Scientific Integrity and the Origins of Covid-19

As official bodies investigate the origins of Covid-19 it is important for the research community to play its part

As I emerge from the last stages of recovering from Covid-19, my attention has focused on the origins of the disease, and especially the role of the scientific community in addressing that issue. The World Health Organization (WHO) has convened a global study of the origins of SARS-CoV-2, but there are important issues that the scientific community should address independently and right away.

Of course, asking questions about the origins of Covid-19 is an invitation to politicization, conspiracy theorizing and even nationalistic posturing. But even so, the WHO recognizes that understanding origins is of critical importance to “improving global preparedness and response to SARS-CoV-2 and zoonotic emerging diseases of similar origin.” We should not let the hot politics of Covid-19 distract from the need for a cool assessment of where it came from, and corresponding lessons for the future.

A first priority for the research community, and in particular leading academic journals, is to ensure that relevant data is made available for independent analysis and that the narratives told and claims made by researchers are consistent across the scientific literature. In the case of Covid-19, there is ample reason to suggest that some narratives and claims have been misleading or incomplete, and that data have been selectively shared, or not at all, or even gone missing.

Consider the following troubling example.

In August, Aksel Fridstrøm, a Norwegian journalist highlighted inconsistencies in the timeline and characterization of data presented by researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which had published one of the first papers last February in Nature suggesting that SARS-CoV-2 was related to previously unsequenced bat viruses. But soon after the WIV Nature paper was published, several researchers from India hypothesized in a pre-print that the bat virus that WIV had compared in Nature to SARS-CoV-2 had actually been collected from a cave in 2013, and subsequently sequenced and documented in the academic literature. In addition, statements made in an interview by the lead author of the Nature paper also seemed to contradict the claims in the paper.

Fridstrøm put these apparent inconsistencies to the editors at Nature. Perhaps as a result of his query and the questions raised in parallel in the literature, earlier this week Nature published a clarifying addendum to the original WIV article. That addendum admitted that, yes indeed, the bat coronavirus was collected in 2013 from a cave after a group of miners had fallen ill due to a SARS-like disease. Further, that 2013 bat coronavirus had been discussed in a 2016 paper (which, oddly, was uncited in their Nature paper). The name of the virus sample had been changed since 2016, and interestingly, was one of 9 similar coronaviruses that had been collected at the time, but never disclosed, apparently until the Nature Addendum published this week.

All of this is unusual and is troubling. The failure to disclose what are obviously key details is sloppy, under the most charitable interpretation, and less generously, lends itself to interpretations of being misleading or evasive. As Gunnveig Grødeland of the the University of Oslo explained, “One of the central principles in research is transparency about the information that is available, including what work has been done and how this was done. This may have a natural explanation, but it could also be that it does not.”

The issues associated with the WIV Nature paper provide just a few from a larger set of examples of research integrity issues that appear to surround the WIV Covid-19 research. For instance, some researchers have alleged that relevant virus databases once online at WIV are no longer available (see here and here). As a paper published this week in BioEssays argues, “A thorough investigation on strain collections and research records in all laboratories involved in CoV research before SARS‐CoV‐2 outbreak is urgently needed. Special attention should be paid to strains of CoVs that were generated in virology laboratories but have not yet been published, as those possibly described in the deleted WIV database.”

I asked Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts of Technology and Harvard, how these various claims and inconsistencies might be resolved. The issues are incredibly technical, discussed piecemeal across dozens if not hundreds of papers and preprints in many independent journals, and are undeniably under the shadow of international politics. She suggested that “an impartial committee of scientists and investigators should be appointed (their names should be 100% public) and given full access to the entire peer review process (including editorial communications, peer reviewer comments, author communications etc.).”

Obviously, leading academic journals, like Nature, would have to agree to such a process to make communications and peer reviews available to investigators. Journals would also have to rigorously enforce data sharing policies, something not always done. To be sure, a committee focused on the peer-reviewed literature to clarify timelines, published claims and data availability related to Covid-19 would likely not answer the question of origins, but it could identify and even clean up inconsistencies in the literature and ensure that all relevant data is made available to those who are investigating origins.

Peer review is often widely misunderstood. It is not a guarantee of accuracy, but an initial check on research quality. Its sprawling nature and highly variable rigor also means that the peer-reviewed literature also provides a venue for misleading or false claims to gain a foothold. In my experience, I have even seen the peer-reviewed literature weaponized to support policy making with flawed science. It happens. In the long-run science is self-correcting, but sometimes we may wish to accelerate that process of correction. This is one such case.

I don’t know where Covid-19 came from. I do know that it is important to find out. As someone who has for decades studied and evaluated scientific claims across many fields, and seen plenty of issues in peer-reviewed research, I am convinced that the literature on SARS-CoV-2 originating from the WIV deserves greater scrutiny.

If all that is occurring here is sloppiness and poor communication, then it would be in the interests of WIV (and the Chinese government) to have that cleared up unambiguously. If there is in fact further information available that would help the WHO and others investigating Covid-19 origins, then that too would be important to make available and to clarify. Finally, in order for scientific journals to fulfill their roles as vessels of the enlightenment, they have a responsibility to act independently to clarify the claims and make available the data in the research that they have published, especially now that there is clear evidence of inconsistencies.

While understanding the origins of Covid-19 is important to public health and international diplomacy, setting the research record straight is a matter of scientific integrity.