Jeffrey Sachs says it’s all America’s fault

Why is an anti-American conspiracy theorist running a top medical journal’s COVID commission?

(Credit: Overseas Development Institute)

Last week, the medical journal the Lancet released its landmark COVID report after two years of work. Anything from the Lancet’s COVID commission should be a big deal, as it promised “to help speed up global, equitable, and lasting solutions to the pandemic,” and emerged from arguably the most well-respected and influential medical journal in the world. Instead, the report is an embarrassment, and the Lancet has Jeffrey Sachs to thank for that.

Jeffrey Sachs is an American economist and a professor at Columbia University, where he chairs its Center for Sustainable Development. He’s best known for advising post-Soviet states on their transition to market economies and writing popular books like 2005’s The End of Poverty. Those days are long gone.

Now, Sachs is a peddler of anti-American talking points. Over the past few years, he’s praised the Chinese Communist Party, argued that there is no Uyghur genocide, and blamed NATO for instigating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s all bad, and it gets worse. A few months ago, Sachs announced that he’s “pretty convinced” that the US is to blame for creating COVID. Apparently, the bug emerged from NIH research with Anthony Fauci as the mastermind. According to Sachs, the US and the scientific community are colluding to bury what would be the most important story of the generation. And like Sachs’s other controversial opinions, it strongly echoes Chinese propaganda.

Sachs’s descent into nonsense is especially remarkable given that he seems to have faced no serious professional or reputational repercussions for it. If anything, it’s been a boon. He receives mostly favorable press coverage, acts as an advisor to the European Commission on foreign policy, worked as a special advisor to the UN secretary-general until 2018, and, of course, the Lancet asked him to head their COVID commission in 2020. 

Sachs is actively promoting the interests of Russia and China, democracies’ greatest rivals, by discrediting everyone from victims of genocide to American scientists. So how did the economist come to lead an independent commission into a virus emerging from China for a top medical journal?

Sachs and China

Jeffrey Sachs is extremely skeptical of the American medical establishment, but he is all too willing to believe Chinese disinformation. He’s penned op-eds arguing that “The Xinjiang Genocide Allegations Are Unjustified,” “Ukraine Is the Latest Neocon Disaster”, it’s Crude, dangerous and naïve of U.S. trying to encircle China over HKSAR (that is, Hong Kong), and the US is waging an unjust “War on Huawei.”

Unsurprisingly, it’s made him a darling of the Chinese state media. He is a frequent guest on Chinese propaganda outlets, referenced in 179 articles in the English-language newspaper China Daily, and mentioned in 52 pieces in the state-run tabloid the Global Times. Apparently, this was a non-issue when he was offered the chair of the Lancet’s COVID commission.

Since then, as virologist Angela Rasmussen and biologist Michael Worobey wrote in Foreign Policy, “Sachs has consistently pushed the idea that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was engineered in a laboratory.” While the lab leak hypothesis deserves to be seriously considered, as I argued last June, studies over the past year have seemed to suggest it emerged naturally. Sachs isn’t convinced.

Instead, he’s taken the reasonable suspicion about the lab leak hypothesis and rolled it into a grand conspiracy that implicates the National Institute of Health and Anthony Fauci, who, apparently, conspired for at least a decade to make a super deadly virus to test antibiotics against. 

Perhaps Sachs’ unorthodox perspective on the origins of COVID-19 could be taken in better faith if he did not disparage the entire U.S. medical establishment while associating with known lunatics. In August, Sachs joined the podcast of Robert F. Kennedy Jr, probably the most influential anti-vaccine campaigner and conspiracist, for an episode on the “Origins of the Virus.” Sachs laid out how he came to suspect the true origin of COVID despite being “lied to so many times.” He praised research by US Right to Know, a group funded primarily by the Organic Consumers Association which is a bastion of anti-vaccine conspiracies. The podcast ended with a plug for Kennedy’s book “The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health.”

What’s most interesting about Sachs’s repeated claim that he’s “pretty convinced [COVID] came out of US lab biotechnology” is what he tends to gloss over––where China fits into all of this. Sachs seems to suggest that the US funded research ultimately triggered a catastrophic leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology sometime in late 2021. But he’ll never say it. Instead, his focus is on American malfeasance in funding nefarious research, “especially from Tony Fauci’s unit, the NIAID.” 

His silence on China is so extreme that a theory which would seem to blame China for a lab leak killing millions can instead be parroted by Chinese officials to bash the US. He can join a Chinese propaganda outlet for an interview and only ascribe blame to the US.  

I don’t think that China is paying Sachs. His views are too heterodox, his ego too large, and his eccentric beliefs homegrown enough for that not to be necessary. Instead, he’s blinded by a naive faith in international collaboration and an anti-Americanism that trumps all else. In every situation, the US is either at fault or all parties are at fault, and we can all just work it out. When asked about allegations that China is committing genocide against the Uyghurs, he responds with “what about America’s humans rights abuses?” If Russia decides that the “denazification of Ukraine” is worth destroying its neighbor over, Sachs reminds us not to forget about what NATO does either.

Jeffrey Sachs is so devoted to his kumbaya diplomacy and the idea that American power is the root of all evil that he’s turned himself into an anti-American propagandist. He has as much business running a commission on a virus that emerged from China as a creationist does running an evolutionary biology department. And yet, here we are. 

When Sachs was first appointed to lead the Lancet’s COVID commission, there wasn’t much reason to suspect that he’d end up trading conspiracies with RFK Jr. on his podcast. He was, however, someone with a long history of highly suspect views and authoritarian ties. All too often, those views are excused as nothing out of the ordinary. Sachs managed to hide the radicalism of his opinions under the guise of cooperation and global progress. For years, he equivocated on behalf of authoritarian regimes and took millions from dictators while leaping forward in polite society, building one of the most impressive résumés you could imagine. Until our chattering classes come to look as negatively at brushing elbows with foreign autocrats as they do promoting COVID conspiracies, he won’t be the last.

Aaro Berhane

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