Unanswered questions shadow NIH-funded Wuhan lab that performed COVID research pre-pandemic

Feds have denied controversial "gain-of-function" research; grant-funded projects sought to study "emergence potential" of coronaviruses.

Updated: February 3, 2021 - 10:28pm

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Critical questions continue to surround a series of coronavirus research projects performed at a viral laboratory in Wuhan, China just prior to the start of the pandemic there, with significant amounts of the funding sourced to the National Institutes of Health by way of a science nonprofit. 

Just the News reported in September on the NIH's funding of New York nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance to carry out a series of experiments that sought to determine, in part, the "emergence potential" of pandemic coronaviruses in China, including "what factors increase the risk of the next [coronavirus] emerging in people." The grant was awarded by the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which has been run for several decades by Anthony Fauci, an infectious disease expert who has helped manage the federal government's response to the COVID crisis under both the Trump and Biden administrations. 

Federal spending records indicate that EcoHealth Alliance sub-awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars from those federal funds to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in partnership on that research. 

Questions have persisted over whether or not any research at the Wuhan lab in the years leading up to the pandemic — whether funded by NIH or not — constituted "gain-of-function" experiments, a controversial biomedical procedure in which scientists increase the pathogenicity of a virus in order to study its potential transmission in human populations.

EcoHealth Alliance president Peter Daszak, whose name is on the NIH documentation detailing the nonprofit's government funding stream, has failed to respond to numerous queries over the last several months from Just the News, including questions regarding the full scope of the work conducted by EcoHealth and via the Wuhan lab.

The National Institutes of Health, meanwhile, has denied that EcoHealth and the WIV were participating in any gain-of-function research using NIH dollars. 

An institute spokeswoman last year told Just the News that a 2019 EcoHealth project "did not involve the enhancement of the pathogenicity or transmissibility of the viruses studied," and thus did not qualify as gain-of-function research under government definitions.

Asked this week about a 2014 EcoHealth project that utilized "reverse genetics" and "virus infection experiments" to assess coronavirus threats, the spokeswoman referred Just the News to the earlier EcoHealth initiative, again denying it constituted gain-of-function experimentation.

Asked repeatedly to clarify whether the 2014 project and any other EcoHealth projects funded by NIH involved gain-of-function experiments, the spokeswoman said they did not. 

The Wuhan laboratory has been the focus of intense scrutiny over the past 13 months due to its immediate proximity to the location where Chinese officials claim COVID-19 was first detected. The Communist Chinese government officially posits that the outbreak likely originated in a wet market in the city of Wuhan, just a few miles from the WIV. 

Official Chinese denials notwithstanding, the lab's work on coronaviruses in the years and months leading up to the start of the pandemic has continued to fuel speculation that scientists there may have accidentally leaked the virus from the lab and launched the global viral outbreak that continues to kill thousands daily around the planet. 

Adding fuel to that fire, several U.S. government reports have indicated that health authorities had earlier flagged the Wuhan lab as both a possible biosecurity risk and, later, as a potential source of the COVID outbreak. 

One 2018 Department of State memo identified what it said was a "shortage of trained staff" at the facility, founded in 1956.

Last month, meanwhile, the State Department claimed that numerous WIV workers had developed COVID-like symptoms weeks before the alleged start of the Wuhan outbreak that precipitated the global pandemic.

EcoHealth's Daszak is now in China helping to lead a World Health Organization team investigating the origins of COVID-19, despite his close connection to the lab many suspect of being the source.

In 2014, the Obama administration had instituted a funding pause on gain-of-function research out of concerns about the pathogenetic risk of such undertakings. In 2017 that ban was lifted, with NIH Director Francis Collins claiming that gain-of-function experiments are "important in helping us identify, understand, and develop strategies and effective countermeasures against rapidly evolving pathogens that pose a threat to public health."

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