A new email obtained by U.S. Right to Know raises new concerns about the veracity of statements by a scientist close to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and renews questions about his organization’s research.
The email shows that EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak, a longtime collaborator of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), planned to continue work unfunded on a grant that was revoked by the National Institutes of Health.
The grant in question, called “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence ”, was a collaboration between EcoHealth Alliance, the WIV, several other Chinese institutions, and the Baric lab at the University of North Carolina. It was originally awarded from 2014 to 2019 and renewed from 2019 to 2026. It was suspended from April to July 2020 over EcoHealth’s ties to the WIV.
“My plan is to continue this work, unfunded for now…” said Daszak in an email dated April 28, 2020, just four days after the grant was retracted.
Daszak’s email generates questions about NIH oversight of grantees conducting research with pandemic risks. An audit published last week by the inspector general overseeing health programs uncovered several deficiencies in NIH’s oversight of EcoHealth.
His email also seems to contrast with his public statements that work on the grant came to a halt without funding.
The grant was suspended during the Trump administration after questions began to swirl about the group’s work on SARS-like viruses at the pandemic’s epicenter.
When asked by the journal Nature how he planned to continue work on the discontinued grant, Daszak gave a murky answer.
“The NIH have told us not to work on this project. Obviously, we’re not going to break any NIH rules,” Daszak said, suggesting that he would not do any further work on the discontinued grant. However, he then followed up with, “But we have an ongoing collaboration…So we need to carry on with that work.”
Asked about his email, Daszak told U.S. Right to Know that he was referring to analysis of the group’s existing data and not new fieldwork.
“The only work we continued to do was on reporting results of the grant to NIH and to the public via peer-reviewed publications,” Daszak said in an email.
According to the grant, EcoHealth’s headquarters were primarily set up for computational modeling, and did not have the facilities necessary to perform the proposed lab work.
The research proposed in the suspended grant mainly focused on surveying and sampling people for evidence of coronavirus infections, and creating mathematical models to predict how likely coronaviruses were to infect people and trigger a pandemic.
The grant generated controversy because it also proposed to sample, sequence, and isolate live SARS-like coronaviruses. The isolated, novel, live viruses would then be used to infect humanized mice or SARS-susceptible animals like ferrets. Most of this work was to be done at the Wuhan lab.
The grant renewal further proposed to isolate and test SARS-like coronaviruses that were most likely to spillover as well as evade therapeutics. The main targets for this portion of the project were coronaviruses whose spike proteins were 10 to 25 percent different from that of the SARS spike protein. The spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 falls within this range.
According to the proposal to renew the grant, which was written in 2018, the researchers did not have any coronaviruses whose spike proteins fit the target profile. They said they would begin sampling for these viruses toward the end of the first year of the renewal, which was from June 2019 to May 2020. They planned to include caves in an area where other SARS-like coronaviruses have been found.
The grant was suspended about nine months after it was renewed.
A subaward to the WIV was terminated in August 2022 after the WIV did not provide lab notebooks and data files of the research they conducted.
The contrast between Daszak’s email and public statements about unfunded work raises questions about his statements on a second controversial EcoHealth grant proposal that had the potential to lead to the existence of SARS-CoV-2.
This second proposal, called DEFUSE, was never funded. It was submitted to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and proposed adding something called a cleavage site to the spike proteins of SARS-related coronaviruses. SARS-CoV-2 has a furin cleavage site in its spike protein, but no other viruses closely related to it have this site.
The WIV was a partner on the proposal.
When asked, Daszak responded, “…we would not be doing that research before we submit the proposal. That’s not how it works.”
According to Richard Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, investigators do often perform research before submitting their grant proposals.
“In the molecular life sciences, it is the norm to begin, and often make substantial progress on, new lines of research before seeking and obtaining funding for the research,” said Ebright. “It would be unusual for a research group with multiple current lines of funding not to have started a new line of research before obtaining funding for it, and it would be almost unheard of for a group with multiple current lines of support not to proceed with a new line of research simply because an application for an additional line of funding application was not approved.”
The DEFUSE proposal does state that EcoHealth Alliance had their own “core EHA funds” that could be used to supplement grants, though they only seemed to be used to support Daszak’s salary in that proposal.
The documents reported on in this article were obtained through litigation against the University of North Carolina under the North Carolina Public Records Act. Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know about COVID-19 origins and risky virological research can be found here.