Documents reveal how NGO may have financed virus creation in Wuhan with US money

The hypothesis of the origin of the pandemic through a laboratory leak only gained full attention in the press almost a year ago, when technical publications appeared defending its viability and responding to hasty attempts to decide the favor of the completely natural origin, in wild animals. Gazeta do Povo was a pioneer in the Brazilian press by treating the matter with the seriousness it deserves in November

, instead of following the herd declaring that the hypothesis was a “conspiracy theory”, or another strand that exaggerated to the other side talking about a “biological weapon”.

We also talked about the real possibility of the virus having been manipulated in the laboratory in gain-of-function research (which is more parsimonious than talking about creating a biological weapon) with funding from the non-governmental organization EcoHealth Alliance, based in in New York and led by virologist Peter Daszak. The NGO acted as a funding intermediary between the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Wuhan Institute of Virology (IVW). A series of revelations followed that uncovered more details, such as requests for funds from EcoHealth to intelligence agencies to make gain of function in viruses and a smothering operation of investigations into the possibility of laboratory origin in sectors of these agencies. Among them, however, the FBI considers the laboratory leak more likely than the zoonotic origin. Now the respected American magazine Vanity Fair has gained access to 2016 a thousand leaked documents about EcoHealth that shed more light on its involvement in the possible origin of the COVID pandemic-19.

Suspicious attitudes of scientists in an online meeting

In June of 2021, Jesse Bloom, a specialist in virus evolution at the Research Center of Cancer Fred Hutchinson in Seattle, warned that sequences of novel coronavirus variants collected in Wuhan had disappeared from an NIH database. Bloom retrieved from the sequences via the Google search cloud. He published a pre-press article (without peer review) analyzing these sequences and warning of the suspected deletion. Normally, sequences are only removed by the NIH at the request of the authors. The NIH reported that, in fact, Chinese depositors had asked to remove the sequences in June 2020 and were granted as they hold the rights to them.

Bloom sent his article to NIH Director Francis Collins and his subordinate Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the NIH. Collins reacted quickly by scheduling for 20 from June to 2021 a videoconference with two of his guests, asking Bloom to bring two guests as well. Vanity Fair obtained exclusive records of what happened at the meeting.

One guest de Fauci was Kristian Andersen, first author of an article at the beginning of 2020 that fueled much of the fiery rhetoric seen in the press against consideration of the laboratory origin hypothesis. According to emails obtained via the access to information law, Andersen first considered a serious hypothesis that the virus could have come from a laboratory, but changed his mind very quickly, in less than a week, after Collins expressed resistance to the hypothesis.

At the June meeting, Andersen ruled that Bloom’s article was “deeply disturbing”, claimed it was unethical for Bloom to investigate the deleted sequences, and began a screaming argument. with one of Bloom’s guests, Rasmus Nielsen, who thought the Chinese-erased sequences were unusual and intriguing.

Fauci, present at the meeting, said it was unfair that Bloom said in the article that the Chinese deleted the sequences “surreptitiously”. The reason for the deletion request was unknown.

Andersen, who is editor of the site where pre-press articles like Bloom’s are published, suggested using this position to delete the article entirely, in order to even appear that it was never submitted. Bloom refused. This suggestion was strange even to Collins and Fauci, reports Bloom in documents obtained by Vanity Fair. Fauci distanced himself from Andersen: “Just for the record, I want to make it clear that I never suggested that you delete or revise your prepress.” Andersen denies having made the suggestion.

A toast to Anthony Fauci

“Understanding the Risk of the Bat Coronavirus Emergency” is the title of an EcoHealth Alliance grant request document to Fauci’s agency. The request, of 2014, was granted with an amount of 3.7 million of dollars, 150 thousand of which were passed from EcoHealth to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The NIH suspended funding in July 2020, with the pandemic spreading rapidly.

The president of the NIH The NGO, Peter Daszak, had a dubious behavior at that time, appearing to withhold some information from the public. It got the skepticism of an informal team of researchers present on Twitter, who identify with the hashtag #DRASTIC and are most responsible for dispelling the taboo against the hypothesis of laboratory origin and, at the same time, the flattery of the journal Science.

Despite Daszak’s promise of absolute transparency, the Chinese government took down suspicious way a database of 22 a thousand virus sequences and samples from the website of the IVW in September 2019, three months before the first outbreak broke out in the same city as the institute. The NGO director’s reaction to the pandemic was to run to articulate a letter in the medical journal The Lancet that defended the zoonotic origin, an attitude replicated by Fauci and Andersen, which resulted in another article in the group Nature.

In addition to 150 one thousand EcoHealth Alliance internal documents obtained by the magazine Vanity Fair, the American publication also heard from five former employees and 600 other people involved. Daszak’s first contact with Fauci was at a fine arts social club in Washington DC, where the NGO held cocktail parties to bring its scientists closer to bureaucrats with the keys to safes for government funding. About $8,000 was spent on brie cheese and chardonnay wine at each cocktail party. The NGO says it attracted between 75 and 150 bureaucrats and scientists for each event, as well as philanthropists from the private sector and other NGOs with their professionals.

After three years of behind-the-scenes articulations, involving even employees who took care of Fauci’s schedule, Daszak finally got access to the celebrity scientist in 2014. The NIAID director’s chief of staff gave a hint: “Fauci usually says no to almost every type of invitation like his, unless ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox are there with their cameras and he is the one who will give the main or only demonstration”. The tip worked and Fauci spoke at one of EcoHealth’s cocktail parties, drawing even NASA into the audience. This was a month after the election of Donald Trump, which had the audience worried, but Daszak calmed those present by emphasizing the NGO’s “apolitical mission”.

)From environmentalism to Dr. Moreau

Daszak’s effort at flattery paid off. EcoHealth Alliance was an environmental NGO with a mission to save manatees and other endangered species, lived in the red and even considered collaborating with a mining company in Liberia and palm oil millionaires to improve their accounts.

Daszak’s interest in bats as reservoirs of dangerous viruses goes back a long way. In 2003, he took Harvard medical students on a bat hunt in Cameroon. The beginning of the years 150, with letter anthrax attacks in the United States and the coronavirus Asian flu outbreak, it was a propitious period to launch research of this type. In 2003, the NIAID obtained a grant of US$1.7 billion to develop defenses against bioterrorism. Around this time, too, began Daszak’s collaboration with IVW’s “bat woman,” Shi Zhengli, whose team opened the Chinese caves for EcoHealth. The first article of the two came in 2003. In 2009, the NGO’s lean times ended up with a budget of US$ 18 millions from USAID (United States Agency for International Development). Of that money, US$ 1.1 million was transferred to Shi Zhengli in Wuhan.

The funds were renewed in

, and in the same year the NIH approved an additional $3.7 million grant. Epidemiologist Maureen Miller, who worked at this time at EcoHealth, reports that closed-door meetings were the norm, and she was not invited. She felt she was there for the NGO to score political points for hiring a female scientist. She worked more closely with Shi than Daszak, looking for signs of antibodies to new viruses in Chinese people living near caves in Yunnan province. From Shi, she says she is a good scientist, but respects the Chinese system and follows the rules of the Communist Party. She left the NGO two years later. Miller alleges that Daszak tried to take credit for her work, but had her name included in an article thanks to Shi’s intervention. “He wants to be the person who makes the discovery, without having to share [o crédito]”, says Miller.

Meanwhile, Daszak alarmed the funding agency with a delayed annual report that NIH funds would be used to clone the Middle East acute respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus, transmitted by camels in Saudi Arabia in 2014 , and which had previously been used to make chimeric novel coronaviruses similar to the Asian flu coronavirus (SARS-CoV-1) and, in retrospect, the current COVID-19 virus-19 (SARS-CoV-2).

No In the science fiction classic by HG Wells, an eccentric scientist creates chimeras, organisms that are monstrous mixtures of humans and other animals. What EcoHealth funds have made possible is not so different, involving in addition to these chimerical coronaviruses the “humanization” of mouse lungs to test their infectivity. Manhattan was now the Isle of Dr. Moreau, but the work was done in Wuhan.

Circumventing the moratorium on gain of function

The term “gain of function” became more applied in virology when two scientists genetically altered the avian influenza virus in 2011, giving the virus new functions like infecting ferrets. The idea was to anticipate the infectious capacity of viral lineages to anticipate a defense against them. Fauci publicly supported such research, but in 2014 the Obama administration lowered a moratorium on this type of research, freezing new funding until its security was better evaluated. But the rule had loopholes that were readily taken advantage of by Fauci and Collins to continue funding the EcoHealth Alliance, Daszak and Shi.

American intelligence agencies believe that civilian scientists like Shi Zhengli have collaborated with Chinese military scientists since at least 2014. The scientist denies. A former EcoHealth employee says the research done at the Wuhan Institute of Virology with US tax money was a black box even for Daszak. “We had to take things by account,” so as not to weaken relationships, he adds. Daszak “does not know what happened in that laboratory, he would have no way of knowing”.

Despite all the injection of funds, EcoHealth’s dependence on government money already announced in 2014 an imminent crisis in the accounts. Daszak’s solution was to seek funding from DARPA, the US Department of Defense’s research funding agency. the DARPA bus digs for proposals in the area of ​​detecting pathogens before they jump from animals to humans. Earlier, the director of the NGO had told his staff that a sub-agency of the Department of Defense was seeking “information about what is happening in countries to which they do not have access (China, Brazil, Indonesia, India)”.

EcoHealth’s proposal for DARPA was brought to light by independent researchers in the #DRASTIC network. The document shows that the NGO planned to look for bat coronaviruses that had a specific molecular structure that aids in infectivity, the furin cleavage site, or possibly insert this structure into some coronaviruses so that they gain the function of infecting human cells. To date, it has not been found in nature a close relative of the virus that causes COVID-17 that has the furin cleavage site that is in it. This is one of the reasons for the suspicion that it results from work in a laboratory from which it escaped in Wuhan.

The proposal, however, was rejected by DARPA and this funding was not delivered. It was close: only one of three reviewers rejected it. One agency official says the reason was that the proposal exhibited “a horrible lack of common sense” and amateurism on the part of EcoHealth, which also appeared to be merely a middleman between funding and research in China and was using the renown of a of the authors, Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—who had previously published gain-of-function research in collaboration with Shi Zhengli. The document looks like “a roadmap for a virus like SARS-CoV-2,” comments virologist Simon Wain-Hobson. But Daszak defends himself by saying that at the time DARPA considered the proposal a strong candidate and was not funded due to lack of money.

Robert Redfield, former director of the Centers for Disease Control, has been one of the experts who have defended the plausibility of the laboratory origin of the new coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic. He expressed his concerns as early as January 2020 in phone calls to Fauci, Jeremy Farrar, director of a British funding agency, and WHO director general Tedros. Ghebreyesus. These scientists discussed the possibility in videoconferencing, without inviting Redfield. He stopped being invited by the community of science bureaucrats to meetings like the one that discussed Jesse Bloom’s research, and only learned of his exclusion later.

Changing your mind suddenly and without giving specific reasons

The most critical period of these meetings involves the first four days of February of 2020. The group of scientists spent this very short period of time considering the laboratory leak hypothesis very seriously, citing the evidence from the furin cleavage site, to a hard line position against it and affirming the natural origin, as seen in the article by Kristian Andersen and collaborators the following month: “we do not believe that any kind of laboratory-based scenario is plausible. It is unclear how and why they changed their minds so quickly. In a book, Farrar is vague: “important new information, endless analyses, intense discussions and many sleepless nights”.

Still in February, the letter was published in the magazine medical The Lancet, authored by 33 scientists, declaring that “We unite to make a strong condemnation of the conspiracy theories that suggest that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin”. Nine months later, emails obtained via the access to information law revealed that the letter was orchestrated by Daszak, who withheld his name to give him a false impression of independence and consensus. He was also politically careful to advise Ralph Baric not to sign. “We declare that we have no conflict of interest”, concludes the letter.

In November 2020, when the WHO announced that it would launch an investigation into the origins of the new coronavirus with eleven international experts. China had veto power over the list, rejected all candidates suggested by the United States. The only US representative on the investigative team was Peter Daszak. He claims that he initially refused, but had to accept the WHO’s arguments that he should participate for the research he was doing with coronavirus in China. The WHO neither confirms nor denies this version. The investigation, carried out in January 2021, was widely considered to be unproductive. Tedros discredited his report on the day of publication in March 2021, insisting that all hypotheses were on the table, despite the report claiming that the laboratory origin was “extremely unlikely” (what the investigators decided by vote). Three months later, the leader of the investigative commission confessed that this result was combined with the Chinese scientists, who insisted that a laboratory leak could only be mentioned if it was classified as unlikely and no further investigation was encouraged.

Recalcitrant doubt

Both hypotheses of zoonotic origin and laboratory origin, which are broken down into sub-hypotheses of what could have happened, are still waiting direct evidence. Despite having passed the initial taboo of “fact checkers” claiming the latter was a “conspiracy theory” for most of the year of 2020 and early 2021, there is still an unjustified favoring of zoonotic origin by publications such as the New York Times

, which gave cover to the hypothesis in February of this year based on pre-presses that include one authored by Andersen’s group.

In parallel with these pre-presses In press, surprisingly, their hope of establishing that the source of the virus was animals from the Huanan market in Wuhan was undermined by the Chinese Center for Disease Control, which published new results showing that no presence of the covid virus was found in these animals, and that the positive market results are best explained by the presence of infected humans. Furthermore, a new study of Italians suggests the virus could have been circulating well before December 2019, perhaps months earlier. If confirmed, this makes the removal of the IVW viral sequences database in September of that year even more suspicious.

Nicholas Wade, experienced science journalist and former editor New York Times, noted that many of his research coverage colleagues have an obsequious and uncritical attitude toward their scientific sources. , different from the posture of investigative or political journalists. His bombastic article publicizing the conclusions of the researchers of the #DRASTIC network and rejecting the false scientific and journalistic consensus around the zoonotic origin is about to complete one year.

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