A top medical journal at the heart of several pandemic-related controversies published a major COVID-19 Commission report Wednesday that concluded the deadly pathogen might possibly have leaked from a United States laboratory.
The eyebrow-raising suggestion—which was just a part of a 58-page analysis of the COVID pandemic and its origins—in The Lancet stated that it was “feasible” that the SARS-CoV-2 virus emerged either as a natural spillover event or as a leak from a lab. While the report mentions facilities in Wuhan, China, it also says that “independent researchers have not yet investigated” U.S. laboratories, adding that the National Institutes of Health has “resisted disclosing details” of its research on SARS-CoV-related viruses.
The report also called for new safeguards to be put in place to prevent future natural spillovers—in which an animal transmits a virus to a human, who then passes it to other humans—and research-related spillovers.
But concerns have been raised about the commission’s chairman—prominent economist Jeffrey Sachs—and his previous comments about the origins of COVID.
Earlier this year, the Columbia University academic said he was “pretty convinced” the pathogen “came out of a U.S. lab of biotechnology, not out of nature.” When asked about the view, Sachs told Politico in July that he believed the virus “quite likely emerged from a U.S.-backed laboratory research program,” adding: “A natural spillover is also possible, of course. Both hypotheses are viable at this stage.”
The following month, Sachs appeared on a podcast hosted by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has become one of the internet’s leading anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists and caused outrage by comparing vaccine mandates to the Holocaust. Sachs’ appearance on Kennedy’s show came just days after Meta banned accounts led by Kennedy from Facebook and Instagram for spreading COVID misinformation.
“Sachs’ appearance on RFK Jr’s podcast… undermines the seriousness of the Lancet Commission’s mission to the point of completely negating it,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization in Canada, told the U.K.’s Telegraph newspaper.
“This may be one of the Lancet’s most shameful moments regarding its role as a steward and leader in communicating crucial findings about science and medicine,” Rasmussen said, adding that she’d been “pretty shocked at how flagrantly” the report had ignored important evidence about the origin of COVID.
Sachs told the outlet that he stood by his earlier comments, adding that all of the Lancet’s commissioners had signed off on the final wording of the report.
But Peter Hotez, a member of the Lancet Commission and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas (and a Daily Beast contributor), said there had been “diverse views” and that he had “pushed hard on removing” the references to American labs in the report because it was “a distraction.” He added that he was left “speechless” by Sachs’ appearance on Kennedy’s podcast.
Wednesday’s report is just the latest controversy surrounding The Lancet and the pandemic.
In February 2020, in the earliest days of the outbreak of the virus, The Lancet published a letter signed by 27 public-health scientists slamming “conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” The Telegraph later reported that 26 of the 27 signatories had connections to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and the journal published a separate letter in 2021 that responded to the first by calling a research-related origin to the virus “plausible,” adding: “Research-related hypotheses are not misinformation and conjecture.”
The journal also notoriously retracted a major May 2020 article that had questioned the efficacy of using the drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine in treating COVID, which then-President Donald Trump had advocated. After pulling the paper over concerns about data used in the study, The Lancet updated its editorial and peer-review policies in order to reduce “risks of research and publication misconduct.”
And even before the coronavirus pandemic, The Lancet unwittingly played a central role in the formation of the modern anti-vaccine movement at the end of the 20th century. In 1998, the journal published an article by British former physician Andrew Wakefield linking the MMR vaccine with autism. The study was ultimately proved to be a complete fraud and was retracted in 2010, with Wakefield being barred from practicing medicine in the U.K. He has nevertheless been revered by anti-vaxxers, including the likes of RFK Jr., with his acolytes continuing to spread dangerous health myths to this day.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for The Lancet said: “The Lancet COVID-19 Commission includes 11 Task Forces in areas ranging from vaccine development to humanitarian relief strategies, safe workplaces, and global economic recovery.
“Throughout the Commission’s two years of work, The Lancet, in collaboration with Commission Chair Professor Jeffrey Sachs, regularly evaluated the work of each Task Force as scientific evidence about COVID-19 evolved to ensure that the final peer-reviewed report will provide valuable new insights to support a coordinated, global response to COVID-19 as well as to prevent future pandemics and contain future disease outbreaks.”