Celebrated virus hunter siphoned taxpayer funds for his private ‘Global Virome Project’

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A Lassa virus budding off a cell. (NIAID)

A former U.S. Agency for International Development official founded and worked for a controversial organization benefiting from USAID funds while he continued to receive six-figure paychecks from his USAID job, potentially running afoul of ethics laws, according to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know. 

Emerging Pandemic Threats Division Director Dennis Carroll went on to lead the organization — an ambitious, expensive, and potentially dangerous endeavor called the Global Virome Project. Carroll is now the group’s chair.

USAID — a federal agency that typically provides foreign aid — funded a $210 million government program that Carroll designed and oversaw for 10 years called “PREDICT” that served as the “proof of concept” for the Global Virome Project.

Now the Global Virome Project is seeking at least $1.2 billion to collect more than 1 million viruses in wildlife, with the stated aim of forecasting where animals carry pathogens that could evolve to infect humans too. Carroll has pitched the Global Virome Project as the “beginning of the end of the pandemic era.”

Not all experts are convinced Carroll can make good on those promises. Others worry the fieldwork may pose its own pandemic risks

Although the Global Virome Project is controversial even within the field of virology, the idea gained credibility with Carroll’s help and his use of the imprimatur of USAID, the emails suggest. 

They indicate that Carroll’s work as USAID’s leader in viral surveillance and as the chair of the Global Virome Project overlapped for years.

Carroll organized calls and meetings on the project’s work with other co-founders, sought donations and helped refine fundraising pitches, pushed favorable messages in the press, and consulted on its application for tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service — all while still working for USAID. 

Carroll was central to founding the Global Virome Project even when he still worked for the government in 2018. Carroll was featured in the Netflix documentary “Pandemic.”

In a December 2018 email from his USAID email address, for example, Carroll proposed a list of board members of the Global Virome Project, including himself, and looped in other project cofounders. U.S. Right to Know obtained the emails through the Freedom of Information Act and the California Public Records Act in an investigation of potentially dangerous viral research funded through taxpayer dollars.

A Global Virome Project board member said that the idea was “championed by the USAID Emerging Pandemic Threats Division” in one August 2017 pitch.

Under Carroll’s helm, USAID’s Emerging Pandemic Threats Division spent at least $270,969 in funds related to “GVP,” the emails show.

“That’s troubling,” said Walter Shaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics, an ethics agency for executive branch employees. “Separately, his use of a USAID email address is troubling if GVP is not a government project.”

Then-USAID Emerging Pandemic Threats Division President Dennis Carroll pitches the Global Virome Project in Thailand in 2018. (Richard Nyberg/USAID)

As Global Virome Project supporters made their pitch in Bangkok and Beijing, emails show USAID partially paid for the trips.

Carroll told the media he founded the Global Virome Project after he left his job at USAID. 

But the emails show he started in-depth work on the Global Virome Project as early as March 2017, and received six-figure USAID paychecks in 2017, 2018 and 2019. For example, in 2019, USAID paid Carroll $166,500, the maximum allowed for a rank-and-file federal employee.

“The law is clear that officials cannot use government resources to benefit themselves or prospective employers,” said Kedric Payne, senior director of ethics with the Campaign Legal Center, a government watchdog group. “If Carroll was involved in decisions benefitting GVP while he was at USAID, it is likely that he needed approval from the agency’s ethics officials. The public has a right to know if their public officials comply with conflict of interest laws.”

A USAID spokesperson said in a statement that Carroll never sought a waiver either from laws surrounding conflicts-of-interest while in a government job, or from laws regulating the revolving door.

“USAID does not have any record that Mr. Carroll sought clearance for any outside positions while he was still employed at USAID,” a spokesman said in an email. “USAID does not have any record that Mr. Carroll sought advice regarding whether a recusal was necessary or appropriate for any post-government employment negotiations in which he might have been engaging.”

Experts also raised concerns about Carroll appearing to leverage the prestige of his position at USAID to endorse the private organization he founded. 

“There’s numerous conflict of interest laws that should be investigated here to ensure that Carroll didn’t violate the laws on the books,” said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog group.

Carroll did not respond to a request for comment or to a request for the Global Virome Project’s tax records. 

Global Virome Project Board Member Edward Rubin states that USAID “champions” the Global Virome Project in a fundraising pitch.

‘Which one did they prevent?’

A USAID spokesperson said that the group was first recognized as a nonprofit organization after Carroll left USAID. USAID has not provided the Global Virome Project with any further funding since it was formally incorporated, he said.

Still, some experts said that even if Carroll’s organization wasn’t formally recognized by the IRS as a nonprofit yet, his activities raise red flags.

“Even if you could find some loophole out of the criminal statute because GVP wasn’t technically a legal entity yet, this is a fundamental conflict of interest,” said Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington Chief Ethics Counsel Virginia Canter.

The USAID spokesperson did not respond to other questions about how much money the Global Virome Project received before its formal incorporation or whether Carroll should have sought an ethics waiver for his simultaneous work at USAID and GVP.

Meanwhile, even some experts who lean toward the theory that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, first infected humans via two separate intermediate animal hosts, say the idea driving PREDICT and the Global Virome Project is far-fetched. 

“If I thought there was a kind of ‘viral smoke alarm’ I would invest everything imaginable in that, but this project doesn’t give us that, ok?” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, and a former advisor to the State Department on health security. 

Deep knowledge about Zika and Nipah has still not led to proven vaccines against them, he said.

Osterholm said Carroll’s daring “Indiana Jones” image is not backed up by real payoffs for public health. 

“Show me one thing they’ve done that has made a difference, where they could even make a case that they supposedly prevented a pandemic. Which one did they prevent?” he said. “Did they find anything that helped us with this coronavirus?” 

Carroll has pitched the Global Virome Project as the “beginning of the end of the pandemic era.” But not all experts are persuaded. (USAID)

Connections in Wuhan

Global Virome Project cofounder, secretary and treasurer Peter Daszak ⁠— president of another USAID contractor called EcoHealth Alliance — has come under Congressional scrutiny because of his work with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, including on so-called “gain-of-function” work that makes novel coronaviruses more dangerous in the lab. Carroll’s division at USAID funded the Wuhan Institute of Virology through EcoHealth Alliance. 

Shi Zhengli, a top coronavirus researcher at the Wuhan lab, worked with Carroll’s PREDICT and was slated to work with the Global Virome Project. 

The emails demonstrate that there was significant correspondence between Carroll and Daszak about the Global Virome Project while Carroll was a USAID official and EcoHealth was receiving USAID funds. 

In one March 2019 email, Daszak suggests that lawyers flagged the overlap in Carroll’s role. 

“I realize this isn’t the exact language you wanted, but it’s safer for us at this sensitive point where we still receive USAID funding being [used] for GVP related activities,” Daszak wrote to Carroll. 

The details are redacted.

An email obtained through the Freedom of Information Act suggests lawyers flagged the overlap in Carroll’s roles.

Carroll pitches pricey virus collection plan with USAID funds

Carroll marshaled significant taxpayer funds to lay the groundwork for his pet project. 

USAID funded Global Virome Project collaborators’ international trips as they made their pitch to potential investors.

In February 2017, USAID funded the stipend of Eddy Rubin, a member of the Global Virome Project board of directors, while he traveled in Beijing to meet with scientific staff at the U.S. Embassy there about China’s role, the so-called China National Virome Project. 

Again in October 2018, USAID paid for three individuals to fly to Bangkok to pitch the Thailand Global Virome Project: EcoHealth Alliance fellow Alice Latinne, Metabiota, Inc. epidemiologist David McIver, and University of Missouri intellectual property expert Sam Halabi. The itineraries of Latinne and McIver included work for the Global Virome Project, but also included work for USAID’s PREDICT. But Halabi’s trip had no apparent relevance to USAID work.

China and Thailand were two of the five country partners that the Global Virome Project targeted in its first phase

In addition, a cost-benefit analysis of the Global Virome Project was commissioned by Carroll and undertaken with USAID funds in August 2018. The precise costs are unclear, but the endeavor may have involved several cross-country flights by University of Washington economist Dean Jamison, the emails indicate. 

And Cara Chrisman, a USAID official who worked under Carroll, was often looped in on logistical questions about the Global Virome Project. 

An internal USAID spreadsheet indicates Carroll’s division spent $270,969 on “GVP.”

Uncertain future

Critics of the Global Virome Project even include some virologists who are skeptical of the theory that posits research on novel coronaviruses in Wuhan could be related to SARS-CoV-2. 

University of Sydney evolutionary biologist and virologist Edward C. Holmes, University of Edinburgh virologist Andrew Rambaut and Scripps Research virologist Kristian G. Andersen wrote in Nature in 2018 that the Global Virome Project is unlikely to predict pandemics because animal viruses so rarely cause epidemics in humans. 

“Around 250 human viruses have been described, and only a small subset of these have caused major epidemics this century,” they wrote. “Advocates of prediction also argue that it will be possible to anticipate how likely a virus is to emerge in people on the basis of its sequence, and by using knowledge of how it interacts with cells (obtained, for instance, by studying the virus in human cell cultures). This is misguided.”

At the time, they pointed out that its cost would comprise roughly one fourth the entire budget for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the U.S. agency that funds most viral research. And that is not accounting for the speedy evolution of certain viruses, which could quickly make the data collected outdated, they wrote. 

More recently, Holmes again critiqued the idea of deep surveillance of viruses in wildlife in an editorial, even while underscoring the importance of regulating live animal markets. 

Carroll and Daszak have defended the steep price tag of the Global Virome Project by comparing its projected spend to the devastating costs of a pandemic. 

“Pandemics are estimated to cause an average of US $570 billion in economic damages per year to the global economy,” they wrote in 2018. “The Global Virome Project will cost U.S. $1.2 billion, which is less than 0.2 percent of this estimated loss.”

EcoHealth Alliance wanted to block disclosure of Covid-19-relevant virus data from China

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EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak opposed the public release of Covid-19-related virus sequence data gathered from China as part of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) PREDICT program, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

The conversation in late April 2020 involved employees of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that has received millions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer funding to genetically manipulate coronaviruses, including with scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology; and Metabiota, a San Francisco-based biotechnology company backed by Google that works with PREDICT, a “virus hunting” program that tracks unknown viruses.

Tammie O’Rourke of Metabiota emailed Hongying Li, who coordinates EcoHealth programs in China and Southeast Asia, an attachment with virus sequences detected in China that had been submitted to the public genetic sequence database GenBank. They then discussed whether the genetic sequences should be uploaded into the public database.

Hongying Li wanted to hold off on uploading the virus sequence data for several reasons, including that, “due to the COVID-19, any relevant data publication needs to be reviewed and approved by the institution in China…”

Daszak then wrote, “It’s extremely important we don’t have these sequences as part of our PREDICT release to Genbank at this point. As you may have heard, these were part of a grant just terminated by NIH.” He referred to an article in Politico, “Trump cuts U.S. research on bat-human virus transmission over China ties,” and urged holding off on public sharing of Chinese viral genomic data, even though the generation of the data was funded by U.S. taxpayers.  Having them as part of PREDICT will being [sic] very unwelcome attention to UC Davis, PREDICT and USAID,” Daszak wrote.

The emails were released as part of a California Public Records Act request to UC Davis. They do not contain attachments and so the actual viral sequence data are not included in the information received by U.S. Right to Know. It  is not known whether the data referred to in the emails are still embargoed or were subsequently shared on GenBank.

EcoHealth Alliance denied that any sequences were kept out of GenBank. In response to a query, Daszak emailed an August 2020 Nature Communications article co-authored by EcoHealth and Wuhan Institute of Virology scientists, and wrote: “All sequences of SARS-related coronaviruses discovered by EcoHealth Alliance in China were sequenced using NIH funding and have been made public in peer-reviewed scientific papers and via the publicly available Genbank database. The Genbank accession numbers for over 600 sequences can be found in the attached paper. Two further sequences were identified and submitted separately to NIH on 11/18/21  (Genbank Accession # OK663614 & OK663615).”

For more information

All four batches of documents USRTK obtained by public records requests to UC Davis – including the most recent one, which as reported on in this article – are available here.

Public Comments on the WHO Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) Members

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The World Health Organization has proposed 26 scientists for a new group to investigate the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as future outbreaks. WHO plans to appoint members to the new Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) after a two week review to gather public opinion on the proposed choices, which ends this week.

WHO’s terms of reference to strengthen public trust and transparency require that SAGO individuals “must be free of any real, potential, or apparent conflicts of interest. However several proposed panel members have clear conflicts of interest. For more this topic, see reporting in the BMJ, Covid-19: New WHO group to look into pandemic origins is dogged by alleged conflicts of interest

U.S. Right to Know has submitted comments describing conflict of interest concerns involving several proposed SAGO members. Below is the text of our public comments and you can find the PDF at this link.

From: U.S. Right to Know
Date: October 26, 2021
To: WHO Headquarters
RE: Public comments on SAGO members

Dear WHO staff:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the proposed Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) committee members.

We represent U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative public health group based in the United States.

According to the WHO terms of reference, SAGO members “must be free of any real, potential, or apparent conflicts of interest,” and “must respect the impartiality…required of WHO.”1 The following proposed SAGO members do not meet these standards for SAGO membership:

(1) Dr. Supaporn Wacharapluesadee is a subcontractor on a 2020 multi-million-dollar NIH grant2 to EcoHealth Alliance. Her lab at Chulalongkorn University is slated to receive a $1.07 million subcontract. According to the EcoHealth Alliance, Dr. Wacharapluesadee is a longstanding collaborator for “more than 10 years.”3 Between 2014 and 2019, she was funded by a UC Davis USAID PREDICT 2 grant, in which the EcoHealth Alliance was deeply involved.4 Since 2013, Dr. Wacharapluesadee has been a co-author on multiple publications5,6,7,8 with the EcoHealth Alliance, including four with its president, Dr. Daszak.9,10,11,12

The EcoHealth Alliance has conducted research on SARS related-CoVs with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Anyone with personal, financial or academic ties to the EcoHealth Alliance (including grant funding, co-authorship or other research collaboration) or the Wuhan Institute of Virology, cannot be a SAGO member, because such ties could impair their judgment in an investigation of zoonotic and/or lab origins of SARS-CoV-2. Any such ties constitute an impermissible conflict of interest.

Dr. Wacharapluesadee’s association and subcontractor role with the EcoHealth Alliance plainly constitutes a conflict of interest and is disqualifying under the WHO terms of reference.

(2) Dr. Christian Drosten. Dr. Drosten signed a letter in the Lancet, orchestrated by Dr. Daszak,13 arguing that the SARS-CoV-2 lab origin hypothesis is a conspiracy theory.14 Such prejudgement is disqualifying; it is incompatible with the standard of “impartiality” in the WHO SAGO terms of reference.

Moreover, Dr. Drosten served on a bat conference advisory committee with the Ecohealth Alliance and Dr. Zhengli Shi of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.15 Dr. Drosten’s funding and continued research collaborations rest on the zoonotic potential of bat coronaviruses. For these reasons, Dr. Drosten has a personal stake in SAGO’s outcome, because it is to his personal and professional advantage to declare a zoonotic origin for SARS-CoV-2. This, too, disqualifies him from being a SAGO member.

(3) Dr. Katherin Summermatter. Dr. Summermatter has claimed that a lab leak origin of SARS-CoV-2 is a “typical conspiracy theory.”16 Such prejudgment is disqualifying.

(4) Dr. Marion Koopmans. At a scientific conference,17 Dr. Koopmans claimed that a lab origin hypothesis of SARS-CoV-2 has been debunked, along with “meteorites” and “snake origins” of SARS-CoV-2.18 She has asserted that “we found not a grain of evidence for a lab escape theory” of SARS-CoV-2.19 Such prejudgment is inconsistent with the impartiality required of SAGO members, and is disqualifying.

Erasmus University’s Viroscience department, led by Dr. Koopmans, puts the EcoHealth Alliance as first on its list of collaborators.20 The disclosure also states that the viroscience department is “closely involved” in the EcoHealth Alliance. This conflict of interest, too, is disqualifying. Dr. Koopman’s membership in the conflicted, discredited and failed Global Study of Origins of SARS-CoV-2 is also disqualifying.

The first WHO-convened Global Study of Origins of SARS-CoV-2 failed for several reasons. It was tarnished by conflicts of interest. It failed to seriously investigate the possibility of a lab origin, while advancing the dubious cold chain, frozen food hypothesis. It seemed to act as a public relations instrument of the EcoHealth Alliance and the Chinese government. Participation in this botched WHO panel must be disqualifying for SAGO membership, including for these proposed SAGO members:

(5) Dr. Vladimir Dedkov
(6) Dr. Elmoubasher Farag
(7) Dr. Thea Fischer
(8) Dr. Hung Nguyen-Viet
(9) Dr. John Watson
(10) Dr. Yungui Yang

Of the disciplines listed in the SAGO terms of reference, only Drs. Blackwell and Summermater come from the disciplines of “biosafety, biosecurity, occupational health and safety, or laboratory safety and security, ethics and social sciences.” This is unbalanced. The proposed SAGO members do not include enough experts from these fields in the terms of reference. Scientists from diverse fields of study, not merely infectious disease, should be included in SAGO for many reasons, including to offset any conflicts of interest from zoonotic origins infectious disease researchers. We urge WHO to add at least three additional members from these disciplines to SAGO.

We urge you to replace the ten above persons with the list below, who would be exemplary SAGO members. Their presence and participation would inspire public trust in the SAGO.

Dr. Filippa Lentzos
Dr. Richard Ebright
Dr. Jesse Bloom
Dr. Alina Chan
Dr. David Relman
Alison Young
Edward Hammond
Milton Leitenberg
Dr. Stuart Newman
Dr. Michael Antoniou

Thank you for considering our comments.

Sincerely,

Shannon Murray, PhD, Staff Scientist
Gary Ruskin, Executive Director

1https://cdn.who.int/media/docs/default-source/scientific-advisory-group-on-the-origins-of-novel-pathogens/sago-tors-final-20-aug-21_-(002).pdf
2https://documentcloud.org/documents/21055988-risk-zoonotic-virus-hotspots-grant-notice
3https://documentcloud.org/documents/21055988-risk-zoonotic-virus-hotspots-grant-notice, pg. 358.
4https://documentcloud.org/documents/21055988-risk-zoonotic-virus-hotspots-grant-notice, pg. 78.
5https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3739538/
6https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34218820/
7https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2050312121989631
8https://journals.asm.org/doi/10.1128/MRA.01457-18
9https://virologyj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12985-015-0289-1
10https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmid/33990224/
11https://www.pnas.org/content/118/15/e2002324118.long
12https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2458-14-684
13https://usrtk.org/biohazards-blog/ecohealth-alliance-orchestrated-key-scientists-statement-on-natural-origin-of-sars-cov-2/
14https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30418-9/fulltext
15https://usrtk.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/CSU_records.pdf, pg. 1572.
16https://www-1815-ch.translate.goog/news/wallis/aktuell/es-werden-sachen-behauptet-die-weder-hand-noch-fuss-haben-153159/?_x_tr_sl=auto&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=en-GB&_x_tr_pto=nui
1721 Feb 2020, KNAW-symposium, Marion Koopmans, ‘From spillover to global threat: science in action’.
18https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J24IfCS7HEs&t=832s
19https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=112&v=8KbUPh43304&feature=youtu.be
20https://www.erasmusmc.nl/en/research/departments/viroscience, see “Collaboration.”
21https://cdn.who.int/media/docs/default-source/scientific-advisory-group-on-the-origins-of-novel-pathogens/sago-tors-final-20-aug-21_-(002).pdf

Written by Shannon Murray

How NIH-funded research in China could have led to the COVID-19 pandemic

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A multimillion-dollar bat coronavirus research grant, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was made public last week, revealing that researchers based in Wuhan, China had manipulated coronaviruses in ways that led to increased severity of infection, employing platforms that tested the ability of bat coronaviruses to use human receptors.

The grant documents underscore the perils of the collection of and experimentation on potentially pathogenic viruses, and shed new light on U.S.-funded coronavirus experiments in Wuhan, China for five years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new information disclosed in the grant proposal and its interim reports do not establish that the research led to the pandemic. But they do suggest that it was possible.

The NIH-funded, five-year grant was awarded in 2014 to the U.S.-based EcoHealth Alliance, with EcoHealth President Peter Daszak as “principal investigator” in collaboration with several researchers in China, including two working at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).  A key collaborator on the grant was Ralph Baric, of the University of North Carolina, providing expertise in mouse models for coronavirus infections. The grant was renewed in 2019 but then cancelled in 2020 as the pandemic set off panic around the globe.

A copy of the research plan and interim reports, titled “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence,” was obtained through litigation against the NIH and publicly released by The Intercept. The documents show that the NIH grant was for $3.1 million, of which $599,000 went to the WIV and to researcher Zhengli Shi, who specialized in the study of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-1 (SARS-CoV-1) and similar viruses, called SARS related (SARSr)-CoVs.

Many scientists have posited a possible lab origin of SARS-CoV-2, and suggested the WIV as a possible source for the origin of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.

Coronaviruses (CoVs) emerging from wildlife are a “significant threat to global health,” the grant claims, with bats considered a “natural reservoir of these viruses.” With that in mind, the authors said that the purpose of their research was to “examine the risk of future coronavirus…emergence from wildlife” using a range of research techniques and to understand “what factors increase the risk of the next CoV emerging in people…” The work involved screening more than 30 species of bats for CoVs and then developing strategies for assessing the potential spillover of coronaviruses from bats to humans, according to the grant documents.

But it is possible that, in seeking to learn how to avoid spillover events, the work actually caused one.

How it could have happened

How might the EcoHealth Alliance grant have caused, or contributed to, the pandemic? Here are some possible scenarios based on a close reading of the grant.

  • During fieldwork, collection, and containment of bat SARSr-CoV samples, people could have been accidentally infected. The research involved collecting samples from bats in four Chinese provinces: Yunnan, Guangdong, Guangxi and Fujian. The researchers explained their prolific sampling of Chinese bats and identification of new coronaviruses: “We have identified sequences from 268 novel bat-CoVs (140 from China alone),” they wrote in the grant. “We have an additional 5000+ clinical samples from free-ranging bats and rodents from Guangdong province.”

The grantees acknowledged that their work had serious implications, writing in the grant documents that “some SARSr-CoVs currently circulating in bats in southern China are likely able to infect and replicate within people.” [Emphasis in original].

In fact, the most closely related virus to SARS-CoV-2 identified to date was found by WIV scientists in a mineshaft in Mojiang (Yunnan Province). In 2012-2013, six miners experienced acute respiratory distress syndrome after exposure to bat feces in this mineshaft, and three died.

  • There is evidence of lax bat-handling practices and minimal use of personal protective equipment (PPE) at WIV and Wuhan University, where parts of the research were conducted. By their own admission, the researchers noted, this work could be dangerous. “Fieldwork involves the highest risk of exposure to SARSr-related or other bat CoVs, while working in caves with high bat density overhead and the potential for fecal dust to be inhaled,” according to the grant documents.

The grant documents state that “Tyvek suits and HEPA-filtered Powered Air Purifying and Supplied Air Respirator Systems (PAPRs) will additionally be worn in cave systems where there is a higher risk of contact with aerosolized bat feces.”

If any of those bat samples contained a close relative of SARS-CoV-2 infectious to humans, an accidental infection during the course of fieldwork, subsequent lab procedures, or containment could have led to a transmissible SARSr-CoV with greater similarity to SARS-CoV-2 than the currently reported strains. In fact, analysis of some early strains of SARS-CoV-2 shows that they may be more similar to bat coronaviruses than previously thought, based on evidence recovered from viral sequences deleted from NIH sequence archives.

  • During lab experimentation with the bat coronaviruses, it is possible that a novel virus was produced with greater similarity to SARS-CoV-2 than those reported in the NIH grant. The researchers stated in the grant that they developed an in vivo model, that is, mice genetically engineered to carry human angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (hACE-2), the receptor for SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2. The research group also reported that they were successful in generating new SARS-like coronaviruses. They did this by splicing the RNA sequences of the novel spike proteins they discovered into the viral ‘backbone’ of known lab strains.  This kind of novel virus is called a chimera because it consists of genetic elements from different viruses.

In this way, the researchers created three chimeric viruses, each with a different spike protein, from bats.

  • Though the grant does not mention a virus similar enough to SARS-CoV-2 to be a direct progenitor, it is possible that other chimeric viruses were tested in this model, but were not reported in the grant. The researchers had access to troves of novel coronaviruses collected during fieldwork, including unreported bat viruses. It is common for researchers to present some but not all data in interim grant reports. The research described in the grant established a platform that could have easily been used to study other chimeric viruses more closely related to SARS-CoV-2 than those mentioned in the grant.

There are indications of this within the grant documents. While results from infection of hACE-2 mice with three chimeric viruses were presented, the researchers wrote in the grant, “[w]e cannot anticipate exactly how many viruses we will find that are candidates for experimental models…and that we will identify approximately 20 viruses that will be used for mouse infection experiments.”  It is possible that the researchers generated a novel chimeric virus with more similarity to SARS-CoV-2 than those reported.

Experiments on human ACE-2 mice

The NIH grant describes important research on mice with human ACE-2 receptors.

The researchers infected the hACE-2 mice with the chimeric SARS-like bat coronaviruses to see how sick they would get, and whether they would shed infectious virus compared to the original viral strain. They found that hACE-2 mice infected with some of the chimeric viruses lost more body weight and shed more virus in the lungs than those infected by the original viral strain at certain time points. This research resulted in chimeric viruses that gained infectious and pathogenic properties.

“We’ll infect them [hACE-2 mice] with cultured bat coronaviruses and determine which organs become infected and whether these mice are capable of shedding infectious virus”, the grant proposed. The grant aimed to study tissues of the chimeric virus-infected hACE-2 mice for virus replication.

The grant proposed testing different transmission routes in which the mice could be infected, comparing nasal infection versus other routes. The grant outlines, “[W]e will perform in vivo infection experiments in humanized mice modified to carry human ACE2…gene in the Wuhan Institute of Virology BSL-3 animal facility…[t]his work will provide information about viral pathogenicity, tissue tropism, transmission route, and infection symptom.”

An outstanding question is whether the chimeric viruses can be transmitted between the hACE-2 mice. Whether the scientists explicitly reported on this is not the question, but rather, was a novel chimeric bat virus engineered that was also transmissible between hACE-2 mice?  While the grant does not discuss repeated passage of viruses in hACE-2 mice, the platform also sets up biosafety concerns about this possibility.

A weakness in the prominent “proximal origin” paper?

Some scientists who have argued against a lab origin for SARS-CoV-2 contend that the virus has a signature of it being adapted in an animal host with an intact immune system, for which no such appropriate laboratory model has been described.

One of these arguments against a lab origin of SARS-CoV-2, advanced by scientist Kristian Andersen and colleagues, and published as an influential correspondence in Nature Medicine, was “[s]ubsequent generation of a polybasic cleavage site would have then required repeated passage in cell culture or animals with ACE2 receptors similar to those of humans, but such work has also not previously been described.” [Emphasis ours.]

However, the grant shows this is not correct; the experimentation on the hACE-2 mice establish such a model.

Infection of hACE-2 mice with the novel chimeric bat coronaviruses could have supported new viruses with sequence changes that make them better able to infect human cells. These could be more similar in sequence to SARS-CoV-2 than the original chimeric virus infecting strains.  The hACE-2 expressing mice could have enabled some human adaptation of the chimeric SARS-like bat coronaviruses in vivo, generating viruses with more similarity to SARS-CoV-2 than those reported to date.  This is another possible explanation for how NIH-funded research in China could have led to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bottom line

In addition to searching for spillover events, the research outlined in the grant had the potential to generate a spillover event. This could have occurred as an accidental infection during fieldwork and laboratory handling of bat SARSr-CoVs; during containment or storage of them; or during the laboratory engineering of novel chimeric bat coronaviruses; or, after these novel viruses were used to infect hACE-2 mice, leading to a more infectious, transmissible, and/or pathogenic virus that was a precursor to SARS-CoV-2. The possibility of a lab leak or lab-acquired infection with any of these novel coronaviruses during lab experimentation raises serious biosafety concerns.

Though the bat coronavirus grant project has concluded, it is entirely possible that other studies using this platform were performed or are now being performed, including those related to viral transmission. It is noteworthy that it took civil litigation to bring these grant documents to light, even though the research itself was paid for by U.S. taxpayers. It is also noteworthy that EcoHealth Alliance has received nearly $40 million in multiple grants from the Department of Defense, and DOD grant data is often considered classified and withheld from the public.

And though the 5-year bat coronavirus research grant was only renewed for one additional year, a $7.5 million NIH grant, titled “Understanding Risk of Zoonotic Virus Emergence in EID Hotspots of Southeast Asia,” was awarded to EHA in 2020 to expand on the platforms established in the 2014 grant.

This newer grant, with Daszak again as principal investigator, was also made public last week by the Intercept. The new grant is a consortium grant that adds more collaborators and lab sites where the research will be performed, including a BSL-4 facility in Boston.  Funding is approved for the budget cycle of June 17, 2020 through May 31, 2025.

The bottom line is this: It is unclear whether the work performed under the 2014 bat coronavirus NIH grant played a role in the COVID-19 pandemic. But the EcoHealth Alliance and WIV collection and storage of SARS-related bat coronaviruses, and the creation and use of chimeric novel bat coronaviruses with human ACE-2 expressing mouse platforms, could have sparked the pandemic.

Congress should launch an investigation into U.S. government funding of this type of risky research as part of a full and thorough investigation of the origins of the pandemic.

U.S. Right to Know believes transparency in science is essential to protection of public health, including preventing future pandemics.

Dr. Shannon Murray is a staff scientist at U.S. Right to Know. She received her Ph.D. in the Molecular and Cellular Biology Program at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center from the University of Washington. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.

Written by Shannon Murray. Editing by Carey Gillam

Scientist with conflict of interest leading Lancet COVID-19 Commission task force on virus origins

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Last week, U.S. Right to Know reported that an influential statement in The Lancet signed by 27 prominent public health scientists about the origins of SARS-CoV-2 was organized by employees of EcoHealth Alliance, a non-profit group that has received millions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer funding to genetically manipulate coronaviruses with scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). 

The Feb. 18 statement condemned “conspiracy theories” suggesting COVID-19 may have come from a lab, and said scientists “overwhelmingly conclude” the virus originated in wildlife. Emails obtained by USRTK revealed that EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak drafted the letter and orchestrated it to “avoid the appearance of a political statement.” 

The Lancet failed to disclose that four other signers of the statement also have positions with EcoHealth Alliance, which has a financial stake in deflecting questions away from the possibility that the virus could have originated in a lab.

Now, The Lancet is handing even more influence to the group that has conflicts of interest on the important public health question of the pandemic origins. On Nov. 23, The Lancet named a new 12-member panel to the The Lancet COVID 19 Commission. The chairman of the new task force to investigate the “Origins, Early Spread of the Pandemic, and One Health Solutions to Future Pandemic Threats” is none other than the EcoHealth Alliance’s Peter Daszak. 

Half the task force members — including Daszak, Hume Field, Gerald Keusch, Sai Kit Lam, Stanley Perlman and Linda Saif — were also signatories to the Feb. 18 statement that claimed to know the origins of the virus barely a week after the World Health Organization announced that the disease caused by the novel coronavirus would be named COVID-19. 

In other words, at least half The Lancet’s COVID Commission task force on the origins of SARS-CoV-2 appear to have already pre-judged the outcome before the investigation has even begun. This undermines the credibility and authority of the task force.

The origins of SARS-CoV-2 are still a mystery and a thorough and credible investigation may well be crucial to preventing the next pandemic. The public deserves an investigation that is not tainted by such conflicts of interest.

Update (November 25, 2020): Peter Daszak has also been appointed to the World Health Organization’s 10-person team researching the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

Written by Sainath Suryanarayanan