“Scientists disagree over an issue where there’s no definitive proof,” said the EcoHealth Alliance president on the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.

By Sharon LernerMara Hvistendahl

SINCE THE EARLY days of the Covid-19 pandemic, Peter Daszak has been at the center of a heated, and at times vicious, debate over the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The parasitologist helms the New York-based nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, a wildlife conservation organization that aims to understand and prevent infectious diseases; the organization has received more than $118 million in grants and contracts from U.S. agencies, much of which Daszak distributes to labs around the world. Starting in 2005, he worked closely with Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, who was a key partner on a 2014 National Institutes of Health grant to research bat coronaviruses in China. The Intercept has published over 2,500 pages of documents and communications from the grant following a Freedom of Information lawsuit — information that has transformed public understanding of the research conducted under the grant.

Those documents have shown that in its efforts to head off and prepare for a pandemic, EcoHealth Alliance oversaw an experiment in which researchers intentionally made coronaviruses more pathogenic and transmissible. One grant report contained evidence that the research group also did an experiment with infectious clones of MERS, another deadly virus. While none of the experiments described in the grant materials released so far could have sparked the current pandemic, the documents raise serious questions about biosafety and oversight at NIH. Early in the grant, research on certain coronaviruses was subject to a U.S. government ban, but notes on communications between NIH staffers and EcoHealth Alliance obtained by The Intercept showed that the federal agency allowed Daszak to take the lead in shaping a plan to evade that moratorium.

Meanwhile, a grant proposal published by the internet research group DRASTIC last September showed that in 2018 EcoHealth Alliance applied for funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, to look for novel furin cleavage sites in bat coronaviruses. According to the proposal, which was not funded, EcoHealth planned to insert furin cleavage sites into the spikes of SARS-related viruses — an idea that drew attention because scientists had already noted that such a site is unique in the subclass of viruses to which SARS-CoV-2 belongs.

The Intercept repeatedly sought comment from EcoHealth Alliance on these revelations. EcoHealth initially responded. In September 2021, a spokesperson denied that the organization had conducted the research on the deadly MERS virus that was described in the NIH proposal. After documents obtained via FOIA later showed that such research had in fact been done, Daszak stated that the spokesperson had been misinformed. EcoHealth Alliance then stopped responding to The Intercept’s questions. In late February, Daszak replied to email inquiries and offered to talk. He spoke with us on March 1. In a wide-ranging interview conducted over Zoom, he addressed questions that have swirled around EcoHealth Alliance for the past two years, defended his organization against what he characterized as unjust accusations, and railed against the questioning he has faced from congressional Republicans, the NIH, and news organizations, including The Intercept.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Responding to the Outbreak

We’re curious when you first heard about the outbreak in Wuhan.

If you look at my Twitter account, you’ll see a tweet on New Year’s Eve of 2019 —

But before the tweet, what was the moment when you first learned about it?

It was a couple of days before that. We heard from our contacts in China that something was going on, that there were cases of a disease in Wuhan. I think it was December 30. We looked on Chinese social media and found the rumors about it there. But we heard from many scientists in China.

Many of the virologists and other scientists we speak to say that we don’t have enough information to determine whether Covid-19 emerged from natural spillover or as a result of research. Do you agree with that?

Do I agree that it’s possible that Covid-19 emerged through a lab leak? Of course. It’s been widely reported that we shut down discussion on that. But in the WHO report, which I was part of — and in fact I led the animal environmental side for the WHO side — we state that it’s extremely unlikely. We don’t state that it’s impossible it came from the lab. Of course it’s possible.

One of the many reasons that the origin of Covid-19 became such a sensitive and divisive issue was the sense, based on your communications about the Lancet letter, that you orchestrated a response among scientists and then made an effort to distance yourself from that effort. Do you want to say anything about that episode?

You said, “One of the reasons why this has become so divisive is because of the Lancet thing.” You could say that about many things. It’s because we didn’t release the DARPA proposal. It’s because we didn’t release our emails. It’s because, early on, we said very strongly that this came from nature, and that this lab leak stuff is preposterous. The real reason this has become so divisive is because it’s being used politically. That’s it.

Scientists disagree over an issue where there’s no definitive proof. And for this issue, there’s no definitive proof. And there may never be. But what we do know is the weight of evidence points strongly to emergence from farmed wildlife in China.

Since the WHO report even, there are something like 12 scientific papers that have been published or put up online from good scientists pointing towards that origin. And I’ve looked at every single document that’s come out of the folks who are trying to show it came out of the lab, and there is no evidence yet for that. It’s all about implied motives, databases that were taken offline, people that aren’t on a website, or innuendo around something. Any one of those things can be explained by the normal process of doing science.

An aerial view of P4 laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on April 17, 2020.

An aerial view of the P4 laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China’s central Hubei province on April 17, 2020.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho for The Intercept; Getty Images

Controversial Research

Did EcoHealth Alliance or the Wuhan Institute of Virology, through its partnership with EcoHealth Alliance, ever insert a furin cleavage site into a bat coronavirus genetic sequence?

Of course we did not do that. I really don’t understand how that could be a question at this point — it’s beyond the pale. That’s not in our plans and it’s not any of our reports, so of course we didn’t do that.

But isn’t it the case that you submitted a grant proposal to DARPA to do so?

We did submit a proposal to DARPA. I’ve not checked through the one that’s online that it’s the correct document. What I do know is it was widely reported that DARPA rejected that because there were concerns about safety issues. That is absolutely untrue. The document that allegedly is DARPA’s response, their review of our proposal, I’ve never seen that before. It was never sent to us. I don’t know if it’s real.

DARPA had a process by which people who didn’t get funded could do an interview with them to find out why they didn’t get funded. So I did that. Never once did they mention any concerns or issues around safety; never once did they mention gain-of-function. The reason they told us it was rejected was because the amount we asked for was too much for them. They couldn’t afford it. They actually encouraged us to resubmit in different ways. We then had protracted conversations with them about funding specific parts of it. They liked the proposal.

Was any of the work described in that proposal completed prior to its submission? We were told by multiple sources that when you submit a grant, that at least some of the work would have been done.

When you write a grant proposal and propose to do a new line of research, which is what we did, we would not be doing that research before we submit the proposal. That’s not how it works.

When we asked if you had ever inserted a furin cleavage site to a coronavirus, you responded with outrage. But that is what was described in the DARPA proposal.

No. What you said is, did we insert a furin cleavage site? And what I said was, of course not! If we had done that work with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, it would have been published by now. It would have been made public in our reports to the NIH. The DARPA proposal was not funded. Therefore, the work was not done. Simple.

But you acknowledge that you proposed to DARPA to insert a furin cleavage site?

I refute that that was the goal of the DARPA proposal. The idea was not to insert a furin cleavage site in a virus to see what happens. That’s not what was proposed. The proposal was to look for those polybasic cleavage sites in nature because we knew that that was the potential to make a virus more able to infect people and move from person to person. If we found mutations around that polybasic cleavage site that looked like it could be evolvable, the idea was then that Ralph Baric’s lab at UNC would do some work to see how evolvable that site was. So that work never happened. The proposal was not funded.

Did you find any of these cleavage sites in naturally occurring viruses that you collected?

The proposal was not funded so we didn’t do that work. We’ve not found polybasic cleavage sites. However, they are in many coronaviruses from bats. Papers from Europe show mutations around that cleavage site that suggest strongly that that furin cleavage site could evolve very easily in nature. I’m sure there are viruses out there with it. I’m convinced that it could have easily evolved during the first stages of the pandemic, as the virus got from bats, perhaps into an intermediate host in a wildlife farm, or into people.

Did you resubmit the proposal?

We had conversations with them over many months about bits they would like to fund or they wanted to fund. We did not get funded. We did not do the work.

So you didn’t think the DARPA proposal was relevant to the investigation into the origin of the pandemic?

A proposal that was not funded and work that was never done is not relevant to the origins of Covid. Of course not!

When asked if you had done this work with the furin cleavage site, you said no.

For the furin cleavage site, you should really ask Ralph Baric. He wrote that section of the DARPA grant.

So you’re saying that that would be a good question for Ralph Baric, whether he has done any of these insertions?

I don’t know what Ralph Baric has done. But I doubt that he would go ahead and do that work without the funding.

Some virologists were dismayed to see the insertion of furin cleavage sites in this proposal.

I don’t know why anyone would be dismayed at that because furin cleavage sites were first researched in influenza viruses. And it’s well known that that’s something you should look for if you’re interested in virulence factors. Second, there’s actually a published paper from way before our proposal was submitted, way before the pandemic, where a group actually inserted a furin cleavage site into SARS-CoV-1. So we were right to look for that. And I think the proposal stands as a valid and actually quite predictive effort to understand the risk of viruses. You’ve got to look at the big picture of why we do this research. We’re not doing it as a sort of academic interest, “what would happen if you put a cleavage site there?” No. This work is done to say: What viruses are there out there in the wild that have the potential to emerge in people? And can we do something to stop them? Develop vaccines, develop therapies, stop people making contact with those animals.

Your grant, “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence,” included an experiment using humanized mice. Were other humanized mouse experiments conducted by you and/or WIV?

Not by us, no.

What about by WIV?

Well, you need to talk to WIV about what else they were doing. We were doing one line of work with them.

Were you aware of any?

No, of course. I’d tell you if I was aware.

Were there viruses from elsewhere in Southeast Asia that were sent to the WIV?

No. This is a commonly put about story that’s simply not true. WIV did not receive viruses from all around the world.

How many actual viruses do they have?

WIV does not have the biggest collection of viruses from bats in the world. There’s 20,000 bat samples, something like that, tiny fecal pellets from bats.

Right now I don’t know exactly how many bat coronaviruses are in culture and freezers at the WIV. But from our work, I know that out of the SARS-related coronavirus, they were only ever able to culture a handful. I think three cultures. It’s not easy to do.

In November 2019, you tweeted that you had identified over 50 novel SARS-related coronaviruses, including some that cause SARS-like signs in mice and didn’t respond to monoclonal antibodies.

Yes.

What are these 50 viruses? And are they public?

This is a complex thing that’s been widely misinterpreted. It’s actually quite simple. What we had were hundreds of genetic sequences of coronaviruses from bats. We published them in that paper. They’re not all new viruses. As we went through the sequence data and analyzed it, we refined what you might call a new virus versus a known virus. That’s all. It’s scientists refining and analyzing.

One ongoing point of contention between you and NIH is about lab notebooks and the communications around experiments.

NIH has made a bunch of requests that are completely reasonable, that we’ve dealt with very quickly and sent them the information that they required. And in many cases, NIH had the information already. What’s happening here is you’ve got an office of the director that’s dealing directly with us and completely cutting out the program staff who’ve got all the data they need. NIH has also asked us for a number of things which to any balanced and independent reviewer are impossible for us to supply.

Clearly in coming up with Year 4 and 5 progress reports, EcoHealth Alliance had information and draft reports on these humanized mouse experiments. Did you share those with NIH?

Of course not. You don’t share draft reports. You share the final report.

Here’s what happens, it’s a very standard procedure: We are subcontracting to a lab in China to do some work. Every year we have to file a report to NIH to tell them what we’ve done for the year, how we’ve spent the money, and whether we’ve achieved the goals of the grant. So, we contact our subcontractees and we say, “Send us the information. Let us know what successes you’ve had this year and whether you’ve had problems and issues. Put it all in a report and send it to us.” And then we use that to produce a report for NIH. That’s why there are some editing issues around that. We move them around a bit, and we send a final report. A draft report is just a worse written version of the final report. There’s no special information that’s got intelligence value or anything.

Then why not share them?

We’ve not been asked for a draft report by anybody.

You’ve been colleagues with Shi Zhengli, the Chinese bat coronavirus expert who directs the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, since 2005?

Yes.

So is it the kind of relationship where you would be generally aware of all the work that she was involved in? Can you say a little bit about what your level of awareness of other stuff she was doing?

We were aware of most of the stuff she was doing. Of course. These people weren’t hiding anything from us. They are scientists.

I’ve sat through dozens of meetings with people from Wuhan Institute of Virology, where they talk openly about unpublished work. And, by the way, RaTG13 was one of the sequences in a paper published — in I think 2015. So they weren’t hiding anything from us.

Early on, after she learned about the outbreak, Shi said she was worried that somehow a virus might have leaked from her lab. A lot of people we speak to — virologists who do this kind of work — are the ones who seem most in touch with that possibility, that this stuff happens.

Very specifically, it happens when you have cultures of viruses in flasks, and you’re then doing experiments with high concentrations of virus. It rarely happens if ever from an animal sample, especially a saliva sample from a bat. What Shi Zhengli was saying at that time was, “Oh, no, it’s a coronavirus. I need to go back and check on those viruses that we’ve got and see: Is it one of them?” And she did, and it wasn’t. That’s what any reasonable person would do.

You implied in early 2020 that RaTG13 was not fully sequenced by WIV until late 2019 or later. And then afterwards, Shi revealed that it had actually been fully sequenced in 2018. When and how did you first learn about the true date that this virus was sequenced?

I don’t actually know the true date of when this virus was sequenced. I didn’t see an interview with Zhengli where she said, “We sequenced it in 2018.” I don’t know when and I don’t think they ever got the full genome. There are parts of that virus that aren’t correctly sequenced. Bear in mind, RaTG13 was not from a sample collected under the NIH grant. So we didn’t have any oversight on that or any knowledge of it.

A colony bats in a cave in the Maramagambo sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.

A colony of bats in a cave in the Maramagambo forest of Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho for The Intercept; Getty Images

Missing Data

Did you have access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s database of viral samples and sequences that went offline in September 2019?

I’ve never actually seen the database. I’ve seen pages of it from the internet, Twitter, chats. But I’ve never looked at the database.

Did your staff have access to it?

No. We didn’t need to! We had all the data we needed. Some folks find this missing database indicative of a cover-up or something. When we were in Wuhan [with the WHO mission] in the Institute of Virology, I said, “Why did you take the database offline?” And their response was, “We took it offline before the outbreak. We were then getting hacking attempts, hundreds, thousands of hacking attempts. So we decided it wouldn’t be wise to put it back up.” Now, you may not believe them. But it is a perfectly reasonable explanation. And I think people should try and go for the most likely reasonable explanation for these things.

So why did they take it offline in September 2019?

They told us — and it’s in the WHO report — that they were trying to update it to make it modern. WIV was trying to present itself like a globally significant virology institute, and it is. But when you look at Chinese websites, they can be really old and stuffy and clunky. What they were trying to do, they told us, was to make it interactive so that you can click on something and a map would show. They were trying to make it fit in with the national databases.

I find it quite ironic that the focus on the database of WIV is so intense, whereas what actually happened was we took the data and, with China, put the data into the NIH’s own database to make it public. That’s a great win for the U.S.

In April 2020, you wrote in an email, “It’s extremely important that we don’t have these sequences as part of our PREDICT release to Genbank at this point. As you may have heard, these were part of a grant just terminated by NIH. … Having them as part of PREDICT will being [sic] very unwelcome attention to UC Davis, PREDICT and USAID.” Why did you think that publishing these sequences would bring unwelcome attention?

Because we just had our grant terminated by NIH.

So you didn’t think it would be important to release this data, given that there was a pandemic?

Those sequences were released publicly by publishing them in a scientific paper, which is what scientists do. The email that you’re reading out is not about whether sequences should be made public; it’s about whether sequences should be made public via a USAID mechanism or via publishing through the NIH mechanism. And what I was saying to the UC Davis team that ran PREDICT was that these are NIH-funded sequences and should be reported through the NIH system. It’s really that simple.

And which paper were they reported in?

Latinne et al, published in Nature Communications. We were struggling to get that paper out. It was very, very difficult, once the pandemic started, to keep communication with Chinese scientists. The utmost priority as a scientist is to get the data published, not to upload it into some database that’s going to take months to go through. And by the way, that database is somewhere on the USAID government system. It’s very difficult to find. The paper had already been submitted for publication, and the sequences were uploaded into GenBank, the NIH system. And then once the papers were accepted, they became public. And that’s exactly what we did.

Are there sequences that have not been made public?

To my mind, there are no sequences of SARS-related coronaviruses that have not been made public. Some people think there are still viruses that are SARS-related that haven’t been put in GenBank. That’s not true. We’ve uploaded all of the SARS-related coronavirus sequences, or we’ve reported them to NIH, or we’ve published them in scientific papers. And in fact, for most of them, we’ve done all the above. We had them all uploaded before the pandemic. Most of them anyway.

You were on the WHO mission to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV-2. When the NIH grant documents were released, it was a surprise to many people that animal experiments were being done at Wuhan University. If you knew this information, did you share it?

It wasn’t a surprise to NIH because the NIH knew about them.

Right. But did you share that information with the WHO committee or with others who were investigating the origins?

The Wuhan University BSL-3 facility is what we’re talking about. They do humanized mouse work. That was not looked at by the WHO origins group. It’s a BSL-3 lab that had humanized mice under BSL-3 conditions. It’s highly unlikely to be the source of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Did you mention it to the committee?

I mentioned all my work to the committee, of course. We talked about it, for sure.

The Challenges of Public Scrutiny

Dr. Michael Lauer at the NIH has repeatedly asked you for biosafety records from the WIV and said that he has been unable to get some of them.

He says that, but it’s not true. We’ve supplied everything we could possibly supply on the issues that they’ve asked for.

In one of his letters to you, Lauer asked about the biosafety oversight of the work at WIV. In your response to him, you wrote that it consisted of semiannual meetings with the lead investigator and assessments of compliance with all conditions of the award. Biosafety experts have said that this falls short of the level of oversight one would want for this kind of work. You mentioned in an exchange with Lauer that you were offering to pay from EcoHealth’s own coffers for additional biosafety measures. Why did you offer to do this? Did you feel that the biosafety oversight was adequate?

We’re talking about a world-class virology lab run by the Chinese government that is probably the best virology lab in China, and China is very good at virology. It’s very efficiently run, and the biosafety conditions are very good. Just because people think that Covid-19 might have come from WIV doesn’t mean that therefore our oversight of biosafety wasn’t sufficient. We did everything normal in oversight of that lab.

Then why did you suggest these additional measures, if the others were already adequate?

Because I was worried that they were going to terminate our other grants. This is the key driving force for every action we’ve taken since April 24, 2020. I don’t know why people don’t realize that.

Once NIH shows you that it’s willing to terminate your funding and kick people out of a job and put your whole organization under pressure simply because a single politician tells them to, then you start worrying about every other grant and contract that NIH controls. We live in fear that they’re going to do similar abrupt terminations with no cause and no rationale and no logic.

What I was doing then was saying to Michael Lauer, please be reasonable. We’re trying to do everything we can, within the normal bounds of what organizations do. We probably have the best biosafety and field teams in the world.

We’re overcompliant and yet still being accused of lack of compliance.

On February 24, House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans sent a letter to NIH alleging that it is “highly suspicious” that EcoHealth reported the humanized mouse experiment results over two years, and suggesting that more work may have been done that was not reported. How would you respond to that?

This is a simple issue of Chinese nationals writing a report and then us drafting our report to NIH. So there’s a word in there where they say we continued the studies. That doesn’t mean they continued infecting mice with new viruses. No. What it means is they continued doing the research on the one experiment that they’ve done. And that continuation is a lot of work. So they did all the pathology, which means at the end of the experiment, you take all the mice, and you look at every organ in the body. You do detailed microscopical analysis. It takes months. So that’s why it dragged on because you’ve got months of after-the-experiment analysis. And we included the mortality data as part of the pathology data. That’s completely normal.

The House Energy and Commerce Republicans don’t write to us, they write to NIH. Sometimes we hear about it, sometimes we don’t. NIH doesn’t copy us on their responses. Then eventually we get a letter from NIH asking questions, which we always respond to, always within the timeframe and always refuting any allegations with evidence. So that’s what we’ve done.

The latest letter from the House Energy and Commerce Republicans accused us of being overfunded, effectively having two grants to do the same thing. It’s simply not true. The USAID PREDICT grant has completely different goals to the NIH coronavirus grant. For instance, PREDICT looks for between seven and 18 different viral families within samples, not just coronaviruses. NIH is focused solely on coronaviruses. So the goals are different.

The agencies do, as a standard procedure, a review of a grantee’s other proposals to see if there’s overlap between them, because they don’t want to fund the same thing twice. This is absolutely refutable with documentary evidence.

What’s your understanding of the Republicans’ motivation?

Any bipartisan requests for information from the House or the Senate, we’ve responded to. We’ve been working with the U.S. government since the pandemic began to get information to them about every single aspect of this pandemic, including unpublished data. The politicians who are attacking us probably don’t realize or know or care, in some cases. When there’s a request from one side of the political spectrum, we try not to respond to that. We’ve had hundreds of questions sent to us by letter, including requests for thousands of pages of documents. We don’t have the staff to do that. And bear in mind our grant has been terminated and now suspended. We don’t have access to funding. We don’t have the staff to do this work. It’s a horrible, cruel irony that, on the one hand, your funding is cut; and on the other hand, there are now outrageously huge number of demands for us to do work to show data from that funding that’s been cut.

Don’t you have ongoing funding for two other NIH projects?

Yes. Well, you can’t use that money.

What have you been asked to get by NIH that you feel you can’t get?

There are a whole series of things that we’ve been unable to get. A vial of virus. Information on a person that was removed from the website (I did ask them that, and they gave us an explanation, which is perfectly reasonable). NIH asked us for an inspection of the WIV. Every right-minded person on the planet realizes that the World Health Organization asked for an inspection of that lab, and we did go into the lab and ask questions and go around the facilities. For NIH to say that I should organize a U.S.-only, NIH-based or National Academy-based inspection of the lab facilities is a request that is way beyond what’s possible. You know, you can’t go into CDC as a foreigner and do an inspection of the lab.

NIH writing to us saying, “We demand that you do this,” puts us in jeopardy and it’s a security risk. If I was to take that letter from NIH and go to the Beijing airport and say, “I’m here to do this,” I would be arrested and put in jail and probably put on trial, in the same way that scientists from China have come to the U.S. and tried to take vials of virus back to China and been arrested and convicted. NIH doing this is clearly a way for them to try to get the public behind a decision they made that was political about terminating our grant. Ever since that decision, we’ve been put under similar pressure over and over again. The Republicans write to NIH with some fairly outrageous accusations. NIH responds and says, “Don’t worry, we will go and make EcoHealth do this, this, this, and this.”

I don’t think that those questions are posed to truly get to the bottom of the origins of Covid. While the House Republicans are putting pressure on NIH for tiny bits of administrative information, scientists are going out and finding that actually things are really pointing towards a natural origin. And meanwhile, we’re left refuting each one of those allegations. They’re all false. There’s no substance to them at all.

A good proportion of the public have been pushed by misinformation to believe a narrative — and this narrative is repeated daily — that gain-of-function work was funded by Tony Fauci as a back channel to China, and EcoHealth funneled funds to China. Those stories are very beguiling, they sort of make you feel, “Ah! I knew it.” But actually, there’s not a grain of truth to them. Every single action that EcoHealth Alliance has taken has been things that scientists do in the normal course of doing their work.

Closing down that line of research means we lose eyes and ears on the ground in China. And it doesn’t benefit us from a public health point of view or a national security point of view. It’s a huge mistake.

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