Virologist who tried to discredit the lab leak theory was once a ‘partner’ to EcoHealth Alliance

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Columbia University virologist Ian Lipkin has coauthored several articles with EcoHealth Alliance since 2011. Photo credit: kris krüg

A virologist who coauthored a paper marginalizing the lab leak theory did not disclose his ties to the research group at the center of it.

Director of Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity Ian Lipkin has often worked with EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S.-based collaborator of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the group confirmed in an email. 

EcoHealth Alliance listed Lipkin as a “partner” from 2012 to 2014, an archived version of the group’s website shows. Lipkin has coauthored at least ten scientific papers with EcoHealth researchers from 2011 to 2021, EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak said in an email. These publications include a paper about novel coronaviruses EcoHealth and its partners sampled around the world. 

EcoHealth Alliance hunts for novel viruses in wildlife and funds research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Lipkin did not disclose his partnership with EcoHealth in “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2,” a highly influential paper that states that COVID-19 arose from nature.

A central premise of that paper: COVID-19 is too dissimilar from viruses commonly employed in experiments to have spilled out of a lab. 

“It is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus,” the paper states. “The genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone.”

But Lipkin did not disclose his connection to a nonprofit that uncovers new and novel viruses. Some of those viruses were likely studied at its partnering lab in Wuhan, which housed one of the world’s largest collection of bat coronaviruses. 

Lipkin did not return several requests for comment. 

At 5.7 million views, the Nature Medicine article may be one of the most widely read scientific papers in history — though the piece is formally a “correspondence.” 

David Relman, a Stanford University microbiologist and emerging infectious diseases expert for the National Academies, said conflicts of interest are especially troublesome when writing on high profile issues. 

“For any major, controversial issue, I believe that all of us have an even greater responsibility to reveal those conflicts upfront—and let others have an opportunity to judge what effect those conflicts might have had,” said Relman.

Relman also called into question the logic of the paper’s premise. The Wuhan Institute of Virology may have simply been experimenting with unfamiliar viruses. The disappearance of the lab’s coronavirus sequence database in 2019 and the lab’s history of gain-of-function experiments also weaken the claims of Lipkin and his coauthors, Relman said. 

“The Proximal Origins paper is flawed in its assumptions, logic and the soundness of its conclusions. I was very surprised that it passed review at Nature Medicine,” he said. 

Columbia University Center for Sustainable Development Director Jeffrey Sachs — chair of The Lancet COVID-19 Commission — said the citation the authors used to prop up the paper’s premise deserves more scrutiny. 

“The Proximal Origins paper has no credibility,” Sachs wrote in an email. “The paper’s central claim — that SARS-CoV-2 is not related to viruses previously reported in laboratory research — offers as proof a footnote to a 2014 paper!”

“It ludicrously claims to debunk a 2019 lab emergence using a 2014 paper,” he continued. “The paper offers no real evidence whatsoever against the possible lab origin of the virus, even though it claimed to do so.” 

Lipkin himself has since acknowledged the possibility that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was experimenting with unknown viruses, contradicting the popular paper he coauthored.

“If they’ve got hundreds of bat samples that are coming in, and some of them aren’t characterized, how would they know whether this virus was or wasn’t in this lab? They wouldn’t,” Lipkin said in an interview with the Washington Post last year. 

But Lipkin has not disclosed his work with EcoHealth to reporters.

Nature Medicine, the journal that published the paper, defines a “competing interest” requiring disclosure as including “personal or professional relations with organizations and individuals” — paid or unpaid. A spokesperson for parent company Springer Nature did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Lipkin’s connection to a group at the center of lab leak suspicions is the latest revelation to cast doubt on the correspondence.

Significant questions remain. It’s still unclear how the authors dispelled their own private concerns that the virus had been engineered within a couple of days.

For example, Lipkin privately voiced concerns to his coauthors about a “nightmare of circumstantial evidence” pointing to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Vanity Fair reported

It’s also unknown to what extent leaders of the National Institutes of Health, which funded the EcoHealth Alliance, may have shaped the paper. 

Grant reports that led a reporter to the defunct link showing Lipkin’s partnership with EcoHealth Alliance were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the U.S. Agency for International Development. 

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