DRASTIC investigating team releases leaked documents about gain-of-function coronavirus research

This article has been updated. Latest updates: 30/10/2021 (new document obtained from the National Institutes of Health) and 3/11/2021.

A team of scientists and other independent researchers has released leaked documents that state that the US-based EcoHealth Alliance (EHA) requested a grant to fund research that would have involved injecting deadly chimeric bat coronaviruses into humanised mice.

The researchers, who refer to themselves collectively as DRASTIC (Decentralised Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating Covid-19), say the documents show that the EHA, in concert with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), attempted to carry out a project that DRASTIC describes as “advanced and dangerous human pathogenicity research that would clearly qualify as gain of function (GoF)”.

DRASTIC added: “Given that we find in this EHA proposal a discussion of the planned introduction of human-specific cleavage sites into novel SARS-r CoVs, a review by the wider scientific community of the plausibility of artificial insertion of an FCS [furin cleavage site] into SARS-CoV-2 or a progenitor is warranted.”

An FCS is a segment of four amino acids that enables a virus to use furin in the human body as an enzyme to dissolve its coating so that it can release its genetic material to infect cells. Furin cleavage sites tend to be more infectious than cleavage sites that use other enzymes.

According to the leaked documents, which were given to DRASTIC by an anonymous source, the EHA submitted a grant proposal to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the US on March 24, 2018. The proposal was made to the DARPA under the umbrella of the PREventing EMerging Pathogenic Threats (PREEMPT) programme.

The EHA requested a total $14,209,245 over 3.5 years ($8,411,546 for phase 1 and $5,797,699 for phase 2), according to the leaked documents.

The EHA and its president, Peter Daszak, proposed injecting deadly chimeric bat coronaviruses collected by WIV researchers into humanised and “batified” mice, DRASTIC states.

“Batified” mice are mice that have been irradiated and injected with bat bone marrow.

Proposal extracts:

DRASTIC added: “The grant proposal includes some elements of research that are already public via scientific papers, as well as other elements that have never been made public, including vaccinating wild bats using aerosolised viruses and further work on published and unpublished strains that could have directly produced SARS-CoV-2,” the team added.

“The proposal for wide scale inoculation of bats in the wild using aerosolised inoculum delivery has never been publicly released or opened to the wider scientific community for discussion as to potential risks associated with this plan.”

According to the documents given to DRASTIC, the EHA planned to inoculate bats with immune modulators like bat interferon “to upregulate their naturally-inhibited innate immunity and suppress viral replication, transiently reducing viral shedding/spillover risk”.

They also planned to inoculate bats with “novel chimeric polyvalent recombinant spike proteins to enhance their adaptive immune memory against specific, high-risk viruses”, Daszak stated in an executive summary, according to the documents.

The EHA said a “novel delivery method” for its immune boosting molecules would be developed and implemented by Tonie Rocke at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in the US.

Delivery vehicles and methods to be assessed included transdermally applied nanoparticles, sticky edible gels that bats would mutually “groom and consume”, aerosolisation via prototype sprayers designed for cave settings, and automated sprays triggered by timers and movement detectors at critical cave entry points.

The proposal to DARPA goes into further detail about the “deployment of immune modulation molecules” in test caves in Yunnan province.

“Spray will be activated by bat movement to spray continuously or in a staggered manner during flyout and flyin to create an aqueous curtain that bats will fly through,” the document states.

The executive summary goes into detail about the EHA’s approach and says its goal is to “analyse, predict, then ‘DEFUSE’ “the spillover potential of novel bat-origin high-risk SARSr-CoVs in Southeast Asia and across these viruses distribution”.

In the proposal document, in the ‘technical plan’ section, the EHA stated that, over the previous 14 years, its team had conducted CoV surveillance in bat populations across south Chlna, resulting in more than180 unique SARSr-CoVs in about 10,000 samples: “>5% prevalence, including multiple individuals harbouring the same viral strains and a per-bat species prevalence up to 10.9%”.

It is stated in the proposal that Yunnan province harbours a quasispecies population assemblage “that contains all the genetic components of epidemic SARS-CoV”.

The EHA continued: “We have isolated three strains there (WIVl, WIV16 and SHC014) that unlike other SARSr-CoVs, do not contain two deletions in the receptor ­binding domain (RBD) of the spike, have far higher sequence identity to SARS-CoV, use human ACE2 receptor for cell entry, as SARS-CoV does, and replicate efficiently in various animal and human cells, including primary human lung airway cells, similar to epidemic SARS-CoV.

“Chimeras (recombinants) with these SARSr-CoV S genes inserted into a SARS-CoV backbone, and synthetically reconstructed full length SHCO14 and WIVl cause SARS-­like illness in humanised mice {mice expressing human ACE2), with clinical signs that are not reduced by SARS-CoV monoclonal antibody therapy or vaccination.”

The EHA added that people living up to six kilometres from its test cave had SARSr-CoV antibodies (about 3% seroprevalence), “suggesting active spillover”.

According to the leaked documents, the DARPA refused to give full funding for the EHA/WIV project, named ‘DEFUSE’ (Defusing the Threat of Bat-Borne Coronaviruses). However, DRASTIC says, the door was left open for partial funding, “in part because DARPA misinterpreted the GoF guidelines”.

A branch of the federal government had already judged aspects of the EHA’s research, and the project to be conducted with the WIV, as falling under the definition of GoF, only for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to approve similar work without Potential Pandemic Pathogen Care and Oversight (P3CO) review in 2018 and 2019, DRASTIC adds.

“The P3CO framework was designed to allow greater flexibility for vaccine development, and in June of 2018 the NIH’s Vaccine Research Center (VRC) expanded its existing partnership with Moderna to include full-scale research into a pan-coronavirus (CoV) vaccine platform,” DRASTIC said.

DRASTIC says the EHA repeatedly took advantage of this flexibility to continue its work with the WIV.

The documents made available to DRASTIC by the whistleblower detail the EHA’s past achievements along with planned experiments in collaboration with researchers from the WIV, East China Normal University in Shanghai, Duke-National University in Singapore and, in the US, the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Reston, Virginia, and the Palo Alto Research Center in California.

DEFUSE proposal overview

DRASTIC says the grant proposal documents show “a staggering level of deep involvement of EHA with the WIV, on matters of national interest such as dual use research of concern (DURC)”.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US describes DURC as “life sciences research that, based on current understanding, can be reasonably anticipated to provide knowledge, information, products, or technologies that could be directly misapplied to pose a significant threat with broad potential consequences to public health and safety, agricultural crops and other plants, animals, the environment, materiel, or national security”.

DRASTIC notes that the EHA proposed that the DARPA grant should cover a significant amount of key WIV researchers’ salaries and that some of these researchers should be invited to DARPA headquarters in Arlington “all the while without proper risk assessment and considerations for ethical and social issues and incorrect evaluation of what constitutes GoF research”.

The lifting of the GoF moratorium in late 2017, via the P3CO framework has allowed GoF research with SARS-like coronaviruses to resume with very few practical limits, DRASTIC says.

“In particular the absence of clear definitions of GoF, creative interpretations of the guidelines, and rather discretionary decisions to refer research projects or not, all contributed to reducing the effectiveness of the P3CO framework – despite the fact that other agencies of the US federal government actively maintained the GoF standards,” the team adds.

Richard Ebright, who is a molecular biologist at Rutgers University in the US, said the EHA’s project was considered to potentially involve GoF/DURC research because it proposed to synthesise spike glycoproteins that bind to human cell receptors and insert them into SARSr-CoV backbones to assess whether they could cause SARS-like disease.

However, the proposal did not mention or assess potential risks of GoF research or mention or assess DURC issues, and thus failed to present a DURC risk mitigation plan, he tweeted.

Jamie Metzl, who is a member of a World Health Organisation (WHO) advisory committee on human genome editing, said in a tweet that it was time for the WHO to begin a formal investigation into Daszak’s involvement in the Covid-19 origins study “and retract its deeply flawed report”.

In the EHA’s proposal it is stated that live bats would be used at the WIV and labs in Singapore and the US for infection experiments, often using captive bat colonies.

The EHA proposal also includes the introduction of “human-specific cleavage sites” into bat coronaviruses.

“Human protease-specific site insertion was proposed,” DRASTIC said. “The proposal does not specify exactly which protease, but does discuss furin in the preceding text.”

Human airway epithelial (HAE) cultures effectively mimic the human bronchial environment.

Three to five chimeric coronaviruses were to be created per year.

The researchers planned to identify “key minor deletions” in the receptor binding domain (RBD) of the viruses so as to alter human pathogenicity.

The EHA also said researchers would evaluate whether RBD deletion repair restored the ability of low-risk coronavirus strains to use human ACE2 and grow in human cells.

In the grant application, the EHA also proposed MERS-coronavirus experiments and said it had already introduced SARS and MERS into bat cell lines.

According to one of the leaked documents, the programme manager of the biological technologies office at DARPA, James Gimlett, said that the DEFUSE proposal was “selectable based on the evaluation criteria included in the BAA [broad agency announcement)”, but he was not recommending funding “at this time”.

Gimlett wrote: “The team discusses risk mitigation strategies to address potential risks of the research to public health and animal safety but does not mention or assess potential risks of Gain of Function (GoF) research and DURC.

“Given the team’s approach does potentially involve GoF/DURC research (they aim to synthesise spike glycoproteins that may bind to human cell receptors and insert them into SARSr-Co V backbones to assess capacity to cause SARS-like disease), if selected for funding an appropriate DURC risk mitigation plan should be incorporated into contracting language that includes a responsible communications plan.”

DRASTIC notes that the EHA makes only one reference to GoF and DURC in its entire DEFUSE project proposal (“non-DURC and non-GoF”).

Gimlett said the EHA’s proposal did not discuss either regulatory or ethical, legal, and social issues. Variability of vaccine dose due to variability in delivery mechanisms was also not discussed, he said.

“In addition, there is concern that vaccine approaches may lack sufficient epitope coverage to effectively protect against the diverse and evolving quasispecies of the many coronaviruses found in the bat caves,” Gimlett added.

Gimlett also said the proposal lacked detail about data, statistical analyses, and model development and how prior work would be leveraged and extended.

Jamie Metzl said it was “highly significant” that Daszak applied in 2018 for US government funding to genetically engineer a furin cleavage site into bat coronaviruses. “How could Peter call the lab origin hypothesis a ‘conspiracy theory’ knowing this?” Metzl tweeted.

He also tweeted: “As a first step toward overcoming the shocking obfuscation & misinformation campaign, I call for Peter Daszak to immediately be removed from both @TheLancet #COVID19 commission & the @WHO convened int’l expert group on pandemic origins. Join me.”

Daszak pushes ‘conspiracy theory’ claim

It was Daszak (pictured left) who drafted a statement from 27 health scientists that was published in The Lancet on February 19, 2020, and condemned as “conspiracy theories” suggestions that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin.

On June 21, The Lancet published an addendum to the statement by the 27 scientists and an updated disclosure statement from Daszak.

The addendum stated: “In this letter, the authors declared no competing interests. Some readers have questioned the validity of this disclosure, particularly as it relates to one of the authors, Peter Daszak.”

It added: “There may be differences in opinion as to what constitutes a competing interest. Transparent reporting allows readers to make judgments about these interests.”

The Lancet invited the 27 authors of the February 2020 statement to “re-evaluate their competing interests”.

It said Daszak had expanded on his disclosure statements for three pieces in The Lancet relating to Covid-19 that he co-authored or contributed to: the February 2020 statement, a Covid-19 commission statement published on September 14, 2020, and a comment piece from the commission about priorities in the Covid-19 pandemic, published on February 12, 2021.

The new disclosure statement reads as follows:

“PD’s remuneration is paid solely in the form of a salary from EcoHealth Alliance, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organisation. EcoHealth Alliance’s mission is to develop science-based solutions to prevent pandemics and promote conservation. Funding for this work comes from a range of US Government funding agencies and non-governmental sources.

“All past and current funders are listed publicly, and full financial accounts are filed annually and published. EcoHealth Alliance’s work in China was previously funded by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Neither PD nor EcoHealth Alliance have received funding from the People’s Republic of China.

“PD joined the WHO–China joint global study on the animal origins of SARS-CoV-2 towards the end of 2020 and is currently a member. As per WHO rules, this work is undertaken as an independent expert in a private capacity, not as an EcoHealth Alliance staff member.

“The work conducted by this study was published in March, 2021. EcoHealth Alliance’s work in China includes collaboration with a range of universities and governmental health and environmental science organisations, all of which are listed in prior publications, three of which received funding from US federal agencies as part of EcoHealth Alliance grants or cooperative agreements, as publicly reported by NIH. EcoHealth Alliance’s work in China is currently unfunded.

“All federally funded subcontractees are assessed and approved by the respective US federal agencies in advance and all funding sources are acknowledged in scientific publications as appropriate. EcoHealth Alliance’s work in China involves assessing the risk of viral spillover across the wildlife–livestock–human interface, and includes behavioural and serological surveys of people, and ecological and virological analyses of animals.

“This work includes the identification of viral sequences in bat samples, and has resulted in the isolation of three bat SARS-related coronaviruses that are now used as reagents to test therapeutics and vaccines. It also includes the production of a small number of recombinant bat coronaviruses to analyse cell entry and other characteristics of bat coronaviruses for which only the genetic sequences are available.

“NIH reviewed the planned recombinant virus work and deemed it does not meet the criteria that would warrant further specific review by its Potential Pandemic Pathogen Care and Oversight (P3CO) committee.

“All of EcoHealth Alliance’s work is reviewed and approved by appropriate research ethics committees, Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, Institutional Review Boards for biomedical research involving human subjects, P3CO oversight administrators, and biosafety committees, as listed on all relevant publications.”

Referring to an early draft of the statement published in The Lancet in February 2020, Daszak said in an email sent on February 6, 2020: “I’ve not seen the final version yet, but the draft version that we (and expert group that met last week) edited has the following sentence: ‘The initial views of the experts is [sic] that the available genomic data are consistent with natural evolution and that there is currently no evidence that the virus was engineered to spread more quickly among humans.’

“I think this is a bit too specific, because there are other conspiracy theories out there. Our current statment [sic] neatly refutes most of them by saying that ‘We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that 2019-nCoV does not have a natural origin.

“Scientific evidence overwhelmingly suggests that this virus originated in wildlife, as have so many other emerging diseases’.”

Daszak added: “Please note that this statement will not have EcoHealth Alliance logo on it and will not be identifiable as coming from any one organization or person, the idea is to have this as a community supporting our colleagues.”

The email from Daszak was obtained by ‘U.S. Right to Know’.

In another email obtained by ‘U.S. Right to Know’ Daszak tells UNC researcher Ralph Baric that they should not sign the statement condemning the lab-origin theory.

“I spoke with Linfa [Wang] last night about the statement we sent round. He thinks, and I agree with him, that you, me and him should not sign this statement, so it has some distance from us and therefore doesn’t work in a counterproductive way,” Daszak wrote.

Daszak continued: ” I’ll send it round some other key people tonight. We’ll then put it out in a way that doesn’t link it back to our collaboration so we maximize an independent voice.”

Linfa Wang is the director of the Programme in Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Duke-NUS medical school.

Baric agreed with Daszak’s suggestion not to sign the statement, writing back: “Otherwise it looks self-serving and we lose impact.” Daszak did ultimately sign the statement, but he was not identified as its lead author or coordinator. Neither Wang nor Baric signed.

Twenty-four of the signatories of the letter published in The Lancet in February 2020 signed a new letter that was published in the same journal on July 5 and is entitled ‘Science, not speculation, is essential to determine how SARS-CoV-2 reached humans’.

William B. Karesh from the World Organisation for Animal Health, Peter Palese from the Department of Microbiology, Icahn School of Medicine in New York, and Bernard Roizman, who is a virologist at the University of Chicago, signed the original letter, but not the new one.

In an article published in the Wall Street Journal on May 24, Roizman is quoted as saying: “I’m convinced that what happened is that the virus was brought to a lab, they started to work with it … and some sloppy individual brought it out. They can’t admit they did something so stupid.”

Other than in one of the references, there is no mention of “conspiracy” in the new letter. The authors no longer spoke about standing together “to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin”; they wrote about “unsubstantiated allegations” being raised about the source of the Covid-19 outbreak.

They said it was time to “turn down the heat of the rhetoric and turn up the light of scientific inquiry”.

The letter’s authors continued to dismiss the lab-origin hypothesis and insisted that “the strongest clue from new, credible, and peer-reviewed evidence in the scientific literature is that the virus evolved in nature”.

They said that suggestions of a laboratory-leak source of the pandemic “remain without scientifically validated evidence that directly supports it in peer-reviewed scientific journals”.

Daszak et al. now say they welcome calls for “scientifically rigorous investigations”. They say they encourage the WHO and scientific partners across the world “to expeditiously move to continue and further extend their initial investigation with experts in China and the Chinese government”.

They added: “WHO’s report from March, 2021, must be considered the beginning rather than the end of an inquiry.”

They said they understood that “it might take years of field and laboratory study to assemble and link the data essential to reach rational and objective conclusions, but that is what the global scientific community must strive to do”.

In their new letter, the signatories said that opinions were “neither data nor conclusions”. They said that evidence obtained using the scientific method “must inform our understanding and be the basis for interpretation of the available information”.

The process, they say, is not error-free, “but it is self-correcting as good scientists endeavour to continually ask new questions, apply new methodologies as they are developed, and revise their conclusions through an open and transparent sharing of data and ongoing dialogue”.

The new disclosure statement is included at the end of the new letter.

In an interview on December 9, 2019, with Vincent Racaniello, who runs the ‘This Week in Virology’ netcast, Daszak talked openly about manipulating coronaviruses in the lab: “Coronaviruses are pretty good … you can manipulate them in the lab pretty easily,” he said.

“Spike protein drives a lot of what happens with a coronavirus; zoonotic risk. So you can get the sequence; you can build the protein; and we work with Ralph Baric at UNC to do this. Insert into the backbone of another virus and do some work in the lab.”

Daszak said that researchers did surveillance of bats across southern China. “We have now found, after six or seven years of doing this, over a hundred new SARS-related coronaviruses, very close to SARS,” he told Racaniello.

“Some of them get into human cells in the lab, some of them can cause SARS disease in humanised mice models and are untreatable with therapeutic monoclonals and you can’t vaccinate against them with a vaccine …

“We’ve even found people with antibodies in Yunnan to SARS-related coronaviruses so there’s human exposure.”

Documents obtained by the news organisation The Intercept in response to a lawsuit, and published on September 7, 2021, provide details of US funding of coronavirus research at the WIV (two grants awarded to the EcoHealth Alliance by the NIH).

It is stated in the grant documentation: “No funds are provided and no funds can be used to support gain-of-function research covered under the October 17, 2014 White House Announcement (NIH Guide Notice NOT-OD-15-011).”

Richard Ebright says, however, that the documents show that the two NIH grants to the EcoHealth Alliance, with subcontracts to the WIV, “funded gain-of-function research as defined in federal policies in effect in 2014–2017 and potential pandemic pathogen enhancement as defined in federal policies in effect in 2017–present”.

One of the grants, awarded in 2014, was for a project entitled “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence”, led by Peter Daszak, in which thousands of bat samples were to be screened for novel coronaviruses. The research was also to involve screening people who work with live animals.

Journalists Sharon Lerner and Mara Hvistendahl explain in The Intercept that the documents contain several critical details about the research in Wuhan, including the fact that key experimental work with humanised mice was conducted at a biosafety level 3 lab at the Wuhan University’s centre for animal experiments.

Work with humanised mice was also done at the WIV’s biosafety level 3 animal facility. The grant documentation states: “To evaluate pathogenicity of bat-CoVs we will perform in vivo infection experiments in humanised mice modified to carry human ACE2 or DPP4 gene in the Wuhan Institute of Virology BSL-3 animal facility.”

Daszak stated in the project proposal: “The goal of the proposed research is to investigate the ecology, evolutionary biology and transmission dynamics of bat coronaviruses at the human-wildlife interface.

“Specifically, we will conduct field studies in China to obtain high quality samples from bats, and identify, characterise and isolate known and novel coronaviruses. We will analyse the patterns of coronavirus transmission among bats and other wildlife, and the risk of spillover to humans.”

The grant provided the EcoHealth Alliance with nearly $3.1 million. It was initially awarded for a five-year period – from 2014 to 2019. Funding was renewed in 2019, but was then suspended by the Trump administration in April 2020.

Ebright says the documents obtained by The Intercept reveal that the resulting novel, laboratory-generated SARS-related coronaviruses could infect mice engineered to display human receptors on cells.

“The materials further reveal for the first time that one of the resulting novel, laboratory-generated SARS-related coronaviruses – one not been previously disclosed publicly – was more pathogenic to humanised mice than the starting virus from which it was constructed … and thus not only was reasonably anticipated to exhibit enhanced pathogenicity, but, indeed, was *demonstrated* to exhibit enhanced pathogenicity,” Ebright tweeted.

“The materials further reveal that the grants also supported the construction – in Wuhan – of novel chimeric MERS-related coronaviruses that combined spike genes from one MERS-related coronavirus with genetic information from another MERS-related coronavirus.”

On October 20, The Intercept published details of a new document it obtained from the NIH that sheds further light on experiments that were being carried out by researchers working on the EHA’s ‘Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence’ project.

The NIH gave the EHA five days from October 20 to submit all unpublished data about research conducted under the grant awarded for the project.

In a letter sent on October 20 to Republican congressman James Comer from the Committee on Oversight and Reform, the NIH principal deputy director, Lawrence Tabak, wrote that the EHA’s research plan was reviewed by the NIH in advance of funding, and the NIH determined that it did not fit the definition of research involving enhanced pathogens of pandemic potential (ePPP) because the bat coronaviruses had not been shown to infect humans.

“As such, the research was not subject to departmental review under the HHS P3 CO Framework,” Tabak wrote.

“However, out of an abundance of caution and as an additional layer of oversight, language was included in the terms and conditions of the grant award to EcoHealth that outlined criteria for a secondary review, such as a requirement that the grantee report immediately a one log [tenfold] increase in [viral] growth.

“These measures would prompt a secondary review to determine whether the research aims should be re-evaluated or new biosafety measures should be enacted.”

Tabak added: “EcoHealth failed to report this finding right away, as was required by the terms of the grant. EcoHealth is being notified that they have five days from today to submit to NIH any and all unpublished data from the experiments and work conducted under this award. Additional compliance efforts continue.”

In his letter to Comer, Tabak notes that the “limited experiment described in the final progress report provided by EcoHealth Alliance was testing if spike proteins from naturally occurring bat coronaviruses circulating in China were capable of binding to the human ACE2 receptor in a mouse model”.

Tabak notes that laboratory mice infected with the SHC014 WIV1 bat coronavirus became sicker than those infected with the WIV1 bat coronavirus, but says this was “an unexpected result of the research, as opposed to something that the researchers set out to do”.

The NIH provided The Intercept with the progress report for the fifth and final year of funding for the ‘Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence’ project.

The report related to the period ending May 2019, which, The Intercept journalists, Sharon Lerner and Maia Hibbett noted, “was inexplicably dated August 2021”.

“That summary of the group’s work includes a description of an experiment the EcoHealth Alliance conducted involving infectious clones of MERS-CoV, the virus that caused a deadly outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome in 2012,” Lerner and Hibbett wrote.

“MERS has a case-fatality rate as high as 35 percent, much higher than Covid-19’s.”

Lerner and Hibbett noted that the scientists involved in the ‘Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence’ project “swapped out the virus’s receptor-binding domain, or RBD, a part of the spike protein that enables it to enter a host’s cells, according to the report”.

It’s stated in the newly released document: “Taking a similar reverse genetics strategy that we used in SARSr-CoV studies, we constructed the full-length infectious clone of MERS-CoV, and replaced the RBD of MERS-CoV with the RBDs of various strains of HKU4-related coronaviruses previously identified in bats from different provinces in southern China.”

The EHA said in a statement to Katherine Eban from Vanity Fair that it was “working with the NIH to promptly address what we believe to be a misconception about the grant’s reporting requirements and what the data from our research showed”.

Eban wrote that an NIH spokesperson told Vanity Fair that the director of the National institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases (NIAID), Anthony Fauci, was “entirely truthful in his statements to Congress”, and that he did not have the progress report that detailed the controversial research at the time he testified in July.

She added: “But EcoHealth Alliance appeared to contradict that claim, and said in a statement: ‘These data were reported as soon as we were made aware, in our year four report in April 2018’.”

Peter Daszak wrote in a letter to the deputy director for extramural research at the NIH, Michael Lauer, that the EHA complied with all reporting requirements.

Daszak wrote: “In his letter Dr Tabak referred to a mouse infection experiment in our FoIA’d year 5 report, and stated that ‘EcoHealth failed to report this finding right away, as was required by the terms of the grant’.

“The experiment referred to is, in fact, the same one we reported in our Year 4 Report on April 13, 2018. There was just the one experiment conducted, with results from follow-up analyses included in the Year 5 Report.”

Daszak said that, regarding the timing of the EHA’s year 5 (final) report, the organisation first uploaded the report on time, in July 2019.

However, he wrote, “by the time we tried to officially submit, our R01 grant had been renewed (July 24th 2019) and the system locked us out from submitting a normal annual final Year 5 report at that point”.

Daszak said the EHA had no indication that there was anything missing, and assumed that the Year 1 report for the renewal grant would provide all of the relevant information.

“Our relationship with NIH has always been that if we are asked for information, we respond and follow up in a timely manner,” Daszak wrote.

“If NIH had indicated to us at any point that any issues needed further clarification, we would of course have complied immediately with any request, as we have always done.”

Daszak said of the experiment referred to by Tabak: “Viral titers were not conducted in this experiment. We also note that the genome copy data for SHC014 are only enhanced relative to the WIV1 backbone at the earliest part of the experiment and by day 6–8, there was no discernably significant difference among the different viral types.

“This suggests that differences, if real, were transient. Given the small number of mice, it is also uncertain whether the survival and weight loss data were statistically relevant, and as no further replications of this experiment were performed, we are unable to corroborate these initial results.”

Richard Ebright told the Washington Examiner: “The claims in the EcoHealth letter strain credulity. Particularly the claim that the reason EcoHealth failed to submit a progress report when due in 2019 is that it had a problem accessing the NIH web server on day July 24, 2019, and that, somehow, it did not occur to EcoHealth to try again on any of the next 750 days.

“This claim makes ‘the dog ate my homework’ seem masterful by comparison.”

Ebright points to the EHA’s reference to viral titers. He says the organisation’s denial that the data it reported provides evidence for enhancement of viral growth that would trigger concern is unsound.

“EcoHealth first denies this by drawing a distinction between ‘viral growth’ and ‘viral titers’,” Ebright said. “This denial is unsound. No one has been suggesting the numbers were ‘viral titers’.”

The EHA, in its own grant progress report, referred, correctly, to ‘viral growth’ or ‘viral load’, Ebright adds.

The EHA also asserts that there were differences in viral growth only at the earliest time points in their experiments, Ebright points out. “This denial also is unsound,” he said. “EcoHealth’s assertion is contradicted by data it presents on the same page.”

Ebright also points to the EHA’s suggestion that data from its experiments should not relied on because data quality is poor and experiments were not repeated. “This denial is risible,” he said.

Shannon Murray from the investigative research group ‘U.S. Right to Know’ tweeted: Daszak said EHA didn’t have viral titers so they didn’t know if the chimeric viruses were more infectious. Daszak’s defense implies that EHA was manipulating harmful viruses & had no way to know if they were more harmful. This is a serious lab & public safety & GOF issue.”

Murray also tweeted the following:

Lerner and Hibbett report that The Intercept previously asked the EcoHealth Alliance about work on MERS-CoV referenced in sections of the grant that the NIH released in September.

“At the time, EcoHealth spokesperson Robert Kessler insisted that the group had not conducted the work,” the journalists wrote.

Lerner and Hibbett report that Kessler wrote in an email in September that the MERS work proposed in the grant “is suggested as an alternative and was not undertaken”.

“Kessler did not respond to a query The Intercept sent yesterday about the apparent falsity of his previous statement,” Lerner and Hibbett wrote.

“The work with the MERS virus complicates EcoHealth Alliance’s previous claims that the research covered in the grant had not involved work with ‘potential pandemic pathogens’, or viruses, bacteria, and microorganisms that carry a likely risk of uncontrollable spread between humans.”

The journalists say Kessler previously told The Intercept: “All the other viruses studied under this grant are bat viruses, not human viruses.”

Jamie Metzl tweeted: “Deeply concerning Peter Daszak & @EcoHealthNYC violated terms of their @NIH grant by not reporting the increased ability of the genetically altered bat coronaviruses to infect human cells. We need a full investigation w/ access to all relevant data, samples & personnel in #China.”

Richard Ebright tweeted; “The NIH received the documents in 2018 and reviewed the documents in 2020 and again in 2021. The NIH–specifically, Collins, Fauci, and Tabak–lied to Congress, lied to the press, and lied to the public. Knowingly. Willfully. Brazenly.”

US Republicans from the Committee on Energy and Commerce, who have previously called for information from Peter Daszak and from the director of the NIH, Francis Collins, said they were reviewing documents sent to them by the NIH, including the EHA’s five-year progress report about the ‘Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence’ project.

“We now know for certain that EcoHealth Alliance violated the terms of one of their grants that funded research in China,” the Republican leader of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, Cathy McMorris Rodgers; the Republican leader of the Subcommittee on Health, Brett Guthrie; and the Republican leader of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, H. Morgan Griffith, said.

We are glad that the NIH is finally pursuing unpublished data from EcoHealth Alliance as we have urged for months, and as we pressed the NIH to do in June. However, it’s unacceptable that the NIH delayed asking EcoHealth Alliance to submit unpublished data about risky research that they were required to do under the terms of their grant.”

The three Republicans added: “The NIH has acknowledged that EcoHealth violated the terms of its grant and has been non-compliant. Yet, at the same time, NIH takes the word of this grant policy violator that EcoHealth is fully accounting for its research and that none of it had anything to do with the pandemic.

“We need full compliance with Congressional oversight. These documents are only the first step from the NIH in rebuilding public trust. They must be fully transparent about any research they have funded in China and how they will ensure proper oversight of risky research in the future.”

McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith said that, as leaders of the House committee with jurisdiction over public health, they had sent four letters to the NIH since March 18, 2021, asking the institutes “to help inform a complete, scientific investigation into the COVID-19 pandemic”.

In April this year, the three wrote a ten-page letter to Peter Daszak grilling him about the EHA’s relationship with the WIV.

They posed 34 questions and ask for numerous documents including those relating to the EHA’s collaboration with the WIV, the safety of WIV research facilities, and the EHA’s federal research grants from the NIH.

“We are interested in EHA’s knowledge of and access to the WIV’s virus samples, genomic sequences, and research afforded to EHA as a NIH federal award recipient who established a sub-recipient relationship with the WIV for grants …,” McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith stated.

The three asked for the information they requested to be submitted to the Energy and Commerce Committee by May 17, 2021. Daszak has not responded.

McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith wrote to Francis Collins on October 27 asking the NIH to be transparent about its relationship with the EHA and “to provide information and documents related to National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) grant project number R01AI110964, ‘Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence’”.

The three Republicans wrote: “Based on a review of documents and other information recently made available, we have significant concerns about the adequacy of NIH oversight of EcoHealth and the related research activities at the WIV and other organisations in China.”

McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith had earlier written to Collins, in a letter dated August 25, also stating that they had “significant concerns that the NIH had not been adequately meeting its oversight responsibilities over the R01AI110964 grant”.

In the October 27 letter, the three refer to the NIH’s requirement that EcoHealth stop the humanised mice experiment and notify the NIH if the result was a virus with enhanced growth by more than ten times (or one log) compared to the parental backbone or strains found in nature.

“The purpose of this policy was to safeguard against experiments creating viruses that could replicate quickly and had the potential to overwhelm the immune systems of humans,” McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith wrote.

“We believe the EcoHealth grant documents indicated such a reportable result from the experiment, but there is no evidence of EcoHealth taking the required actions, or the NIH raising any questions after getting the results of the experiment from EcoHealth.

“If EcoHealth and NIH could not handle compliance and oversight of such a basic policy, it raises more concerns about the overall adequacy of the oversight of this research, which leaves the public vulnerable to a serious lab accident.”

The three Republicans say the NIH failed to report the EHA’s noncompliance and grant suspension into the database.

“Remarkably, the NIH, US Agency for International Development (USAID), and Department of Defense (DoD) have paid EcoHealth more than $23.4 million in new and renewed assistance awards since April 2020, when NIH should have reported the administrative action it took against EcoHealth’s grant. To date, NIH has refused to address any of these concerns,” they wrote.

McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith refer to letters that reveal that the NIH and the EHA discussed gain-of-function research.

They say that the HHS allowed bipartisan committee staff to see three letters from the NIH to the EHA (dated May 18, 2016; July 7, 2016; and July 5, 2018,) and one letter from the EHA to the NIH (dated June 8, 2016) in an in-camera review.

“To our knowledge, NIH has not publicly disclosed these letters, although some of the contents in these letters appear to have been used in NIH correspondence to US senators,” McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith wrote.

They added: “During the 2014 GOF moratorium in the United States, EcoHealth submitted its Year Two progress report dated May 13, 2016, to NIAID for grant R01AI110964. EcoHealth disclosed it would conduct experiments in humanized mice using two chimeric bat coronaviruses.

“In response to the experiment descriptions in EcoHealth’s research progress report, NIH wrote to EcoHealth on May 28, 2016, to advise that NIAID determined the R01AI110964 grant research project may include GOF experiments subject to the 2014 GOF research pause.”

Under Daszak’s signature, the EHA replied to the NIH on June 8, 2016, asserting that their research was not gain of function, McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith say.

Daszak stated:

McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith added: “There was no discussion of how the RsSHC014 differed from the SHC014 spike protein of concern in the 2015 Baric et al. warning. If there was no difference between these viruses, then there was no assessment of a known risk.

“In addition to the potential threat of the RsSHC014 spike, the WIV1 backbone was already known to be potentially dangerous to humans. Nevertheless, EcoHealth stated that its research would not be considered GOF because the virus it was using had never previously infected humans.”

The EHA stated:

The EHA also argued that, because the virus was ten percent different from the original SARS-CoV, their research did not qualify being subject to the gain-of-function moratorium, McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith point out.

“EcoHealth continued its justification by explaining that because EcoHealth and/or the WIV would progressively introduce spike proteins that were progressively more distant from the original SARS-CoV, that the research was not subject to the GOF pause,” they wrote to Collins.

“EcoHealth also explained that its theory was supported by the 2015 publication of Dr Ralph Baric’s study.”

In its response to the EHA on July 7, 2016, the NIH said the NIAID agreed with the EHA’s determination that its work was not subject to the gain-of-function pause, but added a condition.

The NIH stated:

McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith say that, based on the available documents, the EHA violated the terms of its grant.

“The chimeric virus used in the humanised mice experiment produced more than one log of virus growth compared to the WIV1 parental backbone.

“In fact, it appears the experiment with the virus listed as SHC014 produced more than three logs of comparative growth. Per their grant terms, EcoHealth was to stop their experiment and notify NIAID. It does not appear it did either.

“As a result, NIAID’s oversight of the grant failed to detect the viral growth issue and, notably, did not hold EcoHealth accountable for violating the terms of its grant.”

McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith note that the NIH funded the EHA grant after suspending it from April 2020.

“On July 13, 2020, NIH issued a revised award approval notice to EcoHealth for the sixth year of the suspended project, despite NIH’s suspension of all grant activities,” the three Republicans wrote.

“Not only did NIH approve the award, but based on a letter from EcoHealth, NIH apparently increased the award amount by an additional $369,819.

“Despite NIH’s notification to EcoHealth on July 8, 2020, that no funds would be provided, NIH issued the payment of that increase to EcoHealth on July 13, 2020, even though EcoHealth was not allowed to conduct activities under this grant during the suspension.”

McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith added: “In its revised award notice to EcoHealth issued on the same date as the $369,819 payment, NIH designated specific allocations of $76,301 for the WIV, and $75,600 for the Institute of Pathogen Biology in Beijing, China.

“This raises significant concerns regarding NIH’s oversight of grantees. This also raises concerns that NIH funding of a suspended entity is contrary to the Public Health Service Act and is possibly an Anti-Deficiency Act violation. At a minimum, this expenditure is inconsistent with competent stewardship of federal funds, and subverts compliance with the NIH suspension letter and the NIH Grant Policy …”

The three Republicans noted that they had written to Collins on June 10, 2021, about their concerns that the NIH had issued a new $2 million award to the EHA in August 2020, while the organisation was “a noncompliant grantee with a suspended NIH grant”.

DRASTIC member Gilles Demaneuf, who is an engineer and data scientist from New Zealand, tweeted that the four letters showed how easily the EHA argued that its research objectives did not constitute gain of function against the initial concerns of the NIH.

“They got away with it on rather specious grounds. No proper risk evaluation, instead a focus on arbitrary definitions which used and abused give an easy free pass,” Demaneuf tweeted.

Demaneuf says the one-log clause was ignored: “Neither EHA nor the NIH paid attention to it when despite all the windy reassurances of EHA, spike experiments with SHC014 produced more than 3 logs of comparative growth (x1000, well beyond the limit of x10),” he tweeted.

“The whole thing then degenerated into a comedy, with EHA filing with 2 years of delay that year 5 report that briefly mentioned the 3 logs experiments. And then adding that they had tried to report it on time in 2019 but that NIH systems did not work.”

In their August 25 letter McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith said that, in a letter dated July 21, 2021, they had requested that the NIH provide staff briefings with Dr Ping Chen and Dr Erik Stemmy, NIAID officials involved with the grant to the EcoHealth Alliance and responsible for oversight of the WIV.

“Unfortunately, the NIH has ignored this request,” McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith said.

“In addition to potentially inadequately assessing the inherent risks of the WIV research supported by NIH’s grant, we are also concerned that the NIH failed to oversee biosafety concerns at the WIV.”

The three committee members added: “The WIV is a complex of laboratories with various Biosafety Level (BSL) levels up to a BSL-4, the most secure biosafety level laboratory.

“However, under the R01AI110964 grant, the WIV researchers specifically reported performing coronavirus research in BSL-2 laboratories. Yet, risky coronavirus research should have been conducted in a laboratory with higher safety measures.”

There were serious concerns about the makeup of the WHO team that went to Wuhan in January/February this year, and not least about the presence of Daszak, who is considered to have a serious conflict of interest.

Daszak was also leading The Lancet Covid-19 Commission’s task force that was set up to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV-2, but, in June 2021, it was announced that he was recused from commission work on the origins of the pandemic.

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal on September 25, Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs said he had disbanded the Covid-19 commission’s task force because he was concerned about its links to the EcoHealth Alliance.

Reporter Betsy McKay quoted Sachs as saying: “I just didn’t want a task force that was so clearly involved with one of the main issues of this whole search for the origins, which was EcoHealth Alliance.”

Sachs said the Lancet Covid-19 Commission would continue studying the origins of Covid-19 for a report to be published in mid-2022, but would broaden its scope to include input from other experts on biosafety concerns, including government oversight and transparency regarding risky laboratory research, McKay reported.

McKay quoted the director of the commission’s planning group, Philip Zelikow, as saying a new national Covid-19 commission planned to join the search for the pandemic’s origin in the coming months.

Scientists call for an in-depth analyses of all hypotheses

On September 17, 16 scientists, including Richard Ebright; DRASTIC member Rossana Segreto, who works in the department of microbiology at the University of Innsbruck in Austria; Colin Butler from the Australian National University in Canberra; Nikolai Petrovsky from Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia; and Jacques van Helden, Etienne Decroly, and Jean-Michel Claverie from Aix-Marseille University in France, wrote a letter published in The Lancet entitled ‘An appeal for an objective, open, and transparent scientific debate about the origin of SARS-CoV-2’.

They addressed the matter of the letter published in The Lancet in February 2020 and the one published on July 5,

In the September 17 letter, Van Helden et al. stated that the February 2020 letter had “imparted a silencing effect on the wider scientific debate, including among science journalists”. They say there is no direct support for the natural origin of SARS-CoV-2, “and a laboratory-related accident is plausible”.

They wrote: “Although considerable evidence supports the natural origins of other outbreaks (e.g. Nipah, MERS, and the 2002–04 SARS outbreak) direct evidence for a natural origin for SARS-CoV-2 is missing. After 19 months of investigations, the proximal progenitor of SARS-CoV-2 is still lacking.

“Neither the host pathway from bats to humans, nor the geographical route from Yunnan (where the viruses most closely related to SARS-CoV-2 have been sampled) to Wuhan (where the pandemic emerged) have been identified. More than 80,000 samples collected from Chinese wildlife sites and animal farms all proved negative.”

The researchers added: “In addition, the international research community has no access to the sites, samples, or raw data. Although the Joint WHO-China study concluded that the laboratory origin was ‘extremely unlikely’, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared that all hypotheses remained on the table including that of a laboratory leak.”

Scientific journals should open their columns to in-depth analyses of all hypotheses, Van Helden et al. say. “As scientists, we need to evaluate all hypotheses on a rational basis, and to weigh their likelihood based on facts and evidence, devoid of speculation concerning possible political impacts,” they added.

Jamie Metzl has called on all the signatories of the February 2020 statement, which he describes as “shameful”,  to renounce and retract their words and back the demand for a full investigation into the origin of SARS-CoV-2.

On December 10, 2020, Peter Daszak tweeted that the Wuhan labs did not have live or dead bats in them.

Daszak’s claim is disproved in a promotional video made to celebrate the construction of the WIV BSL4 laboratory in 2018 that clearly shows bats in their cages. The WIV has also filed patents for new designs for bat cages.

WIV promotional video, 2018.

Speaking about the WIV, Daszak told Nick Schifrin of PBS (The Public Broadcasting Service) on March 29: “There’s no evidence that the viruses that that lab was working with or even the genetic sequences were the progenitor, the ancestor of SARS-CoV-2.”

Daszak added: “When you visit the lab, when you talk to the management, it is an efficiently run lab. They do audits, safety checks.”

It is the DRASTIC researchers who have done the deepest digging into the origin of SARS-CoV-2. They have investigated anomalies in the narratives about SARS-CoV-2, collected and presented evidence, and put forward questions and hypotheses.

The points they raise include the following:

  • Researchers say there’s evidence within the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein that suggests the virus is a product of genetic manipulation. There is, for instance, a furin cleavage site in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, but there wasn’t one in the first SARS coronavirus and there are none in any other identified SARS-related beta chronoviruses. Also, the double arginine codons pattern present in SARS-CoV-2 – CGG-CGG – has never been found in any other beta coronavirus.
  • Six miners in Yunnan, who were removing bat faeces from a cave, suffered a severe pneumonia-like illness in 2012 and three of them died. They had a high fever, dry cough, sore limbs, and headaches – all symptoms associated with Covid-19.
  • A database containing information about the sequencing of samples collected from the Yunnan mine by researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology has been taken offline.
  • American and Chinese scientists have collaborated for decades on gain-of-function research.
  • There have been numerous ‘leaks’ of viruses from laboratories, including during the SARS outbreak in 2003–2004.


Changing Times contacted the EcoHealth Alliance for comment about the leaked documents, but did not receive a response.

The DRASTIC group referred to in this article is the original group entitled ‘Decentralised Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating Covid-19’, not a new group entitled ‘Designated Research and Scientific Team Investigating Covid-19’, which was set up after the DEFUSE documents were released.


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