A bioscientist who became wealthy from his invention of the cancer-fighting drug Abraxane, Soon-Shiong clearly has some expertise. But it is highly unusual, if not unheard of, for the principal owner of a major news organization to be the expert source for a story or the face of an editorial project published by his news organization. Fox News Chairman Rupert Murdoch, for example, does not appear as a political analyst on his network. The Washington Post’s owner, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, doesn’t offer lectures about e-commerce on The Post’s website.
But Soon-Shiong plays an even more unusual role in one of the series’ recent installments.
The video features Soon-Shiong’s extended conversation with Tulio de Oliveira, a South African geneticist who recently identified a mutation that has made the novel coronavirus more transmissible. Soon-Shiong briefly mentions during the video that a company Soon-Shiong heads, ImmunityBio, is developing a coronavirus vaccine. He then adds, “I’m also pleased to say we will be actually going into the hurricane of these mutations by coming to South Africa.”
What he doesn’t say is that ImmunityBio has partnered with de Oliveira and his research lab on trials of the vaccine in South Africa.
The upshot is that Soon-Shiong appeared to be using the Times to promote a venture that could prove enormously lucrative to his own company if the vaccine is approved for use. ImmunityBio received permission from South African authorities last month to begin clinical tests of its vaccine. The same vaccine is being tested in the United States.
A Times spokeswoman, Hillary Manning, sought to distance the production from the newspaper’s journalism. She said the series was produced by L.A. Times Studios, whose productions are independent of the newsroom. But that distinction is unclear; the series has been carried on the Times’s website with no indication that it was anything but a part of the Times’s journalism.
Said Manning: “This is an unprecedented situation, where humankind is facing an existential threat, and we determined that producing the video series, where people can hear directly from Dr. Soon-Shiong about everything from how soap kills the virus to how the virus is mutating, is a valuable public service.”
De Oliveira’s lab, which is in Durban, will handle the genomic analysis related to the South African trials, though it will not be compensated by ImmunityBio, according to a company spokeswoman, Amy Jobe.
Manning said Soon-Shiong’s company, ImmunityBio, has “a relationship” with de Oliviera’s research center, which is based at the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine, but “it is not a partnership.”
ImmunityBio used different language last month in announcing that it had won approval from the South African government to begin a Phase 1 trial of its coronavirus vaccine.
The company quoted de Oliviera as saying: “We are hopeful that by teaming up with ImmunityBio, the now rampant 501Y.V2 variant in our country can soon be eliminated and protected against for good. We are excited to be working with the scientific team at ImmunityBio.”
Soon-Shiong’s multiple roles present the kind of conflict of interest that news organizations typically seek to avoid, said Kelly McBride, who directs the ethics program at the Poynter Institute, a journalism-education organization. The video discloses these roles in a manner likely to confuse viewers, she said.
Soon-Shiong, for example, is identified as the executive chairman of the Times in a banner that appears several times in the video. He is also later identified as the chief executive of Nantworks. But the video and its accompanying informational text do not explain that Nantworks is the technology holding company that owns ImmunityBio.
Even if viewers noticed the reference to Nantworks, McBride said, “I doubt that most would understand the conflict of interest” inherent in these interwoven business relationships.
Readers and viewers need to know more about Soon-Shiong’s credentials, his business interests “and most importantly, what steps the Times is taking to ensure that the information delivered in the video has been vetted” to ensure that it’s not promoting Soon-Shiong’s outside interests, she said.
Another potentially troublesome passage occurs later in the 92-minute video when Soon-Shiong and de Oliviera discuss shortcomings of current vaccines. With Soon-Shiong’s prompting, de Oliviera agrees that the “cold chain,” or deep refrigeration, required to store and transport some existing vaccines makes them problematic for use in developing countries, including nations in Africa, where the required refrigeration infrastructure may not exist. Soon-Shiong also notes that injectable vaccines also might pose problems related to the availability of syringes and needles.
He does not mention that this critique implicitly promotes ImmunityBio’s approach. The company is working to develop a “temperature-stable” vaccine in pill form.
The videos starring Soon-Shiong have been posted on the Times website and on YouTube under the Times channel, which has 440,000 subscribers. The series began last March and has had some 2.54 million views on YouTube.
Soon-Shiong bought the Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune for $500 million from the Tribune Co. of Chicago in 2018. At the time, he had no background in media or journalism. An immigrant from South Africa, he has spent his career as a doctor, surgeon and biotech entrepreneur, and is a part-owner of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team. Forbes put his net worth at about $6.7 billion last year.