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Peter Daszak, major funder of Wuhan lab, faces growing scrutiny amid COVID origins probe

Infectious disease expert funneled hundreds of thousands of U.S. taxpayer dollars to Wuhan lab prior to pandemic.

Published: June 25, 2021 11:49am

Updated: June 26, 2021 4:33pm

As interest in the Wuhan "lab-leak theory" has intensified, a man at the center of the controversy has undergone a dramatic reversal of public and professional fortune.

Peter Daszak funded the Wuhan Institute of Virology from NIH grant awards that were largely shielded from wide public view. Later he posed as an ostensibly disinterested expert on the origins of COVID-19 in his roles as official international investigator, scientific researcher, and media commentator.

A British-born zoologist, Daszak is the president of EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based research nonprofit focused on emerging infectious diseases. Closely involved with the global response to SARS-Cov-2 since early last year, Daszak was among the organizers and signatories of an influential letter in February 2020 condemning "conspiracy theories" surrounding the potential laboratory origin of the COVID-19 virus. He was given space in major international newspapers to argue vehemently against the lab-leak theory. And he was eventually selected to participate in the World Health Organization's investigation into the origins of SARS-Cov-2. 

Yet in recent months, Daszak has suffered a fall from public grace: He has been sidelined from further investigations into COVID-19's origins; his earlier advocacy of the "natural origin" theory of COVID-19 has been retroactively footnoted to acknowledge (with varying degrees of transparency) his links to the Wuhan lab; and he has been subject to harsh media criticism as those links have become more widely known. 

The editors of the renowned British medical journal The Lancet, for instance, this month published an addendum to the letter Daszak coauthored in March of last year, expanding on Daszak's "competing interests" regarding the subject of SARS-Cov-2's origins. The note did not mention the Wuhan Institute of Virology specifically — instead obliquely referring to "EcoHealth Alliance's work in China" — but more than a year after the letter was first published, his conflicting interests were tacitly acknowledged. 

This was not the first time editors were forced to issue an update to clarify Daszak's associations. His June 2020 article in the Guardian originally made no mention of his link to the Wuhan Institute of Virology; that clarification was added about a week after the article was first published. 

Even in cases where the research links between Daszak and the WIV were initially acknowledged, Daszak's heavy funding of the Wuhan lab was left unspoken, as in reports in the Wall Street Journal and in Vox

Daszak's bankrolling of the Wuhan coronavirus experiments has since become common knowledge not just among those who have closely followed the COVID-19 debate but among the broader American public, thanks in part to heavy news coverage of that funding as well as critical analysis from hugely popular commentators such as Tucker Carlson.

As wider exposure of Daszak's previously veiled ties to the WIV has eroded his credibility as a source on the origins of COVID-19, he has been sidelined by the Lancet's COVID-19 Commission. On that website, he is now listed as having been "recused from Commission work on the origins of the pandemic." The site, however, still does not explain why Daszak was sequestered from that project, and the Lancet's biography of Daszak neglects to list his association with the Wuhan lab. 

Daszak's place at the center of the COVID origin controversy has been noted by government officials, including Wisconsin Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. In April, the committee demanded that Daszak provide extensive documentation of, among other things, his work with the Wuhan lab. 

A steady drumbeat of news reports have revealed further potentially embarrassing revelations surrounding Daszak: Video from 2016 in which he described his Chinese colleagues creating "killer" viruses through viral manipulation; a virologist's admission that EcoHealth was associated at least indirectly with dangerous "gain-of-function" research related to bat coronaviruses in China; and multiple scientists and major public officials expressing skepticism about the conclusions of the WHO investigation of which Daszak was a part. 

Whether or not the pressure on Daszak will continue will likely depend upon a variety of factors, including how much information can be drawn from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Daszak's team reportedly spent just one day there during the WHO investigation, largely talking with lab officials. 

As of now, Congress has not subpoenaed Daszak to appear before it. Democrats narrowly control both chambers, leaving Republicans unable to wield subpoena power. Daszak did not respond to requests for comment on the controversy.

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