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UF: ‘No merit’ to allegations COVID researchers were pressured

University officials said they took the claims seriously.
A report commissioned by the University of Florida's Office of Research and Office of Compliance and Ethics found no merit to allegations that COVID-19 data was surpressed.
A report commissioned by the University of Florida's Office of Research and Office of Compliance and Ethics found no merit to allegations that COVID-19 data was surpressed. [ DIVYA KUMAR | Times ]
Published Mar. 17, 2022|Updated Mar. 17, 2022

A University of Florida investigation found “no merit” to allegations that university employees were pressured to suppress COVID-19 data or research.

The investigative report, released Wednesday, was written by a committee of three professors chosen in December, after a Faculty Senate committee report raised concerns that state officials put undue pressure on researchers handling Florida’s coronavirus data.

The allegations were part of a larger look at academic freedom of scholars on campus. The Faculty Senate committee report was launched after several professors said they were forbidden from serving as expert witnesses or signing amicus briefs in cases against the state, including one challenging voting restrictions.

Related: UF researchers felt pressure to destroy COVID-19 data, faculty report says

The university-appointed committee was charged with investigating whether university employees were pressured to destroy data. It was also tasked with looking into any barriers to accessing and analyzing data in a timely manner, barriers to the publication of research or inconsistencies in procedures compared to prior partnerships with state agencies.

The allegations in the Faculty Senate report were made confidentially. The investigative committee never spoke with those who made the allegations to the Faculty Senate committee. The report states that the investigators could not discern the identity of the researchers, and they never came forward.

Related: UF will investigate allegations of pressure to destroy COVID-19 data

Still, investigators concluded that the allegations likely stemmed from an October 2020 issue between the Florida Department of Health and university researchers that was later cleared up. That incident began over a confidentiality agreement that led to the department’s general counsel initially telling UF it had to destroy data.

In the summer of 2020, health officials hired “several UF employees with public health expertise” to collect COVID-19-related data, the report states.

Employees signed a contract that included clauses agreeing not to share or use the data outside of authorized purposes. Such confidentiality pledges are common in partnerships with government agencies, the investigative report said.

In October 2020, UF researchers met via Zoom with state health officials and representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to discuss how to publish findings and information based on the data.

Later that day, the Florida Department of Health’s general counsel, Louise St. Laurent, reached out to the university’s general counsel, Amy Hass, by email, and expressed concern that UF employees were improperly using and keeping data. In the email, St. Laurent said all UF employees would be dismissed from the COVID-19 initiative.

“I may also have to refer this to the Department’s (Inspector General) for review,” she wrote in the email. “I would like to discuss how best to ensure that the confidential (state) data taken and used by UF is destroyed.”

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The report states that Hass instructed UF researchers to immediately stop using the state data. But the next day, Hass received another email from St. Laurent stating that, after additional conversations, she determined the work could resume as long as the data was no longer stored by the university.

No employees were fired, the report said, and no data was destroyed.

The report said the committee believed the state health department’s concern was whether UF had permission to share the data via Zoom with “an external party,” or if that was a violation of the COVID-19 confidentiality pledge.

“It is the committee’s understanding that the matter was resolved ...,” the report states. “Of note, at no point was any UF employee instructed or asked to destroy UF data since all data in question belonged to the (health department).”

The committee said it believed the allegations that undue barriers were imposed to block accessing and publishing data came from people unfamiliar with rules around public health surveillance data, which differs from those around research data. The report said those raising concerns “may have perceived the restrictions as ‘barriers.’”

Law professor Danaya Wright, a member of the Faculty Senate committee that put together the initial report, told the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday that the investigative report confirms their earlier report.

“No data was destroyed,” she said. “We said there was pressure to destroy data. ... This report confirms that faculty are doing really important work and they’re doing it with integrity.”

David Norton, vice president of UF research, said the university took the allegations seriously.

“If there are questions about the integrity of the data, there are questions about the integrity of the research, and that’s a position we never want to be in,” he said. “(The committee) did a very thorough job in trying to understand the facts and conclusions behind an anonymous allegation.”

David Bloom, chairperson of the university’s Faculty Senate and a professor of molecular genetics, said he believed the investigative committee did its “due diligence” and that he considers the matter “case closed.”