Intrepid ‘virus hunter’ Peter Daszak flies in style

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By Emily Kopp and Karolina Corin

For two decades, EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak has cultivated an image as an swashbuckling virus hunter braving the frontlines of emerging diseases in remote corners of the world.

But his rugged public image belied a pattern of traveling in style, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

Daszak and other senior virus hunters requested at least $292,701 in government-funded international business class flights over the course of three years, according to a U.S. Right to Know analysis of hundreds of emails.

Daszak and another EcoHealth virus hunter, William Karesh, each requested over $100,000 in premium flights from 2017 to 2019 — paid for by the American taxpayer.

Karesh requested to fly business class to France six times in 2017 and 2018 alone.

EcoHealth requested flights considered exorbitant even for business class. Daszak wanted several flights in excess of $10,000, and even flights approaching $20,000.

After one request for a business class flight topping $18,900, Andrew Clements, a senior scientific PREDICT advisor who approved the trips, noted that EcoHealth Alliance’s requests were consistently higher than other project partners.

“The airfare seems very high,” he wrote. “It also feels like EHA consistently comes in with higher BC [business class] fares than other partners, but I have not done an analysis.”

The funds were tapped from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), an agency ostensibly devoted to humanitarian aid.

A statement attributed to an EcoHealth Alliance spokesperson says that the trips abided by federal guidelines.

“During the 10 years of the PREDICT project, EcoHealth Alliance strictly followed USAID and federal rules in booking travel for the dozens of staff involved,” the statement reads. “We followed ‘Fly America’ rules, and business class travel was only allowed for staff with medical conditions supported by a valid medical doctor’s note. All of this was backed up by extensive documentation that was filed with, and approved by, USAID.”

The statement asserts that trips to Paris and those related to the Global Virome Project were also related to PREDICT.

“All travel, including to meetings related to the Global Virome Project and at the Headquarters of the World Organization for Animal Health and other intergovernmental agencies in Paris, were part of core PREDICT work, and were approved by our prime contractor and by USAID,” the statement reads.

Under a $200 million decade-long USAID program called PREDICT, Daszak co-led expeditions into bat caves and pig farms in pursuit of new viruses.

EcoHealth collaborated on this work with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a lab complex at the pandemic’s epicenter. Their joint research has been at the center of discussions surrounding the pandemic’s origins.

And despite years of sampling bat coronaviruses, the pandemic sentinels did not anticipate the crisis that erupted at the doorstep of their partner in Wuhan.

The controversy has generated questions about the utility of PREDICT and virus-hunting more generally.

“There are scientists from MIT, from Stanford … who stand up and say ‘oh my God, what are we doing? Bringing these viruses from remote bat caves to major metropolitan areas,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., in a hearing last week.

In media depictions of PREDICT, virus hunters are photographed in personal protective gear with elephants, camels and gorillas in Asia, South America and Africa. Daszak has for years dressed in hiking gear resembling the getup of Indiana Jones.

This characterization in the media is at odds with private records demonstrating their preference for luxury flights.

These new findings follow the January release of an audit of EcoHealth’s funding from another government agency — the National Institutes of Health. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General found that roughly $89,000 of $2.5 million in randomly sampled transactions had been improper, including thousands in travel expenses.

There is no evidence the business class trips funded by USAID also violated federal rules. But the emails raise questions about their propriety.

Emails show that PREDICT leadership used doctors’ notes to obtain exceptions to federal curbs on luxury flights.

The emails also show that approximately one third of the destinations documented in the emails were to cities outside of PREDICT partner countries. PREDICT leaders jetsetted to destinations like Vienna, Rome and Paris.

Some of the trips to these destinations appeared to have only tangential relevance to the government program footing the bill.

Further, several of the business class requests were on behalf of the Global Virome Project (GVP), a private organization founded using U.S. tax dollars. Ethics experts say the use of public resources for the private organization may have violated federal ethics laws.

In rare cases, requests were too exorbitant or tangential to federal work even for the project’s generous government funders.

An $11,398 business class request by Daszak was denied. Daszak planned to fly to Taiwan in order to network, but the conference wasn’t directly relevant to PREDICT’s work.

“… it doesn’t sound essential for the Predict mission,” Clements wrote.

Using doctors’ notes to fly business class

PREDICT leaders encouraged using “doctors’ notes” to fulfill government regulations to fly business class, according to an email by PREDICT director Jonna Mazet uncovered through the California Public Records Act.

Other avenues that may have skirted University of California or U.S. travel rules may also have been pursued.

“We have tried through every mechanism possible to provide you the business class ticket you merit,” wrote Mazet to her colleague Carlos Morel.  “I would be happy, as offered, to discuss this by phone, but some of this grey area is inappropriate for email communication to the extent that some employees who have been trying diligently to help you are concerned about their future at the university for trying to stretch the rules as far as we have.”

Though the justification for many business class requests is redacted, “medical need” is the only reason cited in the documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

Medical exemptions provide auditable reasons for flying business class when using U.S. federal funds, Mazet said in her email.

Karesh also said, according to USAID guidelines, “we can decide if medical conditions warrant it and we can document it (rather than a doctor’s note)….”

Documents show that Mazet requested business class flights for medical reasons. Her business class trip requests total over $55,000, including one trip costing $12,000.

Daszak and Karesh also routinely used medical exceptions to fly business class.

Though Karesh often had economy fares fully funded by the World Organization for Animal Health, he still requested USAID to pay thousands of dollars per trip for the upgrade. In total, Karesh requested over $100,000 in business class trips.

PREDICT leadership also inquired about using doctors’ notes for their colleagues Carlos Morel and John MacKenzie when they requested to travel business class.

Morel, a molecular biologist and medical doctor, appeared to express dismay. Morel told his collaborators he would not ask for a “fake certificate.”

“The day I would consider myself a sick person I will stop traveling immediately and will not ask a colleague to give me a fake certificate,” said Morel in a January 2017 email.

Morel said in his email that it was a “big surprise” that trip length did not affect whether UC Davis considered business class travel acceptable. Morel also blamed the death of his friend John La Montagne, a former NIAID deputy director, in Mexico airport on overly stringent U.S. travel regulations.

When asked about his email, Morel said that PREDICT leadership only asked if he was healthy, or if he traveled with a medical certificate that required a business class ticket.

“In no way did they suggest, even superficially, that I try to use a doctor’s note to get an upgrade,” said Morel. “I informed them that it [the travel policy] was not compatible with my requirements, as I was elderly (I was in my 70s) and in good health.”

Morel ultimately declined the trip that would have required a doctor’s note or other justification to travel business class.

The Global Virome Project

The Global Virome Project is an initiative to expand the work of EcoHealth Alliance and PREDICT in order to generate a worldwide encyclopedia of animal viruses.

Proponents believe the work has the potential to stop pandemics in their tracks, serving as a siren for zoonotic spillover and spotlighting important areas for future drug development. Others criticize the idea as scientifically unsound because of the frequent rate at which viruses recombine, as well as the risks associated with bringing rural viruses into metropolitan areas.

“I think the available dollars we have would be much better used on public health, animal health, diagnostics, surveillance,” said Gerald Parker, associate dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Services at Texas A&M University, in a House hearing earlier this month. “The objective of our aid dollars ought to be the development of low and middle income countries.”

Internal documents demonstrate that PREDICT collaborators tapped public funds to lay the groundwork for their controversial private project.

USAID paid for dozens of international flights for matters at least partially related to the Global Virome Project, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

PREDICT leaders said that they hoped for a “blanket exception” to federal restrictions on taxpayer funded luxe flights in order to receive travel upgrades for flights related to the GVP, one email shows.

USAID approved 35 people including Daszak to travel to a Global Virome Project meeting in Beijing in early 2017. Information for the other travelers was redacted.

A year later, the GVP requested that 24 people to travel to Bangkok for the launch of the Global Virome Project. Mazet, Karesh, and Daszak were on the list.

The cost of these trips is not specified in the documents and is thus not included in the $292,000 total tallied by U.S. Right to Know.

USAID and Andrew Clements declined to comment.

The documents reported in this story were obtained by U.S. Right to Know via the California Public Records Act and federal Freedom of Information Act, and can be found here.

This article was updated on June 26, 2023 to include additional emails from Mazet and Morel.

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