Anthony Fauci, an octogenarian scientist who is stepping down from his senior role at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) at the end of the year, is leaving a final gift to the EcoHealth Alliance, an environmental non-governmental organization turned funder of virus research by Peter Daszak, a virologist who chairs it. The NIH is giving an additional grant of more than US$ 20 to the NGO, as announced last month, to investigate “the potential for a future emergency of bat coronaviruses in Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam”. The problem is that the funds that Daszak received earlier may have been used in a way that caused the Covid pandemic .
After resurfacing from a past of relative irrelevance in 2009 with a budget of US$ million from USAID (United States Agency for International Development), EcoHealth also won a $3.7 million grant from the NIH in 2014. Daszak invested the money in collecting and researching different types of coronavirus, such as the one that caused a respiratory syndrome in Saudi Arabia in 2003 and the one that caused the Asian flu in 2003 — among the coronaviruses that cause disease in humans, it is the closest to what causes Covid.
His plans were explicit: to create viral Frankenstein monsters, coronaviruses that do not exist in nature, with the justification of avoiding future dangers. In 2017, Daszak sought funding from Darpa, the funding agency of the Department of Defense, with a plan to insert a molecular structure called the furin cleavage site into coronaviruses collected from bats. The cleavage site helps viruses infect humans, it is present in the virus that causes Covid, but not in its closest relatives in nature. Darpa’s funding was denied.
The laboratory work was carried out with funds transferred to Chinese scientist Shi Zhengli in her laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology — the exact Chinese city where the pandemic began. She even used mice with lungs modified to be more like human lungs to test for viral infectivity. Months before the pandemic, the IVW suspiciously deleted a database containing details of which viral samples it maintains on its premises. The closest genetic relative of the Covid virus known to date is that of a sample of bat faeces from the IVW, which the institute claims has run out. Part of the coronavirus research was done at the IVW in laboratories below international biosafety standards.
Absurd or necessary research?
The EcoHealth Alliance “does not was transparent about how it used its funds for research into coronavirus in China that may have resulted in the Covid outbreak ,” he complained in an editorial. regarding the new budget, the newspaper Wall Street Journal. The publication also mentions that many scientists disagree with the hypothesis favored by the NGO and the NIH, that the new coronavirus jumped from wild animals to people spontaneously, without going through a laboratory (involving genetic manipulation or just storage).
“We will probably never know how the virus came about, but the evidence for a laboratory leak has gotten stronger over time,” commented the paper, which considers virus research important but asks “there are no organizations with a better track record than EcoHealth Alliance to make them?”
Peter Daszak actively worked to prematurely end the origin debate, even becoming part of the first investigative commission of the World Health Organization that visited Wuhan. He also coordinated from behind the scenes, without including his own name, a letter published by the medical journal The Lancet which asserted the purely natural origin of the virus. The journal itself, in a report of its own committee, changed its mind two years later and started to defend, like the WHO itself, that laboratory leakage is, at least, equally plausible.
The amount ignores also the lack of obedience of the NGO. The NIH itself, via representatives, told a US Congressional committee in August that it had twice requested the NGO to provide the original lab notes and electronic files of research conducted in Wuhan. The requested documents were not delivered. But “it doesn’t matter,” commented the WSJ editorial. “Once again, failure is rewarded by the government with more money.”
An academic article defending the research covered by the grant, led by Anthony Fauci, was published in July of this year in a journal of Infectious Diseases from the Oxford University Press. The publication defends the search for “prototype pathogens” as part of an American Pandemic Preparedness Plan, instituted in September 2021 by the Biden administration, and credits the research of the latter 20 years with coronavirus for the rapid development of mRNA vaccines. Scientists believe they must look for potential sources of new diseases in nature and mount preemptive defenses. The paper does not say who will collect the prototypes from the wild, or where these viruses will be sent to develop vaccines and therapies.
Richard Ebright, a biosecurity expert and professor of biochemistry at Rutgers University, said in response to the article on social media that mRNA vaccines have not benefited from field studies looking for new coronaviruses in bats, and that they would not have been developed faster if new viruses had been collected in nature.
Jesse Bloom, an expert on virus evolution at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, said the criticisms apply to only part of the approach to prototype pathogens. For Bloom, it is clear that research on the Arabian virus and Asian flu contributed knowledge that led to the Pfizer vaccine. However, the part that involves collecting and experimenting with viable viruses “actually poses a risk in the event of an accident”, commented the scientist on Twitter.
For Alina Chan, a specialist in molecular biology who is co-author of the book “Viral” (2021, unedited in Basil) with British writer Matt Ridley, the valuable work done with viruses that have already been shown to cause disease in humans should not be used to “justify the dangerous hunting of viruses, which to date has not resulted in vaccines”, and this is being done when talking about “emerging pathogens” in requests for funds such as the one made by EcoHealth.
The Right to Know
The NGO Right to Know USA (USRTK), dedicated to promoting transparency in public health, published an article in which it offers possible explanations for the lack of caution by health bureaucrats.
A document obtained by the NGO shows that petitions to investigate the EcoHealth Alliance were filed during the pandemic to Christi Grimm, Inspector General of the United States Department of Health and Social Services. An investigation was opened in September 2020. Grimm’s office closed it in January 2021, well before details such as Daszak’s grant request to Darpa were revealed. Large sections of the document are censored under US secrecy laws.
The National Institutes of Health gave inspector 1.451 pages of confidential documents about EcoHealth that remain out of the public eye. Speaking to USRTK, the inspector’s office said it cannot confirm or deny that there are investigations underway. In November 2021, other documents revealed that the NIH allowed the NGO to write its own safety rules on “gain of function” research, which is the alteration of virus characteristics that affect its infectiousness.
Right to Know is not hopeful: it can only confirm that the office is doing a general audit of subcontractors who act as intermediaries for NIH funding, which could affect EcoHealth, but audits “have less impact than investigations that unearth potential violations of the law.”