Sacrificial bat? Democrats join GOP to blame Wuhan funder for misleading feds on virus research

Peter Daszak "either cannot or will not" distinguish between the "common understanding" of gain-of-function research and the "more technical definitions" he keeps asserting, COVID subcommittee chair says.

Published: May 1, 2024 11:03pm

Unwilling to turn on former National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins and former National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci for allegedly obscuring the origin of SARS-CoV-2, congressional Democrats have found their sacrificial bat.

Party affiliation mattered less than usual on the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic at a hearing Wednesday, as Democratic and Republican members accused EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak of misleading regulators and Congress on the nature of the taxpayer-funded nonprofit's bat research and relationship with China's Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The FBI and Energy Department consider a lab leak the most likely origin of COVID-19, albeit with "moderate" and "low" confidence, respectively, a distinction Daszak and Democratic members repeated throughout the hearing. Four unnamed intelligence agencies reportedly believe natural origin is most likely, with "low" confidence.

Lawmakers repeatedly cut off Daszak as he tried to defend himself, answer their questions in a format they rejected or contest their premises altogether, including on the definition of gain-of-function research, which is crucial to EcoHealth's argument that it didn't use U.S. taxpayer money with WIV to increase the transmissibility or "pathogenicity" of viruses.

Subcommittee Republicans scheduled the hearing to grill Daszak about alleged inconsistencies between his transcribed interview last fall and a newly obtained draft of EcoHealth's unsuccessful 2018 DEFUSE grant proposal to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, for viral research that EcoHealth has repeatedly denied would be GoF in nature.

Sidebar comments in the draft, obtained by U.S. Right to Know via Freedom of Information Act, show Daszak telling collaborators including WIV's Shi Zhengli and University of North Carolina's Ralph Baric to "stress the US side of this proposal" to DARPA, then split the research between UNC and WIV if funded. He urged foreign partners to not submit their resumes.

Baric also warned Shi that "US researchers will likely freak out" if WIV studies "recombinant SARS CoV" in a level-2 biosafety lab, as Shi proposed, when the higher BSL-3 is required by U.S. law.

EcoHealth and Daszak individually should be debarred from federal funding going forward, and criminally investigated, for repeatedly violating terms of its NIH grant, subcommittee Republicans said in an interim report released two hours before the hearing. They also claimed NIH is violating WIV's debarment by continuing to fund EcoHealth.

NIH released a "heavily redacted" 600-page FOIA production Monday to Empower Oversight, related to the grant EcoHealth facilitated for WIV, the watchdog group said. Investigative journalist Jimmy Tobias filed a similar FOIA lawsuit against NIH and the Department of Health and Human Services last month.

Daszak "either cannot or will not" distinguish between the "common understanding" of GoF research and the "more technical definitions" he keeps asserting, subcommittee Chairman Brad Wenstrup said in his opening statement.

Other scientists have told the panel the research "absolutely" qualifies as GoF, according to the Ohio Republican, calling Daszak's response "disingenuous," 

EcoHealth was nearly two years late submitting a "routine progress report" to NIH and didn't report a "potentially dangerous experiment" at WIV, while Daszak "omitted a material fact" when NIH reinstated his grant on the false basis that he had access to "unanalyzed virus samples and sequences," Wenstrup said.

"This investigation does not end today," he said, noting that former Fauci adviser David Morens produced 30,000 pages of emails from his personal account Monday under subpoena. Previous communications show Morens asking scientists to contact him there to avoid FOIA obligations.

California Rep. Raul Ruiz, the committee's top Democrat, emphasized the GOP has spent 14 months trying to "prove without evidence" that Daszak "created" the pandemic, but he questioned Daszak's "commitment to transparency and professional integrity." 

Internal documents suggest Daszak "potentially misled" regulators many times, and Ruiz has "serious concerns" Daszak didn't comply with federal reporting requirements, he said. He nonetheless urged the subcommittee to focus on "closing pathways" for zoonotic disease spread rather than litigating the past.

House Energy and Commerce Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Morgan Griffith, R-Va., called for removing "final" authority over research and funding away from NIAID in favor of an independent entity. 

The purported oversight by Fauci's agency was a "farce," as illustrated by an official who told lawmakers that regulators "didn't even think to ask [Daszak] where the samples were stored" – WIV, Griffith said.

Daszak emphasized he "volunteered" to testify and said EcoHealth has a long history of helping federal agencies map the threat of emerging diseases reaching U.S. shores. Its work has "saved countless lives" by providing samples used in drug testing, he said.

His staff and family have been targeted with death threats, "break-ins" and a "white powder letter" sent to his home, and his wife and kids' names were added to a "4chan kill list," Daszak said. 

Subcommittee social media posts about his pending testimony coincided with a "notable increase in death threats" and a so-called swatting attack against his home, Daszak said: "This is not what a scientist should be put through to do their work."

His comments on the DEFUSE draft were nothing unusual, Daszak told Wenstrup. He wrote "a lot of assays" could be done in Wuhan – not "experiments," which would stay in the U.S. – and the U.S. and China have the same standards for which research must be done in BSL-2 versus BSL-3, Daszak said.

"You intentionally downplayed the role of China," Wenstrup exclaimed when Daszak called the inquiry "irrelevant" because DARPA rejected the proposal. Daszak said the agency didn't say it was because of safety concerns in his "exit interview," and he believes "they didn't have enough money to fund it."

Ruiz said Daszak "summarily attempted to close" the question of COVID origins by authoring a February 2020 statement published in The Lancet, signed by two dozen scientists, that condemned "conspiracy theories" about COVID not having a natural origin.

Daszak failed to disclose his "competing interest" in the statement, that his U.S. funding and WIV partnership relied on "relaxed scrutiny of research-related origin theories," Ruiz said. That's because the conspiracy theories referred to things like "snake DNA" in the novel coronavirus, Daszak responded.

Ruiz faulted Daszak's request to The Lancet not to designate him the corresponding author, his creation of a "Google mail address for reader correspondence" and referral of a press inquiry directed to Daszak to another signatory.

His decision to "disperse apparent authorship among the signatories deprives the public of important context," Ruiz said. That's because "we speak in one voice" and Daszak is less prominent than many signatories, he responded.

Informed by Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., that WIV is associated with the Chinese military, Daszak claimed he was "still not aware of that." He does not have a "standing relationship" with any intelligence agency and has never been an informant "to my knowledge," Daszak said.

The CIA, FBI and Defense Intelligence Agency reached out to Daszak before the pandemic to discuss EcoHealth's work, he said. 

That suggests the intelligence community "suspected something fishy was going on" at WIV and yet the feds still funded it through EcoHealth, Comer said. Daszak emphasized only two agencies favor lab-leak, while the evidence for natural spillover is "huge and growing every week."

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