Whistleblower Says JetBlue Founder Helped Fund Contested Stanford Antibody Study, Tried To Downplay Severity Of Coronavirus

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Written by Dana Sanchez

A whistleblower is calling conflict of interest, suggesting that Stanford University research professors who conducted an influential coronavirus antibody study may have been financially incentivized by the founder of JetBlue Airways.

antibody study
A whistleblower says scientists did not disclose that the founder of JetBlue Airlines helped fund a contested Stanford University antibody study. David Neeleman has tried to downplay the severity of coronavirus. Neeleman, CEO of JetBlue, right, speaks at a news conference Feb. 24, 2005, at the Burbank Airport, Calif. JetBlue announced it will start providing service from Burbank to JFK starting May 24, the first nonstop flights from Burbank to the East Coast. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

The Stanford University study released dramatic findings on April 17 that made headlines around the world. The number of coronavirus infections was up to 85 times higher than believed based on antibodies in thousands of blood samples from Silicon Valley residents in Santa Clara County. This infection count, if true, would drive down the virus’s local fatality rate to 0.12 percent–to-0.2 percent — close to the death rate for the flu, BuzzFeed News reported.

The national rate of death among people infected with covid-19 and who show symptoms is 1.3 percent, according to a University of Washington study published May 7 in the journal Health Affairs. The comparable rate of death for the seasonal flu is 0.1 percent.

The Stanford University antibody study, known as the Santa Clara study, was funded in part by David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue Airways, according to a complaint from an anonymous whistleblower.

The coronavirus has been worse for the airlines than 9/11, Bloomberg reported. Most were expected to go bankrupt by the end of May if they couldn’t get a bailout. U.S. airlines cut capacity by as much as 90 percent for April and May but kept on flying “ghost planes” under the terms of the U.S. CARES Act coronavirus federal stimulus package. Airlines were allocated $58 billion in bailouts in the legislation, passed by Congress on March 27.

Neeleman has been a vocal critic of lockdowns and proposed that the pandemic isn’t deadly enough to justify continued lockdowns. Almost immediately, the Stanford study became a rallying cry in the increasingly politicized debate over reopening the economy.

Scientists questioned the study’s methods, and the authors revised it two weeks later, but “it was trumpeted by conservative media to support a growing theory: that fears of the coronavirus are overblown.”

One of the authors of the study was famed scientist John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine, epidemiology, and population health at Stanford with a reputation for highlighting flaws in research methods, pushing scientists and physicians to be more rigorous in evaluating and applying evidence. Ioannidis’ most famous paper, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,” has been downloaded millions of times and cited in thousands of studies, Medscape reported.

“Ioannidis may be one of the most influential scientists alive,” according to a 2010 profile in The Atlantic.

The whistleblower complaint said that Ioannidis and his coauthors did not disclose that the study was funded in part by Neeleman. “Concern that the authors were affected by a severe conflict of interest is unavoidable,” the complaint stated. An anonymous whistleblower involved with the research submitted the complaint to Stanford’s research compliance office, BuzzFeed reported.

The complaint suggests that Neeleman “potentially used financial incentives to secure cooperation from” one of the scientists, who told colleagues by email that she was “alarmed” by aspects of the antibody test’s performance, BuzzFeed reported.

Critics including prominent statisticians and infectious disease experts argued that the results were probably warped by a skewed survey method, statistical sloppiness and inaccuracies in testing. Some critics were surprised that Ioannidis was involved in the study at all.

A few days after the study was released, Ioannidis said on Fox News, “Most of the population has minimal risk, in the range of dying while you’re driving from home to work and back.”

“Pretty much no one with statistical acumen believes these studies,” said Alexander Rubinsteyn, a geneticist and computational biologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in an email to Undark.

Ioannidis told BuzzFeed News that he was “not personally aware” if Neeleman donated to the study.

“David Neeleman has a particular perspective and some ideas and some thoughts,” Ioannidis told BuzzFeed News. “I don’t know exactly who were the people who funded the study eventually. But whoever they were, none of them really told us it should be designed in a given way or done in a given way or find a particular type of result or report a particular type of result.”

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Ioannidis added that he did not know how much the study cost, but the funding came from an anonymous pool of financial gifts given to Stanford’s Office of Development: “This form of funding is the most unconflicted type of funding process to do research,” Ioannidis said. “It secures perfect intellectual and scientific independence of the study.”

It’s not known how much the Stanford study influenced the reopening of the U.S. But Ioannidis recently testified to the Senate, saying that “shelter-in-place and lockdown orders were justified initially,”ut bcontinuing them long-term could have drastic consequences on the economy and other health aspects. Moving forward, he said, at-risk groups should be protected, but younger people without serious preexisting conditions “are at very low risk.”

Neeleman tweeted on May 4, “When this is all over Dr Ioannidis will vindicated even though he is much maligned now.”

Ioannidis denied that the study made any explicit recommendations, but restated to Undark that he supports the hypothesis he’s made all along: “This is a very common infection, and very often it is asymptomatic, so it goes below the radar screen.”