By Emily Kopp and Karolina Corin
Photo by Tine Ivani č on Unsplash.
EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak, who worked closely with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, helped steer the media and scientific community away from questions about whether COVID-19 could have originated in a lab, emails released under the North Carolina Public Records Act show.
Emails between Daszak and University of North Carolina virologist Ralph Baric, another collaborator of the laboratory at the pandemic’s epicenter, offer new behind-the-scenes insights into Daszak’s influence. Baric’s experiments with the Wuhan lab included gain-of-function experiments to make viruses more transmissible or virulent.
The White House was dissuaded from investigating the possibility of a lab origin of COVID-19 in part by discussions that included both Daszak and Baric, according to a March 2020 email written by Daszak.
And in a separate May 2020 email, Daszak told Baric that he used talking points intended to discourage reporters from asking questions about potential gain-of-function work on coronaviruses.
Daszak has been a vocal proponent of a natural origin of COVID-19. EcoHealth Alliance has worked closely with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and received millions in government funding to discover and study animal viruses.
Though the public does not have a complete picture of the pre-pandemic work underway, none of the viruses published by EHA or the WIV could have directly sparked the COVID-19 pandemic.
These new revelations add to the evidence of Daszak’s central role in shaping public perceptions about COVID-19’s origins. He secretly organized a statement in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet deeming a lab origin a “conspiracy theory.” He served as the U.S. representative on the 2021 World Health Organization origins investigation in China, which dismissed a lab origin as “extremely unlikely.” He also formerly chaired a Lancet Commission probe into the origins of COVID-19 which was disbanded after Daszak declined to share his grant reports.
No lab release hypotheses ‘anytime soon’
Daszak told Baric in March 2020 that a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) discussion they participated in helped sway the Trump White House away from examining a possible lab origin of COVID-19.
Daszak and Baric both participated in the task force convened by the National Academies to inform the White House’s science office about information required to determine the origin of the pandemic.
In a February 3 call, the experts discussed the possibility of a lab origin of COVID-19 dismissively, other emails obtained under FOIA show.
National security staff were on the call, Daszak told Baric. This suggests that biothreat experts guiding the government’s response heard the scientists’ message.
The resulting letter to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in 2020 assumed a natural origin. The possibility of a lab-related incident was not mentioned.
Both Daszak and Baric were consulted as experts for the letter.
Daszak seemed to think that this letter he influenced – together with a letter in the journal Nature Medicine beset by conflicts-of-interest – were strong enough to sway White House opinion and prevent NASEM committees from delving into possible lab origins.
“I don’t think this committee will be getting into the lab release or bioengineering hypothesis again any time soon — White House seems to be satisfied with the earlier meeting, paper in Nature and general comments within [the] scientific community,” Daszak told Baric.
After more evidence in favor of a lab origin emerged, including Daszak and Baric’s undisclosed conflicts of interest, the National Academies issued a new statement in 2021 acknowledging that the origin of the pandemic is unknown, and that a lab-related incident is a possibility.
‘I practice lines like that’
In the May 2020 email, Daszak coaches Baric on how to deflect a reporter’s questions on COVID-19’s origins and gain-of-function research.
“I practice lines like that,” Daszak said before suggesting ideas to change the topic, such as vaccines or the risks of natural spillover.
“They [reporters] will eventually move on to that topic. I will from now on make everything extremely clear to reporters about the way this all happens,” he said.
He first recommends saying that gain-of-function research issues have already been resolved by the NIH.
“That’s already been debated extensively and decided on by NIH,” Daszak suggests telling reporters.
(NIH hosted a debate among scientists about the limits of gain-of-function research in the years before the pandemic. New oversight mechanisms were developed in 2017, but many scientists believe these remain too weak and opaque.)
Daszak then recommends citing the 2020 National Academies letter and the Nature Medicine article.
These efforts “clearly show the virus has a natural origin, no evidence of manipulation,” Daszak claimed.
However, neither source proved a natural origin for the pandemic.
Though the National Academies letter did not mention the possibility of a lab leak, discussions that led to the letter mentioned that a novel feature of the SARS-CoV-2 genome called the furin cleavage site could have arisen in a lab.
An early draft of the letter also mentioned the possibility of a lab origin, but the final draft did not.
The Nature Medicine paper, titled “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2,” was a correspondence rather than a scientific journal article presenting novel experimental results. Though it had an enormous impact, the paper was fraught with undisclosed conflicts of interest.
Keeping discussions ‘comfortable’
Daszak’s emails to Baric renew conflict-of-interest concerns about Daszak since he didn’t disclose to reporters the role he may have played in the National Academy proceedings he claimed proved a natural origin.
Elected as a member to the National Academies in 2018, Daszak was involved in many early discussions that may have influenced the research agenda of the COVID-19 task force advising the federal government.
Daszak also served on this National Academies task force and chaired a separate forum on microbial threats.
Following his nomination to the standing committee, Daszak offered to recuse himself from discussions concerning the origins of Covid-19.
“I got some questions from NAM (National Academies of Medicine) about my relationship to the Wuhan lab, but I explained that it’s purely academic (no funds from China to me), and I offered to recuse myself from any discussions about the conspiracy theories re. lab release or bioengineering,” wrote Daszak to Baric on March 17, 2020.
However, the extent of his recusal is unclear.
Documents written in April 2020 show Daszak on two NAM working groups, one whose goal was to examine “viral genetics, origin, and evolution of SARS-CoV-2.”
Notes in the document suggest their research focused on analyzing how the SARS-CoV-2 genome changed over time and in different countries. This information was needed for the “development of diagnostics and therapeutics” rather than determining how the pandemic began.
Yet in October 2020, Daszak appears to steer National Academy discussions with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) toward “natural history” hypotheses for the comfort of their Chinese colleagues.
“We discussed ways we could frame a future topic that would allow us to talk about some important issues around the ‘natural history’ of SARS-CoV-2, that might also be comfortable for our Chinese colleagues,” wrote Daszak.
Benjamin Rusek, a senior program officer at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), appears to adopt or agree with Daszak’s suggestion.
“More discussion on the origin or “natural history” of the virus focused on preventing future outbreaks (since George Gao seems to be open to it) might be possible as well,” wrote Rusek about potential NAS-CAS dialogues.
In an earlier email dated May 7, 2020, Rusek suggests that there are “issues we should probably avoid” during US-China dialogues on COVID-19.
Rusek and Daszak’s sentiments may reflect a desire to maintain scientific collaboration on public health issues of mutual interest amid rising political tensions between China and the U.S. Indeed, joint NAS-CAS meetings focused on Covid-19 public health responses, understanding of the disease, “vaccine development and delivery”, and “immunity, testing, and diagnostics.”
Daszak didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The documents reported on in this article were obtained from the University of North Carolina through litigation 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.