UF faculty committee finds no merit to allegations COVID-19 data was suppressed

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A formal investigation initiated by the University of Florida (UF) Office of the Vice President for Research and the Office of Compliance and Ethics has concluded there is no merit to allegations that state or university officials applied pressure to destroy or impede access to COVID-19 research data, or put barriers in place to impede the analysis or publication of that data.

The investigation committee, composed of three distinguished University of Florida faculty members whose names are listed in the report, was charged by UF Vice President for Research David Norton and Chief Compliance Officer Terra DuBois with determining whether the anonymous allegations included in a Dec. 6, 2021, report from the UF Faculty Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Academic Freedom were true.

Although the person or persons who raised concerns to the Faculty Senate did not come forward and were not identified, numerous interviews conducted by the investigative committee determined that the allegation likely stemmed from a single event in October 2020 in which a Florida Department of Health, or FDOH, representative expressed concerns regarding UF’s use and management of FDOH data that was gathered exclusively for use in FDOH public health surveillance, or PHS, activities.

In summer 2020, the FDOH, in an effort to enhance its capacity to carry out contact tracing for individuals testing positive for COVID-19, hired several UF employees with public health expertise to assist in public health surveillance, which included collecting and having access to FDOH data. As part of this FDOH appointment, these UF employees were required to sign an agreement to follow FDOH rules regarding the handling of COVID-19 data and an affirmation not to release COVID-19 data collected for, or provided by, FDOH, a standard practice consistent with handling FDOH data for other infectious diseases. In general, PHS data cannot be used for research without additional regulatory approvals.

In October, some of these UF employees participated in a Zoom meeting that included FDOH and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention representatives. The UF employees shared FDOH data during the meeting in a manner inconsistent with the scope of the confidentiality agreements. FDOH notified the University and, in response, university administrators reminded the UF team of their obligations with respect to the use and collection of FDOH data. The matter was quickly resolved and the collaborative efforts between FDOH and UF continued without pause.

“Throughout the pandemic, UF faculty have published numerous research articles related to COVID-19 and continue to conduct impactful research in this and other public health arenas,” Norton wrote in a letter transmitting the investigation committee’s report to UF President Kent Fuchs. “The FDOH remains an important partner for UF in our common mission to advance the health and well-being of citizens within the state of Florida.”

UF News March 16, 2022