Organization at center of ‘lab leak theory’ suspended from federal funds

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The Department of Health and Human Services has suspended and initiated debarment proceedings against an organization after scrutiny of its work with the Wuhan Institute of Virology revealed a failure to monitor a risky experiment on coronaviruses, failure to obtain lab notebooks from the Wuhan lab and a long delayed grant report describing the the collaboration’s research in the months before the pandemic.

EcoHealth Alliance, helmed by president Peter Daszak, will be ineligible from receiving funds from the U.S. government. The suspension will stand until the debarment proceedings are complete.

“The information in the record constitutes adequate evidence to demonstrate that the suspension and proposed debarment of EHA is necessary due to a cause of so serious or compelling a nature that it affects EHA’s present responsibility,” wrote Suspension and Debarment Official H. Katrina Brisbon in an action referral memorandum. Brisbon wrote that immediate suspension was in the public interest.

“EHA may not conduct business with the United States Federal Government as an agent or representative of other contractors, or as an agent or representative of other participants in federal assistance programs,” Brisbon wrote in a letter to Daszak.

HHS did not respond to a request for comment.

EcoHealth collaborated with the Wuhan Institute of Virology to uncover SARS-related coronaviruses in China and to tweak these viruses in the lab in order to uncover the evolutionary changes needed for them to cause pandemics. However some experts have questioned whether transporting viruses from remote areas to dense urban areas like Wuhan and enhancing their ability to infect human cells carries its own pandemic risks.

Other revelations have also raised questions about whether Daszak is responsible with taxpayer funds. Daszak did not disclose plans with the Wuhan Institute of Virology to research viruses with 80 percent homology to SARS and with a furin cleavage site at the S1/S2 boundary of the spike protein  — features that describe SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Drafts of the proposal obtained by U.S. Right to Know show Daszak misled his sought funders about the planned safety standards of this research.

EcoHealth operates out of a New York City office and subcontracts with partner labs around the world to carry out sequencing, assays and experiments. Daszak has worked with Wuhan Institute of Virology Senior Scientist Zhengli Shi for over a decade.

When a coronavirus pandemic broke out in Wuhan, Daszak went into action to defend his colleagues. He organized a letter in The Lancet in February 2020 that stated “we stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” He did not disclose a competing interest — a scientific collaboration on coronaviruses at the pandemic’s epicenter. 

But Daszak apparently did not spring into action to seek more information from the Wuhan lab. While Daszak appealed for federal funding under the premise he could access samples and sequences at the Wuhan Institute of Virology after the pandemic’s outbreak, Daszak eventually conceded he never directly asked for lab notebooks or the sequences in the lab’s database of coronaviruses, which became inaccessible in the fall of 2019. He even encouraged his colleagues not to deposit certain sequences into the National Institutes of Health’s public database.

As the years have passed and the scrutiny of his research projects has increased, Daszak has acknowledged that he did not have any evidence that could exculpate his colleagues in Wuhan. After years of muddying the waters, Daszak conceded in congressional testimony earlier this month that he did not have insight into the results of the Wuhan lab’s virus hunting expeditions after 2015 or so. 

Daszak marketed EcoHealth as capable of preventing a pandemic before it begins by collecting animal viruses and applying gain-of-function techniques to predict the mutations required for them to spill over into humans — claims that generated skepticism even among some virologists. Messages made public through committee subpoena show that even virologists staunchly in favor of a natural origin of COVID-19 privately mocked EcoHealth and Daszak as possibly generating the pandemic he had vowed to prevent.

Daszak has over the years ingratiated himself with influential people at powerful institutions, in part though hosting cocktail parties at a ritzy DC social club. Daszak maintained a close friendship with David Morens, a longtime aide to Anthony Fauci, former Director at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which oversees billions in research grants. Daszak also had supporters in the U.S. State Department, emails show. Daszak counts some of the country’s most influential science writers as friends

Years of investigative work by House Republicans culminated in Daszak giving sworn testimony before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic earlier this month. 

The committee questioned whether Daszak had been a responsible steward of federal taxpayer money. Democrats and Republicans alike interrogated Daszak over apparently false statements he made to the committee and to the federal government in pursuit of public research dollars.

During the hearing Select Subcommittee Chair Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, said there was bipartisan agreement with Ranking Member Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., on the recommendation that EcoHealth be debarred.

“EcoHealth Alliance and Dr. Peter Daszak should never again receive a single penny from the U.S. taxpayer,” Wenstrup said in a statement Wednesday. “These actions are wholly abhorrent, indefensible, and must be addressed with swift action. EcoHealth’s immediate funding suspension and future debarment is not only a victory for the U.S. taxpayer, but also for American national security and the safety of citizens worldwide.”

​​The committee asked about internal records U.S. Right to Know reported earlier this year suggesting Daszak intended to outsource their risky experiments on viruses like SARS-CoV-2 to Wuhan at an inadequate biosafety level with few protections against airborne viruses — BSL-2. The records suggest this was done in order to save on costs without the knowledge of federal funders. In a draft of a proposal later rejected by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Daszak said he intended to downplay the extent of the Wuhan lab’s involvement in the project as a whole, the records also showed. 

When Daszak sat for a transcribed interview with the committee last year, he testified under penalty of the law that the work was slated for BSL-3 in the U.S. 

“My understanding for that work it was going to be done at [the University of North Carolina],” Daszak said at the time.

Daszak insisted that the final proposal, which states the research would occur at BSL-3, was accurate, in spite of his private note that he would intentionally downplay the extent of the involvement of the Wuhan lab, which typically operated at BSL-2.

Daszak said that conversations with DARPA before the proposal’s submission included an honest discussion about the extent to which the Wuhan Institute of Virology would be involved. He flatly answered “no” when asked whether he had any knowledge of the Wuhan Institute of Virology conducting experiments of concern to generate viruses like SARS-CoV-2. 

The committee described these explanations as unsatisfactory. In an interim report, the committee recommended that the Justice Department investigate Daszak for possible criminal violations, including for making false statements

“This announcement is welcomed but long overdue. Not only did EcoHealth Alliance intend to mislead the federal government through research proposals, but EcoHealth’s President Peter Daszak also lied to Congress,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.; Subcommittee on Health Chair Brett Guthrie, R-Ky.; and Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Chair Morgan Griffith, R-Va., in a joint statement. “We commend the U.S. Right to Know for uncovering the notes from the DEFUSE Project grant application that revealed Daszak’s deception, as well as members from both sides of the aisle who worked to hold him accountable.”

In addition, Daszak’s NIH grant report slated to describe their collaboration’s research immediately before the pandemic was submitted nearly two years late — after the pandemic started — when there was an enormous incentive to omit experiments of concern.

The report appears to have greatly exaggerated the risk of coronavirus spillover in China. 

An earlier version of the report provided to the committee by a whistleblower stated that humans having antibodies for bat coronaviruses they encounter in nature was a “relatively rare event.” The final version of the report estimated hundreds of thousands of spillover events per year. 

The U.S. Agency for International Development Inspector General has an open investigation into whether EcoHealth double billed the government for identical research, CBS News reported.

U.S. Right to Know previously reported that Daszak booked flights at luxury prices underwritten by USAID — an agency ostensibly devoted to humanitarian aid.

Daszak and his collaborators tapped USAID funds to lay the groundwork for the successor project to EcoHealth, a private venture to collect every animal virus in the virosphere called the Global Virome Project.

A separate audit by the Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services found that EcoHealth failed to inform the National Institutes of Health of a gain-of-function experiment that enhanced the viral load of a coronavirus by up to 10,000 times. Additionally, while Daszak has claimed EcoHealth encountered technical issues that precluded him from submitting the delayed grant report, the audit concluded this claim to be without evidence.

The Select Subcommittee last week released emails showing Daszak said he would only release enough emails to the committee’s investigators to stave off a subpoena.

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