EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak, whose nonprofit has funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology for years, appeared in multiple media fact-checks and reports over the past year dispelling the notion the coronavirus accidentally emerged from the lab.
Dr. Daszak’s organization sent $3.4 million in National Institutes of Health grants to the Wuhan lab between 2014 and 2019, according to the Wall Street Journal, but his involvement with it didn’t prevent him from playing a key role in early media dismissals of the lab-leak idea.
The British scientist appeared in a Washington Post fact-check video published last May, where he discussed his work with the Wuhan Institute researching viruses in bats that could cause “the next pandemic.” The video outlined circumstantial evidence around the leak, such as its proximity to the outbreak, its work with coronaviruses, and its known security concerns, but still concluded it likely didn’t happen.
After the narrator repeated the lab’s denial that it was the source of the virus, Daszak said “China’s been incredibly open, and I believe it’s because it’s been a scientific collaboration.”
The Post’s Glenn Kessler taunted Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, at the time after Cruz criticized the Post’s video, saying it showed it was “virtually impossible” the virus jumped from a lab. A little more than a year later, Kessler published a timeline about how the lab-leak theory “suddenly” became credible.
Daszak was also cited by Facebook fact-checking partner Science Feedback in a February 2020 post headlined, “Scientific evidence indicates virus that causes COVID-19 infection is of natural origin, not the result of human engineering.” Last June, he penned a Guardian op-ed assailing “conspiracy theorists” for blaming a lab leak.
Last April, Daszak was cited in a CNN article headlined, “How did coronavirus break out? Theories abound as researchers race to solve genetic detective story,” where he said he was “very confident” that the virus originated naturally. He was also quoted in an NBC News story about “conspiracy theories” involving the lab.
“The fact that they published the sequence so quickly suggests to me that they weren’t trying to cover up anything,” he told NBC News.
A Chinese state media outlet also cited him saying there was “absolutely no evidence” for the lab theory.
Widely dismissed in the press for more than a year, the theory the virus escaped the Wuhan lab is being considered anew. President Biden ordered the intelligence community last week to assess the virus’ origins and report back in 90 days, after outlets ranging from the Washington Post and New York Times to CNN and NPR once disparaged the idea as a fringe conspiracy theory.
Published emails showed Daszak orchestrated the widely cited February 2020 letter in The Lancet from 27 scientists who “strongly condemn[ed] conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” it did not disclose to readers that Daszak’s group had funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan lab, and at least three of those signers have since said a laboratory accident merits consideration.
The letter stated at the time, “We declare no competing interests.”
Fox News contributor Dr. Nicole Saphier said Friday Daszak had a clear conflict of interest.
“It would really be bad optics for his company if it was a lab accident, whereas if it was natural spillover, that validates their entire company’s work,” Saphier told “America Reports.”
In one email asking someone to sign on to the letter, Daszak said “conspiracy theorists” had targeted some of EcoHealth’s Chinese collaborators and needed support.
“I hope you are willing to sign on to this – your voice will be very influential, particularly in keeping these critical bridges open between the USA and China. You should know that the conspiracy theorists have been very active, targeting our collaborators with some extremely unpleasant web pages in China, and some have now received death threats to themselves and their families. They have asked for any show of support we can give them,” he wrote.
Last year, after the Trump administration yanked the NIH’s grant to EcoHealth, CBS News’ “60 Minutes” profiled Daszak and lamented that he had been undercut by “pandemic politics.”
“I’m a scientist. And what I do is I look at the evidence around a hypothesis,” Daszak told CBS News. “There is a huge amount of evidence that these viruses repeatedly emerge into people from wild animals in rural areas through things like hunting and eating wildlife. There is zero evidence that this virus came out of a lab in China.”
Daszak was also the lone U.S.-based representative on the World Health Organization’s investigative team in China that said in February a lab leak was “extremely unlikely,” while conceding its probe was limited in scope.
Daszak’s NGO funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology through grants from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Both Daszak and NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci have flatly denied any monies went to “gain of function” studies, a controversial technique which involves manipulating viruses to make them more infectious for research.
Daszak is quoted in a 2015 Nature report discussing the benefits of such research, however. In a 2019 interview with virologist Vincent Racaniello, Daszak discussed the ease of manipulating coronaviruses for the purposes of vaccine development. Racaniello told Just The News he believed Daszak was describing gain-of-function research.
“Coronaviruses — you can manipulate them in the lab pretty easily,” he said. “Spike protein drives a lot of what happen with coronavirus, in zoonotic risk. So you can get the sequence, you can build the protein, and we work a lot with Ralph Baric at UNC to do this. Insert into the backbone of another virus and do some work in the lab. So you can get more predictive when you find a sequence. You’ve got this diversity. Now the logical progression for vaccines is, if you are going to develop a vaccine for SARS, people are going to use pandemic SARS, but let’s insert some of these other things and get a better vaccine.”
Published emails this week showed Daszak thanking Fauci in April 2020 for dispelling the lab-leak theory.
“I just wanted to say a personal thank you on behalf of our staff and collaborators, for publicly standing up and stating that the scientific evidence supports a natural for COVID-19 from a bat-to-human spillover, not a lab from the Wuhan Insitute of Virology,” he wrote.
That same month, Daszak told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, “It may be that we’ll never really know the answers to where this virus actually originated,” while adding he still believed the pandemic originated in nature.
The true origin of the virus that has killed millions around the globe remains unknown.