Conflicts of Scientific Interest: The Investigation into the Origins of COVID-19
In this age of space-ships and nucleotides, it is all too tempting to let scientists go off, do their business and accept whatever conclusions they come back with. However, recent revelations in the lab-leak theory shed light on how even professionals of our most trusted profession are subject to conflicts of interests, necessitating greater transparency and public scrutiny.
On 19th February 2020, when there had been just 2,129 coronavirus deaths worldwide, one of the world’s most respected medical journals, The Lancet, published twenty-seven scientist’s joint statement professing a scientific consensus against the lab-leak theory. “We stand together”, they proclaimed, “to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin”. For over a year the Lancet statement was used by social media fact-checkers to classify claims disputing the origin of COVID-19 as categorically false. But on 14th May 2021 a new statement of “18 prominent scientists” had been published in Science Magazine refuting the claims of the Lancet statement, calling for a serious examination of “hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillover”, and by 27th May 2021 President Joe Biden had ordered a review of COVID-19 origin theories.
How, then, did the lab-leak theory go from fringe conspiracy, against the scientific consensus, to be lauded by scientists as a possible explanation of COVID-19’s origins?
Just a few months later, the U.S. Government announced a pause on funding for any new gain-of-function research projects that could increase the transmissibility of SARS viruses (note that SARS viruses are coronaviruses) and encouraged scientists to voluntarily pause existing research. EcoHealth did not. A 2016 study, listed on the project details page for EcoHealth’s grant, conducted at the WIV, developed and used a new method for genetically engineering coronaviruses. Meanwhile a 2015 study, for which experimentation was performed prior to the funding pause, engineered a coronavirus that “replicated efficiently in primary human airway cells”.
As Jamie Metzl pointed out, it should therefore be no surprise that Daszak was so keen to set the scientific narrative on the origin of COVID-19: if SARS-CoV-2 had a natural origin he and his life’s work would be justified and validated despite criticism for his risky approach from sections of the scientific community; if SARS-CoV- 2 escaped from a lab, he and his field of work would be held responsible for the worst pandemic in a century.
In the absence of conclusive evidence for a natural spillover, we cannot outright rule out the lab-leak hypothesis. More fundamentally, the number of unanswered questions remaining over activities at the WIV raise legitimate and important concerns about its role in the outbreak of COVID-19. As time passes the quality of biological evidence will deteriorate, memories fade, and vested actors have more time to mould evidence to their wishes. There is a running clock, and so far, Peter Daszak, the WHO, and the Wuhan Institute of Virology have all failed to provide transparent inquiries into the origins of COVID-19. Let’s hope that the Biden investigation does.