Under-fire Lancet admits conflict of interest on lab-leak letter

After criticism that it failed to declare Peter Daszak’s work with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, journal has also ‘recused’ zoologist from its coronavirus origins taskforce

June 22, 2021
Wuhan China-Oct 2020 passengers in face mask to prevent coronavirus, sitting inside subway train in Wuhan
Source: iStock

The Lancet has added a competing interests statement to a now infamous letter published in February 2020 that critics argue stifled early debate about the origins of coronavirus without sufficient investigation or evidence.

The letter, organised and signed by the British zoologist Peter Daszak, condemned “conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin”, seemingly ruling out the prospect of a lab leak right at the beginning of the pandemic.

But the lab leak theory, once pushed to the margins of mainstream discourse, is now seriously entertained by a number of leading scientists, although definitive proof of any one explanation is still lacking.

Criticism of The Lancet has focused on its failure to declare in the original letter that Dr Daszak had for years funded and worked with the lab at the centre of the leak theory – the Wuhan Institute of Virology. This link, in the eyes of critics, could make Dr Daszak partially culpable if the lab leak hypothesis was true.

Instead, the 27 letter signatories declared at the time that they had “no competing interests”.

Now, the journal has added an addendum to the letter, acknowledging that “some readers have questioned the validity of this disclosure, particularly as it relates to one of the authors, Peter Daszak”.

“There may be differences in opinion as to what constitutes a competing interest,” an explanation from the journal says. “Transparent reporting allows readers to make judgements about these interests. Readers, in turn, have their own interests that could influence their evaluation of the work in question. With these facts in mind, The Lancet invited the 27 authors of the letter to re-evaluate their competing interests.”

The journal then publishes a lengthy competing interest statement about Dr Daszak, which does not explicitly mention his work with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

But it does acknowledge that the EcoHealth Alliance, the research funder that Dr Daszak leads, worked in China “assessing the risk of viral spillover across the wildlife-livestock-human interface, and includes behavioural and serological surveys of people, and ecological and virological analyses of animals”.

“This work includes the identification of viral sequences in bat samples, and has resulted in the isolation of three bat Sars-related coronaviruses that are now used as reagents to test therapeutics and vaccines,” the disclosure says. “It also includes the production of a small number of recombinant bat coronaviruses to analyse cell entry and other characteristics of bat coronaviruses for which only the genetic sequences are available.”

Scientist who have been calling for a fuller investigation of the lab leak theory said on Twitter that the journal’s disclosures did not go far enough.

“Too little too late,” tweeted Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

Dr Daszak has also been “recused” from the journal’s team of experts investigating the origins of the pandemic, it emerged. Earlier this month, he was chair of the body.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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