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EcoHealth Alliance listed Lipkin as a “partner” from 2012 to 2014, an archived version of the group’s website shows.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. 

FOIA reveals another secret call on COVID’s origin. The details are redacted.

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Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar, pictured here in 2019, hosted a series of teleconferences with top virologists discussing whether the pandemic was the result of a lab accident in early 2020. Notes from a Feb. 7 meeting were obtained by USRTK, but are fully redacted. (Photo credit: World Economic Forum)

Top virologists may have continued privately discussing “all theories” of the pandemic’s origin in the days after they began outlining an influential article that dismissed the lab leak theory in February 2020, an email obtained by U.S. Right to Know suggests.

The group — led by Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar and University of Sydney virologist Edward Holmes — apparently continued dissecting the data on Feb. 7, three days after the article was first drafted.  

“Eddie Holmes and a small group have been looking extensively at the origins and evolution of n-CoV including all theories,” Farrar wrote in an email on the morning of Feb. 8, 2020, to National Academy of Medicine President Victor Dzau, referring to an early abbreviation for the new novel coronavirus.

“This is the latest summary, written as part of a series of [teleconference] discussions we set up and included [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci] and [National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins] as well as a small group from USA, UK, Europe and Australia,” Farrar wrote. 

It’s not clear whether the group had concluded the virus arose naturally by that date, or whether the lab origin hypothesis was still in play. 

Six pages of notes from the Feb. 7 discussion are fully redacted.

Dzau forwarded Farrar’s message to National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt and President Trump’s Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Kelvin Droegemeier. 

McNutt later forwarded the email with an attachment called “Summary.Feb7.pdf.” 

The redacted documents surface as questions swirl about whether virologists consulting with NIH leadership may have prepared a public relations blitz to marginalize the “lab leak theory” at the same time they privately wrestled with it. 

Three days earlier, on Feb. 4, Farrar had shared with Fauci a first draft of a correspondence co-authored by Holmes titled “​​The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2” that ultimately dismissed the possibility of a lab accident, according to emails transcribed by congressional staff. 

Farrar held a series of teleconferences with about 11 scientists around the world in early February. Fauci attended at least two of these teleconferences, according to a separate email released under FOIA by BuzzFeed News

While a Feb. 1 meeting of the Farrar group had been disclosed through that earlier FOIA request and a subsequent congressional investigation, the Feb. 7 meeting has not been previously reported. 

In a tweet after this story’s publication, Scripps Research virologist Kristian Andersen, a coauthor of the “proximal origin” article, said that the emails reported by U.S. Right to Know do not refer to one of these teleconferences, but did not provide further detail.

“There was no ‘teleconference’ on Feb 7,” he wrote. “Time for a new conspiracy theory.”

Andersen did not directly reply to a request for comment.

These teleconferences have come under scrutiny in recent months, as journalists and congressional committees have uncovered that three of the five authors of the “proximal origin” article had concluded on Jan. 31 that the genome of SARS-CoV-2 was “inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory.”

On Feb. 4, Farrar emailed Fauci and Collins that he was split “50-50” between a lab origin and natural origin and that Holmes was split “60-40,” leaning toward a lab origin. 

The participation of Fauci and Collins on the calls and their possible involvement in the shaping of the “proximal origin” article have raised concerns about a conflict of interest. NIH funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a connection Fauci may have been aware of by Feb. 1.

The scientists, including Fauci, have countered that the about-face —  from believing a lab origin was probable on Feb. 1 to a consensus that it was improbable in the article first circulated on Feb. 4 — simply reflected the scientific method at work

Notes from the Feb. 7 meeting may help clarify whether this shift indeed reflected rigorous scientific inquiry or amounted to a coverup. 

Requests to Farrar, Dzau, McNutt, each of the five “proximal origin” authors, and NIH to see notes from the Feb. 7 meeting were not returned. 

While Farrar’s memoir Spike describes his sleepless nights following these teleconferences on the pandemic’s source, it does not mention the Feb. 7 meeting. Farrar’s book describes the Feb. 1 meeting, then jumps to the March 17 publication of the “proximal origin” paper. 

Farrar directed questions to a media officer for the Wellcome Trust, who cited a January statement about COVID’s origins.  

“The scientific evidence continues to point to SARS-CoV-2 crossing from animals to humans as the most likely scenario,” the statement reads. “However, as the efforts to gather evidence continue, it is important to stay open-minded and work together internationally to understand the emergence of Covid and variant strains.”

Holmes did not respond to a request for comment. 

The National Academies 

Farrar’s email to the leader of the National Academy of Medicine coincided with a call by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for the prestigious professional society to investigate the pandemic’s origin. 

“I sent a memo from OSTP to [the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine] about data needs … and a meeting was held that same day, though I didn’t attend (one of my staff did),” Droegemeier told U.S. Right to Know in an email. “NASEM responded in writing on February 6 saying that additional genomic sequence data were needed to determine the origin of the virus.”

The NASEM held a call with experts on Feb. 3, including two U.S.-based collaborators of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. 

Andersen was also on the call. 

Andersen described the possibility that the virus was manipulated as “crackpot” in an email to the other NASEM participants. He urged the Academies to push back on it more forcefully in its public response to OSTP. 

Just four days after voicing concerns that the viral genome appeared “inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory,” he recommended the Academies use the language “consistent with [natural evolution]” in its reply.

Droegemeier said he did not recall the email from Farrar and does not have access to emails since he left public service. 

U.S. Right to Know obtained the email through a Freedom of Information Act request to OSTP as part of an investigation into risky virology research funded with taxpayer dollars. 

Updated June 3, 1:13 p.m. to reflect public comments by Kristian Andersen