More than 900 pages of materials related to U.S.-funded coronavirus research in China were released following a FOIA lawsuit by The Intercept.

By Sharon LernerMara Hvistendahl

NEWLY RELEASED DOCUMENTS provide details of U.S.-funded research on several types of coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. The Intercept has obtained more than 900 pages of documents detailing the work of EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S.-based health organization that used federal money to fund bat coronavirus research at the Chinese laboratory. The trove of documents includes two previously unpublished grant proposals that were funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as well as project updates relating to EcoHealth Alliance’s research, which has been scrutinized amid increased interest in the origins of the pandemic.

The documents were released in connection with ongoing Freedom of Information Act litigation by The Intercept against the National Institutes of Health. The Intercept is making the full documents available to the public.

“This is a road map to the high-risk research that could have led to the current pandemic,” said Gary Ruskin, executive director of U.S. Right To Know, a group that has been investigating the origins of Covid-19.

One of the grants, titled “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence,” outlines an ambitious effort led by EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak to screen thousands of bat samples for novel coronaviruses. The research also involved screening people who work with live animals. The documents contain several critical details about the research in Wuhan, including the fact that key experimental work with humanized mice was conducted at a biosafety level 3 lab at Wuhan University Center for Animal Experiment — and not at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, as was previously assumed. The documents raise additional questions about the theory that the pandemic may have begun in a lab accident, an idea that Daszak has aggressively dismissed.

The bat coronavirus grant provided EcoHealth Alliance with a total of $3.1 million, including $599,000 that the Wuhan Institute of Virology used in part to identify and alter bat coronaviruses likely to infect humans. Even before the pandemic, many scientists were concerned about the potential dangers associated with such experiments. The grant proposal acknowledges some of those dangers: “Fieldwork involves the highest risk of exposure to SARS or other CoVs, while working in caves with high bat density overhead and the potential for fecal dust to be inhaled.”

Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute, said the documents show that EcoHealth Alliance has reason to take the lab-leak theory seriously. “In this proposal, they actually point out that they know how risky this work is. They keep talking about people potentially getting bitten — and they kept records of everyone who got bitten,” Chan said. “Does EcoHealth have those records? And if not, how can they possibly rule out a research-related accident?”

According to Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, the documents contain critical information about the research done in Wuhan, including about the creation of novel viruses. “The viruses they constructed were tested for their ability to infect mice that were engineered to display human type receptors on their cell,” Ebright wrote to The Intercept after reviewing the documents. Ebright also said the documents make it clear that two different types of novel coronaviruses were able to infect humanized mice. “While they were working on SARS-related coronavirus, they were carrying out a parallel project at the same time on MERS-related coronavirus,” Ebright said, referring to the virus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.

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