Scientist who branded the lab leak hypothesis a conspiracy theory finally admits conflicts of interest. Report: Jonathan Matthews
Peter Daszak, who orchestrated the highly influential statement in the Lancet which effectively branded the lab leak hypothesis a conspiracy theory, has finally been forced to take a step back.
Last September GMWatch reported the outrage of well-credentialled scientists over Daszak’s appointment as lead investigator into the origins of the pandemic for the Lancet COVID-19 Commission. How, we wondered, could the Commission have put a man in charge of an “objective” enquiry into the origins of the pandemic who had been at the very heart of the campaign to stop the possibility of the lab leak hypothesis being taken seriously?
At the time, GMWatch seemed like a lone voice reporting this issue. The mainstream media published no concerns about Daszak’s massive financial conflict of interest, never mind the fact that he was a long-term friend and collaborator, as well as a funder, of Shi Zhengli’s lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), or that he had a track record of making seriously inaccurate and misleading statements about the origin issue.
In the last few weeks, though, not only has the question of whether the pandemic could have originated in a lab started to garner serious attention, but there has been growing concern over how this possibility ever came to be treated as taboo.
The Lancet letter and conflicts of interest
A key element in shutting down discussion was the 18 February 2020 Lancet letter, condemning “conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin”, which Daszak organised and drafted.
At the time Daszak and every one of his co-authors “declare(d) no competing interests”. Now, however, the Lancet has felt it necessary to publish an Addendum about this: “We invited the 27 authors of the letter to re-evaluate their competing interests. Peter Daszak has expanded on his disclosure statements for this letter and two other pieces relating to COVID-19 that he co-authored or contributed to in the Lancet.”
Daszak’s new statement is a masterpiece of long-winded deflection that never manages to admit that – via EcoHealth Alliance, the organisation that Daszak heads – he has been a contractor and collaborator on work at the WIV on novel chimeric bat coronaviruses.
The Addendum prompted Rutgers University microbiologist Richard Ebright to tweet, “It would have been both more ethical and more concise for the Lancet to have stated that Daszak's previous declaration was untruthful...and to have attached an editorial expression of concern to Daszak's letter.”
Equally questionable is the Lancet’s failure to challenge any of Daszak’s co-authors over the fact that they did not correct their declaration of “no competing interests”. To take just one example of the problem, it wasn’t just Daszak who had a direct connection to EcoHealth Alliance. A quarter of the letter’s 27 signatories were affiliated to the organisation as either board members, advisors, or employees – a fact not made apparent either in the original letter or the new Addendum.
Indeed, one analysis of the Lancet letter’s signatories calculated that 15 of the 27 “had major conflicts” that weren’t declared. Interestingly, this analysis also notes that of the eight signatories who are most obviously independent, five have now modified or reversed their positions as regards the likelihood of a lab leak.
Task Force reconstituted?
At the same time that the Addendum containing Daszak’s “expanded… disclosure statements” was published, a note appeared under Daszak’s name on the Lancet COVID-19 Commission’s website saying he had been “recused from Commission work on the origins of the pandemic”. A recusal describes the way that judges, for example, excuse themselves from presiding over cases due to potential conflicts of interest or lack of impartiality.
It seems that Daszak’s leadership role in the Lancet Commission’s Task Force on Origins has finally been recognised as fatal to its credibility. After all, as Richard Ebright said at the time of his original appointment, “One could not possibly choose a less appropriate, more conflicted, person to lead the investigation. Unless one chose Zhengli Shi herself.”
According to Ebright, it’s not just Daszak who’s been recused – the Lancet Commission’s whole Task Force on Origins is now being “dissolved and reconstituted”. Ebright describes the Task Force that Daszak led as “chock full of members connected with WIV, EcoHealth, or the Lancet letter”.
Ebright’s belief that radical changes of personnel are underway is based on a just published article by the chair of the Lancet Commission, the economist Jeffrey Sachs. Sachs was previously on record as saying that the idea of a WIV lab leak was “illogical”, arguing that “neither the biology nor chronology support the laboratory-release story”.
But his new article rows back on all of this, acknowledging not just that a lab leak from the WIV is a real possibility but that the “risk of future research-related outbreaks of pandemic diseases” must be addressed.
Daszak's wet market fixation takes another big hit
As well as leading the Task Force on Origins until his recusal, Daszak was also a member of the WHO mission to China in early 2021 to look into the same issue. This included visiting the WIV – the institute where Daszak’s organisation had funded and collaborated in research on SARS-related bat coronaviruses.
Daszak and the WHO team concluded that a lab leak was “extremely unlikely”. And Daszak has been among those steadfastly championing the idea that animals sold in a Wuhan wet market played a critical role in the emergence of COVID-19.
Daszak has maintained this position even though the animal samples that were tested from the Huanan seafood market proved negative for SARS-CoV-2, and it is known that there were several earlier cases of COVID-19 involving people with no connections to the market. Indeed, research by Chinese experts published as early as January 2020 showed the then first known patient, with symptom onset on 1 December 2019, had never been to the market, and almost a third of the cases in the first large cluster after that also had no market connections.
But still Daszak and others in the WHO mission have tried to point to the market as the source of the pandemic, with Daszak even suggesting the virus could have reached there via frozen wildlife meats and carcasses, while the head of the mission, Peter Ben Embarek, has suggested checking animals from suppliers and farms for signs of the virus.
The credibility of this obsessive focus on the market has taken another big hit from research just published in preprint by Jesse Bloom, an expert on virus evolution at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Bloom analyses data on early cases of SARS-CoV-2 that were uploaded to the National Institutes of Health database from Wuhan University but then deleted. He found a way of recovering this deleted data from Google Cloud and managed to reconstruct partial sequences of a dozen or so viruses. Among these, Bloom identified SARS-CoV-2 sequences that precede the “first” SARS-CoV-2 sequence from China.
Bloom’s analysis of the data yet again confirms that SARS-CoV-2 was circulating in Wuhan before the outbreak connected to the wet market. The deletion of the data in June of last year could be said to have helped obscure that fact.
WHO study should be disavowed
That brings us to the wider implications of Bloom’s research. He finds “no plausible scientific reason” for the deletion of such critically important genomic data about early cases of infection. He writes, “It therefore seems likely the sequences were deleted to obscure their existence. Particularly in light of the directive that [Chinese] labs destroy early samples (Pingui 2020) and multiple orders requiring approval of publications on COVID-19 (China CDC 2020; Kang et al. 2020a), this suggests a less than wholehearted effort to trace early spread of the epidemic.”
That understated conclusion led the Broad Institute’s Alina Chan to point out that the WHO team that Daszak was part of “didn’t get early case data, early sequencing data, not even market data. No banked samples, no patient samples. A paper just showed no bats or pangolins in Wuhan markets 2017-19.” She goes on, “You were shown the BSL4 [highest level biosecurity lab] although SARSrCoV work was [done at the much lower biosecurity levels] BSL2/3. [You] didn’t ask for WIV database/records.”
That last point refers to a database, administered by Shi Zhengli, that contains many thousands of virus samples and sequences, including an estimated 100 or so unpublished sequences of bat beta coronaviruses – i.e. those closest in lineage to SARS-CoV-2. This database was taken offline by the WIV in September 2019 and it has been inaccessible to anyone outside the WIV ever since.
Daszak has said that he told his fellow members of the WHO mission to China that he could vouch for the integrity of his colleagues at the WIV and that he knew what was in the dataset. And he assured them there was nothing in it that was relevant to their enquiries. As a result, Daszak’s colleagues did not even ask to have access.
All of this led Alina Chan to tell the WHO, “Best option is to disavow the phase I study you’ve participated in and tell us exactly how little actual data you were given access to.”
It is difficult to overstate the damage that Peter Daszak has done via his efforts to inhibit an open exploration of how the pandemic began. But that damage was only possible because the global scientific establishment was willing not only to allow Daszak, and others with powerful vested interests, to frame the narrative around the origins of the pandemic for well over a year, but to keep promoting him as an independent authority on the issue.
A critical role was played in this process by the science media – most obviously the Lancet, but leading journals like Nature and Science, and publications like Scientific American, also played a major part in sustaining the Daszak narrative and shutting down public discussion of a lab leak hypothesis among scientists. And following lamely in their wake came much of the mainstream media, which until very recently treated Daszak as a go-to source, while failing to critically examine either his status or his many misleading claims. Indeed, an article published only just over a week ago shows that even at this stage, he still has media allies keen to give him a free pass.