Interior Department included Wuhan lab funder on early COVID pandemic research team

EcoHealth Alliance officials served as report author, "expert panel" member in U.S. Geological Survey research of potentiial transmission between humans, bats before "empirical data" were available.

Published: July 7, 2023 6:34am

Officials at the U.S. nonprofit that passed taxpayer money to the Wuhan Institute of Virology – whose coronavirus bat research is now suspected by the FBI to be the source of the pandemic – helped the Interior Department research possible transmission of COVID-19 between humans and North American bats, according to newly released government memos.

Lightly redacted documents provided to government watchdog Protect the Public's Trust in response to a Freedom of Information Act request show the "fingerprints" of the EcoHealth Alliance "at key points" of the resulting U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) paper in June 2020, the group said Wednesday. 

One EcoHealth official served on an "expert panel" that was convened by the researchers to determine "parameter estimates" in lieu of collecting "empirical data and associated mathematical models" to determine estimates, according to the memos. 

The panel estimated a 33% chance that the virus could spread in North American bats if infected and recommended researchers wear N95 masks to protect bats from infection.

While substituting the "subjective experience" of experts for actual data was "understandable" early in the pandemic because "there weren’t enough samples for a more data-driven approach," the presence of EcoHealth Vice President for Science and Outreach Jonathan Epstein on the expert panel is troubling, according to PPT.

“EcoHealth’s track record doesn’t inspire confidence," says group Director Michael Chamberlain, a former Trump administration Department of Education communications official.

He cited the group's attempts to delegitimize the lab-leak theory while its president, Peter Daszak, obscured the group's "extensive ties" to Wuhan lab and the National Institutes of Health's claim to Congress last summer that EcoHealth hasn't turned over requested "laboratory notebooks and original electronic files from the research conducted at WIV."

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released an unclassified summary last month of the intelligence community's assessment of COVID origins that stated: "one IC element" deemed WIV the "most likely" source of the pandemic outbreak, with "moderate confidence."

Because of the "inherently risky nature of work on coronaviruses," those analysts suggest the first human infection resulted from "a laboratory-associated incident, probably involving experimentation, animal handling, or sampling" by WIV, the summary also reads.

The FBI, the Energy Department, and some committees in Congress have all stated publicly they suspect that a leak at the Wuhan lab is the likely source of the pandemic.

Chamberlain’s group said the concerns about the Wuhan Institute of Virology and EcoHealth Alliance’s ties to the lab raise new questions about the government relationship with the contractor.

"As we unearth more EHA ties to the federal government" – in this case, during a "consequential phase of the pandemic" – the question remains why the feds have "downplayed the organization’s apparent reporting violations" and why it deserves taxpayer funds, Chamberlain said.

"Resources were flowing into EcoHealth Alliance from corners of the federal government few people would have expected," Chamberlain told The Spectator.

Rep. Greg Murphy (R-N.C.), co-chair of the House GOP Doctor Caucus, told the publication that revelation "reinforces" his call to strip EcoHealth of federal funding and audit its past decade of funding.

EcoHealth didn't respond to requests for comment on PPT's characterization of its work with the Interior components.

But the group’s leader Peter Daszak has strongly defended EcoHealth’s work in an extensive interview last year with the Intercept news site, suggesting much of the controversy around its research is political.

“The real reason this has become so divisive is because it’s being used politically. That’s it,” Daszak said. “Scientists disagree over an issue where there’s no definitive proof. And for this issue, there’s no definitive proof. And there may never be.”

PPT has been on Interior's trail, publishing records that suggest agency officials considered how to circumvent a statute requiring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director to have a "scientific education," which then-nominee Martha Williams arguably lacked.

Interior spokesperson Melissa Schwartz answered a query from Just the News by pointing to a Huffington Post article deeming PPT a "ghost" organization that at one point called itself a 501(c)(3) nonprofit without filing a required 990 Form. She added USGS and USFWS spokespeople to the request, but none has provided a substantive response yet.

"I’m old enough to remember when a federal agency that owes transparency to the American public would offer a substantive reply to a substantive inquiry" rather than "deflection, obfuscation and character attacks," Chamberlain told Just the News when shown Interior's response. 

"The Biden administration pledged to restore decency, norms, and respect for institutions, but it seems that message hasn’t made it over to Interior," he wrote in an email.

The 206-page document production posted by PPT opens with several pages laying out the proposed public-private "research coordination network" to study "spillover risk" from emerging infectious diseases of zoonotic origin. 

The principal investigator is EcoHealth Principal Scientist for Computational Research Noam Ross, who was tasked with "project management, day-to-day network operations, and funder communication" and served on the RCN steering committee with other collaborators including USGS and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials. 

Participants identified as "senior personnel" include EcoHealth VP of Research Kevin Olival, whose "team" description says he'll "provide mentorship and access to networks" and serve as "organizational backstop" for Ross. He's the only non-government author on the USGS paper.

A one-page USGS summary says its COVID work is focused on "possible dynamics of the disease in Federal trust species." The summary notes the "rapid assessment" paper it wrote with USFWS on possible human-to-bat transmission and EcoHealth's role as the only private collaborator.

Its National Wildlife Health Center "just completed an experimental challenge study in which big brown bats were experimentally exposed to SARS-CoV-2 to determine if they could become infected and shed the virus," the summary says. NWHC was also working with "federal and academic partners" to develop and expose "in vitro cell cultures" of bat tissues to SARS-CoV-2.

"There is no evidence currently that North American wildlife are a source of SARS-CoV-2 for people," it concludes.

Much of the production posted by PPT is email communications regarding the research into SARS-CoV-2 "spill-over" and "spill-back" between humans and animals, suggested edits to the manuscript, its publishing schedule and various briefings and presentations. 

It also lays out the protocol for the "challenge" study of infecting bats, which was funded by St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and the safety approvals. When a top USGS official recommended against publication of the findings before peer review in an independent journal, due to the "high degree of scrutiny" it will face, one government author groused to another: "cowards."

The final 45 pages, many of them duplicates, concern discussions over responding to PPT's August 2021 FOIA request for USGS grants to "the Wuhan Laboratory" and appeal letter when none were found.

USGS spokesperson Rachel Pawlitz did not provide a response to PPT's claims when asked by Just the News, but rather emphasized the report that emerged from its work with EcoHealth was an "interim, rapid-risk assessment done early in the pandemic to understand potential risks of COVID transmission to North American bat populations."

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