Stanford 'Star Chamber' restricted early COVID research to protect profit opportunity: professor

Cheap "pinprick" antibody tests, to be used only for local research, perceived as a threat to commercial tests Stanford faculty were developing, says author of widely cited Santa Clara County study.

Published: September 14, 2023 11:00pm

Updated: September 15, 2023 1:50pm

Stanford University rewarded recently resigned President Marc Tessier-Lavigne with further research opportunities and tenure after belatedly finding that labs he had run for over two decades, including ones at Stanford, had an "unusual frequency of manipulation of research data."

The elite Silicon Valley university allegedly took a drastically different approach, however, when medical professor Jay Bhattacharya threatened government narratives and Stanford's bottom line by setting out to determine how far SARS-CoV-2 had spread locally in spring 2020.

In an explosive essay Tuesday, Bhattacharya alleged that Stanford subjected his COVID-19 research team to a "Star Chamber" that spurned the university's "norms of research oversight" and violated their academic freedom.

Members of the "ad hoc committee" set up by the medical school's leadership had financial and other conflicts of interest that "predisposed them against our study," according to Bhattacharya, who made the claims in former Senate Finance Committee investigator Paul Thacker's newsletter.

They included faculty developing "venous blood draw" commercial antibody tests that might be "worth millions for its developer and Stanford," who apparently feared they could be undercut by the "cheap" Chinese-made "pinprick" tests donated by a sports medicine lab for Bhattacharya's study, he wrote. 

The committee demanded his team "modify our study protocols that would have put us afoul of the human subjects committee," which approved the study, and get pre-approval for "any manuscripts we would write," while also ordering Bhattacharya and study director Eran Bendavid to avoid the press, he alleges.

Stanford did not respond to Just the News queries for its response to allegations by Bhattacharya.

"I haven't had any local reaction at all," Bhattacharya told Just the News when asked how the campus was responding his allegations. "It's eerie. I was sure someone from the administration would reach out to me but it hasn't happened."

By contrast, Stanford showed no known interest in repeated concerns about the research integrity of Tessier-Lavigne's labs, going back to 2001 when the neuroscientist joined Stanford faculty, until a Stanford Daily investigation last fall forced the university's hand.

The president of seven years stepped down last month after the external investigation found that he repeatedly "failed to decisively and forthrightly correct mistakes in the scientific record" and his lab culture "tended to reward the ‘winners’ (that is, postdocs who could generate favorable results)."

Science retracted two of his coauthored papers, with a staggering 650 citations, on his last day as president. Cell retracted another the following week. Mark Filip, a former deputy attorney general who ran the external review, has said more investigations could follow

Bhattacharya's experience resembles that of University of Oxford epidemiologist Tom Jefferson, who accused the research collaborative Cochrane of throwing up seven months of roadblocks before publishing his research team's update to a 17-year ongoing review of mask studies. 

By finding masks make "little to no difference," the update didn't give Cochrane the "right answer," Jefferson claimed. Under media pressure, Cochrane drastically reinterpreted the findings in March.

Everything was going smoothly for Bhattacharya's team on the eve of the field testing, he wrote  Tuesday, with Santa Clara County's public health department and Stanford's human subjects review board helping write the recruitment script to put on Facebook.

Microbiologist Taia Wang, who was developing a commercial antibody test, found an even lower false-positive rate in Bhattacharya's cheap tests (0%) than his own team did (0.8%), Bhattacharya said. The Food and Drug Administration got the same result as Wang when it asked for several hundred of his team's tests to evaluate.

Subsequent testing by other laboratories confirmed the manufacturer's 0.5% false-positive estimate, a figure incorporated into their preprint papers that were posted before peer review, he said.

The 2.8% COVID-positive rate revealed by seroprevalence testing was "nearly 50 times more" than the county estimated and suggested the infection fatality rate was around 0.2% for the non-nursing home population, which wasn't tested, Bhattacharya said. It undermined "three weeks of shelter-in-place orders, business closures, and school shutdowns."

When California Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom generically praised "Stanford" for antibody testing advances, pathologist Scott Boyd complained to his department chairman, Tom Montine, that Boyd's own Stanford ClinLab commercial antibody testing platform – yet to receive FDA approval – would be confused with Bhattacharya's tests, the essay says.

"Bendavid and I started receiving increasingly alarming emails" along the same lines from Medicine Department Chairman Bob Harrington and Dean Lloyd Minor, Bhattacharya wrote.

Harrington would later allegedly accuse Bendavid in an email of putting a "scoop" over his study participants' well-being.

Bhattacharya posted an email exchange in which Montine responded to Bendavid's defense of his tests' accuracy by claiming they would "confuse" participants and the public about the reliability of Boyd's platform.

After collecting the test data, Bhattacharya said he and Bendavid started getting orders to change the protocol approved by the human subjects review committee, which is "supposed to be independent of pressure and influence" from administrators.

He's never been able to confirm the full roster of the ad hoc committee or its contacts but believes they include Boyd, interim medicine Chairman Bonnie Maldando and his department Chairmamn, Doug Owens, who he says "should have protested against the Star Chamber's intrusion on the academic freedom to pursue our research."

Bhattacharya said the committee was in contact with statistician Robert Tibshirani, a vocal but vague critic of his team's preprint, which was later published in the renowned International Journal of Epidemiology.

Tibshirani allegedly told a Stanford seminar the team should "retract" the preprint before it was peer-reviewed, and he cowrote a New York Times op-ed calling for a "rapid-review service" in which scientists discredit such preprints to journalists. 

According to Bhattacharya, Tibshirani rejected their invitation to coauthor the paper after they turned down his demand to see the "confidential health records of the patient volunteers."

The committee was "livid" when Bhattacharya's team posted their preprint without prior notice, Bhattacharya said. They later learned Maldonado, now interim medicine chairman, had been seeking a grant from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's foundation for her own proposed Santa Clara County seroprevalence study.

Harrington later blamed "someone above him" for telling Bhattacharya and Bendavid to stop giving interviews, the essay says, which "narrows the set to the very highest officials at Stanford." Harrington started his new position as dean of Weill Cornell Medicine and medical affairs provost of Cornell University Sept. 12.

Bhattacharya said he regrets giving into the committee's demand to retest the COVID-positive participants from the original study with Boyd's commercial test, but they did so "to protect our patient volunteers."

Boyd inexplicably reversed the correct protocol by starting with a "known positive sample," then "interpreted our sample as being all negative," Bhattacharya  wrote. "He incorrectly divided by the number of antibody-positive participants rather than the total number of participants!"

The retest nonetheless confirmed the pinprick tests' advertised false-positive rate, but "Boyd immediately refused us permission to use his independent confirmation in our published paper," the essay says.

The committee backed him, intimidating Bhattacharya's team into suppressing the "confirmatory data."

BuzzFeed News "hit pieces" on his wife and team member John Ioannidis, a Stanford epidemiologist and early critic of the supposed evidence for lockdowns, prompted another Stanford investigation that lasted several months and prompted he and Bendavid to hire lawyers, Bhattacharya wrote. 

Though it made "no finding of fault" and cleared them to continue teaching and research, the university refused to announce the findings or let them publicize it, according to Bhattacharya. "This 'fact-finding' started with a university press release, putting a cloud over our heads, and ended in silence." 

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