Republicans and Democrats investigating the origins of COVID-19 find a common target: Peter Daszak

By Matt Field | May 2, 2024

Peter Daszak, who leads a nonprofit that funneled money to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for bat coronavirus experiments, testified in Congress on May 1.

One of the main characters in the COVID origins saga spent hours on Wednesday under withering questioning from Congress about his organization’s involvement in controversial experimentation on bat coronaviruses in Wuhan, China, where the COVID virus was first detected. For about a year-and-a-half, a Republican-led House subcommittee has been conducting an inquiry into the origins of the COVID pandemic, holding hearings that often split along party lines. Republicans have advocated for the idea the outbreak began with a leak from a Chinese biosafety laboratory. Many Democrats and scientists have hewed toward the other leading pandemic origin theory, which holds that the coronavirus that sparked the outbreak jumped naturally from infected animals to humans.

On Wednesday, however, members of both US political parties came armed with blistering criticism for Peter Daszak, the head of the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, questioning his honesty in dealing with federal agencies and skewering his alleged conflicts of interests as he attempted to assume the role of a leading scientific voice on the pandemic’s origins. Beginning in 2014, EcoHealth ran a US-funded, multimillion-dollar project to identify hotspots where patterns of interaction between humans and animals could spark disease outbreaks.

The select subcommittee has interviewed federal scientific officials, including Anthony Fauci, the former head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), which funded Daszak’s work; various scientists; and others. Perhaps none of them was closer than Daszak and EcoHealth to the virus research going on at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a major coronavirus research center and a lab where, some suspect, an accident could have sparked the outbreak of COVID-19.

In the course of their work, researchers at the virology institute created hybrid (or chimeric) bat viruses and tested them in mice genetically modified to express aspects of the human respiratory system. Although the tested hybrids were too genetically distant from SARS-CoV-2 to represent a precursor to the COVID virus, one grew much more robustly in the mice than the base virus—representing what some experts have called a “gain of function” in the pathogen. Though he was closely involved in coronavirus research in China, Daszak sometimes minimized his connection to the Wuhan institute as he played a role in early efforts to tamp down on what he called “conspiracy theories” related to a lab leak.

Daszak also was part of an international team organized by the World Health Organization (WHO) that investigated the pandemic’s origins. That team’s report rated frozen seafood as a more likely source of the initial COVID outbreak than a lab incident in Wuhan—a finding that quickly met resistance from word leaders, including WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and scorn from those who viewed the lab-leak theory as at least plausible.

Democrats decried some of the House subcommittee’s earlier hearings and interviews—including those with Fauci—as political grandstanding that cast unwarranted doubt on the scientists and that didn’t meaningfully advance understanding of the pandemic’s origins. But on Wednesday, Democrats and Republicans alike engaged in heated back-and-forths with Daszak.

They hammered away on one of the plot points in the origins debate, EcoHealth’s transparency in reporting on its studies to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Over the course of one five-year grant, EcoHealth was supposed to submit annual reports. One of those, covering 2018-2019, came two years late. Daszak claimed that EcoHealth had tried to submit the report, but the NIH had a problem with its computerized reporting platform. According to a report by the subcommittee’s Democrats, however, a forensic audit found no evidence for this assertion.

When EcoHealth finally submitted the progress report, NIH said it showed that experiments involving infecting “humanized” mice in China with engineered chimeric coronaviruses had resulted in one strain making mice sicker than the unaltered strain. Though NIH had not deemed EcoHealth’s research to be enhanced potential pandemic pathogen research (that is, gain-of-function research that increases potentially dangerous attributes of a pathogen), a term in the EcoHealth grant stipulated that if one of chimeric viruses grew at a significantly higher rate than an unaltered version, EcoHealth was to stop the experiment and report the findings.

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One of Daszak’s collaborators, Ralph Baric, a prominent coronavirus researcher in North Carolina, has criticized the security of the lab in Wuhan, telling congressional investigators that some coronavirus work that would normally be done in more secure labs in the United States was done in facilities without the same precautions at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Daszak, however, told Vanity Fair that animal infection experiments in Wuhan were done at the same level of biosafety as in the United States.

Daszak reiterated to the subcommittee EcoHealth’s claim that the organization had indeed reported the concerning results to NIH, in a 2018 report. The group’s update from that year, the fourth of the grant term, includes details of an experiment studying the effect of hybrid viruses on genetically engineered mice, which Daszak said was the same experiment as the one that has elicited NIH’s concern. The NIH has disputed that they were, in fact, the same experiment.

The report for year five of the grant was due in September 2019 but wasn’t submitted until August 2021, during which time, of course, the coronavirus pandemic spread around the world and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Daszak, the NIH, and gain of function research on potentially pandemic pathogens came under a harsh spotlight. Members of Congress criticized Daszak’s claims that his organization had tried to submit reports on time. “You knew that there were difficulties. You had a previous experience of doing this and making sure people got things, and what I am saying is when the taxpayers’ money is used for scientific research, it is imperative that people comply with the rules,” Rep. Deborah Ross, a North Carolina Democrat, told Daszak.

When EcoHealth sent in the late report, it ignited a firestorm over the organization’s alleged violations of the requirement to notify the government immediately of the worrying experimental results (although, according to the NIH, the chimeric viruses under study in Wuhan couldn’t have been precursors of the COVID virus).

A government watchdog report subsequently faulted the NIH for lax oversight over the EcoHealth grant.

Daszak previously told the subcommittee that he had concluded the year five report wasn’t necessary because EcoHealth had applied for and won a continuing award. But the subcommittee’s Democrats wrote in their report that the application for extending the grant did not contain the same results in the year five report that showed how the chimeric viruses affected the humanized mice.

“Apart from any potential SARS-CoV-2 origins-related implications, those results would have been important in enabling NIAID to oversee [EcoHealth Alliance’s] grant compliance effectively,” the report noted.

The subcommittee also sharply criticized Daszak’s involvement in a 2020 letter published in a leading British medical journal, The Lancet. The letter, signed by 27 top scientists, received heavy coverage and served to tamp down speculation about a “lab leak.” In it, Daszak and the others wrote, “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” Though an organizer of the letter, Daszak, for some time considered not signing it, according to the Democratic report, so that it wouldn’t “link back to our collaboration.” Initially he didn’t disclose his work on bat coronavirus research in China, and after being requested to do so, he didn’t mention his work with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

“It seems like you were aware your involvement in The Lancet statement had at minimum the appearance of a competing interest,” Democrat Raul Ruiz told Daszak.

When Daszak said he’d worked with multiple organizations in China, Ruiz cut him off, accusing him of obfuscating his work with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. “It was Wuhan. The one lab that we’re interested in is Wuhan,” Ruiz, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee said.

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Subcommittee members also accused Daszak of trying to mislead the federal government in a 2018 grant proposal submitted to the Defense Advanced Research Agency, a Pentagon science group. The grant wasn’t ultimately approved. But it sought funding to conduct experiments that would have inserted in SARS-like coronaviruses, genetic elements that, in the COVID virus, allow the virus to readily spread and cause illness among humans.The subcommittee pointed to instances of Daszak appearing to tell his colleagues that while he planned to distribute work among collaborators in China and the United States, he would emphasize the work to be done in the United States. He proposed to do this, in part, by including in the grant application biographical information for himself and Baric, but not for collaborators overseas. This, Daszak said, was because he didn’t want to give the impression that too much US money would flow to China.

A spokesperson for EcoHealth said in a statement that the organization has been working “diligently” with NIH to resolve the issues identified in the critical government watchdog report. The organization denied that Daszak tried to conceal his ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, calling them a matter of “public record.”

“It is unfortunate that Wednesday’s hearing appeared to have foregone conclusions about our work, published in reports before Dr. Daszak even entered the room, that failed to acknowledge our ongoing efforts to respond to these and countless other inquiries,” the statement said.

“Over the next few days, we will publish statements in response to each allegation from the [subcommittee] reports, that demonstrate our compliance, with documentary evidence.”

The Republican side of the subcommittee has called on EcoHealth and Daszak to be “debarred,” or prevented from receiving government funds. Republicans also called for a criminal investigation.

During the hearing, Daszak defended his organization’s work and extolled its benefits to pandemic prevention, including its creation of what he called the first emerging infectious disease hotspot map, which allowed for better targeting of public health resources. “The public nature of our work and our long-standing collaborations with Chinese scientists made us a target for speculation about the origins of COVID-19, beginning in early 2020 and continuing to this day. Misinformation about our research began to circulate widely through social media and the press, often spread by people with little knowledge or understanding of the science underlying our research,” Daszak said in his opening remarks.

Daszak, who has been vilified by many who believe COVID began with a lab leak, testified to experiencing extreme levels of harassment. He told Congress that he’s received a letter with white powder and death threats against him and his family. He described experiencing a “swatting” incident. Someone called the police, Daszak said, to report that a scientist had been killed in his house and that wife was being held hostage in the basement. “Of course it was a fake call, but we ended up with six police cars and detectives searching the house and staying the afternoon,” Daszak said.

Wednesday’s hearing didn’t shed new light on how COVID-19 began, and the subcommittee’s Democrats said that the investigation has not shown that EcoHealth Alliance created SARS-CoV-2. It did show, however, a level of bipartisan condemnation for one of the central figures of the origin mystery.

“It’s possible perhaps that you’re framing issues in a way that is most favorable to you and less so in a way that’s confronting the science at any given moment. And that is just a concern,” the counsel for the subcommittee’s Democrats told Daszak.

“I’ve only told you the truth,” the scientist protested.

 

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to include a statement from EcoHealth Alliance and details about the Republican push to prevent the organization from accessing federal funding as well as to initiate a criminal investigation. 


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Keywords: COVID-19
Topics: Biosecurity

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p. gutierrez
p. gutierrez
19 days ago

The House subcommittee May 1, 2024 report, ‘Ecohealth alliance did not cause the covid-19 pandemic but did engage in questionable professionable conduct’ ,    interweaves Nov 14, 2023 testimony from Peter Daszak, with Jan.  22, 2024 interview with Ralph Baric. Wenstrup, Comer, McMorris-Rodgers  interview of Daszak questioned him regarding his or the WIV creating GOF chimeric coronaviruses, whose graphs and charts were used by Daszak in the EcoHealth 5R01AI110964-03 grant report for 2017/2018.   According to nih-ecohealth-grant-foia-april-2023 (Judicial Watch), line 488, explicitly states Ralph Baric ‘collaborated’ with Daszak on the creation of the year 4 report in April 2018.    Figure 5B in that pdf shows… Read more »

Charles Forsberg
Charles Forsberg
15 days ago

Covid-19 was a lab leak–whether it was a natural virus that had been collected elsewhere or modified is a second level detail. The family of viruses that Covid-19 is a member do not exist in natural anywhere near Wuhan. There are a hundred thousand meat markets closer to where these viruses are found than Wuhan–where an outbreak would be much more likely.. The likely scenario somebody picked it up in the lab and went to the meat market. That answer is unacceptable to much of the scientific community because it implies Level 4 laboratories should only be built in isolated… Read more »

Eben
Eben
6 days ago

Regardless of Daszak’s guilt, this seems like a great time for hard questions about whether gain-of-function research should be allowed.

Do the benefits compensate for the risks? Did any of the coronavirus gain-of-function research end up helping with COVID-19?

If it’s even plausible that such research could lead to a pandemic, we should consider a global treaty prohibiting it.