Stephanie Lee Unravels the Conflicts of Interest Behind a Controversial COVID-19 Study

Courtesy of Stephanie Lee

Stephanie Lee

Like many other science journalists, Stephanie Lee found herself making a rapid pivot to the COVID-19 beat in the spring of 2020. But fresh off a six-month stint covering the electronic cigarette company Juul, Lee entered the fray with a major home-field advantage: a good nose for controversy, and for the ethical pitfalls that often accompany profitable scientific discoveries.

In the past few months, Lee has become BuzzFeed News’s go-to person on COVID-19 antibody tests—clinical assays that search patients’ blood for immune molecules that recognize SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus. Ideally, these tests can serve as a proxy for past infections, giving researchers a broad view into which members of a population have previously encountered the pathogen. Dozens of different antibody tests are now available to the public. But they vary wildly in accuracy and consistency, Lee has reported, which stymies efforts to catalog the full extent of the pandemic’s reach in the United States. Amid the chaos, some scientists have charged ahead with data drawn from widespread deployment of dubious tests—including a group of Stanford researchers pushing the idea that the virus isn’t deadly enough to justify prolonged lockdowns.

Lee has been reporting on the controversial Stanford saga from its start, beginning with coverage of a non-peer-reviewed manuscript posted on April 17 to the preprint server medRxiv. That study used antibody data from Santa Clara County, California, to assert that the coronavirus had infected far more people than initially believed. If it held up, research, led by Stanford scientists Eran Bendavid, John Ioannidis, and Jay Bhattacharya, would seem to suggest that SARS-CoV-2 isn’t as lethal as feared. Since then, Lee has unspooled several of the complex threads that have spun out of the study, documenting other researchers’ critiques of its data, recruitment methods, and reliance on an antibody test with sub-par performance.

In mid-May, she broke one of her biggest stories yet. After obtaining a whistleblower’s complaint, filed with Stanford University, Lee reported that the study had been funded in part by JetBlue Airways founder David Neeleman, who has publicly proclaimed that SARS-CoV-2 fears are overblown and that we need to reopen the American economy. The lengthy document contained dozens of screenshotted emails batted between the researchers behind the study and their colleagues, some of whom expressed concerns about the antibody test—complaints that Ioannidis and others allegedly ignored.

Lee’s piece went, well, viral. Since its publication on May 15, it’s been viewed by hundreds of thousands of readers—all eager to better understand the study’s results and conclusions, and the motivations and biases of the researchers. Here, Lee tells Katherine J. Wu about her deep dive into the whistleblower’s complaint, and how she navigates the ethics of investigative reporting. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

 

How did the whistleblower story unfold?

When the Stanford preprint came out on April 17, it was the biggest seroprevalence study in the United States done so far. So naturally, I was interested in reading it. The study almost immediately got blowback from researchers, who had issues with the methods used, and how they’d recruited people. So I wrote an explainer piece about that study, as well as another one that had come out of Los Angeles County.

After that, I found out about an email that the wife of the lead Stanford researcher, Jay Bhattacharya, had sent to the listserv of a local middle school in Los Altos, a very wealthy town in Silicon Valley. Someone had come across the email, and they were concerned about a lot of the language in it, and thought I’d be interested in taking a look. I wrote a piece on that as well. After that—I can’t go into too much detail—I found out about this whistleblower complaint.

“Having a body of work that shows you’re a critical thinker, that you question the status quo, that you’re willing to do stories that are challenging and uncomfortable … that’s one of the strongest flares you can send up into the sky to get the attention of people who come across things that they think are strange or not quite right.”

Generally speaking, how do you get most of your tips? Why do you think people know to get in touch with you, specifically, when they have something to share?

When you put signals into the world that you’re interested in something, people who are also interested in the thing tend to find you. Even before the coronavirus started, I was doing a lot of reporting about scientific misconduct. Having a body of work that shows you’re a critical thinker, that you question the status quo, that you’re willing to do stories that are challenging and uncomfortable … that’s one of the strongest flares you can send up into the sky to get the attention of people who come across things that they think are strange or not quite right. Logistically, I also have in my Twitter bio that my DMs are open, and I have Signal [an encrypted chat app], which is linked to my Google Voice number, not my actual cellphone. I also have my work email, and a ProtonMail account, which is ultra-encrypted email, as well as a personal website, where I put all that information. BuzzFeed also has a tipline: tips@buzzfeed.com.

I also stay in regular-ish contact with people who have been sources for previous stories. Sometimes, if I see something, I’ll just get in touch and say, “Did you see this? What do you think of it? What’s going on here?” When these people trust you, they can also recommend other people. You end up building a network that way.

How often do these tips turn into stories?

I don’t write about 90 to 95 percent of the things I look into. And my stories don’t always start with an inbound tip. I’m also reading all the time and asking, “What doesn’t add up here?” Sometimes the journey ends with one phone call or email [that makes it clear there isn’t a story here]. Other times it’s weeks or months, though that’s rare. I just have to be willing to ruthlessly discard things that are not substantiated or interesting. I think of it like planting seeds—most of them don’t grow. But the more seeds you’re spreading, the more likely you’ll get something to materialize.

What made this whistleblower complaint story worthy for you?

I look for high-impact stories—where a piece of science has been widely publicized, or is influencing policy, or there’s a lot of money at stake. The allegations raised by the complaint added a whole new dimension to the study—allegedly, how it came together. One criticism of the study after its release was a perceived politicization of the results. The authors had gone on multiple right-wing media outlets like Fox News and [pushed] the theory that the infection fatality rate was much lower than believed, and the coronavirus was not much more deadly than the flu. This complaint appeared to shed light on a behind-the-scenes factor that may explain why the study was publicized the way it was.

You told me before we spoke that you can’t reveal the identity of the whistleblower, the nature of the complaint, or how it came to you and BuzzFeed News. Why?

Investigative stories often rely on people who take a risk in giving information to you, ultimately because they think the information would benefit the public to know. As a journalist, you’re obligated to protect that person as best you can from retribution.

[I] never reveal sensitive source information. If a source needs their identity to be protected, it’s on us to do everything we can to do it. The source isn’t really the story: The story is the complaint, and the complaint speaks for itself. How I came to it is almost beside the point.

What did you do with the information once you got it? How did you begin the process of reporting what turned out to be such a complex story?

The complaint was a very complicated document. I spent a lot of time just reading and rereading it. Then I consulted with experts and asked them for help in decoding or making sense of different aspects of it. When I do this, I choose these experts very carefully, and tell them what I’m sharing with them is absolutely confidential. I’ve never had that backfire.

That process helped me make sense of what was worth including in the story, and what was maybe less important. Then I wrote a draft, just based on the document itself, and updated it as I talked to experts and people named in it. Once I felt really rock solid about what the allegations were, that’s when I could turn to scientists involved and say, “Please tell me your side of the story.”

How did you go about verifying and reporting the allegations in the document? How did you flesh out your story with accounts from those involved?

“With investigative journalism, it’s always best to have documentation.”

With investigative journalism, it’s always best to have documentation. This document was a complaint that was officially submitted to Stanford University from a legitimate person. There’s this concept called fair report privilege—a legal concept where you can [legally] report on a document that’s been filed, as long as you attribute everything to what the complaint is alleging. Because it’s officially submitted, it’s fair game to report on.

The document contained a bunch of emails from all these people. So then I called or emailed each of the people in it, and asked, “What did you mean when you wrote this? What was going on in your mind? How did you interpret that other person’s message?” Some people didn’t respond, but I cross-checked as best I could—like, if someone sent an email with a recipient, I checked if that person received it.

Before a story like this runs, we also send a “no surprises” letter—a very detailed list of everything that’s going to appear in the story. That allows you to say, “This is what I’m planning to report based on what I’ve found and what you and I have talked about”—or, if the person didn’t respond—“what I’ve been able to report out from other people, documents, and research.” Then you give them time to respond, add, clarify, and correct things.

A large part of your reporting dove into the media coverage around this study. How did you keep track of other coverage, and use it to enhance your own piece?

The questions about the study were not just about the statistics and scientific methods, but also the way it was being publicly discussed. As far back as late March, John Ioannidis, Jay Bhattacharya, and Eran Bendavid had written op-eds in big mainstream publications about their thoughts that the death rate for the coronavirus was likely much lower than believed. They also did media appearances about the theory.

As a part of my reporting, I watched all these clips and wrote down quotes that seemed relevant. I read tweets. It helped me piece together a chronological timeline of when they appeared in media, what they said, and how it was received. When you’re diving into something, it’s good practice to set up Google Alerts and search social media for news articles about the thing you’re writing about.

Your story weaves a lot of complex threads together. What was the most difficult part of structuring the piece so it doled out digestible bits in a sensible order?

The hardest part was figuring out what information to present first. We went through many, many iterations. We ended up going with what felt like the most newsworthy part of the story, [which was JetBlue founder David Neeleman’s financial contribution to the study]. Neeleman wasn’t the whole story. But to fully understand the rest of the story and its characters, you have to understand him first.

Then the rest of the story is kind of chronological, from March through about mid-May—that was easier. The real gift with a document like this was that there was a chronology to it, which is such a nice thing to have for a narrative story. The complaint also had dialogue in the form of emails. It’s rare that you get a chance to see what scientists are actually saying to each other behind the scenes—how the sausage is being made.

Stories like these can illuminate the less savory parts of the scientific process. That’s especially tough to swallow during a global crisis. What do you hope readers take away from your reporting?

Research like this is extremely important to get right. We’re dealing with a constantly fluctuating, nonstop life-and-death situation, nationally and globally. I think scientists are generally doing their best to come up with data and give some answers, but the uncertainty that exists right now creates room for bad actors and misunderstandings.

Researchers aren’t going to be perfect all the time. But research deserves to be scrutinized and held accountable. That’s important for all of us.

 

 

Katherine J. WuCourtesy of Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a science journalist and Story Collider senior producer who has written for Smithsonian, National Geographic, Popular Science, Undark, and more. She is a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and is currently a reporting fellow at The New York Times’ science desk. She holds a PhD in microbiology from Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineJWu.

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