The two major investigations into the origins of the pandemic are compromised by potential conflicts of interest. Those problems need to be fixed—fast.
Fully half of The Lancet‘s team had already suggested that any lab-leak hypothesis was a “conspiracy theory” months before their work began.
“We find ourselves 10 months into one of the most catastrophic global health events of our lifetime,” wrote Stanford University immunologist and bio-threat expert David Relman in November, “and, disturbingly, we still do not know how it began.” That lingering uncertainty is of the utmost importance: The precise origins of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, once resolved, will allow us to better prepare for future pandemic threats. But to find out what really happened will require careful and coordinated scientific investigations that are only just now getting underway.
In the meantime, we’re left to speculate. A long essay by Nicholson Baker, published several weeks ago in New York magazine, made the case that the pandemic began with a laboratory accident; and while the article has been tarred as an irresponsible, ill-informed, and one-sided presentation, even its most ardent critics could concede that the possibility of a lab leak cannot be ruled out with certainty.
There are now two major efforts to investigate where Covid-19 came from: one set up by the World Health Organization and the other organized by a leading medical journal, The Lancet. The investigations are expected to take months or even years to complete, and, given the many challenges involved, they may never deliver conclusive answers. It’s already clear, however, that both are compromised by a lack of clear procedures to manage conflicts of interest and questionable independence. Now it is imperative that governments and the scientific community act quickly to improve them.
The problem starts with the nature of the inquiries, which must determine, for starters, whether the SARS-CoV-2 virus went straight from wild animals to the population (the likeliest scenario, per most experts) or perhaps escaped from a laboratory setting. But many of the people who are most qualified to look into this question—the ones with the most relevant technical knowledge—also happen to be the ones who work in those very laboratory settings or have close professional ties with the people who do.
In other words, they’re exactly the people who might themselves be blamed (either directly or as part of a research community) if the virus were ever traced back to a lab.
This fundamental tension is not at all uncommon in the convening of expert committees, by governments or otherwise. Decades ago, the scientists who had relationships with tobacco companies were among those with the best understanding of the effects of smoking on public health, but their inclusion on health advisory committees was problematic and helped to motivate more rigorous approaches to managing conflicts of interest. Fortunately, governments around the world have a long track record of implementing these approaches; and it’s certainly possible to tap relevant expertise via formal questioning or testimony without including those with conflicts as investigators themselves. Unfortunately, it’s not clear that either of the leading investigations into the pandemic’s origins is following the relevant best practices.
For instance, both investigations include Peter Daszak, disease ecologist and president of the EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit with a history of conducting research into SARS-related coronaviruses and their effects on humans, including collaborative work done at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The Wuhan Institute happens to be the only laboratory in China that is allowed to work with the world’s most dangerous pathogens, and it’s located at the apparent ground zero of the current outbreak.
If there were a lab leak—and, again, most experts do not believe that the available evidence points in this direction—then both the Wuhan Institute and its US partner would be on a short list of candidates to investigate. It should be obvious that no one with any connection to either organization can play a formal role in any truly independent investigation into the pandemic’s origins. (Of course their expert input could and should be solicited through other means.)
It’s also worth noting that Daszak expressed certainty, very early in the crisis, that the disease originated in the wild. Last winter, just after the WHO first named the virus, he drafted a formal statement to “strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin” and to “stand with” colleagues in Wuhan and across China. More than two dozen other scientists would sign that letter, which was published by The Lancet on February 19, 2020. Emails obtained via the Freedom of Information Act suggest that Daszak organized the effort from the start.
Nevertheless, when the WHO organized its international, 10-person team in September, with a mission to “identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population,” Daszak was included as a member.
Daszak told Science this week that the investigation of a lab leak is important but that completing such work would be difficult: “Some of the more anti-China rhetoric that’s out there, about ‘we need to go into the lab and look at the video cameras,’ this sort of thing, that’s not realistic, that’s not what happens.”
The WHO committee’s guidelines say nothing about the disclosure or management of actual or perceived conflicts of interest, but they do say that “the final composition of the international team should be agreed by both China and WHO.” We have no idea whether other conflicts of interest could apply to the committee’s members, since their public disclosure is not required. The WHO does not appear to have explicit procedures for managing such disclosures, even when they’re made on a voluntary basis. The WHO’s apparent lack of routine processes like these weakens the integrity of the investigation before it has even started.
Meanwhile, on November 23, 2020, the other investigation, set up by , convened a 12-person task force to look into the pandemic’s origins, chaired by Daszak. Among the other members are five more signatories to the EcoHealth Alliance letter from last February, which means that fully half of this team had already suggested that any lab-leak hypothesis was a “conspiracy theory” months before their work began.
Obviously, no one wants to be associated with the origins of this disease. The Chinese foreign minister, for example, recently asserted that “the pandemic was likely to have been caused by separate outbreaks in multiple places in the world.” At the same time, White House officials continue to claim that the virus probably leaked from a Chinese lab. There are, in fact, dozens of laboratories around the world—some supported by the US government—that work with live SARS and SARS-related viruses and where a laboratory accident might be catastrophic; and, as Baker pointed out at length in his much-maligned New York magazine story, scientists have warned for years of just this possibility. If a formal investigation into the pandemic’s beginnings were to take the lab escape hypothesis seriously—let alone find suggestive evidence in its favor—it could seriously threaten this research.
The February letter in The Lancet, signed by Daszak and his fellow task-force members, does raise some legitimate concerns. In denouncing the “conspiracy theory” of a possible laboratory origin, it warns of the “fear, rumors, and prejudice” that might arise if this idea became widespread in the absence of evidence, which could then “jeopardize our global collaboration in the fight against this virus.” Indeed, this is the same worry expressed by many critics of the Baker piece—that loose speculation of this kind could be taken up by reckless or malicious actors, then used to buttress other, more harmful notions such as vaccine skepticism. Or else a “lab-leak theory” run amok could imperil more rigorous investigations by the WHO or others.
But these same concerns also underscore the importance of empaneling investigators who are free of any real or perceived conflict of interest. If an essay like Baker’s plays into the disinformers’ hands, then so does an easily contested official process to investigate the origins of Covid-19. Fears of conspiracy theorizing should not scare us away from asking uncomfortable questions. They should do the opposite, and motivate us to ensure that our investigations into the origins of this pandemic are as open, independent, and trustworthy as possible.
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