When Jeremy Kamil started to sequence samples of the rapidly spreading pandemic coronavirus in the spring of 2020, it was clear where he should deposit the genetic data: in GISAID, a long-running database for influenza genomes that had established itself as the go-to repository for SARS-CoV-2 as well.

Kamil, a virologist at Louisiana State University’s (LSU’s) Health Sciences Center Shreveport, says he quickly struck up a friendly relationship with a Steven Meyers, who used a gisaid.org email address. The two often exchanged emails and talked on the phone, sometimes for hours, about the pandemic and data sharing—but also about music, beer, and Saturday Night Live. Meyers said he had previously worked at Time Warner and had changed jobs after his boss at that company, Peter Bogner, launched GISAID in 2008. Meyers was born in Germany and living in Santa Monica, California, just like Bogner, whom he would call “our big boss” and “the Big Cheese.”

Over time, things got a little weird, Kamil says. Emails he sent to Meyers were sometimes answered from Bogner’s email account. “I used Peter’s account as writing on my little gadget was too treacherous,” was the explanation Meyers gave in one case. “I did ask though, first 😊.” Sometimes Bogner emailed Kamil about a topic he was discussing with Meyers at that very moment. Kamil offered to come to Santa Monica to meet Meyers on one of his trips to see his parents in Los Angeles, where they lived. But Meyers never seemed keen.

Eventually, Kamil reached a bizarre conclusion: Meyers didn’t really exist, and it was Bogner he had been communicating with. But when Kamil confronted Meyers, he denied that was the case.

On 24 December 2022, when Kamil was again in Los Angeles, Meyers wrote that he would be “lucky this time around”: Kamil would have a chance to meet Bogner, along with GISAID in-house lawyer Ben Branda, in Santa Monica. Meyers himself couldn’t make it. Five days later, at a restaurant named R+D Kitchen, Kamil says he noticed Bogner had the same voice—with a hint of a German accent—as Meyers. “It wasn’t similar,” Kamil says. “It was identical.” It was the final nail, Kamil says: “I was duped.”

Karthik Gangavarapu, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California (UC), Los Angeles, who had many lengthy calls with Meyers—but never with Bogner—also suspected they were one and the same. When Science sent Gangavarapu an audio clip of Bogner talking, he replied: “This is definitely the same voice as Steven Meyers.” No one Science has spoken to in the virology community—including members of GISAID’s science advisory board—recalls ever meeting Meyers, or even seeing a picture of him.

When Science tried the phone number Kamil used for Meyers, using two identifiable numbers and making an anonymized call through Skype, no one responded. Meyers didn’t reply to text messages to that number or to emailed requests asking for evidence that he is a real person. (Branda replied to one of the emails.)

Bogner’s apparent alter ego is only one of many concerning findings about his life and the way he runs GISAID that emerged during a Science investigation involving interviews with more than 70 sources, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and reviews of hundreds of emails and dozens of documents. Scientists and funders have also started to ask hard questions about Bogner and his creation, because GISAID’s mission could hardly be more critical: to prevent, monitor, and fight epidemics and pandemics.

Many of those questions eventually come down to this one: Can the research community trust Peter Bogner?

A black-and-white photo of Peter Bogner.

Peter Bogner, seen here at a 2013 briefing in China on flu, launched and still masterminds GISAID, a central database for viral genomes.Miley.cida/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA

GISAID is like a safe space for virologists. Public databases, such as GenBank, which is run by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), let everyone use the data as they see fit, but GISAID allows researchers to share data with one another and global health officials and not worry that others will take the information and publish a paper without crediting them or collaborating. It was launched in 2008 and solved a key problem in the influenza field at a time when fears of a flu pandemic were running high. (The name initially stood for Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data; in 2010, “Avian” became “All.”)

Once COVID-19 struck, GISAID’s terms made it a magnet for SARS-CoV-2 researchers, who fed it virus genomes on a much larger scale. The database currently holds more than 15 million sequences of SARS-CoV-2, far more than the 400,000 influenza genomes it has accumulated. Scientists have used GISAID to track the rise and fall of SARS-CoV-2 variants such as Alpha, Beta, Delta, and Omicron around the world. The database is also essential for decisions on when and how to update vaccines and therapeutics, for both flu and COVID-19.

Sequences by the millions

GISAID has accumulated more than 15 million sequences of SARS-CoV-2’s genome since the start of the pandemic, the vast majority from Europe and the United States.

(Graphic) D. An-Pham/Science; (Data) GISAID, via CoV Spectrum

But Science’s investigation reveals an organization at odds with several major players in the global health community, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), NIH, the Wellcome Trust, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. More troubling, many scientists complain about GISAID’s confusing and arbitrary access procedures, which some say hamper important research. Several virologists say their data stream has been interrupted without an explanation, in apparent retaliation for even mild criticism of GISAID. Marion Koopmans of Erasmus University Medical Center, says she has received multiple calls from Bogner “with a rather intimidating tone.” So have colleagues, she adds. “I have heard similar experiences from quite a few.”

Criticism of GISAID intensified last month, when scientists assailed the way it handled a large data set from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, that offers clues about the origin of the pandemic. A week later, Science revealed that GISAID has been pushing a claim that it was the first to make the SARS-CoV-2 genome public, contrary to much evidence.  

quotation mark

It seems like there’s this fatal flaw of one person in charge who’s becoming increasingly isolated and a bit paranoid about access to this data.

  • Angie Hinrichs
  • University of California, Santa Cruz

GISAID’s governance and finances are opaque. It’s run by a “registered association” based in Munich that is not obliged to produce annual reports or financial information. Some GISAID donors are public, but how much money it receives and from whom, and how it spends the funds remains unclear. It once existed as a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit, but Science could not find the public tax statements that nonprofits are typically required to file in the United States. GISAID has a Scientific Advisory Council and a Database Technical Group, but members say those groups rarely meet.

The biggest mystery is Bogner himself, who entered the influenza field in 2006 without any known links to research or science policy. Science’s investigation has found that Bogner has a checkered and murky past. Official documents list different birth dates. In his early 20s, Bogner was convicted of securities fraud—a previously unreported felony for which he spent time in jail—and had a falling out with a World Cup skier over funding and credit for an instructional video.

Bogner appears to have inflated or outright invented aspects of his higher education and work experience on different versions of his CV, and news stories about him on GISAID’s website have been altered. Bogner also has clashed bitterly with a Swiss research institute over money GISAID owed it.

Bogner and GISAID’s media contact did not reply to a series of questions from Science about his background, Meyers, and GISAID’s financials and governance. “We have responded to many of these inquiries over the past few years and our position on these matters is well known to those who use GISAID as a trusted data source,” a 14 April email from GISAID Media Relations says. “Other inquiries—such as the ones on pseudonyms—border on the ridiculous such that no response is required.”

The email also refers to a statement posted on GISAID’s website the day before about its dispute resolution mechanisms, funding, and governance. The statement discusses GISAID’s history and accomplishments but does not address most of the questions Science asked.

Several GISAID funders, including the European Commission, a global pharma industry group, and the Rockefeller Foundation, have tried to push it toward more transparency and accountability in the past—to no avail. The stakes are becoming higher as GISAID keeps expanding its domain: It now also hosts sequence data for respiratory syncytial virus, mpox, and viruses in wastewater, which is studied to track known threats and identify new ones. “Bogner is creating a bit of a pathogen data empire that he is controlling, without any public acknowledgement of him being in charge,” one scientist says. (Many sources who spoke to Science declined to be named out of fear of legal action from Bogner or of losing GISAID access.)

GISAID has many stalwart supporters. “I’ve known Peter for a number of years, and his push for ‘equitable sharing’ has helped the database, scientists, and the health of humans and animals around the world,” says virologist Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center, who co-chairs GISAID’s Scientific Advisory Council. Researchers at smaller labs and in developing countries in particular praise GISAID.

quotation mark

I’ve known Peter for a number of years, and his push for ‘equitable sharing’ has helped the database, scientists, and the health of humans and animals around the world.

  • Ron Fouchier
  • Erasmus Medical Center

Even Bogner’s critics acknowledge the organization has played a vital role. “It started out as a brilliant idea, and it’s been very successful at gaining the trust of people who weren’t willing to share sequences before,” says Angie Hinrichs, a computer scientist at UC Santa Cruz, who has clashed with GISAID and at one point received a ranting call from Meyers.

But today, she and many others wonder whether the global health community should continue to entrust its pandemic sequences to Bogner’s GISAID. “It seems like there’s this fatal flaw of one person in charge who’s becoming increasingly isolated and a bit paranoid about access to this data,” Hinrichs says.

Bogner’s unlikely path to launching and running GISAID began in 2006, 2 years after an avian influenza virus subtype called H5N1 started to run amok in wild bird populations and poultry in Asia, Europe, and Africa. It occasionally infected humans, with a frightening case fatality rate of 60%. The World Health Organization (WHO) worried about an H5N1 pandemic.

Yet many flu scientists hesitated to share newly sequenced influenza genomes, concerned that rivals would skim the most interesting data and publish a paper first. In 2006, Ilaria Capua, an Italian veterinary scientist who had sequenced the first H5N1 virus from Africa, raised the alarm about the lack of openness after learning that 15 flu labs were quietly sharing sequences in a password-protected database.

Her activism triggered Bogner’s interest in the problem, he told Science and The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) at the time. GISAID’s website, however, now has an altered version of the WSJ story that tells a different tale. It says Bogner “became aware about a heightened pandemic scenario during a discussion with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff” at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. (Chertoff says he can’t recall whether he met with Bogner.) A Science examination of the changes between the two versions shows the GISAID one is more flattering to Bogner in other ways, too, adding a meeting between him and jazz legend Herbie Hancock and changing a quote from a WHO spokesperson so that Bogner is a “strategic planner” instead of a “publicist.”

In April 2006, Bogner attended an avian flu meeting in the United Kingdom where he met Nancy Cox, who then headed influenza research at CDC. Bogner joined Cox on a train ride to London where they discussed the data-sharing dilemma.

A photo of Peter Bogner and Nancy Cox. Peter Bogner is on the left, and Nancy Cox is on the right.

Nancy Cox (right) headed influenza research at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2006, the year she met Bogner and began to help him create GISAID.CDC

Several months of behind-the-scenes diplomacy resulted in an August 2006 letter to Nature signed by Bogner, Capua, Cox, and David Lipman, then-director of the U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information, home of GenBank. They announced plans to create GISAID, a platform where participating scientists could drop their data, analyze them jointly, and publish the results collaboratively. The rest of the world would see them later, “with a maximum delay of 6 months,” when the data would be posted in GenBank and two other public databases that have no access restrictions. The letter was endorsed by 66 scientists from around the world, including six Nobel laureates.

Bogner’s prominence grew after Indonesia stopped sharing H5N1 samples with the world in 2007 over concerns that foreign scientists were describing a virus from Indonesia without proper credit—and that an Australian company was developing an H5N1 vaccine based on it that Indonesia was likely not able to afford. The move triggered a minor diplomatic crisis. Bogner traveled to Jakarta several times and developed a close relationship with Minister of Health Siti Fadilah Supari. “He understood what I was going through,” Supari told Science. “He said that I could change the world.” But she adds that Bogner did not play an important role in Indonesia’s decision to resume sharing samples.

“Whenever I went to Indonesia to meet the minister and her team, he would be there, in the shadows,” says David Heymann, then a WHO assistant director who helped defuse the problem. “Bogner seemed able to charm his way everywhere.”

Scientists who met Bogner during that time say he appeared to be rich and well-connected. He jetted around the world, stayed in five-star hotels, talked about his wealthy family, and said he paid the startup costs for GISAID out of his own pocket. The authors of a 2017 paper about GISAID in Global Challenges, who interviewed Bogner, called him “an energetic, influential, and dedicated philanthropist” and put his contribution at “a low-mid seven figure sum.”

quotation mark

Bogner seemed able to charm his way everywhere.

  • David Heymann
  • Former World Health Organization assistant director

Capua didn’t really understand what moved Bogner to become a science diplomat. She says he told her he had been asked to intervene by then–U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. But when asked about that by Science in 2006, Bogner offered a different explanation: that he acted out of a sense of “civic duty,” which was “a tradition in my family and my life.”

His motivation didn’t matter to Capua, who was elated by the sudden broad support for data sharing. “I am so happy. I feel that maybe I should quit working and start arranging flowers,” she said at the time. Cox was equally unsure what motivated Bogner. Although she spent a good deal of time with him, she says, “It was hard to find out very much about him, because he wasn’t a scientist, he wasn’t from my crowd.” But given his success with GISAID, “does it matter that I don’t really know about his past?”

Then again, Bogner had plenty of reasons not to tell all about his past.

Illustration of a man in a suit with a shadowed face sitting on a throne made of coronaviruses.

Davide Bonazzi/SalzmanArt

It’s difficult to piece together the life story of Peter Heribert Bogner. Some documents say he was born in 1964, but others suggest birth years from 1957 to 1961. A CV posted in 2006 on the now-defunct website of the Bogner Organization, a consulting company he previously ran, says Bogner was born in Munich and raised in Germany and Italy. Another CV says he has a diploma in psychology from the University of New South Wales, Sydney, whereas a court document says he claimed to have a master’s in business administration from the school. (The school says it has no record of a student named Peter Bogner having graduated.)

The timing of his move to the United States is also unclear. But court documents indicate a Peter Heribert Bogner, age 22, lived in Los Angeles as a “legal alien” in January 1984, when he got a job booking guests for a local cable TV business show. His boss, Jerome Neidich, later explained in court testimony that Bogner was hired because “he was international. He had an interesting accent. He spoke well. He had education … he had been in business.”

Bogner’s job took a new turn when Neidich invested $30,000 with two women who said he could turn a profit of $300,000 within a few months through an arbitrage deal: They would travel to Europe, buying and selling foreign currencies from different brokers. Because Bogner spoke German, Neidich sent him along to “monitor the negotiations.” Bogner later told an investigator that despite his young age he had done “a lot of arbitrage-type business in Europe and believed he was an expert in this field.”

Neidich later offloaded his stake to an investor in Los Angeles for $65,000. When this woman did not receive the expected return, she approached the California Department of Corporations, which launched a probe. On 3 January 1986, the district attorney’s office charged Neidich and Bogner with two felonies for making false statements in the sales of securities and selling them without permission.

Bogner couldn’t make bail—initially set at $150,000—so he was locked up in the Los Angeles County jail for 60 days. That July, a Los Angeles judge found Neidich and Bogner both guilty and ordered each to pay the investor half the $65,000 in restitution. Bogner was put on probation for 5 years.

He appealed, but the resolution is unclear. The California Office of the Attorney General told Science the final disposition file for the appeal was destroyed in 2009, and other records, written in shorthand, only show that the conviction was affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded with directions. The last legal records in the case that Science could locate, dated 22 November 1991, indicate Bogner had yet to pay his restitution and had his probation extended for 3 years.

In the winter of 1986, Bogner turned to something new: making an instructional ski video in Telluride, Colorado, with Reidar Wahl, a World Cup skier originally from Norway. Wahl says Bogner noted he was related to a famed Bavarian Bogner skiing family. Willy Bogner Sr. raced in the 1936 Olympics and founded a company well known for creating the first stretchable ski pants. His son Willy Bogner Jr., a two-time Olympic skier himself, took over in 1977 and turned Bogner into a global clothing brand that still exists today. Willy Jr.—who became a successful cinematographer and shot ski scenes for several James Bond movies—was a cousin, Bogner told Wahl and his then-wife, Dyno Wahl.

Members of the Bogner skiing family told Science they can’t rule out that the head of GISAID is a distant relative, but none knew him and they said it would be a surprise. “There are many Bogner columns in the Munich phone book,” one dryly noted.

quotation mark

I don’t think anybody really knew who Peter Bogner was. It almost felt like he was an invented persona.

  • Dyno Wahl
  • Location manager for Peter Bogner’s Skiing Techniques

The Wahls were impressed and agreed to work with Bogner. “He is a very convincing person once you meet him,” Reidar Wahl says. Reidar, who had developed techniques for free skiing and recreational racing, would be the star of the video. The Wahls told Science they invested some $10,000. Reidar’s former sponsors agreed to provide thousands more. The couple would share the profits 50/50 with Bogner, Dyno recalls.

But there was no contract, and the final product was called Peter Bogner’s Skiing Techniques: Free Skiing and Recreational Racing, even though Bogner never appears—and Reidar, shown skiing on both sides of the video box, is featured throughout. “I was really dumbfounded,” Reidar says. “That’s when I started thinking like, ‘Oh you are a fresh little son of a you-know-what.’”

The cover image from a video titled “Peter Bogner’s Skiing Techniques: Free Skiing and Recreational Racing.”

Former World Cup skier Reidar Wahl starred and invested in a 1988 ski instruction video shot in Colorado and produced by Peter Bogner, but was stunned by its title and his billing as simply the “host.” He says he received no revenue from it.Peter Bogner’s Skiing Techniques video

The video’s promotional material describes Bogner as a World Cup skier, and a news article from the time says he left the sport after breaking a vertebra during a race. But Science could find no evidence he competed in World Cup events, and the sport’s sanctioning body has no record of a Peter Bogner. And after the video came out, Bogner disappeared, the Wahls say.

“He ghosted us,” Dyno says. The couple never saw any profits, they add. The Wahls were embarrassed, but decided it wasn’t worth contacting lawyers or the police.

“I don’t think anybody really knew who Peter Bogner was,” Dyno says. “It almost felt like he was an invented persona.”

Bogner’s 2006 CV dwells on the next phase of his career, painting a picture of international success as a producer and director in film and TV. It cites stints in Turkey—“to aid in the privatization of the broadcasting industry with the launch of a number of broadcast stations there,” and Rome—to “launch his first satellite network to service the Arab speaking community of the Middle East and North Africa.” Bogner has also told scientists he was a “senior studio executive at Time Warner”—a job noted in a GISAID press release as well.

Yet Science has only been able to confirm through Time Warner sources that Bogner played a minor role in one joint venture deal about a German TV music channel, and for a brief time worked for a Time Warner affiliate in another joint TV music venture in Venezuela. Science could not find evidence that Bogner was ever a Time Warner executive, and he did not provide any when requested.

Bogner’s debut in the world of science, however, was undoubtedly real. In December 2006, GISAID registered as a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. The database officially launched in May 2008. But trouble soon befell the nascent enterprise.

In early 2007, the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics (SIB) had started developing and hosting the virus sequence database. A February 2008 contract formalized the arrangement, under which SIB would hire a manager, a database development and maintenance team, a bioinformatician, and an annotating team. The agreement called for an upfront payment of 135,000 Swiss francs (then about $145,000). But when the database went live in May, GISAID had yet to pay, according to SIB—and the nonprofit kept ignoring invoices as charges continued to accrue.

In July 2009, when it had still only received 500 francs, SIB blocked access to the database for users of the GISAID website, redirecting them to its own site. In response, GISAID filed a complaint against SIB in the District Court in Washington, D.C., and started a case at an arbitration center in Geneva. GISAID claimed SIB had a “plan to spin off a for-profit company to begin charging vaccine manufacturers for access,” arbitration documents show, and “to destroy the Database and/or Mr. Bogner.” GISAID asked for $7 million to cover legal costs, lost grants, loss of reputation, copyright infringement, “unjust enrichment,” and $500,000 “in cash and in kind” that Bogner said he had personally invested.

By September 2009, GISAID had found a new home. In a press release, it said the Max Planck Institute for Informatics in Saarbrücken, Germany, had teamed with a company in the same town to develop a new database, and that SIB’s version was now “obsolete.” In 2010, the German government announced more support for GISAID: The federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture would host the database for free, and the Friedrich Loeffler Institute, Germany’s national animal disease center, would handle quality control of the data. (A ministry spokesperson says GISAID transferred its online platform to another, undeclared host in June 2021, ending their 11-year collaboration.)

GISAID withdrew the Washington, D.C., suit against SIB, but the arbitration dragged on for nearly 3 years. In 2012, GISAID lost the case and was ordered to pay SIB about $800,000. In November 2013, GISAID dissolved its nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

When GISAID failed to pay the debt, SIB sued in the District Court, which in 2014 ordered GISAID, because of interest, to pay about $1 million. By then, a German association named Freunde von GISAID (Friends of GISAID), which still operates the database today, had replaced the U.S. nonprofit. A source close to SIB says the institute decided to give up its attempts to get paid.

A photo of Peter Bogner and Robert Kloos. Peter Bogner is on the left, and Robert Kloos is on the right.

In April 2010, as a financial dispute between GISAID and a Swiss research institute remained unresolved, Peter Bogner (left) and Robert Kloos (right), then Germany’s state secretary for agriculture, signed a collaboration agreement. A German government spokesperson says the collaboration ended in June 2021.Joo Chuan, BMELV/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA

Despite the rocky start, flu sequences from around the world soon flowed into the GISAID database, where registered users could study them and download data to their own machines. The data also became the basis for a crucial decision taken twice a year: which strains to use as the basis for the annual influenza vaccines. “The influenza field was satisfied,” Fouchier says. “Unethical or anti-collegial behavior was kept to a minimum.”

Cox says “the GISAID database worked better than anything else we tried,” and it protected researchers as advertised. Once, Chinese researchers deposited sequences of a new, dangerous bird flu virus, H7N9, and an unaffiliated research group found the data and attempted to publish first. Bogner intervened. “Peter was able to make it possible somehow by talking to all the parties for the Chinese to get their publication up first,” Cox says.

One aspect of the original idea described in the Nature paper fell by the wayside, however. GISAID was conceived as a holding tank where sequences would sit for 6 months at most before they went to public databases. Now, GISAID itself became the permanent repository. Most influenza researchers did not seem to mind.

The 2017 paper about GISAID noted that the database already had more than 6500 users and gave it a glowing review for its contributions to global health. “Probably, the biggest question to arise from GISAID’s success,” the authors wrote, “is whether its sharing mechanism can be extended to also cover other viral diseases.”

That’s precisely what happened after the pandemic hit and scientists around the world began to sequence local variants of SARS-CoV-2. “GISAID moved fast,” says Richard Neher, a computational biologist at the University of Basel, “and they made it easy to get the data in.” With public databases, curation and quality control demands can make entering data time-consuming. “GISAID basically said: Email us the data and we’ll take care of it,” Neher says. “They are very much catering to people who submit, which is a great strategy because submitting data can be hard,” says Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of Bern.

At the Congolese Foundation for Medical Research (FCRM), for example, researchers received training from GISAID to sequence and upload genomes, as well as $100,000 to buy reagents. GISAID curators—apparently a network of dozens of specialists around the world—also flag problems in the data and help correct them, says Francine Ntoumi, FCRM’s director. “I’m very happy about the collaboration,” says Ntoumi, who also heads GISAID’s Regional Hub in Central Africa.

Ntoumi’s team has posted close to 400 SARS-CoV-2 genomes, a small number compared with many labs in more developed regions. “But it means we did our part,” she says. 

quotation mark

I’m very happy about the collaboration.

  • Francine Ntoumi
  • Congolese Foundation for Medical Research

There were other benefits as well. GISAID made a video to highlight Ntoumi’s work and in 2021 announced she contributed the four-millionth SARS-CoV-2 genome to the database, which generated some publicity. According to GISAID, genomes No. 1 million, 2 million, and 3 million came from Chile, Mexico, and Singapore, respectively, shining a light on its global reach. “For the developing countries, GISIAD is quite important because sometimes you don’t have the same skill to analyze the data as the very rich groups and it’s good that they offer collaborations,” says Tulio de Oliveira, a bioinformatics specialist at Stellenbosch University who is on GISAID’s Scientific Advisory Board.

For bigger, richer labs, which sequence viral genomes by the thousands, such recognition is less important. And although they want to respect the rights of data submitters, many scientists who use GISAID’s data have become increasingly frustrated by restrictions it imposes. Scientists can’t reshare sequences they pluck from GISAID, for instance, which would make analyses easier; they also can’t create direct links to data in GISAID or links between GISAID sequences and those in public databases.

Access provisions are unclear. Some labs can only download 1000 genomes at once, for example, and others many more. Select groups see more metadata than others. At one point, pathogen geneticist Theo Sanderson of the Francis Crick Institute posted a Twitter survey to find out who had access to what.

And Science heard many stories about researchers who saw their data curtailed, or cut off, without explanation. Some linked the actions to their being critical of GISAID or being seen as a potential threat.

quotation mark

I was doing something I thought was sensible and obvious. And yet GISAID was remarkably hostile.

  • Bede Constantinides
  • University of Oxford

Nextstrain, a collaboration of researchers that tracks influenza evolution in real time using GISAID sequences, saw its access to the data interrupted on 23 December 2019. The team thought it was a technical glitch, but an email from Meyers 4 days later said they had not given GISAID, “and by extension its Contributors,” enough credit in papers and presentations over the years. Nextstrain founders Neher and Trevor Bedford, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, responded that they thought they had complied with GISAID’s rules but would be “happy” to give credit more generously. Their email was never acknowledged, Bedford says, but access was restored.

These types of issues have multiplied since COVID-19 began. Bede Constantinides, a computational biologist at the University of Oxford, wanted to solve a problem faced by many GISAID users: Because they can’t share sequences outside the database, researchers can’t always tell whether they are talking about exactly the same SARS-CoV-2 variants. Constantinides set out to develop a “checksum” system to uniquely identify any sequence without giving away the sequence itself.

When he asked GISAID for bulk data access to carry out the plan, he never heard back, Constantinides says. After he mentioned this unresponsiveness on Twitter, he received a message from “Your GISAID Support Team” saying his tweet was incorrect and that his proposal for checksum identification had been forwarded to an external committee for review. His access to GISAID was later downgraded. “I was doing something I thought was sensible and obvious. And yet GISAID was remarkably hostile.”

A group led by Kristian Andersen at Scripps Research says it also felt Bogner’s wrath, for a February paper that included a reference suggesting the first SARS-CoV-2 genome revealed to the public was not posted on GISAID—as it has insisted—but on a virology discussion forum. The day the Scripps team published its paper, it lost access to GISAID’s data stream. Gangavarapu, who closely collaborates with the Andersen group, received a text message from Meyers that same day, with a screenshot of the offending reference and the message: “good luck with getting further support. I warned you … .”

A screenshot of a text exchange with a contact named Steven. On Friday February 24, Steve sent an image of a cropped screenshot of an article on nature.com and said: good luck with getting further support. I warned you...  The nature.com screenshot contains part of a reference list, which reads: Holmes, E. Novel 2019 coronavirus genome. Virological (2020).

A mysterious GISAID representative named Steven Meyers sent this threatening message to Karthik Gangavarapu, a scientist who had included a reference GISAID objected to in a paper. Gangavarapu’s data access was cut off for unclear reasons around the same time.Karthik Gangavarapu

Gangavarapu says he then had two phone conversations with Meyers, who vented his anger but denied the cutoff had been in retaliation. Data access was restored on 3 March; GISAID’s Branda says the interruption was “due to a mere technical hiccup.”

Researchers who clash with GISAID say they are at a loss about where to take their complaints or appeal decisions. The board of Friends of GISAID consists of Bogner and two lawyers. Both told Science they are not involved with GISAID’s day-to-day operations but take care of what one of them, German lawyer Christoph Wetzler, calls “corporate housekeeping.” Issues with the database should be taken up with GISAID’s Scientific Advisory Council, Wetzler says. But Fouchier, the council’s co-chair, says it is “not a dispute resolution committee.”

Fouchier says he’s aware of some of the complaints about GISAID but is “not entirely sure if these are warranted or free of conflicts of interest.” He adds that some grievances “seem to be orchestrated by a vocal minority,” including “the traditional public domain archives who have seen many users move to GISAID.” The criticisms, Fouchier concludes, “seem to be the usual tears of the losing side.”

Tension runs deep between GISAID and proponents of wider access to SARS-CoV-2 data, including bioinformaticians who analyze data at a large scale.

In 2020, Duncan MacCannell, chief science officer for CDC’s Office of Advanced Molecular Detection, set up SPHERES, an effort to coordinate SARS-CoV-2 sequencing in labs across the United States. He encouraged SPHERES member labs to post their sequences not just in GISAID, but also in GenBank. In August 2022, MacCannell received a blistering email from the “GISAID Secretariat,” which said it had contacted CDC leadership about him “on the advice of the U.S. Department of State.” A “quick glance at your social media is all one needs to observe your relentless efforts to perpetuate baseless claims that seek to undermine the credibility of GISAID and its staff, and attempts to whittle away at GISAID’s existence,” said the email, which Science obtained from CDC via a FOIA request.

Meyers also appeared to be angry at NIH Director Francis Collins, who in April 2021 sent a letter to more than 120 members of a group named the Heads of International Research Organizations, in which he cited recent Science and Nature stories containing criticism of GISAID and noted the “challenges” in analyzing GISAID data and sharing them in public domain databases. Collins called for a global meeting to solve the problems while protecting the interests of data providers, “especially those in the Global South.”

In a GISAID email Science has obtained, Meyers accused Collins of plotting a “coup,” along with Bill Gates, whose foundation supports the Public Health Alliance for Genomic Epidemiology, a global coalition that promotes fully open data sharing.

A photo of Bill Gates and Francis Collins. Bill Gates is on the left, and Francis Collins is on the right.

GISAID representative Steven Meyers—who some suspect is an alter ego of Peter Bogner—wrote in an email that Bill Gates (left) and former National Institutes of Health head Francis Collins (right) were planning a “coup” against the organization.National Institutes of Health

Meyers’s email correspondence showed he closely followed which scientists, research leaders, and journalists had been critical of GISAID and complained about such people frequently. He discerned a “troubling pattern” and a “lack of distinction” in the tweets from Koopmans, for example, who had expressed support for posting data in public databases. Bogner “keeps rap sheets on everybody,” says Kamil, the LSU scientist who corresponded with Meyers for years. (Science received part of the emails Meyers exchanged with Kamil from Edward Hammond, an independent researcher who obtained them through a FOIA request.)

Kamil, who led the team that sequenced the five-millionth SARS-CoV-2 genome, according to GISAID, now says Meyers “cultivated” him to become a staunch ally. In a 2022 commentary in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Kamil warned that GISAID’s future was threatened, declaring: “Big technology corporations like Microsoft, Oracle, and Google are eying the viral genomic surveillance market as a potentially lucrative data source, raising the specter of a for-profit system.”

Kamil also defended GISAID on Twitter and attacked its adversaries. Some of those tweets were suggested by Meyers, he says, or even edited by him before posting. At Meyers’s behest, Kamil mentioned in an October 2020 thread that some SARS-CoV-2 samples in Qingdao, China, came from frozen food. The Chinese government has promoted the thesis that imported food sparked the initial COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, rather than a virus leak from a lab there or spread from a local animal market.

Kamil says he felt uncomfortable about the tweets and added to them a caveat about what the findings meant; he later deleted the tweets along with many others. He says he wanted to help because he feels GISAID is a force for good—especially for researchers in developing countries. “Peter Bogner is not a simple, straightforward villain here,” Kamil says. He was upset about GISAID taking down data from the Wuhan seafood market, however, which Kamil says put China’s interests over science.

Meyers is not GISAID’s only mysterious champion. Some researchers suspect Bogner or someone close to him is also behind a pro-GISAID Twitter account from Helse Sanning, who calls herself “Protective mom, lover of science,” and in her bio uses a stock photo. Sanning has sent out just four tweets, starting on 6 May 2021, 1 day after a Nature story reported about Collins’s letter to the research institute heads. Nature did not include Collins’s email, but Sanning leaked it, along with GISAID’s defense, as a PDF in her tweet. Helse Sanning—which means “Health Truth” in Norwegian—did not respond to a request from Science to connect on Twitter.

GISAID has recently responded to its critics in what appears to be its first acknowledgment that the organization bears some responsibility for problems. In the 13 April statement, GISAID said that in the wake of its recent rapid expansion, “governance matters were not able to timely adapt in ways that structurally reflected the new operational reality.” But it didn’t say what steps it might take.

quotation mark

Peter Bogner is not a simple, straightforward villain here.

  • Jeremy Kamil
  • LSU Health Sciences Center Shreveport

Funders past and present are pushing for change. GISAID received €373,800 from the European Union between 2014 and 2017 as part of a broad research program on pandemic prevention. In a July 2022 email to Bogner, John Ryan, a top civil servant at the European Commission’s health directorate, bluntly challenged the organization to do better: “Please note that while we value the work of GISAID in providing timely access to pathogen genomic data for surveillance, we still have concerns about the transparency of its governance and about constraints in its data access and reuse policies.” Bogner dismissed the email in a nine-page letter to Ryan. “For the European Commission to suddenly, after 14 years, express concerns over ‘data access and reuse policies’ is surprising,” he said. “The same holds true for the scientific governance of GISAID.”

The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), which represents many of the world’s largest drugmakers, has donated €500,000 to GISAID since the start of the pandemic, and its member companies and associations another €1.45 million. To obtain long-term support, however, it is “critical that [GISAID] provide transparent governance and a clear adjudication structure in case of complaints from scientists denied access to the data bank,” the group’s director general, Thomas Cueni, said in a statement sent to Science. “Unfortunately, this has not happened yet and therefore, IFPMA currently has not provided additional funding to GISAID.” (A day after the statement, The Economist reported on IFPMA’s and some others’ discontent with GISAID.)

The Rockefeller Foundation recently awarded GISAID a $5.2 million grant for 2021–24, despite concerns about the organization. “The idea was to try to prop them up and see if, through the process, you couldn’t improve some of the governance around it,” one source close to the foundation says. But the process has gone nowhere and even led to legal threats from GISAID, the source says. “I think it’s become clear that they’re just completely resistant to where most of the community feels like we need to be in terms of data, availability, and transparency and governance.”

Jeremy Farrar, who in February ended a 10-year stint as head of the Wellcome Trust, is among the many scientists and officials who agree things need to change at GISAID. But he stresses the need to preserve what Bogner and his crew have done well: protecting the rights of data generators in lower and middle-income countries. Farrar wants to build on that approach to ensure that those countries also get a fair share of the available vaccines, drugs, and diagnostics when new threats emerge, something that did not happen both during the 2009 influenza pandemic and COVID-19. “That is also part of the jigsaw puzzle we need to solve,” Farrar says. If WHO—where Farrar will become chief scientist later this year—has a role to play in helping improve GISAID’s governance, he says he “would be delighted to contribute.”

But Bogner may not welcome the help. In one 2021 email, Meyers wrote that “Farrar is in on the coup with Gates and Collins to take down GISAID,” because of Wellcome’s support for the European Nucleotide Archive, a public domain database. Farrar says there was never such a coup—and he’s not in favor of replacing an invaluable entity. “Rather than reinventing a new GISAID, why don’t we just try and make sure GISAID works for everybody,” he says.

Many scientists wonder whether that can happen with Peter Bogner—and Steven Meyers—in charge.

Read More