future epidemics have so far been nil, the risks vast. If research on the SARS1 and MERS viruses could only be done at the BSL3 safety level, it was surely illogical to allow any work with novel coronaviruses at the lesser level of BSL2. Whether or not SARS2 escaped from a lab, virologists around the world have been playing with fire.
Their behavior has long alarmed other biologists. In 2014 scientists calling themselves the Cambridge Working Group urged caution on creating new viruses. In prescient words, they specified the risk of creating a SARS2-like virus. “Accident risks with newly created ‘potential pandemic pathogens’ raise grave new concerns,” they wrote. “Laboratory creation of highly transmissible, novel strains of dangerous viruses, especially but not limited to influenza, poses substantially increased risks. An accidental infection in such a setting could trigger outbreaks that would be difficult or impossible to control.”
When molecular biologists discovered a technique for moving genes from one organism to another, they held a public conference at Asilomar in 1975 to discuss the possible risks. Despite much internal opposition, they drew up a list of stringent safety measures that could be relaxed in future — and duly were — when the possible hazards had been better assessed.
When the CRISPR technique for editing genes was invented, biologists convened a joint report by the US, UK and Chinese national academies of science to urge restraint on making heritable changes to the human genome. Biologists who invented gene drives have also been open about the dangers of their work and have sought to involve the public.
You might think the SARS2 pandemic would spur virologists to re-evaluate the benefits of gain-of-function research, even to engage the public in their deliberations. But no. Many virologists deride lab escape as a conspiracy theory, and others say nothing. They have barricaded themselves behind a Chinese wall of silence which so far is working well to allay, or at least postpone, journalists’ curiosity and the public’s wrath. Professions that cannot regulate themselves deserve to get regulated by others, and this would seem to be the future that virologists are choosing for themselves.
4. The US role in funding the Wuhan Institute of Virology. From June 2014 to May 2019, Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance had a grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, to do gain-of-function research with coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Whether or not SARS2 is the product of that research, it seems a questionable policy to farm out high-risk research to unsafe foreign labs using minimal safety precautions. And if the SARS2 virus did indeed escape from the Wuhan institute, then the NIH will find itself in the terrible position of having funded a disastrous experiment that led to death of more than 3 million worldwide, including more than half a million of its own citizens.
The responsibility of the NIAID and NIH is even more acute because for the first three years of the grant to EcoHealth Alliance, there was a moratorium on funding gain-of-function research. Why didn’t the two agencies therefore halt the federal funding, as apparently required to do so by law? Because someone wrote a loophole into the moratorium.
The moratorium specifically barred funding any gain-of-function research that increased the pathogenicity of the flu, MERS, or SARS viruses. But then a footnote on page 2 of the moratorium document states that “[a]n exception from the research pause may be obtained if the head of the USG funding agency determines that the research is urgently necessary to protect the public health or national security.”
This seems to mean that either the director of the NIAID, Anthony Fauci, or the director of the NIH, Francis Collins, or maybe both, would have invoked the footnote in order to keep the money flowing to Shi’s gain-of-function research.
“Unfortunately, the NIAID director and the NIH director exploited this loophole to issue exemptions to projects subject to the Pause—preposterously asserting the exempted research was ‘urgently necessary to protect public health or national security’ — thereby nullifying the Pause,” Ebright said in an interview with Independent Science News.
When the moratorium was ended in 2017, it didn’t just vanish but was replaced by a reporting system, the Potential Pandemic Pathogens Control and Oversight (P3CO) Framework, which required agencies to report for review any dangerous gain-of-function work they wished to fund.
According to Ebright, both Collins and Fauci “have declined to flag and forward proposals for risk-benefit review, thereby nullifying the P3CO Framework.”
In his view, the two officials, in dealing with the moratorium and the ensuing reporting system, “have systematically thwarted efforts by the White House, the Congress, scientists, and science policy specialists to regulate GoF [gain-of-function] research of concern.”
Possibly the two officials had to take into account matters not evident in the public record, such as issues of national security. Perhaps funding the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is believed to have ties with Chinese military virologists, provided a window into Chinese biowarfare research. But whatever other considerations may have been involved, the bottom line is that the National Institutes of Health was supporting gain-of-function research, of a kind that could have generated the SARS2 virus, in an unsupervised foreign lab that was doing work in BSL2 biosafety conditions. The prudence of this decision can be questioned, whether or not SARS2 and the death of 3 million people were the result of it, which emphasizes the need for some better system of control.
In conclusion. If the case that SARS2 originated in a lab is so substantial, why isn’t this more widely known? As may now be obvious, there are many people who have reason not to talk about it. The list is led, of course, by the Chinese authorities. But virologists in the United States and Europe have no great interest in igniting a public debate about the gain-of-function experiments that their community has been pursuing for years.
Nor have other scientists stepped forward to raise the issue. Government research funds are distributed on the advice of committees of scientific experts drawn from universities. Anyone who rocks the boat by raising awkward political issues runs the risk that their grant will not be renewed and their research career will be ended. Maybe good behavior is rewarded with the many perks that slosh around the distribution system. And if you thought that Andersen and Daszak might have blotted their reputation for scientific objectivity after their partisan attacks on the lab escape scenario, look at the second and third names on this list of recipients of an $82 million grant announced by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in August 2020.
The US government shares a strange common interest with the Chinese authorities: Neither is keen on drawing attention to the fact that Shi’s coronavirus work was funded by the US National Institutes of Health. One can imagine the behind-the-scenes conversation in which the Chinese government says, “If this research was so dangerous, why did you fund it, and on our territory too?” To which the US side might reply, “Looks like it was you who let it escape. But do we really need to have this discussion in public?”
Fauci is a longtime public servant who served with integrity under President Trump and has resumed leadership in the Biden Administration in handling the COVID-19 epidemic. Congress, no doubt understandably, may have little appetite for hauling him over the coals for the apparent lapse of judgment in funding gain-of-function research in Wuhan.
To these serried walls of silence must be added that of the mainstream media. To my knowledge, no major newspaper or television network has yet provided readers with an in-depth news story of the lab escape scenario, such as the one you have just read, although some have run brief editorials or opinion pieces. One might think that any plausible origin of a virus that has killed three million people would merit a serious investigation. Or that the wisdom of continuing gain-of-function research, regardless of the virus’s origin, would be worth some probing. Or that the funding of gain-of-function research by the NIH and NIAID during a moratorium on such research would bear investigation. What accounts for the media’s apparent lack of curiosity?
The virologists’ omertà is one reason. Science reporters, unlike political reporters, have little innate skepticism of their sources’ motives; most see their role largely as purveying the wisdom of scientists to the unwashed masses. So when their sources won’t help, these journalists are at a loss.
Another reason, perhaps, is the migration of much of the media toward the left of the political spectrum. Because President Trump said the virus had escaped from a Wuhan lab, editors gave the idea little credence. They joined the virologists in regarding lab escape as a dismissible conspiracy theory. During the Trump administration, they had no trouble in rejecting the position of the intelligence services that lab escape could not be ruled out. But when Avril Haines, President Biden’s director of national intelligence, said the same thing, she too was largely ignored. This is not to argue that editors should have endorsed the lab escape scenario, merely that they should have explored the possibility fully and fairly.
People round the world who have been pretty much confined to their homes for the last year might like a better answer than their media are giving them. Perhaps one will emerge in time. After all, the more months pass without the natural emergence theory gaining a shred of supporting evidence, the less plausible it may seem. Perhaps the international community of virologists will come to be seen as a false and self-interested guide. The common sense perception that a pandemic breaking out in Wuhan might have something to do with a Wuhan lab cooking up novel viruses of maximal danger in unsafe conditions could eventually displace the ideological insistence that whatever Trump said can’t be true.
And then let the reckoning begin.
(1) This quotation was added to the article after initial publication.
The first person to take a serious look at the origins of the SARS2 virus was Yuri Deigin, a biotech entrepreneur in Russia and Canada. In a long and brilliant essay, he dissected the molecular biology of the SARS2 virus and raised, without endorsing, the possibility that it had been manipulated. The essay, published on April 22, 2020, provided a roadmap for anyone seeking to understand the virus’s origins. Deigin packed so much information and analysis into his essay that some have doubted it could be the work of a single individual and suggested some intelligence agency must have authored it. But the essay is written with greater lightness and humor than I suspect are ever found in CIA or KGB reports, and I see no reason to doubt that Deigin is its very capable sole author.
In Deigin’s wake have followed several other skeptics of the virologists’ orthodoxy. Nikolai Petrovsky calculated how tightly the SARS2 virus binds to the ACE2 receptors of various species and found to his surprise that it seemed optimized for the human receptor, leading him to infer the virus might have been generated in a laboratory. Alina Chan published a paper showing that SARS2 from its first appearance was very well adapted to human cells.
One of the very few establishment scientists to have questioned the virologists’ absolute rejection of lab escape is Richard Ebright, who has long warned against the dangers of gain-of-function research. Another is David A. Relman of Stanford University. “Even though strong opinions abound, none of these scenarios can be confidently ruled in or ruled out with currently available facts,” he wrote. Kudos too to Robert Redfield, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who told CNN on March 26, 2021 that the “most likely” cause of the epidemic was “from a laboratory,” because he doubted that a bat virus could become an extreme human pathogen overnight, without taking time to evolve, as seemed to be the case with SARS2.
Steven Quay, a physician-researcher, has applied statistical and bioinformatic tools to ingenious explorations of the virus’s origin, showing for instance how the hospitals receiving the early patients are clustered along the Wuhan №2 subway line which connects the Institute of Virology at one end with the international airport at the other, the perfect conveyor belt for distributing the virus from lab to globe.
In June 2020 Milton Leitenberg published an early survey of the evidence favoring lab escape from gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Many others have contributed significant pieces of the puzzle. “Truth is the daughter,” said Francis Bacon, “not of authority but time.” The efforts of people such as those named above are what makes it so.
Letters to the Editor: Finally, an end to a century of U.S. complicity in Armenian genocide denial published in the L.A. Times
People from the Armenian community celebrate President Biden’s decision to formally recognize the Armenian genocide in Beverly Hills on April 24.
(Los Angeles Times)
APRIL 26, 2021 1:03 PM PT
To the editor: The Turkish government’s denial of the Armenian genocide compounds the tragedy. This policy kills the victims twice — first the actual murders, then the murder of their memory. Adolf Hitler is reported to have justified his genocidal intent by asking just before World War II, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Biden has displayed courage by taking this moral stand. The Holocaust was the next genocide. Perhaps if the free world had spoken out against the Armenian genocide, millions of lives could have been saved.
Steven Ludsin, East Hampton, N.Y. The writer was a member of the first U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which created the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Soon-to-be voters say they’re disillusioned by what they’ve observed, but many are also motivated to political action.
I was a teenager in the sixties. I remember the passion I felt when witnessing on TV a Buddhist monk sit down on a Saigon street, dowse himself with gasoline, light a fire and burn to death. I remember the passion I felt when the 6-day war broke out with many Arabic neighboring states threaten to invade Israel: I immediately went to the Israeli embassy to sign up as a volunteer! The events of the day had to have had a lasting effect on my adult views and politics.
So I understand, that for today’s teenagers the presidency of Donald Trump, the BLM protests following the murder of George Floyd and others, the pandemic, and the insurrection culminating with the storming of the US Capitol, are events that must have shaped the political views of teenagers.
In the NYT, MIller writes: “Apparently, research shows that a voting generation is typically shaped for life by what happens politically in their teen years and early 20s. What have teenagers taken away from all this? We asked 604 of them, ages 13 to 17, from around the country, in a poll by Dynata for The New York Times. A little more than half the teenagers surveyed were girls. And nearly half were Black, Hispanic, Native American or Asian-American. (We talked to more of them because Generation Z will be the first in which nearly half of the electorate is nonwhite.)”
The survey revealed disillusion, hardened political lines, but also motivation to become involved.
“Simultaneously, we have this caustic, scorched-earth politics of the Trump administration, particularly for people of color, and at the same time we see young people exercising power and influence and organizing and showing up in the marches and the election,” said Valeria Sinclair-Chapman, a political scientist at Purdue. “This is their political socialization, so we have to see how it plays out.”
A future woman president? Eighty-seven percent of them said they hoped a woman would be elected president in their lifetime; 47 percent of Trump supporters hoped so.
Confidence in government? About half agreed that government had their interests in mind. But less than half of girls or respondents who were Black, Hispanic, Native or Asian-American agreed, and only one-third of Trump supporters did. White boys were most likely to believe the government represented them. Minority girls were 21 percentage points less likely to agree that the government had their interests in mind. White boys were 20 percentage points more likely to be interested in running for office than boys of color; white girls were eight points more likely than girls of color.
Effect of the Trump presidency: In regard to political ambition it made 1/3 of teenagers of both genders less interested in running (with a larger effect on those of color.) But it also made about 1/2 of survey respondents, and nearly 3/4 of Trump-supporting teenagers, more interested in running.
By comparison, the 2020 election made 2/3 of teenagers more interested in running.
Other research has also found that for some young people who were disappointed by the Trump presidency, it awakened their interest in political involvement, according to David Campbell and Christina Wolbrecht.
“What we found is that there was great disillusionment in democracy among adolescents, especially girls, especially those who think of themselves as Democrats,” Mr. Campbell said. “Then we found this upsurge in protest activity, so the disillusionment, rather than driving them out of politics, pushed them into political activity.”
Their research also suggests that the surge of women running has been encouraging to young people — among liberals and some conservatives as well.
Young people are not likely to forget the activism they’re learning now, said Ella Robinson, a 16-year-old in Silver Spring, Md. The Trump era has taught her and her fellow students political savvy, she said, as their spontaneous school walkouts have been replaced by organized protests, with permits and tailored messages around issues like gun control and climate change.
“People in my generation are very aware that walkouts can only go so far,” Ms. Robinson said. “Voting needs to happen.”
As reported in Newsday, on April 15 Assemblyman Steve Englebright and thirteen other members of the NYS Assembly and Senate sent a letter to Governor Cuomo urging that LIPA terminate its contract with PSEG LI and become a true public power company. You may be well aware of, and participating in, this issue as it has been the topic of much discussion in the public forum and in the media, including many articles and editorials in Newsday. If you are familiar with and support this position, and would like to follow up on last week’s letter sent by Assemblyman Englebright and other NYS representatives, attached is a simple letter that you may use. Feel free to amend it to reflect your personal thoughts. The LIPA Board meeting to discuss this topic is on April 28, 2021. Sending this letter is completely voluntary based on your knowledge and support of the position taken.
Contact the Governor: Mail: The Honorable Andrew M. Cuomo Governor of New York State NYS State Capitol Building Albany, NY 12224 Electronic Address for Governor Cuomo:http://www.governor.ny.gov/contactTelephone: (518) 474-8390
You can cut and paste the letter printed below or click this link to open a PDF version of the letter for you to print and mail or insert into your email to Governor Cuomo.
April 18, 2021 The Honorable Andrew M. Cuomo Governor of New York State Executive Chamber The Capitol Albany, NY 12224
Dear Governor Cuomo, I am writing to you in support of the letter you received dated April 15, 2021 from selected members of the New York State Assembly and Senate urging the termination of the contract between LIPA and PSEG LI and the creation of a true public power company. I agree that public utilities are more affordable and reliable for their customers and I agree that “it is the time to allow LIPA to meet the goals that it was created to achieve.” I want to make my voice heard as a part of the growing chorus of Long Islanders who support public power. Thank you for your time and attention to this important issue for Long Island. Sincerely,
I have learned a great deal about Lee Zeldin over the last few years. While my journey as an activist began in response to Hillary losing the presidential race in 2016, Indivisible taught me that protesting my own Republican member of Congress sends a powerful message. We had a lot to protest with Zeldin. In his first congressional race in 2014, he ran on a platform of lies, hate and fear; Trumpian before Trump was even a candidate. Under President Trump, Zeldin went from bad to worse.
Unfortunately, despite our protests and the attention we brought to his radical right-wing record, Zeldin kept winning. He squeaked by in 2018 despite it being a blue wave year and won again last year, this time by a comfortable 10% margin, even though Biden-Harris won New York with over 60% of the vote.
One of Zeldin’s winning strategies is outlined in my October 29th, 2020 blog post: Two Zeldins. He plays a shell game, hiding his true voting record from the electorate in a fog of fake bipartisanship. Analyzing last year’s loss, it is clear we need to do two things if we are going to defeat him in 2022. First, we need a stronger Democratic candidate, not weakened by a divisive primary, and second, we need a better strategy to expose the Real Zeldin.
After the election, Real Zeldin upped the ante with his embrace of Trump’s Big Lie. He was one of the most vocal GOP voices in the House supporting the conspiracy theory of rampant voter fraud that stole the election from Trump. His social media posts, always divisive, were virulent. Then came January 6th. In my first blog post of 2021, entitled Complicity, I wrote about the blood on Zeldin’s hands.
Zeldin’s shamelessness makes it even more important that we find a way to erase that fake moderate veneer and defeat him once and for all. This district deserves better than Lee Zeldin. Though we will be busy this year campaigning for our local candidates, both East End Action Network (EEAN) and the Southampton Town Democratic Committee (SHDems) have begun discussing initiatives that would keep the pressure on Zeldin. One idea from both is a letter-to-the-editor writing campaign.
Then, last week, Zeldin upended everything with an announcement that he is running for governor. Because of the scandals attached to New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, a lot of politicians on both sides of the aisle are eyeing this race. Zeldin has started raising money and is conducting a tour of upstate New York. He does not have to withdraw from running for reelection here yet. Next year’s primary dates for the governor’s and congressional races have not yet been announced but when they are, he will then have to decide which ballot line to be on since you can’t be on two ballot lines at the same time. I have heard he has to decide by next April.
Over the coming weeks, I will be reaching out to many of my sources in the Democratic Party and the grassroots to ask them their thoughts about Zeldin running for governor. What do they think it means, for the governor’s race, for Zeldin and for our district? And just how worried should we be that this radical politician could now climb to higher, statewide office, despite his complicity in the COVID deaths in our district and the insurrection, not to mention his complete absence from any policies or legislation that would have helped us in our district?
To begin, I started with the EEAN leadership team. We held a Zoom meeting to discuss Zeldin, which I recorded. In attendance were Sharon Adams, Rebecca Dolber Ray, Patricia Callan, Cindy Salwen and new member Corinne Bernath. Absent leadership members Syma Gerard, Lisa Marrin and Wendy Turkington emailed me their reactions.
Syma: I can only hope that it’s a wonderful decision on Zeldin’s part. That he loses in the governor’s race and is gone from the House. If both primaries are the same day, I’ve read that he can’t do both.
Lisa: I hope that Cuomo doesn’t run. He is still very popular, but in my opinion, he has been governor long enough. Zeldin is a nightmare. I am hoping he faces a primary (against Guiliani’s son, perhaps) to split the party. At the end of the day, I think we need a strong, popular Democrat and then this whole Zeldin debacle goes away. Who? I don’t know. I am staying minimally involved right now but resting up for the fight.
Wendy: I feel hopeful that Zeldin’s decision to run for governor of New York will enable the Democratic Party to find a terrific candidate to run for CD#1 and we will finally have fair, intelligent, and impassioned representation in Congress. I don’t think the great state of New York will make the mistake of electing a failed, superficial, biased, and minimally informed former Republican representative such as Zeldin to its gubernatorial seat.
Below is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation. My first question to the group was about the wisdom of a right-wing Republican trying to win statewide in Democratic New York.
Right after Zeldin’s announcement, a grassroots activist posted on Facebook, “this may be the stupidest political decision of all time.” Voter registration in New York is two to one registered Democrats. I had the same reaction and wondered why he would want to lose a race for governor rather than probably win reelection to the House?
Sharon: I don’t think he cares about Long Island anymore. So, what does he have to lose?
Cindy: I think he thinks he can win.
Rebecca: I do, too. When I heard that he was running and I know the statistics and the numbers in New York and that everyone says a Republican can’t win statewide, but after 2016, I believe none of it anymore. I think anybody can win on any given day. This is intuition not based on any set of facts, but I feel that Lee Zeldin is the kind of man who does what he is told. So, if he was told to run for governor, Lee Zeldin is going to run for governor, and I think that he probably is going to have a lot of money behind him. I’ve been told that Republicans fall in line. So, I imagine if Lee Zeldin is running in the primary, it’s because they think Lee Zeldin is going to win. If he didn’t think he could win that primary, he seems like the kind of guy that would not do it.
Corinne: I agree. I come from a family of Republicans and I had six family members last week repost his announcement, and say, “Where do I sign up? What do we need to do to get Lee elected?”
Patricia: They love him.
Rebecca: This is his time. I feel it. I feel that he is the person that could unite enough of them to change the conventional wisdom of New York politics. I also don’t know what’s going on with all these voting machines in New York. Not to get too conspiracy-minded, but there’s a lot going on. I don’t think that we should ever say there’s no way he’s going to win which is what everybody said about Trump.
One thing that scares me is the press attention he has gotten so far, when he made his announcement and on this tour of upstate New York. They are buying into the fake Zeldin. Lazy reporters just took his press releases verbatim, never even mentioning Trump, January 6th and Zeldin’s vote to decertify the presidential election. The exception was the article in The New York Times.
Patricia: That’s why I think he has a shot because there are enough crazies still out there and because the upstate people don’t really know him. If their local press just takes everything he gives them, and we know he claims things that aren’t true, then they can be fooled.
Rebecca: Not to mention that Cuomo is weak right now. If he doesn’t resign and decides to seek out another term…
Patricia: Then Democrats might not vote and then we could be done.
Cindy: I’m even more cynical. I think he views the New York governorship as his stepping-stone to run for President.
Patricia: Yes. I think he has always had higher aspirations. He’s got an inflated ego and being aligned with Trump has only increased that. I could see him going first for governor then trying to go against Gillibrand or Schumer for the Senate, all in preparation for a run for the presidency.
All the more reason why we have to get the word out there about the Real Zeldin.
Rebecca: My first question is what changes for us now that he’s running for governor? Do we just wait? Do we put together a plan to attack him in the primary?
Cindy: I don’t think we should get involved in any way in the Republican primary, except for something like letters-to-the-editor to a newspaper that was so lazy that they didn’t say anything about who he actually is or fact-checked his bio. That might be worthwhile. But I don’t think we should consider trying to stop him getting the nomination.
Patricia: For the governorship or further out here?
Cindy: For the governorship. I don’t want him to be governor, but we vote in our primary, they vote in theirs and then we try to knock him out.
Rebecca: Let the primary play out because we’re not part of it and then if he wins it, then we take up the cause.
Patricia: I don’t feel comfortable just waiting. Maybe there are postcards we could write to people or let them know what Zeldin’s voting record really is, like how bad he’s been for the environment, for women. He’s such a total hypocrite. People need to know this statewide. Who better to tell them than the people he inflicted this pain on?
Rebecca: Well, I would agree with you there and I think that this might be the thing that brings all the grassroots groups together, especially if he wins the nomination. We are going to need a collaborative effort to let the state know how horrible he actually is.
Sharon: Well, going back to our list of original initiatives, we had letters-to-the-editor on our list. It might be a good time now, when we don’t have a lot of other things on our plate, to start writing those letters. We have the resources from groups that have been tracking his voting record. Also, I have a lot of back letters regarding Zeldin from The Southampton Press that I have cut out and saved. Now might be a good time for us to jump on that initiative and each take a turn to do a letter. That would be what Patty was mentioning, letting people know now about how he’s voted or hasn’t voted.
Patricia: Yes. People across the state don’t really know him just like we don’t know their Congress people.
Rebecca: I think people across the state who have been paying attention know Zeldin. But I agree, the average voter probably doesn’t. I think your idea is a good one, Sharon. In fact, what you’re saying is making me think that maybe, in addition to the letter writing, we can do something with video to tell our stories about our experiences with Zeldin. I always tell the story about how before Trump was elected, I moved back to Center Moriches from New York City and Lee Zeldin was running for his first term in Congress. He took up an office in the King Kullen shopping center and I remember thinking, “Oh, who is this guy?” So, I read about him and learned just how horrible he is on gay marriage. Having this person with his main office in my hometown, just made me feel sick and sad.
I wonder if we could do a video-based project where we all tell stories about how this congressman has affected us. Just little snippets that could be passed around on social media. It might even be easier than writing a letter. Even if you don’t have a personal story about Lee Zeldin, you can talk about how it felt to have your congressman give that disgraceful speech on the floor of the House on the same day that the Capital was attacked. We could do a whole campaign about it. “We are not actors. We are constituents of Lee Zeldin.”
I have read about the short, 30-second videos on TikTok and when they go viral, they reach a lot of people, particularly a lot of young people. This video story project would powerfully expose the fake Zeldin that he’s pushing. He is even trying to take credit for the federal funds that saved the Long Island Railroad from further cuts, even though he voted against Biden’s American Rescue Plan.
Patricia: Right. We live in his district; this is who he is.
Cindy: But wouldn’t this be more useful to the general election if he is the candidate?
Rebecca: I agree. It’s a lot to take on now.
Cindy: Besides, who knows how Republican primary voters think? They might think these are good reasons to vote for him! It would probably be like a badge of honor that he’s being attacked so much by these “radicals” or whatever he calls us these days.
Patricia: No, I disagree with that because that’s like saying he is right and we are those radicals when the truth is that he’s the radical. We’re just saying what his voting record is, what he’s done and how he’s made us feel as his constituents. That’s not radical, that’s pretty straightforward.
Rebecca: But you know what? I don’t care what they think, because I’m not trying to change their minds. I think these videos are for new voters. If I was a young person and I saw this it would make me energized to vote. We have been talking about new ways to reach out to younger voters. This may be another way to do that.
What do you think the impact is going to be on the congressional race here in our district if he isn’t running?
Rebecca: Well, my first thought was he leaves a huge hole for a Republican who could be worse than him to run, which could be a good or bad thing. That was my thought.
Cindy: I think it will be a free-for-all on both sides. But at least with a primary on both sides, then we are not as screwed as in the past when there was a contentious primary on our side and an incumbent on the other.
East Hampton, New York – March 18, 2021 — This morning the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) voted unanimously to grant South Fork Wind (“SFW”) a Certificate of Environmental Compatibility and Public Need for a transmission cable needed to connect the South Fork Wind Farm to the electric grid. This is a critical step in authorizing construction and operation of 15 wind turbines in the ocean 35 miles east of Montauk. The PSC approved the landing site for the cable at Beach Lane in Wainscott. The cable will then be buried under the roads of Wainscott and ultimately be connected to the electric grid at the Cove Hollow Road substation in East Hampton.
SFW is scheduled to begin construction early in 2022 and the wind farm is projected to be operational by late 2023. The South Fork Wind Farm will generate enough clean renewable energy to the South Fork to power 70,000 typical homes, reducing carbon emissions, creating clean jobs, and assisting both East Hampton and New York State in meeting their commitment to combat climate change with 100% clean energy.
Wind With Wind (WWW), which was organized to produce fact-based information regarding the benefits of renewable offshore wind energy, has been actively advocating for the South Fork Wind Farm for years. As the first sizable offshore wind farm in the country, the project has faced opposition from very well-funded groups. WWW and its attorneys actively promoted the project, participating in the lengthy settlement discussions and public hearings, filing written comments with the PSC, participating in site visits, and keeping the public informed on the issues.
WWW commends the PSC for its historic vote since it puts New York State and East Hampton in a leadership role for offshore wind energy with SFW serving as the foundation of a more sustainable and resilient future. When the South Fork Wind Farm becomes operational it will be the largest offshore wind farm in the country, and the first in New York. SFW’s battle has been carefully observed by the offshore wind industry and is emerging as a template for a collaborative and community driven approach for clean energy development.
“Win With Wind has worked hard for this, and we are grateful for the help of our supporters and especially the law firm Arnold & Porter and the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. We are lucky to live in a town with such forward- looking political leadership,” said Judith Hope, President of WWW.
“Now it is time for all of us to come together and support SFW. Instead of worrying about the inconvenience of a cable being buried under the roads of Wainscott, let us focus on saving our seriously battered planet,” said Jeremiah Mulligan, a member of the WWW Steering Committee.
Contact: Judith Hope email@example.com East Hampton, NY
Our democracy is badly broken. Right now, Republicans in Arizona,Georgia and elsewhere are working hard to break it even further. But last week, my Democratic colleagues and I rose to repair and reconstruct it.
The For the People Act (H.R. 1), which passed the House of Representatives last week, will be the most significant improvement to our democracy since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. My colleagues in the Senate should act swiftly to send this bill to President Biden’s desk. It is required to save our democracy from the people who incited the violent insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th.
The For the People Act is a comprehensive bill that establishes automatic voter registration, combats voter suppression, protects our elections from foreign interference, and ends partisan gerrymandering — a process by which representatives choose their voters rather than voters choose their representatives.
But I want to focus on how H.R. 1 changes how campaigns are funded, amplifying the voices of everyday Americans.
Our current campaign finance system gives the wealthy a megaphone and silences the rest of us. In 2016, just 400 mega-donors contributed a total of $1.5 billion – more than every small donor combined. Those donors are predominantly wealthy white men, and they predominantly contribute to white candidates.
Congress isn’t just funded by wealthy people — it’s full of them. More than 50% of lawmakers in the 116th Congress have a net worth of more than $1 million, compared to just three percent of the population. This is not by accident: our campaign finance system is rigged to favor wealthy candidates. They can fund their own campaigns. They’re more likely to have nest eggs they can rely on while campaigning. And when they need extra funds, they can lean on networks of affluent family and friends.
I experienced our broken campaign finance system firsthand in my own run for Congress. When I was considering running for office, the first question insiders asked me was not what I would fight for, not whether my community was behind me, but how much money I could raise.
My leading primary competitor never had to answer that question. As the son of a pharmaceutical billionaire, he didn’t have to raise any money at all. Instead, he spent $5.4 million of his inherited wealth to blanket the airwaves with TV commercials three months out from the primary election. In the general election, I faced yet another self-funding candidate who outspent me by pumping $1.5 million into his campaign.
Against these long odds, I was elected to Congress. As an openly gay, Black, working-class candidate whose community sent him to Congress, I’m an exception. But I shouldn’t be. With the small-donor matching system in H.R. 1, candidates like me could be the norm.
Small-donor matching is simple: for every dollar a regular person donates up to $200, public financing matches that dollar with $6. A $50 donation becomes a $350 donation. As a result, small donors would matter — fixing the toxic power dynamics that threaten our democracy.
Small-donor matching has already transformed New York politics for the better. The donors in New York City elections, which have a matching program, are by far more racially and socioeconomically diverse than the donors in New York State elections, which do not. H.R. 1 would take that transformation nationwide.
The same goes for candidates. Candidates of color disproportionately rely on small donations. But because big money drowns out small donors’ voices, we typically raise less money than our opponents. Thus, we are often prevented from even making the ballot. By multiplying the power of the people candidates of color rely on most, small-donor matching empowers more people to take their seats at the table.
When we can elect people who really represent us, we get a government that really serves all of us — not just the wealthy and well-connected. If Congress had more ordinary Americans, it surely would not be so indifferent to the needs of working families. My Democratic colleagues and I in this Congress are already proving that by passing real COVID-19 relief in the American Rescue Plan. And we’re just getting started.
For at least a decade, Democrats have promised that when we had the chance, we would fix our broken campaign finance system. It’s taken over 10 years, but we’re here. It’s time. If the Senate fails to follow through — if we compromise with corruption — we risk confirming many Americans’ beliefs that billionaires and corporations have captured both parties, that our elections offer no real choices, and that our democracy is a swamp in need of a strongman to drain it.
So let’s fight for H.R. 1 and its small-dollar matching program like our democracy depends on it — because it does.
Rep. Mondaire Jones represents New York’s 17th Congressional District, which includes most of Westchester County and all of Rockland County.
Ahmaud Arbery, an avid jogger who had his whole life before him, was chased down by two white men in a pickup and shot dead in cold blood on 2/23 in 2020. He was 25. Today I ran 2.23 miles as fast as my feet would carry me to honor him and raise awareness about his family’s fight for justice.
Dear Senators Kaminsky and Stec, Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, and Assemblymen Englebright and Smullen, Chair and Ranking Member of the Assembly Committee on Environmental Conservation,
We write to ask that you support the advancement from Committee of Senate Bill S4028 (A4213 in the Assembly), also known as “The Kelp Bill,” sponsored by Senator Anthony H. Palumbo and Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr.
The bill adds “and seaweed” to an existing statute that allows shellfish farming in the Peconic and Gardiners’ Bays. This would open a valuable economic opportunity for further developing the ‘blue economy’ in this time of recession. Passage of this bill will have immediate benefits for local kelp farmers, who planted a crop for a three-year Stony Brook University feasibility study but are presently unable to harvest and sell their kelp without a legal framework applicable to their industry.
Exploratory kelp farming projects in the area have already made steady and promising advances. The Stony Brook University study mentioned above was conducted with input from GreenWave, a Connecticut-based organization and international leader in the regenerative ocean farming industry. This study established the potential for seaweed farming to bring a broad spectrum of benefits to the people, the economy and the coastal ecosystems of the East End, while also contributing to climate change mitigation through the absorption of excess carbon. This work lays the foundation for a regenerative industry to emerge around kelp as a new crop in eastern Suffolk County.
Notably, this is a non-partisan issue: the bill received unanimous support from the Department of Environment’s Marine Resources Advisory Council in 2018 – an unusual rallying point for a group that rarely votes 10-0.
In light of the wide range of benefits that kelp farming will provide, and the bi-partisan support, we urge you to advance The Kelp Bill and to support its passage in the Senate and Assembly.
Thank you for your leadership and consideration.
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson Founder and CEO, Ocean Collective
Scott Bluedorn East Hampton Energy Sustainability Committee
Kate Rossi-Snook Environmental Advocate, Concerned Citizens of Montauk
Mary Morgan Cofounder, Drawdown East End
Diane Shapiro Ambassador, Drawdown East End
Sean Barrett Cofounder, Dock to Dish Montauk
Jenny Willis Climate Activist, Eat More Kelp
Chef Trevor Swope Climate Activist
Kim Knoll Concerned Citizen
Cassia Patel Cofounder, Oceanic Global
Lea d’Auriol Cofounder, Oceanic Global
Peter Strugatz Concerned Citizen
Chef Kerry Heffernan Grand Banks, Pilot Brooklyn, Island Oyster, Drift In Restaurants, NYC
If we want to save what’s left, from our pristine waters to our local economy, we have to accelerate our regenerative engagement with Nature.
A combination of the green economy, with strategies that focus on energy, transport, agriculture and forestry, and the blue economy, which focuses on fisheries and marine and coastal resources, says the UK Commonwealth Foundation .
Kelp is a Drawdown Solution
Kelp forests are the basis and habitat for vibrant ocean ecosystems. With the potential to grow up to half a meter a day, kelp is also an excellent means of sequestering carbon as it grows, with enormous carbon sequestration potential.
Seaweed, like land plants, use photosynthesis to turn carbon dioxide (CO2) into seaweed biomass (carbon sequestration) and release oxygen. Seaweed grows very fast so it can intake CO2 at a phenomenal rate. The CO2 is locked up in seaweed biomass and the seaweed can be harvested for use, or, it can sink to the seafloor or become stored under the sea floor (similar to soil sequestration). For more, check out this article by a marine ecologist Seaweed is About to Blow Your Climate Mind and her highlight of the Port of San Diego’s Blue Economy Incubator to support emerging aquaculture and blue technology businesses.
Project Drawdown has assessed a very limited selection of coastal and ocean solutions to date. This solution set will expand in the future (e.g., solutions for regenerative ocean farming and marine ecosystem restoration).
Sugar Kelp is Local
Local sugar kelp (latissima saccharina) is native to our waters, is an extremely beneficial habitat for marine and mitigates against harmful algal blooms. As a commercial product, Sugar kelp is a superfood, a thickening agent, a soil fertilizer, and has biofuel and bioplastic applications. Growing kelp, i.e. marine permaculture, can help regenerate our waters and provide sustainable local financial and health returns. Let’s grow, use and eat more kelp!
Democracy is never a given. January 6th proved that. A wrathful president unable to accept he lost an election, an angry mob stoked by bogus claims of a stolen election, a subservient caucus of Republicans willing to do the bidding of a corrupt president. On that day they all came together in a violent clash that almost derailed our democracy.
Fortunately, the will of the people prevailed — for now. But Trump has said his political movement “has only just begun.” Already we see what that means: punishing Republicans who dared to speak the truth and acknowledged that Trump lost the election and that he incited the insurrection, and rewarding those, like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who traffic in absurd conspiracy theories and seek to demonize those on the other side of the political divide.
In the coming months, each of us will have to decide if we are willing to stand up for our democracy, to support and protect it — by paying attention, by calling out lies, by working to roll back voter suppression laws, by voting for candidates who will uphold their oath to the Constitution, and by remembering that our congressional representative, Lee Zeldin, voted to overturn the results of a free and fair election.
Because if there’s one thing history has shown us, it’s that a failed coup often precedes a successful one.
Published in The East Hampton Star, Letter to the Editor, February 18
On Inauguration Day, January 20, 2021, members of South Country Unites, SCU, displayed yard signs in front of their homes to commemorate this very special day. They wanted to thank those committed, honest, hard working citizens, across 50 states and the District of Columbia, who made democracy happen. The members of SCU dedicated their display…
• “To all people who spoke up for justice and integrity
• To candidates for offices big and small, who believed that they can make a difference
• To campaign staffs, who in the time of COVID-19, planned and instituted a new, safer way of campaigning
• To petition carriers, door-knockers, phone and text bankers, letter writers – those who felt strongly that the best candidate must win
• To Boards of Elections in thousands of counties across our country who justly implemented voting laws, set up polling places, distributed ballots, hired and trained workers, and who counted and re-counted millions of votes under pressure
• To poll workers, who believed enough in free and fair elections to work 8 or 12 or 16 hour days with face masks and gloves, risking serious illness, to assure that each eligible citizen voted
• To the poll watchers who volunteered to assure that voters were treated fairly and laws were upheld
• To judges and public officials who sought to assure fair and free elections
• And to the voters, 161 million of us who made a voting plan and implemented it to assure that our voices were heard”
“The Members of SCU, THANK YOU! We honor your commitment and your hard work. May we all continue to work to support our fragile, 233 year old experiment in democracy. May we support President Biden and Vice President Harris as they and we, the people of the United States, address the difficult problems that lie before us.”
To: Win With Wind supporters From: Win With Wind steering committee Date: Feb. 14, 2021 Topic: Update on the South Fork Wind Farm
Dear friends of WWW,
We would like to update you regarding where we stand in the 4-year-long process of getting the South Fork Wind Farm approved, built and operational.
Permits for this project are on 3 tracks: Local (Town of East Hampton) State of New York Public Service Commission: article 7 Federal: Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM)
Regarding local permits, the town of East Hampton has voted to grant an easement for Orsted/Eversource to lay the underground powerlines coming ashore on Wainscott’s beaches. The Trustees have also voted to lease the beach area for the cable landing to Orsted/Eversource. See the East Hampton Town website and the East Hampton Star.
The federal BOEM process is wrapping up too. The following graph shows where we are:
We are in the late phases of BOEM’s environmental and technical reviews after which there will be a decision on COP (construction and operations plan) approval.
Many of you have asked how to help support the South Fork Wind Farm. One thing you can do this coming week is to join a ZOOM call managed by BOEM. It is educational as BOEM officials will present the entire project. It is also an opportunity to give an oral (and/or written) commentary in support of renewable energy and SFWF in particular. Several of us took part in BOEM’s first two ZOOM events earlier this week. Would you participate next week? Here is the sign-up link:
Forwarded from Geraldine Maslanka. By Chuck Collins This piece appeared on the inequality.org website with the heading:
Legislators in Washington state are taking bold steps towards instituting a state-level wealth tax. The proposed tax is a 1 percent levy on wealth over $1 billion, applying to fewer than 100 households in the state.
According to the state’s Department of Revenue, the tax would raise an estimated $2.25 billion in 2023 and $2.5 billion in 2024. At a February 2 hearing, House Finance Committee chair Noel Frame said it’s time to put a new “tool in the toolbox for comprehensive structural tax reform.” The state’s current tax system places an enormous burden on Washington’s working class.
At the February 2 virtual hearing, over 40 witnesses lined up to testify in support of HB1406, an act to “improve the equity of Washington state’s tax code” by creating a wealth tax and “taxing extraordinary financial intangible assets.”
Many witnesses pointed out that Washington state has one of the most regressive tax systems in the country, with no income tax, a weak corporate tax system, and an overdependence on sales taxes. “Low income families pay 18 percent of their income in taxes while the very wealthy pay less than 3 percent,” observed John Burbank from the Economic Opportunity Institute in his testimony.
“This state is a wonderful place to raise a family and to plant roots,” said Mary Curry, a Tacoma resident and owner of a day care center, in testimony before the committee. “But how do I build when the tax laws are so harsh to the working class such as myself?”
Got this from my friend JoAnne: its hilarious and a great video.
Rabia Aziz sent this out tonight. Since I was clueless about Amber Ruffin, I played it thinking OMG, she must be talking about some Trump racist saying we need a white history month, will this never end. Instead, we got a fascinating American history lesson about something that’s been vaguely talked about but this really put it all together. Thank you, Rabia. I wish all of you could have learned as much as I have over the past three years from Rabia and Miss Lillie about the American history we aren’t taught.
On Feb. 5th R&R heard a presentation by Rebecca Saletan and Nick Lyndon on “The Invest in our New York Act”. It is a package of 6 bills for the State of NY. Together they are proposed to raise more than $50 billion/year in sorely needed revenue:
TAXING HIGH INCOMES
Progressive Income Tax S2622: Creates a tax system where New Yorkers pay a higher rate if they earn significantly more money.RAISES $12-18 BILLION
Right now, individuals with incomes between $21,400 and $1,077,550 are all taxed at roughly the same rate of 6.5%. Higher earners should pay a higher rate. This bill would raise the tax rates on the top 5% of income-earners ($300,000 and above).
Sponsored by Senator Robert Jackson and Assemblymember Demond Meeks
Taxes income from investments like stocks same as wages.RAISES $7 BILLION
Rich people make much of their income from investments like stocks, not from their jobs. The federal government taxes investment income at a much lower rate than wages. New York can fix this by adding a tax to investment income that’s equal to the tax break the rich are getting from the federal government.
Sponsored by Senator Gustavo Rivera and Assemblymember Ron Kim
A progressive tax on large sums of inherited wealth.RAISES $8 BILLION
Many rich people also make their money from inheriting enormous sums. They can make up to $5 million in a year through inheritance and pay no tax on it. Inheritances of less than $250,000, family homes up to $2 million, money from pensions or retirement funds, and family farms will not be affected.
Sponsored by Senator Jabari Brisport and Assemblymember Michaelle Solages
4. Billionaires’ Tax:
An additional tax on billionaires, and constitutional amendment to allow a wealth tax. RAISES $23 BILLION IN THE FIRST YEAR, $1.3 BILLION PER YEAR THEREAFTER
New York already has a wealth tax: it’s called a property tax. Homeowners pay it every year. But if you own a massive stock portfolio, it is not taxed. This tax would treat billionaires’ gains in wealth as income, and these increases would be taxed at income tax rates. Additionally, a constitutional amendment would allow the state to tax large sums of intangible wealth—i.e., stocks, bonds and company ownership— in the future.
Sponsored by Senator Jessica Ramos and Assemblymember Carmen De La Rosa
TAXING CORPORATIONS AND THE FINANCIAL SECTOR:
5. Wall Street Tax : A small tax on Wall St. financial transactions.RAISES $12-29 BILLION
Unlike other major financial centers like London and Hong Kong, New York doesn’t place any tax on financial transactions. The financial industry is the state’s largest industry: it makes up 30% of our economy. This bill places small taxes on trades of stocks, bonds and derivatives; a similar tax on stocks existed in NY until 1981.
Sponsored by Senator Julia Salazar and Assemblymember Yuh-line Niou
6. Corporate Tax S2833: A bill to repeal the Trump tax cuts, by restoring taxes on the profit a corporation makes each year. RAISES $9 BILLION
In 2017, Trump’s tax cuts reduced the federal corporate profit tax rate from 35% to 21%, and cut taxes on real estate businesses by 20%. New York can end these tax breaks in our state so that businesses pay the same tax as they did three years ago.
Sponsored by Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblymember Anna Kelles
There is a detailed discussion with over 50 slides which is well worth reading (and beyond this summary):
Congress, in response to the far-right’s Nazi “America First” movement of the late 1930’s, enacted the Alien Registration Act of 1940. This law made it a “federal criminal offense to advocate the violent overthrow of our government or to organize or be a member of any group or society devoted to such advocacy.”
By the late 1940’s, this law, known popularly as the Smith Act, was employed to root out Communists from political, business and social organizations.
On January 6, one of the foundations of our democracy, our Congress, was attacked, verbally and physically, by a mob. This attack was planned and directed by the head of the Republican Party, Donald Trump, with the full aid, support and cooperation of Republicans Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Lindsey Graham — and, yes, Lee Zeldin.
It is time for the Department of Justice to take action, using laws like the Smith Act.
“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities” — Voltaire.
Biden’s economic rescue package will be passed using ‘budget reconciliation’. Here is a primer:
This from Dana Chasin (reprinted with permission):
Budget reconciliation is authorized through the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 to expedite budget bills. While most legislation before the Senate can be stalled with a cloture motion that takes 60 votes to break before a vote on the underlying bill can occur, reconciliation bills pass with a simple majority of those present. With increased political polarization in the Senate, reconciliation has become the primary method for passing big-ticket legislative priorities.
The Reconciliation Process
The reconciliation process starts with the House and Senate agreeing on a budget resolution that includes “reconciliation directives.” These directives, sent from budget committees to other committees of jurisdiction, identify the spending and revenue targets under which authors of the bill must work but do not detail what policies a particular committee should adopt. Once authorizing committees complete their work reaching their sub-topline figures, the Budget Committees assemble them into an omnibus bill to be considered by the full chamber.
While practically any policy can be tacked onto a reconciliation bill in the House, the Senate operates under the “Byrd Rule,” which limits reconciliation to policies that directly change mandatory spending (excluding Social Security), revenue, or the federal debt limit. The Byrd Rule also prevents reconciliation bills from increasing the deficit beyond a ten-year fiscal window.
If a Senator objects to any policy provision in a reconciliation bill, the Senate Parliamentarian will advise the Presiding Officer whether or not to strike it based on his or her interpretation of the Byrd Rule. Due to the Byrd Rule’s convoluted nature, senators often have to negotiate with the parliamentarian in advance to avoid a point of order that takes 60 votes to overturn.
Reconciliation is increasingly common and has been attempted successfully and unsuccessfully in recent years:
Bush Tax Cuts (2001/2003) — successive corporate and individual tax cuts totaling $1.5 trillion that sunset after 10 years.
Affordable Care Act (2010) — comprehensive health care reform package that cut the uninsured rate by half.
ACA repeal (2015/2017) — repeated efforts by the House GOP to repeal the ACA; the parliamentarian ruled that abolishing the individual mandate was not reconcilable because it only had an incidental budgetary impact.
TCJA (2017) — corporate and individual tax cuts totaling $1.7 trillion that are set to sunset after 2025; zeroed-out the individual mandate tax penalties by rewriting the legislation to be a revenue issue.
Deficit Increases for the 12 Authorizing Committees
Both chambers are expected to pass reconciliation rules this week, after which House committees must submit their recommendations to the Budget Committees by February 16th. Once committees have delivered their policies, Chair Yarmuth’s committee has a week to assemble an omnibus package. A House vote on a final package will then be expected in the last week of February. The Senate is likely to adopt the House bill as drafted instead of going through the lengthy conference committee process.
Major Stages of the Reconciliation Process
Source: Congressional Research Service
The primary Byrd Rule obstacle for Democrats will be ensuring that the reconciliation bill only affects mandatory spending. With a dozen committee bills and only a two-week time frame, Democrats will be tempted to borrow language from the HEROES Act which mostly affected discretionary spending levels — a potential problem for reconciliation.
Another sticking point is the proposed $15 minimum wage increase. Senate Budget Chairman Sanders maintains that the resulting increase in tax revenue and decrease in public benefits makes a minimum wage hike Byrd-compliant. Other Democrats suggest creating a punitive tax for any business that does not pay its employees at least $15 an hour, a surefire way of getting around the Byrd Rule.
Multiple Bites of the Apple
The current (Yarmuth) resolution uses Congress’ budget authority for fiscal year 2021, but Democrats could take another shot at reconciliation this calendar year using the FY 2022 budget resolution process. President Biden indicates that he would like to work on an infrastructure investment package once COVID relief is wrapped up. However, some Democratic legislative economic priorities are un-reconcilable and will need to go through regular order.
Opportunity Costs of Reconciliation
Budget reconciliation entails running through the “vote-a-rama” gauntlet; a chaotic 20-hour period in the Senate where dozens of amendments are voted on in rapid succession without debate. With zero margin for error, Democrats must hold their caucus together through some politically tough votes.
Assuming budget reconciliation is successful, Democrats also must navigate PAYGO rules, which trigger sequestration next January unless Republicans agree to waive the requirement in future legislation. If no waivers are passed, beloved bipartisan programs like Medicare, farm subsidies, and military spending would face draconian cuts. Republicans were able to avert these spending cuts after passing their deficit-funded TCJA by smuggling a PAYGO waiver into a must-pass continuing resolution. Democrats could use the same tactic this year, but it could come down to a game of chicken.
Busting the Filibuster
Senate Republicans will no doubt use the filibuster to block much of President Biden’s policy agenda. Senate Democrats could, with 50 votes, “nuke” the filibuster — change Senate rules so that bills advance by a simple majority. Then-Majority Leader Harry Reid did so in 2013 for non-Supreme Court judicial appointments after facing unprecedented obstructionism from the GOP, and Leader McConnell followed suit in 2017 for Supreme Court nominations. But Senators Manchin and Sinema have promised publicly not to vote to end the filibuster. Former opponents of ending the filibuster (such as President Biden) have hedged on the issue.
President Obama and former Leader Reid have already called for ending the filibuster, as have progressives like Senators Sanders and Warren. Vice President Harris advocated ending the filibuster to pass the Green New Deal during her presidential run.
Beyond “nuking” the filibuster, Senate Democrats have other options:
Preventing use of the filibuster when considering debate on bills while preserving a supermajority requirement for actual passage.
Reforming the Byrd Rule to allow more policy to pass through budget reconciliation.
Requiring Senators wishing to filibuster to be physically present in the chamber to prevent an end to debate, among other changes.
Almost Heaven, West Virginia 🎼
Democrats are on the brink of legislation that constituents everywhere await like manna. West Virginia’s 73-year-old Senator Joe Manchin is a full-throated supporter of the filibuster and an opponent of wishlist items such as a minimum wage increase and direct cash payments may yet vote yes. West Virginia’s Republican Governor Jim Justice, an unlikely ally, drew national attention this week when he called on Congress to “go big” with COVID relief — “don’t count the legs on a cow,” round up and bring it in. As the relief bill takes shape and center stage, Manchin on board is a critical first step.
Twenty-two New York lawyers have filed a complaint against Rep. Lee Zeldin, accusing him of violating “the most fundamental ethics rules, including participating in frivolous litigation, making false statements regarding the presidential election, and committing, arguably, a criminal act that reflects on his trustworthiness.”
The complaint asks the Attorney Grievance Committee of the Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Department, where Zeldin was admitted to the New York Bar in 2004, to initiate an “immediate investigation of Rep. Zeldin’s actions and consider sanctions for his conduct, up to and including revocation of Rep. Zeldin’s license to practice law in New York.”
The complaint says Zeldin participated in “frivolous” litigation and engaged in “professional misconduct” involving “dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation” by signing on to an amicus brief in support of a lawsuit brought in the U.S. Supreme Court by the State of Texas Dec. 8 that sought to invalidate the election results in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — four battleground states won by Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.
Zeldin was one of 126 House Republicans who signed the amicus brief in support of the Texas lawsuit, which was rejected by the Supreme Court on Dec. 11 for lack of standing, the legal right to sue.
The complaint to the grievance committee, a copy of which was obtained by RiverheadLOCAL Monday night, says Zeldin signed on to the brief “despite the fact that numerous courts in eight different states, including the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, had already dismissed such meritless claims.”
Beyond that, the complaint states, “In the absence of any evidence of systemic malfeasance or fraud, he made public statements questioning the results of the presidential election and has spent weeks undermining confidence in the credibility and integrity of our election process.”
Zeldin — a staunch, outspoken supporter of President Trump — continued to question the presidential election results “without proof,” despite the Electoral College’s ratification of the results, the complaint states.
The Trump campaign and Trump supporters brought a series unsuccessful legal challenges to the results of the election in those states.
In a series of about two dozen tweets since Election Day, Zeldin has questioned the election results, calling changes to election procedures in battleground states “unconstitutional irregularities.” He has tweeted frequently — most recently two days ago — about the need to protect “ballot integrity,” criticizing, as Trump has, mail-in voting.
Some states, including New York, changed voting procedures in 2020 to allow, as Zeldin put it in his tweet on Monday, “no excuse mail in balloting” because of the pandemic. Some of those changes, including New York’s, were made by executive orders during the state of emergency declared in the states in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Zeldin and others object to changes made to voting procedures established by state legislature — by what they characterize “executive fiat” and settlements of “friendly lawsuits” — as unconstitutional.
On Jan. 2, Zeldin tweeted: “Some insist everything President Trump & his supporters claim about the 2020 election is ‘evidence free’. That lie may be easy to rattle off, but it’s still a massive, destructive lie that will haunt them on Jan 6th & far into the future.”
On the afternoon of Jan. 6, the lawyers’ complaint states, Zeldin announced on Twitter that he would formally object to the Electoral College’s determination.” By making that announcement, according to the complaint, “Zeldin not only engaged in dishonest conduct, but also contributed to the incitement of the Jan. 6 insurrection.”
On the House floor on Jan. 6, Zeldin spoke in support of objections to the election results in Arizona in a statement he labeled in a Jan. 6 tweet was made “in defense of the republic.” He voted to sustain objections to the election results in both Arizona and Pennsylvania.
His statement and both votes came on Jan. 6 after a large mob of Trump supporters violently attacked the Capitol while Congress was in a joint session to certify the Electoral College, as required by the Constitution.
The mob stormed the Capitol following a 90-minute “Save America” rally in the Ellipse park at which Trump aired his grievances about the election he claimed was stolen by Democrats and “weak” Republicans. Trump urged the crowd to go to the Capitol, where Congress was beginning to count and certify the Electoral College ballots.
The Trump mob stormed the Capitol, breaching barricades, overwhelming Capitol Police, breaking doors and windows and entering the building as lawmakers met in both chambers. The sessions were cut short as the mob could be heard in the corridors. The lawmakers were evacuated and staff members and reporters barricaded themselves in offices.
The chaotic scenes were broadcast live on television and circulated on social media, capturing Trump supporters chanting “Hang Mike Pence” — someone had erected a gallows outside the Capitol during the riot — and searching for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats. Members of the mob broke into offices and into both chambers of Congress.
Zeldin issued a statement that afternoon urging “everyone to please cooperate with the Capitol Police who need to gain control of this situation immediately.” He said the violence being witnessed by America “should never be the scene at the US Capitol” and said there should be “ZERO tolerance for violence in any form!”
The riots resulted in the deaths of five people, including a uniformed Capitol Police officer who was beaten to death by the mob. Scores of other officers were injured, some seriously.
Seven hours later, after the building was secured and the crowd was dispersed, Congress resumed its constitutionally mandated count. Some shaken Republican senators withdrew their support for objections after the riot, which left only two objections supported by senators to be brought to the floor of each chamber for a vote. (Without support in the Senate, there is no vote in either chamber.) A planned objection to Georgia’s results was withdrawn, and no senators signed onto the House’s objection to results in Michigan and Nevada.
“Even after the bloodshed and terror at the Capitol, Rep. Zeldin again asserted his baseless objections to the election results,” the lawyers complaint to the grievance committee states.
“He took to the floor of the House of Representatives, and in a speech riddled with misinformation and misrepresentations, challenged the results of the Arizona and Pennsylvania elections…” the complaint states.“Disregarding the will of the people, Rep. Zeldin sought to disenfranchise tens of millions of voters, which is particularly egregious conduct for an attorney who has been elected to high office and sworn an oath to uphold the constitution,
In a brief interview Monday following a news conference he held in Manorville, Zeldin said he had not heard anything about the complaint and could not comment on it.
Asked if he was willing to state that the 2020 presidential election was a free and fair election and constitutionally valid, Zeldin replied, “This was a free election. And we did go through the entire constitutional process.” That process includes a certification of the Electoral College vote, he said.
“After every Republican presidential win over the last generation, there have been objections that have been followed,” Zeldin said.
“At the end of that constitutional process, the first thing I did was put out a statement that says, regardless of whether you supported President Biden or or President Trump, regardless of your the opinions and passions everyone has, once Congress certifies the results, it’s over,” Zeldin said.
On the evening of Jan. 7, Zeldin issued a statement acknowledging Biden’s election.
“Moving forward, there will be continued debate and there will be disagreement, but out of that must be a healthy, guarded and even thriving republic,” he said in the Jan. 7 statement. “Right now, I am not going to dwell on any doubt, but to recommit to working towards a vigorous defense of lady liberty at all costs, and the pursuit of unity whenever possible,” he said.
The congressman reiterated Monday he still has “an issue with” changes made by executive order or otherwise to the electoral process established by state legislatures.
The lawyers’ complaint was filed with the court in Albany, where Zeldin was admitted to the New York bar in January 2004. The Shirley resident earned his law degree at Albany Law School in 2003.
The lawyers in the complaint urge the New York bar to “send a powerful message to the public that the legal profession is committed to the defense of our democratic institutions and will not tolerate the conduct of attorneys who seek to subvert the will of the people, undermine our elections, and recklessly contribute to the incitement of violence.”
RiverheadLOCAL provided Zeldin’s office with a copy of the complaint Tuesday morning, seeking additional comment from the congressman. Tuesday night, Zeldin spokesperson Katie Vincentz dismissed the complaint as a partisan attack.
“Nearly every single one of these attorneys is a registered Democrat and half have donated to Congressman Zeldin’s opponents,” Vincentz said in an email. “One even ran as a Democrat in the Town of Brookhaven and another was chairman of the East Hampton Town Democratic Committee for almost 20 years,” she said.
“The eagerness of these partisan Democrats to further divide our community and country is despicable,” Vincentz wrote.
She reiterated Zeldin’s statements Monday that Democrats have raised objections to Electoral College vote counts after the election of Republican presidents.
“It’s an incredible double standard that if Republicans object as well on the same date in the same place as part of the same process, then that makes them all seditious traitors,” Vincentz said.
“Anyone who wants to call out a Congressional Republican for supporting an objection on January 6th needs to put up their past statements calling out every Congressional Democrat who objected in the past,” she said. “If those public calls don’t exist, their calls now are just hyper-partisan and hypocritical nonsense.”
Editor’s note: This article was amended post-publication to add further comment from Rep. Lee Zeldin’s office provided Tuesday night.