Politics / May 3, 2024

During a Heated Covid Origins Hearing, a Scientist Comes in for Questioning

Peter Daszak is a high-profile virologist with close ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. That relationship landed him in front of Congress this week.

Jimmy Tobias

EcoHealth Alliance President Dr. Peter Daszak is sworn in during a House Select Subcommittee hearing on the Coronavirus Pandemic on Capitol Hill on May 1, 2024.

(Andrew Harnik / Getty Images)

Dr. Peter Daszak has spent his career researching some of the most dangerous viruses in the world. As president of EcoHealth Alliance, a New York–based nonprofit, he and his colleagues have traveled the globe studying everything from Ebola to Nipah to the coronaviruses that linger in the bodies of bats. He is a high-profile emissary of the scientific community, especially since the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic when he was a go-to expert whose views were sought out by media, government and more. But Daszak’s work, and especially his long-running partnership with a virology lab in Wuhan, China, has lately landed him in front of less friendly audiences as questions about the origin of SARS-CoV-2 continue to roil Washington.

On Wednesday, a bipartisan panel of lawmakers peppered the embattled scientist with questions during a three-hour hearing. The hearing was convened by the Republican-led Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, which is probing the origin of Covid-19 as well as the federal government’s response to it. The committee called in Daszak to question him about his organization’s long-standing ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or WIV, a leading center of coronavirus research in the city where the pandemic first emerged. Throughout the hearing, Democrats and Republicans blasted what they asserted was Daszak’s lack of transparency concerning his work with WIV and they questioned the nature of the research that his organization pursued in collaboration with the Chinese institute. Both parties also raised the prospect that EcoHealth Alliance could be barred from future federal funding.

Daszak vehemently defended his organization and himself throughout the proceedings.

“The public nature of our work and our long-standing collaborations with Chinese scientists made us a target for speculation about the origins of Covid-19, beginning in early 2020, and continuing to this day,” he stated in testimony to the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, which is probing the origin of Covid-19. “Misinformation about our research began to circulate widely through social media and the press, often spread by people with little knowledge or understanding of the science underlying our research.”

The question of the pandemic’s origin is still an open one. Many high-profile scientists, including Daszak, contend that the pandemic emerged as the result of a zoonotic spillover, likely via the wildlife trade. Five US intelligence agencies, including the National Intelligence Council, also assess that the pandemic has a natural origin. Numerous others, including some scientists and political leaders, believe Covid-19 emerged as the result of a laboratory escape in Wuhan, China, where research involving the collection and manipulation of coronaviruses was occurring in the years before the pandemic began. Both the FBI and the Department of Energy likewise assess that the pandemic most likely originated via a laboratory-associated incident. Still other prominent scientists, politicians, as well as the CIA, believe there is not enough reliable information to make a determination.

Daszak’s organization has been sucked into this political storm primarily due to its work with the WIV. Though a civilian institution, WIV personnel also do work with the People’s Liberation Army of China, according to a 2023 report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Between 2014 and 2021, EcoHealth Alliance received more than $7.9 million in federal grant dollars from the National Institutes of Health, a portion of which it sent to WIV as part of a project to collect and conduct experiments on bat coronaviruses in order to understand the risk they pose to human health. This research program, and the grant that funded it, have been mired in controversy since 2020, when then-President Donald Trump promised to put an end to them from the White House podium.

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Last year, the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services issued a report on EHA’s handling of the federal grant money it provided to WIV—and found the conduct of both EHA and NIH wanting. Among other things, the probe found that EHA failed to immediately notify the NIH about a coronavirus experiment that caused laboratory mice to become sicker than expected, as it was required to do. EHA has contested the inspector general’s portrayal of this incident; NIH, for its part, has noted that the specific experiments in question could not have caused the pandemic—the viruses involved are too genetically distant from SARS-CoV-2.

The inspector general report also found that since 2021, the WIV has not been responsive to requests by EcoHealth and the NIH for lab notebooks and electronic records, despite its obligations as a subrecipient of federal grant money. Nor do EHA or NIH have access to other key research material collected using US money and currently located at WIV—a fact that came up during the hearing.

“Do you have physical access to the bat samples that the Wuhan Institute of Virology previously collected under your grant?” asked Representative Jill Tokuda, Democrat of Hawaii, during the hearing.

“Sadly, we do not,” Daszak answered.

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Other EcoHealth work also drew congressional scrutiny at the hearing, including DEFUSE, a grant proposal submitted to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2018 and first reported by The Intercept in 2021. Among other things, the DEFUSE proposal sought to launch a project to genetically manipulate coronaviruses, including by inserting proteolytic cleavage sites into coronaviruses’ spike proteins. One type of proteolytic cleavage site, known as a furin cleavage site, is a feature of SARS-CoV-2 that makes it more infectious in humans. A furin cleavage site has not been found in other SARS-related coronaviruses and since the early days of the pandemic its presence in the genome of SARS-CoV-2 has caused some scientists to suspectn that the virus emerged from a lab.

DARPA ultimately turned down the DEFUSE proposal, which was a collaboration between EHA, WIV, the University of North Carolina, and other research institutions. Daszak has said repeatedly that the work was never performed. But when questioned by a committee staffer at the hearing whether he had ever asked Dr. Shi Zhengli, his key collaborator at WIV, if she had started any of the work proposed in DEFUSE, he said he had not.

A key argument against the lab origin hypothesis is that there is no evidence to date that WIV or other research institutions in China had in their possession any coronaviruses genetically close enough to SARS-CoV-2 to have started the pandemic. But the slow drip-drip of details about what was happening at WIV in the years before and after the pandemic—including the laboratory’s stonewalling of NIH information requests, concerns about its biosafety practices, and the ambitions of its coronavirus collection and experimentation programs—have fueled arguments that the lab origin hypothesis is plausible. It has also underscored a key problem in the overall search for Covid-19’s origin—the lack of transparency from the Chinese government.

According to a report issued this week from the Select Subcommittee’s Republican majority, “it remains unclear how many [bat coronavirus] samples or sequences that the federal government paid for still reside at WIV.” Given its lack of transparency, WIV last year was barred from receiving federal funding for a period of 10 years.

In the hours before Wednesday’s hearing, the Select Subcommittee released a large batch of documents, including transcripts of testimony from Daszak, top NIH official David Morens, and the University of North Carolina’s Ralph Baric, one of the world’s leading coronavirus experts. Baric’s testimony was of particular note. A pioneer in techniques to manipulate the genomes of coronaviruses and a collaborator with Daszak on the unfunded DEFUSE proposal, Baric described his long-standing concerns about biosafety practices at Chinese labs.

As Vanity Fair first reported, Baric stated that Chinese researchers associated with the Wuhan Institute of Virology were known to be doing “virus discovery work” under what he viewed as insufficient lab biosecurity standards and therefore he “felt that the potential laboratory escape hypothesis shouldn’t be, in essence, put under the rug.”

Though he believes it is far more likely the virus has a natural origin, he said of a potential lab accident that “you can’t rule that out…you just can’t.”

He also expressed skepticism about the idea that the pandemic started from a zoonotic spillover event at the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market in Wuhan, as numerous leading researchers have proposed.

“Clearly, the market was a conduit for expansion,” Baric testified. “Is that where it started? I don’t think so.”

During his testimony to the committee, Baric also reflected on Daszak’s conduct. In one series of questions, the committee asked Baric if Daszak was sending correspondence to Baric’s Gmail account, rather than his UNC account, so it wouldn’t go through state Freedom of Information Act laws. “Do you recall having any conversations with him regarding putting your Gmail on things?” Baric was asked.

“I told him it was irresponsible to do that, and I was very unhappy with him, so yeah,” Baric replied.

Issues of transparency repeatedly came up during the subcommittee’s hearing. Both Republicans and Democrats hammered Daszak for his role in writing a letter to The Lancet in February 2020 in which a large group of scientists condemned “conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin.” According to a report issued by subcommittee Democrats, Daszak sought to “obscure the extent of his involvement” in organizing the letter and failed to explicitly declare his work with WIV in his competing interest statement.

Daszak defended his conduct regarding the Lancet letter. “At the time we wrote that letter,” he said, “none of us, all 26 authors, could ever imagine the political maelstrom that’s happened since.”

The committee also questioned Daszak about his relationship with David Morens, a top NIH official and longtime aid to Dr. Fauci. As first reported by this journalist in The Intercept, Morens was caught using a Gmail account while communicating with Daszak and other prominent scientists who favor the natural origin theory. Morens stated in one 2021 e-mail to the group: “As you know, I try to always communicate on gmail because my NIH email is FOIA’d constantly.” He also said: “Don’t worry just send to any of my addresses, and I will delete anything I don’t want to see in The New York Times.” The revelation about Morens’s apparent efforts to evade FOIA has infuriated some in Congress and also raises questions about records retention practices at NIH. During the hearing, Representative Brad Wenstrup, the subcommittee’s Republican chairman, noted that the committee had recently received some 30,000 pages of e-mails from Morens’s Gmail account after issuing a subpoena. A source familiar with the subcommittee’s work told The Nation that “the select subcommittee and Dr. Morens are in negotiations for his appearance at a hearing next month.”

While both parties were critical of Daszak, Democrats on the subcommittee took pains to argue that the investigation, including the review of more than 400,000 pages of documents, had not meaningfully advanced understanding of the pandemic’s origins. Representative Raul Ruiz, the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, said the origin of the pandemic remains inconclusive: “While the Select subcommittee’s probe has uncovered questionable conduct about Dr. Daszak’s commitment to transparency and professional integrity, I want to be clear it has not substantiated allegations that EcoHealth Alliance used taxpayer dollars to fund research that created the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Representative Wenstrup acknowledged that there is more work to do. Beyond pushing to bar Daszak and EHA from receiving federal funds, Republicans on the committee also recommended that the Justice Department evaluate whether Daszak had violated any laws. Meanwhile, Dr. Anthony Fauci is expected to appear before the committee in June.

“This investigation does not end today,” Wenstrup said.

Through a long and grueling hearing, Daszak, for his part, consistently pushed back on the allegations against him. “I’ve only told you the truth,” he said.

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Jimmy Tobias

Jimmy Tobias is an investigative reporter who primarily covers science and the environment.

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