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Chairman disbands panel of scientists investigating COVID-19's origins, saying its links to a nonprofit that worked with a Chinese lab risks perception of bias




  • In Science
  • 2021-09-26 10:35:25Z
  • By Business Insider
There is still no conclusive evidence that coronavirus originated from a lab. Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images
There is still no conclusive evidence that coronavirus originated from a lab. Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images  
  • A Lancet-affiliated scientist panel studying the origins of COVID-19 has been disbanded.

  • The chairman of the panel told WSJ he was concerned about its links to EcoHealth Alliance.

  • EcoHealth Alliance has been facing scrutiny over its connection to an institute in Wuhan.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

A task force of scientists investigating the origins of COVID-19 has been disbanded by Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs.

The Wall Street Journal reported that it was due to the task force's links with US non-profit EcoHealth Alliance, which worked with Wuhan Institute of Virology. Sachs said this risked the perception of bias, according to the outlet.

New York-based EcoHealth Alliance focuses on research and has been subjected to intense scrutiny since the onset of the pandemic. This is due to its long-time alliance with the institute.

Before the spread of the virus, both had reportedly been collecting and engineering bat viruses in order to explore the threat to humans.

Sachs told the Wall Street Journal of his motivation behind dissolving the task force.

"I just didn't want a task force that was so clearly involved with one of the main issues of this whole search for the origins, which was EcoHealth Alliance," he said.

There is still no conclusive evidence that coronavirus may have originated from a lab, or that it transferred to humans from a wild animal, or another scientific research experiment.

EcoHealth Alliance has channeled some of its funding towards the institute, which involved collecting samples from bats and people at risk of infection from bat viruses, The Telegraph previously reported.

That grant was stopped in April 2020 on the orders of then president Trump but was reinstated later in the year, the outlet said.

Daszak led the task force, affiliated with the Lancet scientific journal, until he voluntarily withdrew from the role in June. He has insisted there is no evidence to support the lab-leak theory.

Some other members of the task force have worked with Daszak or EcoHealth alliance on projects, the WSJ reported. One member said the disbanded group does not have conflicts of interest that stand in the way of its means to assess data on how the virus jumped to humans.

Sachs told the WSJ that the Lancet COVID-19 Commission would continue to study the origins in a report due to be published in mid-2022. But the commission would widen its scope to include input on biosafety concerns from external experts, including government oversight and transparency on lab research.

He said more labs have the technology to recreate or construct new viruses, but guidance and regulation on safe experimentation aren't keeping pace.

"A lot is going on around the world that is not properly scrutinized or explained to the public," Sachs said. The professor isn't supporting any one theory over another about the origins of COVID-19, he added.

The Lancet task force had been chasing leads on both the natural spillover from an animal and lab-leak hypotheses, WSJ said.

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