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?

Emails obtained in November 2020 via public records requests revealed that Peter Daszak, President of EcoHealth Alliance, a US-based non-profit with a self-professed mission to “develop science-based solutions to prevent pandemics”, had organised the statement. Daszak asked two scientists, “who had collaborated with Shi Zhengli [the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s (WIV) lead coronavirus researcher], to ‘not sign this statement, so it has some distance from us’”, explaining “We’ll then put it out in a way that doesn’t link back to our collaboration so we maximize an independent voice”.

In May 2014, EcoHealth secured a “grant of roughly $3.7 million” from the NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a U.S. government department), tasked with “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence”. This included manipulating coronaviruses, “performing gain-of-function experiments”, “to see which animal viruses were able to jump to humans”.

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”.

Furthermore, EcoHealth regularly funds research that involves transporting bat-related coronaviruses from remote to densely population urban area. For example, a 2013 study transported “two novel bat coronaviruses” over 1800km from remote caves in an isolated region in Yunnan, the location of the “closest known relative to SARS-CoV-2”, to Wuhan, a city of 8 million.

Concerns have also been raised about the safety of research at the WIV. American diplomatic cables “warned that sloppy safety protocols… in the lab ‘represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.’”

EcoHealth’s willingness to engage in various forms of risky research, even against the expressed wishes of the U.S. government, led Richard Ebright, Laboratory Director at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology, to liken “Daszak’s model of research… to ‘looking for a gas leak with a lighted match.’”

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.

Despite his significant and undeclared conflicts of interest, Daszak continued to play an influential role in the inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. When the WHO invited the U.S. to “recommend experts for a fact-finding mission in Wuhan”, none of the three recommended scientists were selected. The only representative selected from the U.S. was Daszak. He proceeded to take part in a mission described by “internal U.S. government analysis… [as] inaccurate and even contradictory”, during which he unquestioningly accepted Shi Zhengli’s assertion that the “WIV’s database of… 22,000 virus samples and sequences… had been taken offline… due to hacking attempts during the pandemic”, despite being taken offline on 12th September 2019. Daszak went on to say that “we did not need to see the data… a lot of this work has been conducted with EcoHealth Alliance… [so] We do basically know what’s in those databases… simple as that.”

Mounting evidence increasingly left scientists and politicians with no choice but to reject the crafted narrative of a scientific consensus. A key turning point was the revelation that “three researchers at the WIV, all connected with gain-of-function research on coronaviruses, had fallen ill in November 2019, and… visited hospital with symptoms similar to COVID-19”. Soon after it was found that “researchers [at the WIV] had collaborated… with, and “engaged in classified research… on behalf of, the Chinese military since at least 2017.’” One such study submitted in April 2020 tested “the susceptibility… of engineered mice with humanized lungs… to SARS-CoV-2”. The date of publication indicated that the mice had been engineered sometime in the summer of 2019, begging the question why the Chinese military had begun engineering mice to test their susceptibility to a virus that was now known to exist? In addition, “Shi Zhengli’s own comments… and grant information… suggest that in the past three years her team has tested two novel but undisclosed bat coronaviruses on humanized mice.

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.