Fights over confidentiality pledge and conflicts of interest tore apart COVID-19 origin probe
Original article from Science, 2021
Former members of The Lancet task force challenge why economist Jeffrey Sachs disbanded effort
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.