Science

Fights over confidentiality pledge and conflicts of interest tore apart COVID-19 origin probe

An effort to probe the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic that was intended to sidestep politics has foundered amid accusations of conflicts of interest and bias. The head of The Lancet COVID-19 Commission, an interdisciplinary initiative set up by the prestigious medical journal to improve the world’s response to the pandemic, last month quietly and abruptly dissolved its origin task force after 10 months of work. That news, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, was preceded by a dispute over academic freedom, Science has learned, and also reflects the deep and bitter divisions that have been steadily escalating over whether a natural spillover of a virus was the trigger or whether laboratory studies might have played some role.  

The commission’s chair, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, says he was concerned that five of the 12 task force members, including the original and current chairs, had potential conflicts of interest because of their direct and indirect ties to a lab in Wuhan, China, at the center of the origin debate. But Gerald Keusch, the current chair, charges that Sachs didn’t trust that the task force members would give the lab-origin hypothesis a fair evaluation and attempted to influence how they conducted their work, including demanding access to confidential interviews with experts on both sides of the debate whom they promised not to identify.

“Our mistake was to think that we were appointed as an independent autonomous group of experts without the supervision, intervention, or the micromanagement by the sponsor, the COVID-19 commission,” says Keusch, who is associate director of Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory Institute.

The demise of the task force, one of 12 under the commission’s umbrella, comes after a higher profile effort to probe the charged issue also stumbled. Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) organized a team of international scientists to work with Chinese counterparts on the origin question. But critics complained the investigation downplayed the lab-origin possibility to appease China, and WHO last week rebooted the effort with a new group of scientists.

The odds looked better for the effort organized by The Lancet, which does not answer to governments and has a long history of forming commissions that largely consist of leading academic scientists who are independent. To chair the task force Sachs initially chose zoologist Peter Daszak, one of the world’s most experienced researchers of bat coronaviruses. Daszak runs a research nonprofit, the EcoHealth Alliance, that has long collaborated with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), a focus of suspicion for lab-origin advocates. They have suggested SARS-CoV-2 traces back to bat samples WIV researchers either collected in the wild or created, sparking the pandemic when it somehow escaped. Daszak has called such suggestions a “conspiracy theory.” 

In a draft of a 10 December 2020 letter EcoHealth provided to Science, Sachs boasted about the quality and objectivity of the origin task force. “This a very highly regarded and experienced global group of scientists,” Sachs wrote to Representative Bill Posey (R–FL), who had asked about the task force. “The Commission and the task force have no preconceived conclusions in the outcome of this work. We are interested in ascertaining the truth.”

Peter Daszak was part of an international fact-finding mission to China to explore COVID-19’s origin, but his ties to a lab there led to the disbanding of a second task force examining the same issue.HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

Former President Donald Trump and many others pilloried EcoHealth—and, by extension, Daszak—for collaborating with WIV, which led the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to defund a grant to the nonprofit. At first, Sachs strongly defended his choice of Daszak. He told Posey, for example, that Daszak was open to “all theories” and said his ties to WIV would be an asset, noting he “is in a position to query senior China’s officials [sic] at WIV and elsewhere regarding Covid-19 and its antecedents.”

As new details of EcoHealth’s work and its collaborators were revealed, Sachs says, his doubts grew. “It was not well known to me how potentially conflicted he was.”

Sachs adds that he requested to see EcoHealth’s grants with NIH, but Daszak refused. “In the spring, I asked him for NIH grants and proposals he made, and he told me those were confidential,” Sachs says. “I said there was no way he could be task force chair or on the commission if he didn’t share those.” The other 11 people on the task force refused to remove Daszak from their ranks, but agreed to make Keusch their chair instead.

Daszak declined an interview request, but a spokesperson for EcoHealth noted that Sachs “first reached out to us to offer his help when our NIH grant was terminated abruptly by the Trump administration.” Richard Roberts of New England Biolabs, a Nobel Prize winner who organized a letter with 76 other laureates castigating NIH for canceling EcoHealth’s NIH grant at Trump’s urging, guffaws at the accusation that Daszak failed to disclose conflicts of interest. “This is just ridiculous—he made no effort to pretend that he was not a part of the EcoHealth Alliance and that they had contacts with the Wuhan institute,” Roberts says.

(Daszak found himself at the center of yet another maelstrom on 20 September because of a leaked grant application that EcoHealth submitted to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 2018. The proposal, which was not funded, included controversial experiments that could alter bat coronaviruses in a way that may have given them a “gain of function,” potentially creating human pathogens with pandemic powers. The proposal did not become public until after Sachs disbanded the Lancet task force.)

Last month, Sachs says, his concerns about conflicts broadened beyond Daszak to other task force members. On 10 September, he learned details of an NIH grant to EcoHealth, “Understanding Risk of Zoonotic Virus Emergence in EID Hotspots of Southeast Asia,” which was released following Freedom of Information Act requests from The Intercept. Keusch and three other task force members are listed as co-investigators. “None of them reported this involvement with the EcoHealth Alliance grant, though they had been asked to do so,” Sachs says. “In these circumstances, I ended the task force.”

quotation mark

Our mistake was to think that we were appointed as an independent autonomous group of experts without the supervision, intervention, or the micromanagement by the sponsor, the COVID-19 commission.

  • Gerald Keusch
  • Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory Institute

Filippa Lentzos, a sociologist at King’s College London who specializes in biosecurity issues, believes Sachs was “absolutely right” to dissolve the task force. “At this point in the pandemic, building trust in how its origins are investigated is absolute key,” Lentzos says. “Real or perceived conflicts of interest will only generate mistrust of any investigative findings.”

Ian Lipkin, a virologist at Columbia, says he doesn’t question Daszak’s integrity, but also understands why Sachs disbanded the task force. “Sachs cannot afford either apparent or real conflicts of interest that would undermine public confidence in the Lancet commission,” Lipkin says. He notes that had he been offered to join the task force he would have declined the invitation because of his own collaborations with Chinese researchers.

Sachs’s conflict-of-interest concerns were “disingenuous to the extreme,” charges Keusch, who learned on 15 September about Sachs’s decision to dissolve the group. “The grant was an application under review for a networking agreement and it involved no funding—only the potential for NIH support,” Keusch says.

Instead, Keusch asserts, Sachs’s decision reflected his own biases. “Anybody who had a connection to EcoHealth became persona non grata,” Keusch says. “I had a long email to Jeff, which said you’re conflating expertise, collaborations, or connections with conflict of interest.”

Sachs’s concerns also baffle the University of Melbourne’s Danielle Anderson, a task force member who was on the EcoHealth grant. “Instead of being clearly defined by specific criteria, conflict of interest became a personal, shifting opinion that I believe was politically motivated,” says Anderson, a virologist who had long collaborated with WIV.

Keusch charges Sachs with interfering with the task force’s work. Keusch, Daszak, and other members planned to speak with about 50 experts holding a range of views about the pandemic’s origins, promising them confidentiality so they could speak freely. But in the spring, Sachs told the task force he wanted access to the interview transcripts. The group resisted. “We immediately started an ongoing set of discussions with him about the task force, its integrity, its autonomy, and that proceeded ahead throughout the summer,” Keusch says.

quotation mark

It was not well known to me how potentially conflicted [Peter Daszak] was.

  • Jeffrey Sachs
  • Columbia University

Keusch and other task force members say Sachs also pushed them to investigate biosecurity at WIV and add new members who had publicly promoted the lab leak hypothesis.

Sachs acknowledges the dispute. “I didn’t approve of secret, confidential discussions,” he says, because the approach “lacked transparency.” He also says it’s “an open question” how SARS-CoV-2 first infected humans, and he thinks the task force was too conflicted to explore it objectively.

That suggestion offends University of Malaya virologist Lam Sai Kit, a task force member who was not on the grant revealed by The Intercept. Lam, who helped discover the Nipah virus in 1999, says, “I take great umbrage to this [dismissal] as a scientist who has worked in the field of emerging infectious diseases, especially those caused by viruses with a zoonotic origin. Personally, I feel that injustice has been done to us by the Lancet commission.”

The showdown with Sachs need not have happened, says task force member Stanley Perlman, a coronavirus researcher at the University of Iowa. “There were ways that he could have handled this that would have been less problematic,” Perlman says.

Still, David Morens, an influenza researcher at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says the hunt for the origin of the pandemic has been so sullied by politics and other nonscientific issues that he’s uncertain the task force’s planned report would have had an impact. “Given all the chaos that’s going on, maybe nothing would have mattered.”

Several members of the Lancet task force say they hope the group can reincarnate itself under another organization and continue its work.

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