This article has been updated. Latest update: 2/12/2021
An international group of ten scientists and health experts has called on the board of the US-based EcoHealth Alliance (EHA) to remove Peter Daszak as the organisation’s president.
Daszak “concealed several extreme situations of conflict of interest, withheld critical information, and misled public opinion by expressing falsehoods”, the ten experts say.
They write in a letter sent to the chair of the EHA, Nancye Green, and vice-chair Carlota Vollhardt that the EHA’s role in the investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic has become increasingly controversial and is now attracting much attention.
The letter has also been sent to the director of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Xavier Becerra, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Francis Collins, and the director of the National institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases (NIAID), Anthony Fauci, who has himself come under fire about the NIH’s funding of research conducted by the EHA.
The authors allege that Daszak (pictured left) failed to publicly disclose that the EHA had applied in March 2018 to receive a grant from the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that would have funded a project “creating novel chimeric viruses that are optimised to infect humans and that could unleash unknown and untold havoc”.
The DEFUSE project would have included experiments with MERS-CoV “which is far more deadly than SARS-CoV-2”, the letter’s authors wrote.
The proposal, which was made to the DARPA under the umbrella of the PREventing EMerging Pathogenic Threats (PREEMPT) programme, misrepresented gain-of-function research, and was “incredibly sloppy” with regard to biosafety, dual use research of concern (DURC), and ethical, legal, and societal issues (ELSI), they added.
“Planning to make three to six GoF human-optimised virus constructs per year under the DEFUSE grant proposal is shocking enough on its own. To do so with such disdain for biosafety, DURC or ELSI is a professional failure of the highest level and should be enough to conclude that Dr Daszak has gone a step too far, and is putting his colleagues and human lives in danger,” they wrote.
One of the letter’s signatories, Jamie Metzl, who is a member of a World Health Organisation (WHO) advisory committee on human genome editing, tweeted: “@EcoHealthNYC‘s board must investigate Peter Daszak’s failure to disclose the 2018 @DARPA application to @WHO, @TheLancet commission & general public while calling those raising questions abt a possible #COVID19 lab incident origin ‘conspiracy theorists’.”
Another of the signatories, engineer and data scientist from New Zealand Gilles Demaneuf, tweeted that the EHA board had a duty to act in the matter, “urgently and publicly”. He added: “It is not only a governance requirement as they may well be liable under NY law if they don’t do so.”
The letter’s authors say that Daszak made “unfounded claims” about why Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) data about viruses were taken offline, making them inaccessible to outside researchers.
“Dr Daszak has made many conflicting claims about the WIV databases of virus samples and sequences (all now offline), and then proceeded to convince the WHO team not to look into the issue,” the group wrote. “He described these databases as an ‘Excel spreadsheet’ when actually these are 16 databases with 600 GBs of data …
“He further justified their unavailability since September 2019 by repeating the unfounded claims that they were taken offline to protect them from hackers during the pandemic because of hacking attacks.”
The letter’s authors also say Daszak “wrongly claimed” that there were no live bats kept on the WIV premises.
On December 10, 2020, Daszak tweeted that there were no live or dead bats in the Wuhan labs.
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.
In their letter to the EHA, the ten scientists and health experts note that the WIV officially registered 12 bat cages in 2017. “Given that the DEFUSE grant application mentions plans for WIV to keep 20 captive Rhinolophus bats, Dr Daszak must have been already aware of these developments at the very least back in early 2018,” they wrote.
They added: “The fact that Dr Daszak never mentioned the existence of that essential DEFUSE grant proposal, while assuming important and very vocal positions on the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus for the WHO and for the Lancet Commission, shows profound disrespect for scientific and ethical norms that is without precedent.
“Both the Lancet Commission and the WHO have now distanced themselves from Dr Daszak.”
The letter’s authors add: “As you must know, a research-related accident is now officially considered a plausible scenario that it would be irresponsible to neglect, and that the WHO itself has firmly included in its latest origins initiative.”
They cite the stated mission of the EHA: “EcoHealth Alliance leads cutting-edge scientific research into the critical connections between human and wildlife health and delicate ecosystems. With this science, we develop solutions that prevent pandemics and promote conservation.”
They write: “We note that such an important mission requires essential public and institutional trust allied to an ethical and sound leadership. Because of Dr Daszak’s unacceptable behaviour, and of the serious consequences for the valuable causes that EHA supports, we are deeply concerned by the absence of any discernible public criticism or meaningful response from EHA board.”
The letter’s authors say Daszak’s behaviour “has already caused enormous damage to public trust in science and scientists, and will likely resonate for many years to come as a low point in scientific integrity, in the US and beyond”.
They add that, “despite this turmoil, EcoHealth Alliance still represents a valuable scientific mission and a key message for our present and future generations”, but say the EHA’s mission “will be greatly compromised if there is any further involvement of Dr Daszak with EcoHealth Alliance”.
Details of the EHA’s grant proposal to the DARPA were leaked to a team of scientists and other independent researchers known collectively as DRASTIC (Decentralised Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating Covid-19). Four members of DRASTIC – Gilles Demaneuf, Indian scientist Monali C. Rahalkar, emeritus professor Andre M. Goffinet from Belgium, and historian and analyst from the US Charles Rixey – are among the signatories of the letter to the EHA. Other signatories are from France, Germany, and Japan.
The leaked documents show that the EHA requested a grant to fund research that would have involved injecting deadly chimeric bat coronaviruses into humanised mice. Funding was refused.
DRASTIC says the documents show that the EHA, in concert with the 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)”.
Peter Daszak has been under the spotlight since early on in the Covid-19 pandemic. There were serious concerns about his presence in the WHO team that went to Wuhan in January/February this year. The NIH has given the EHA millions of dollars in funding to conduct research in collaboration with scientists at the WIV.
Daszak also lead 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.
Jamie Metzl said in a tweet in September 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 light of Peter Daszak’s undisclosed conflicts of interest & material nondisclosure of the 2018 @EcoHealthNYC @DARPA funding application, it’s time for @WHO to begin a formal investigation into his involvement in the #COVID19 origins study and retract its deeply flawed report.
— Jamie Metzl (@JamieMetzl) September 25, 2021
In its grant proposal to the DARPA, 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.
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 includes the introduction of “human-specific cleavage sites” into bat coronaviruses.
Human airway epithelial (HAE) cultures effectively mimic the human bronchial environment.
DRASTIC said: “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.”
Metzl says it is “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.”
Documents obtained by the news organisation The Intercept, 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, who is a molecular biologist at Rutgers University in the US, 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.”
It was Daszak 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.
In an email sent in April 2020, and obtained by BuzzFeed News via a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, Daszak thanks Anthony Fauci for “publicly standing up and stating that the scientific evidence supports a natural origin for Covid-19 from a bat-to-human spillover, not a lab release from the Wuhan Institute of Virology”.
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 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 the investigative research group ‘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. said in the July 5 letter that they welcomed calls for “scientifically rigorous investigations”. They said they encouraged 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.”
The National Pulse published a clip of Daszak speaking at a forum in 2016 at the New York Academy of Medicine about ‘emerging infectious diseases and the next pandemic’, where he talked about his “colleagues in China” manipulating viruses.
Daszak said: “ … we’re only looking at viral families that include those that have got into people from animals, so we narrow it down straightaway. Then, when you get a sequence of a virus, and it looks like a relative of a known, nasty pathogen, just like we did with SARS.
“We found other coronaviruses in bats, a whole host of them. Some of them looked very similar to SARS. So we sequenced the spike protein: the protein that attaches to cells. Then we … well, I didn’t do this work, but my colleagues in China did the work. You create pseudo particles, you insert the spike proteins from those viruses, see if they bind to human cells. At each step of this you move closer and closer to ‘this virus could really become pathogenic in people’.
“So you narrow down the field, you reduce the costs, and you end up with a small number of viruses that really do look like killers, then you look in people and you say, ‘in the people that live in the region where this animal lives that are exposed to that virus, do we see antibodies …?’”
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.”
In an article published in Nature on August 21, 2020, reporter Nidhi Subbaraman quotes Daszak as saying: “Conspiracy-theory outlets and politically motivated organizations have made Freedom of Information Act requests on our grants and all of our letters and e-mails to the NIH.
“We don’t think it’s fair that we should have to reveal everything we do. When you submit a grant, you put in all your best ideas. We don’t want to hand those over to conspiracy theorists for them to publish and ruin and make a mockery of.”
The documents leaked to DRASTIC contain details of EHA’s plans 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”.
The researchers 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 the 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 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,” DRASTIC said.
According to one of the leaked documents, the programme manager of the biological technologies office at the 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.”
House Republicans question Daszak
In April this year, three House Republicans in the US wrote a ten-page letter to Peter Daszak grilling him about the EHA’s relationship with the WIV.
The letter was signed by 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.
Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans have demanded that “a thorough and independent investigation be done in order to learn more about how the pandemic started”.
In their letter to Daszak, McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith pose 34 questions and ask for numerous documents including those relating to the EcoHealth Alliance’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 committee leaders 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 http://www.SAM.gov 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.
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”.
Gilles Demaneuf 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.”
On November 30, McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith wrote to the home secretary of the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) in the US, Elena Fuentes-Afflick, urging the NAM immediately to suspend Daszak’s status and affiliation with NAM “and to proceed with an investigation into his conduct in connection with a grant awarded by the NIH to him as the principal investigator for the EcoHealth Alliance and to the WIV, as a subgrant recipient, “to determine whether his actions constitute violations of NAM’s code of conduct that warrant expulsion”.
McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith said that Daszak continued to influence healthcare policies and inform public opinion through his position as chair of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine’s Forum on Microbial Threats, and as a member of the NASEM Standing Committee on Emerging Infectious Diseases and 21st Century Health Threats.
The three Republicans urged the NAM to enlist an independent review of all NAM and NASEM projects and articles in which Daszak has been involved “to determine the extent of his influence and update each with appropriate disclaimers and determinations of whether or not the related findings should be reevaluated or retracted”.
Authors of the scientists’ letter to the EHA:
- Fabien Colombo, Université Bordeaux Montaigne, France;
- Virginie Courtier, Institut Jacques Monod, France;
- Gilles Demaneuf, engineer and data scientist, New Zealand, (member of DRASTIC);
- Andre M. Goffinet, emeritus professor, Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium, (member of DRASTIC);
- Hideki Kakeya, associate professor, University of Tsukuba, Japan;
- Milton Leitenberg, University of Maryland, School of Public Affairs, US;
- Jamie Metzl, senior fellow, Atlantic Council, US;
- Monali C. Rahalkar, scientist, Pune, India, (member of DRASTIC);
- Charles Rixey, historian and analyst, US, (member of DRASTIC);
- Roland Wiesendanger, professor, University of Hamburg, Germany;
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