On the menu today: Peter Daszak recuses himself from the COVID-19 Commission established by the medical journal The Lancet, after accusations that he hid his conflicts of interest in the past. That’s barely enough, because back in February, he was doing interviews with Chinese-state-run media backing up Beijing’s implausible theory that COVID-19 was imported to Wuhan from Cambodia, Thailand, or Japan. Meanwhile, at home, Democrats run into brick walls of reality, and we wonder why anyone believes Michael Wolff’s tall tales anymore.
Peter Daszak: Hey, Maybe COVID-19 Started in Cambodia, Thailand, or Japan
It will probably not surprise you to learn that Peter Daszak, the president of the EcoHealth Alliance, is the favorite American COVID-19 expert of Chinese-state-run media. But it may surprise you to hear that in an interview with the state-run Global Times earlier this year, Daszak echoed the supremely implausible claim of the Chinese government that SARS-CoV-2 originated in another country and was somehow imported into Wuhan. “There was a virus from Thailand close to the SARS-CoV-2, and also Japan and Cambodia. Ecohealth Alliance is already starting our work in tracing their origins.”
This week, Daszak recused himself from the COVID-19 Commission established by the medical journal The Lancet — not over his public embrace of China’s implausible blame-shifting theories, but because of complaints he didn’t disclose past conflicts of interest in his contributions to that journal.
The Lancet didn’t quite run a correction on an article from early 2020 that dismissed the possibility of a lab leak setting off the COVID-19 pandemic. But it did feel sufficient pressure from readers and other medical experts to offer an update on the question of whether Daszak was honest when he declared in that statement that he had no competing interest. The editors of The Lancet write:
In February, 2020, 27 public health experts co-authored a Correspondence in The Lancet (“Statement in support of the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China combatting COVID-19”), supporting health professionals and physicians in China during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. 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. 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. With these facts in mind, The Lancet invited the 27 authors of the letter to re-evaluate their competing interests. Peter Daszak has expanded on his disclosure statements.
In his ‘expanded’ disclosure statement, Daszak writes that:
“PD’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.
I must interrupt to point out that the People’s Republic of China funds the laboratory doing the research on coronaviruses in bats in partnership with EcoHealth Alliance, and that the work of the EcoHealth Alliance in China is entirely dependent upon the continued approval of the Chinese government. So no, the president of EcoHealth Alliance is not someone who can be relied upon to declare when the Chinese government is being dishonest. His organization’s ability to continue its work in China is dependent upon him never saying something that will anger Beijing. That is a crystal-clear example of a conflict of interest that does not involve any direct payments from the Chinese government.
When the EcoHealth Alliance issues a press release declaring, “EcoHealth Alliance scientists, in partnership with Wuhan Institute of Virology and Duke-NUS, found SARSr-CoVs in bat caves near Jinning in Yunnan Province,” does Daszak think his organization is operating independently of the Chinese government?
Daszak continues in his updated statement:
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.
He appears to be contending that the moment he says, “I’m doing this in my private capacity,” his organization’s past ties to the Chinese government effectively disappear.
In fact, Daszak is the only American citizen whom the Chinese would allow to visit Wuhan as part of the WHO investigation team; other American experts applied to join the team but were not selected, in a move many suspect was designed to placate Beijing. In a way, the Chinese government was really insulting Daszak by allowing him and barring other American scientists; it’s a de facto declaration that they perceive him as a pushover or an easy mark.
Once Daszak arrived in China, he seemed spectacularly incurious and willing to believe whatever his Chinese-government handlers told him:
“That wasn’t our task to find out if China had covered up the origin issue,” Peter Daszak, president of the New York-based non-profit EcoHealth Alliance, told host Leslie Stahl.
“We met with them. We said, ‘Do you audit the lab?’ And they said, ‘Annually.’ ‘Did it you audit it after the outbreak?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Was anything found?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you test your staff?’ ‘Yes,’” Daszak told CBS.
“But you’re just taking their word for it,” Stahl interjected.
“Well, what else can we do?” Daszak responded. “There’s a limit to what you can do and we went right up to that limit. We asked them tough questions.”
But the toughness of the questions doesn’t really matter if you accept dishonest answers without verification. And China refused to open up the WIV database or turn over raw data on the first COVID-19 patients.
In his updated statement to The Lancet, Daszak says, “The work conducted by this study was published in March 2021.”
Yes, and the director-general of the WHO, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, reacted to that study with the conclusion, “I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough. Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions. Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy.” That was nearly three months ago, and of course, the Chinese government has not allowed any additional outside investigators to visit Wuhan.
You can strain your eyesight looking for differences between the assessments of the Chinese government and the statements of Daszak. Back in February, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price declared that, “Clearly, the Chinese, at least heretofore, had not offered the requisite transparency that we need and that just as importantly, again, the international community needs so that we can prevent these sorts of pandemics from ever happening again.”
The mundane statement from a department spokesman didn’t attract much attention in the U.S., but it spurred denunciations from Chinese-state-run media. Daszak publicly argued that this was just public posturing from the Biden administration for domestic political concerns. Daszak tweeted, “Biden has to look tough on China,” and preemptively declared that any conclusions from U.S. intelligence could not be trusted. “Please don’t rely too much on US intel: increasingly disengaged under Trump & frankly wrong on many aspects. Happy to help WH w/ their quest to verify, but don’t forget it’s ‘TRUST’ then ‘VERIFY’!” (Daszak never elaborated on how he, a zoologist, would know about how engaged the U.S. intelligence community is.) Shen Shiwei, the international news editor of state-run CGTN, responded, “Who is more powerful? Scientific research or political game?”
Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University who’s been warning about gain-of-function research and the risks of lab accidents for years, contends that The Lancet is doing the bare minimum to correct its past misjudgment: “It would have been both more ethical and more concise for the Lancet to have stated that Daszak’s previous declaration was untruthful . . . and to have attached an editorial expression of concern to Daskak’s letter.”
Reality 1, Democrats 0
After spending much of 2020 and early 2021 believing its own hype, the Democratic Party has just slammed into a brick wall at top speed:
Politico: “The top legislative priority of progressive Democrats is set to die in the Senate today with barely a whimper of protest from the White House. Republicans will easily filibuster the For the People Act, killing the sweeping elections proposal once and for all.”
The Associated Press: “Iran’s election unsettles Biden’s hope for a nuclear deal.”
Campaigning is easy. Governing is hard.
The Wolff Who Cried ‘Wolf’
I have no doubt that many of the crazy stories about former president Donald Trump which will be in Michael Wolff’s next book sound plausible enough. But after Wolff was caught falsely claiming that one of Trump’s cabinet secretaries had an affair with him, and then after he tried the dumb “my earpiece isn’t working” trick to dodge tough questions in a remote interview . . . why is anybody reading this guy’s stuff again?
ADDENDUM: It’s the quietest part of the NFL offseason, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have thoughts about the New York Jets, shared with Scott Mason of the Play Like a Jet podcast.