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Lab-leak denying EcoHealth Alliance president recuses self from COVID-19 investigation amid conflict-of-interest claims

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EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak has recused himself from a U.N.-partnered commission that is investigating the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus after vigorously working to discredit the lab-leak hypothesis and failing to disclose his organization's ties to the Chinese lab at its center.

Daszak is a highly influential scientist who since the onset of the pandemic has fiercely attacked anyone who suggested the possibility that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was manufactured and somehow leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Between 2014 and 2019, his organization funneled $3.4 million in National Institutes of Health grants to the Wuhan lab to study bat coronaviruses. A naturalized U.S. citizen, Daszak was the only American representative of a 10-member World Health Organization team sent to investigate the origins of the virus. He is also a member of the Lancet COVID-19 Commission, an interdisciplinary initiative established by the Lancet medical journal to make recommendations on how to prevent and contain future pandemics.

The Lancet COVID-19 Commission announced Tuesday that Daszak recused himself from the investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic after it came to light that his nonprofit group had funded research at the Wuhan lab that some claim could be related to the virus' origins.

"The Lancet COVID-19 Commission will carefully scrutinize the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in advance of its final report, with the overriding aim of recommending policies to prevent and contain future emerging infectious disease outbreaks. The Commission's technical work will be conducted by independent experts who were not themselves directly involved in US-China research activities that are under scrutiny. Dr. Peter Daszak has recused himself from the Commission's work on the origins of the virus," the statement said.

"The Commission urges all scientists who were involved in the US-China research to explain fully and transparently the nature of their work. In the meantime, the Commission will tap global experts in biosafety and other fields to help assess the relevant hypotheses on the origins of SARS-CoV-2, and to recommend ways to prevent and contain future outbreaks, whether from naturally occurring zoonotic events or research-related activities."

There is controversy surrounding Daszak because of his failure to be fully transparent about the nature of his work. Aside from failing to disclose his organization's ties to the Wuhan lab and his interests in the research performed there, Daszak worked both in public and behind the scenes to organize a campaign to discredit the lab-leak theory.

Publicly, Daszak has made misleading statements about the nature of the work conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and accused those who've suggested it's possible the virus leaked from the lab there of promoting conspiracy theories.

Privately, he led a campaign to give the appearance of authoritative scientific weight to his preferred natural origin hypothesis and ostracize opposing views. Last year, Daszak organized and drafted a statement signed by 27 prominent public health scientists that denounced "conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin." The letter contained a declaration by the authors of no competing interests, despite Daszak's personal interest in ensuring that the research he supported in Wuhan continued uninterrupted by accusations that it caused the COVID-19 pandemic.

The statement was published by the Lancet in February 2020 and became the dominant media narrative about the origins of the virus throughout 2020. Big tech social media companies took action to de-platform all dissenting opinions, labeling claims that contradicted the "science" as "misinformation." As Vanity Fair noted in its explosive report on the various investigations into the origins of the virus, the Lancet statement "effectively ended the debate over COVID-19's origins before it began."

On Monday, the Lancet published an addendum acknowledging Daszak's potential conflicts of interest regarding the February 2020 statement.

"In this letter, the authors declared no competing interests. Some readers have questioned the validity of this disclosure, particularly as it relates to one of the authors, Peter Daszak," the Lancet wrote. "In line with guidance from the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, medical journals ask authors to report financial and non-financial relationships that may be relevant to interpreting the content of their manuscript.

"There may be differences in opinion as to what constitutes a competing interest. Transparent reporting allows readers to make judgments about these interests. Readers, in turn, have their own interests that could influence their evaluation of the work in question," the journal stated, adding that it invited each of the 27 authors of the February 2020 letter to "re-evaluate their competing interests."

The Lancet then provided an updated disclosure statement from Daszak (edited for readability):

[Peter Daszak]'s remuneration is paid solely in the form of a salary from EcoHealth Alliance, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organisation. EcoHealth Alliance's mission is to develop science-based solutions to prevent pandemics and promote conservation. Funding for this work comes from a range of US Government funding agencies and non-governmental sources. All past and current funders are listed publicly, and full financial accounts are filed annually and published.

EcoHealth Alliance's work in China was previously funded by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Neither PD nor EcoHealth Alliance have received funding from the People's Republic of China.

PD joined the WHO–China joint global study on the animal origins of SARS-CoV-2 towards the end of 2020 and is currently a member. As per WHO rules, this work is undertaken as an independent expert in a private capacity, not as an EcoHealth Alliance staff member. The work conducted by this study was published in March, 2021.

EcoHealth Alliance's work in China includes collaboration with a range of universities and governmental health and environmental science organisations, all of which are listed in prior publications, three of which received funding from US federal agencies as part of EcoHealth Alliance grants or cooperative agreements, as publicly reported by NIH. EcoHealth Alliance's work in China is currently unfunded. All federally funded subcontractees are assessed and approved by the respective US federal agencies in advance and all funding sources are acknowledged in scientific publications as appropriate.

EcoHealth Alliance's work in China involves 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. 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.

NIH reviewed the planned recombinant virus work and deemed it does not meet the criteria that would warrant further specific review by its Potential Pandemic Pathogen Care and Oversight (P3CO) committee.

All of EcoHealth Alliance's work is reviewed and approved by appropriate research ethics committees, Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, Institutional Review Boards for biomedical research involving human subjects, P3CO oversight administrators, and biosafety committees, as listed on all relevant publications.

Dr. Jeffrey D. Sachs, an economics professor and the the chairman of the Lancet COVID-19 Commission, wrote a related op-ed Tuesday explaining the state of the debate on the origins of the virus. While the op-ed does not mention Daszak by name, it does discuss the issues the commission will consider in its investigation of the origins of the virus, from which Daszak recused himself, and states: "The Commission's overriding aim is to recommend policies to prevent and contain future disease outbreaks, and its technical work will be conducted by independent experts who were not themselves involved directly in the US-China research under scrutiny. The scientists who were involved should explain fully the nature of their work."

Sachs emphasized that both the lab-leak hypothesis and the natural origin hypothesis "are viable at this stage of the investigation."

"Those who have claimed that a natural origin is the only viable hypothesis overlook the extensive research activity that was underway in the field and in laboratories on SARS-like viruses, including in Wuhan, China, where the first outbreak was identified, and in the United States," Sachs wrote. "Those who claim that a research-related infection is the only viable hypothesis overlook the frequency of natural zoonotic transmissions of viruses, such as the SARS outbreak. There are many ways that a natural event could have occurred with SARS-CoV-2 somewhere in China and then been brought to Wuhan by an infected individual or an animal brought to market."

He clarified that research seeking to prove the virus has natural origins remains inconclusive. It's still possible that the virus was transmitted to humans from some animal, though scientists have not yet identified an animal host. It's also possible that the virus originated from coronavirus research without being artificially created, which would be the case if a researcher contracted it in the field, brought it back to the lab, developed mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, and it spread from there.

The third possibility is that the virus was engineered in the Wuhan lab through gain-of-function research, which involves modifying viruses to be more transmissible among humans.

"The public and policy community have become increasingly aware of the intensive research on SARS-like viruses that was underway in the US, China, and elsewhere, both in collecting viral samples from the field and in studying their infectivity and pathogenicity (ability to cause disease) in the laboratory," Sachs wrote. "We have learned that much of this work can be classified as 'gain of function' (GoF) research ... Experiments at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) involving the modification of bat-origin coronaviruses to express proteins that are likely to enhance entry into human cells are viewed by many scientists as falling squarely into the category of GOFROC."

Sachs acknowledged that the NIH funded U.S. and Chinese scientists to work collaboratively on collecting SARS-like viruses, taking them back to the Wuhan lab for study, though he did not mention EcoHealth Alliance by name.

"If there was indeed a laboratory-related release of SARS-CoV-2, it may well have occurred in a project funded by the US government, using methods developed and championed by US scientists, and as part of a US-led and US-financed program to collect and analyze potentially dangerous viruses, including in China," Sachs wrote.

He called on the NIH and on the Chinese government to release more information on the research that was funded and conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. He also called for "an international and independent investigation" to learn the truth and for both the U.S. and Chinese governments to cooperate "fully and transparently" with such an inquiry.

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