British doctor and his secret campaign to gag the Covid lab leak theory: He worked in Wuhan and manipulated coronaviruses — yet orchestrated a campaign to clear it of blame and tried to hide his tracks. Now we publish the evidence, writes SIAN BOYLE
- Mail reveals Dr Peter Daszak, 55, has links with Chinese scientists in Wuhan lab
- The British expert on zoonotic ‘spillovers’ (viruses jumping from animals to humans) was among those who signed Lancet letter condemning lab leak theory
- He also worked in so-called pandemic prevention and the manipulation of coronaviruses, admitting they can be manipulated ‘pretty easily’ in 2019 podcast
- Dr Daszak was appointed to World Health Organisation’s Wuhan 2021 delegation while The Lancet has its own close relationship with Chinese science community
- Leaked emails and intelligence reports continue to challenge pandemic origins
The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in the city of Wuhan is a desolate place. The now infamous ‘wet market’, once a bustling centre of people and exotic live animals for human consumption, is boarded up, its stalls shuttered and razor wire entangled in discarded fishing nets.
This is the supposed ‘Ground Zero’ of the coronavirus pandemic, the place where the first cases of Covid-19 were contracted.
But it looks increasingly as if the market’s notoriety has been misplaced, despite Beijing’s best efforts to maintain that narrative.
In the past week, a tranche of leaked emails, intelligence reports and on-the-record statements by scientists and politicians — including President Joe Biden — have challenged the consensus view of the origins of the outbreak.
The focus has pivoted firmly back to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) just a few miles from the seafood market — and the possibility that the spread of the virus (official name SARS-Cov-2) was the result of a laboratory leak rather than a species jump (transmission from bat to humans via an intermediary animal).
What was once the preserve of conspiracy theorists is now ‘feasible’, according to MI6. And not before time, many will think.
LETTER LET CHINA OFF THE HOOK
It was always surely too much of a coincidence that a coronavirus outbreak should erupt in a city which just happened to be home to an institute holding one of the world’s largest databases of such viruses in labs requiring the highest level of biosecurity.
Not only that, but the WIV was operated by the Chinese Academy of Sciences — and ultimately the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — who would be desperate to stamp on speculation about biosecurity failures.
Brit Dr Peter Daszak, 55, tried to present a unified scientific front against the ‘lab leak theory
You don’t need a PhD in epidemiology to ask: why wasn’t the possibility of an accidental ‘lab leak’ considered from the start?
The answer, according to many observers, may lie with Dr Peter Daszak, a British zoologist who is also a president of EcoHealth Alliance, a not-for-profit organisation researching emerging infectious diseases, which has received funds from U.S. government bodies.
In February 2020, Daszak organised a letter, co-signed by 26 other leading scientists and published in leading medical journal The Lancet. It declared: ‘We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin.’
It strongly affirmed that ‘this coronavirus originated in wildlife’ and expressed solidarity with the ‘scientists and health professionals of China’.
It was this authoritative statement that effectively shut down any debate about a ‘lab leak’ theory, even before a global pandemic had been declared by the World Health Organisation.
Today, the Mail reveals how Daszak tried to present a unified scientific front against the ‘lab leak theory — and how The Lancet, which provided the platform for him to do so, has its own close relationship with the Chinese scientific community.
And, in a further twist, we can reveal that EcoHealth Alliance received funding for biosecurity research, into weapons of mass destruction, from the Pentagon — which is now under investigation for inadvertently funding the WIV.
Scientist’s links to ‘BAT WOMAN’
Dr Daszak, 55, a Lancastrian who lives in New York with his wife and daughters, is regarded as a leading authority on zoonotic ‘spillover’ events (viruses jumping from animals to humans).
His ties to the WIV are well-documented and date back at least 15 years.
Not only has EcoHealth Alliance directly funded work in its laboratories, but its president has long been associated with its best-known scientist, Shi Zhengli, known as ‘Bat woman’ for her dedication to hunting down SARS-like viruses in caves in China.
Shi Zhengli, known as ‘Bat woman’ (left) for her dedication to hunting down SARS-like viruses in caves in China
In a podcast interview on December 9, 2019 – three weeks before the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission announced an outbreak of ‘pneumonia of an unknown cause’ – Daszak described his work in so-called pandemic prevention and manipulation of coronaviruses.
‘We’ve found, after six or seven years of doing this, over 100 SARS-related coronaviruses… some of them get into human cells in the lab, some of them can cause SARS disease in humanised mouse models, and some are untreatable with therapeutic monoclonals [antibodies] and you can’t vaccinate against them. Any one of those can become pandemic.’
He added: ‘Coronaviruses, you can manipulate them in the lab pretty easily. The spike protein drives a lot of what happens with the coronavirus. You can get the sequence . . .insert it into the backbone of another virus . . .in the lab.’
VIRUSES TWEAKED TO BE LETHAL
In this high-risk laboratory manipulation, known as ‘gain of function’ research, viruses are deliberately engineered to become more dangerous to humans.
The work is aimed at predicting future pandemics and helping to create vaccines so that governments and research institutes can, in Daszak’s words, ‘better allocate resources to the highest risk’.
Peter Daszak is, then, an expert in the field.
But his appointment to the ten-strong World Health Organisation (WHO) delegation that visited Wuhan in January 2021 to investigate the causes of the outbreak was met with concern, because of his close ties with the WIV.
Peter Daszak (far right) pictured with ‘Bat Woman’ Shi Zhengli (left) who is known for her dedication to hunting down SARS-like viruses in caves in China
And given Dr Daszak’s views as a signatory to that Lancet letter, maybe it was predictable that the WHO team later concluded that a lab leak was ‘extremely unlikely’.
Reporting the outcome of the WHO investigation in April, The Lancet noted that ‘Peter Daszak… told journalists the report is a testament to how, even under very difficult political circumstances, “countries can come together to focus on the origins of emerging diseases”.’
Such sympathetic coverage is perhaps unsurprising, given that in September 2020 The Lancet had appointed Daszak as chair of The Lancet Covid-19 Commission, set up to ‘analyse the available evidence for each of the hypotheses put forward on the origins of Covid-19’ to help prevent future pandemics.
At the time, Daszak said he would ‘not be bound by preconceived ideas’ and would investigate all avenues.
But he warned that it was unlikely it would ever be possible to say with ‘absolute certainty’ how the virus came about.
EMAIL TRAIL IS EXPOSED
Despite this ‘open-mindedness’, he had, six months earlier, publicly criticised the lab-leak theory as ‘baloney’.
That month [September 2020], The Lancet Commission said that ‘the evidence to date supports the view that Sars-Cov-2 is a naturally occurring virus rather than the result of laboratory creation and release’.
But this week, leaked emails expose the extent to which a concluding statement in the Lancet letter of February 2020 — the one signed by Daszak and 26 others — that ‘we declare no competing interests’ appears to be untrue.
The emails, released under U.S. Freedom of Information laws, reveal it was Daszak who drafted the Lancet letter and urged colleagues at the EcoHealth Alliance to sign and ‘circulate it among some eminent scientists’.
On February 6, 2020, he wrote: ‘Our current statement neatly refutes most of them [the conspiracy theories] by saying that “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that 2019-nCoV [as the virus was then known] does not have a natural origin.”
‘Please note that this statement will not have EcoHealth Alliance logo on it and will not be identifiable as coming from any one organisation or person, the idea is to have this as a community supporting our colleagues.’
Daszak urges Professor Rita Colwell, of the University of Maryland, to sign it, saying: ‘Your voice will be very influential, particularly in keeping these critical bridges open between the USA and China’.
And in another email, to epidemiologist and microbiologist Professor Ralph Baric, of the University of North Carolina – with whom Daszak had worked on coronavirus manipulation in 2019 – he wrote: ‘I… think… that you [and] me… should not sign the statement, so it has some distance from us and therefore does not work in a counterproductive way… We’ll then put it out in a way that does not link back to our collaboration.’
Daszak also wrote that he wanted ‘to avoid the appearance of a political statement’.
In the event, Daszak did sign the statement but Baric did not. Last month, Baric was one of 18 scientists who signed a letter to the journal Science calling for an investigation into a possible lab leak.
He has previously said: ‘You can engineer a virus without leaving any trace. The answers you are looking for, however, can only be found in the archives of the Wuhan laboratory.’
A CLEAR CONFLICT OF INTEREST?
The Lancet letter effectively altered the discourse about the emergence of coronavirus.
Yet it was not immediately apparent to its global audience that at least five of the co-signatories were directly linked to EcoHealth Alliance: according to its current website, Rita Colwell and James Hughes are members of the board of directors, William Karesh is the group’s executive vice president for health and policy, and Hume Field is science and policy adviser.
Furthermore, the signatories included six of the 12 experts later appointed to The Lancet Commission’s task force investigating the virus’s origins.
Dr Jonathan Latham, a virologist and editor of the investigatory site Independent Science News, in New York, is scathing of the Daszak/Lancet connection: ‘[The Lancet editors] should check conflict of interest, and this is the most obvious conflict of interest one could imagine. Daszak is directly funding the Institute of Virology. ’
Daszak was appointed to the ten-strong World Health Organisation (WHO) delegation that visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology (pictured) in January 2021
The editor-in-chief of The Lancet, Richard Horton, has been a staunch defender of Dr Daszak.
In a tweet last June, he wrote: ‘Peter Daszak rejects conspiracy theories about the origins of Covid-19: and he knows more than most of us about coronaviruses.’
Yet, as the Mail has discovered, The Lancet enjoys a close relationship with China’s medical establishment.
As far back as 2008, Dr Horton was honoured at The Great Hall of the People in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to mark an ‘unprecedented’ collaboration between Peking University and the journal.
Two years later, The Lancet established an office in Beijing (in addition to its New York office and London headquarters).
In 2015, Dr Horton was back in Beijing to receive the Friendship Award from the Government of China — the highest honour awarded to ‘foreign experts who have made outstanding contributions to the country’s economic and social progress’.
Over the past five years, The Lancet has run an annual health conference in China with the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences (CAMS).
This is the same Chinese government-affiliated institution that is accused of hampering the race to publish the genome sequence, or DNA map, of the new strain of coronavirus when it first emerged.
In June last year, an investigation by Associated Press revealed that the virus had been partially decoded by a private laboratory, Vision Medicals, on December 27, and shared with CAMS.
But it wasn’t until January 12 that CAMS, along with the Chinese Centre for Disease Control (CDC) published the full genome sequence — information that was crucial to containing the spread.
A spokeswoman for The Lancet on Dr Horton’s behalf said he ‘has praised China’s efforts to alert the world to the rapid spread of the virus, but has also been clear that China has legitimate questions to answer about its response to the Covid-19 outbreak in December’.
In April last year, the U.S. Government paused funding to EcoHealth after it emerged that money had been funnelled into coronavirus research at the WIV.
DISEASES AND DEFENCE DOLLARS
The National Institutes of Health said its $3.7 million grant would be restored only if outside experts could establish whether staff had the Covid-19 virus ‘in their possession’ before December 2019.
In truth, this funding is only the tip of the iceberg.
Figures from the Independent Science News site [drawing on data from the official USASpending.gov website] reveal that U.S. federal bodies awarded grants and contracts worth over $60 million to EcoHealth between 2013 and 2020 — and that just under $39 million was from the Pentagon.
Of that money, $34.6 million was from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Defence whose role is to ‘counter and deter weapons of mass destruction and improvised threat networks’.
One such $6 million contract awarded to EcoHealth for 2017-2022 states that it is for ‘Scientific research — combating weapons of mass destruction’, the detail of which is ‘Understanding the risk of bat-borne zoonotic disease emergence in Western Asia’. (It is unclear if the contract is still in place.)
A spokesman for Peter Daszak — who draws an annual salary of $410,000 (£303,000) via EcoHealth — stressed that no Pentagon funding went towards any virus research in China, only that from the National Institutes of Health, and that the U.S. Defence funding covers a number of years for virus research around the world.
He declined to comment on any other allegations in this article.
Nevertheless, the relationship between the Pentagon (which declined to comment), EcoHealth and the WIV is contentious enough for Pentagon officials to have been hauled in front of a U.S. Defence sub-committee for questioning.
Last month, Trent Kelly, a Republican member of the sub-committee, demanded to know ‘what kind of risk assessment… we’ve conducted and how the Wuhan Institute of Virology became the partner of choice for U.S. government agencies’.
Rhys Williams, acting director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and Brandi Vann, acting assistant defence secretary for nuclear, chemical and biological defence programmes, told the hearing that all the funds they reviewed from DTRA and other government sources did not go to the Chinese institution.
‘Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s funding to this NGO was not provided, to the best of our knowledge, into the Wuhan Institute of Virology,’ Mr Williams said.
Dr Anthony Fauci,chief medical adviser to the President and widely regarded as a hero for standing up to Donald Trump’s Covid claims (many of which, in retrospect, seem prescient), is now suddenly in the hot seat because of Daszak.
Among the newly leaked emails was one from Daszak to Fauci on April 18, 2020, in which he says: ‘I wanted to say a personal thank you for… publicly standing up and stating that the scientific evidence supports a natural origin of Covid-19… not a lab release from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.’
Further emails show that Fauci knew about high-risk research into the genetic manipulation of coronaviruses as early as February 2020.
On Thursday, Senator Rand Paul called for Fauci’s dismissal, claiming that he lied about knowledge of such ‘gain of function’ research being conducted in Wuhan, allegedly funded by the U.S.
Two senior Republican congressmen have also written to Fauci stating: ‘If U.S. taxpayer money was used to develop Covid-19, conduct gain-of-function research or assist in any sort of cover-up, EcoHealth must be held accountable.’
Fauci responded by telling journalists: ‘You can misconstrue it however you want… That email was from a person to me saying “thank you” for whatever it is he thought I said; and I said that I think the most likely origin is a jumping of species. I still do think it is; at the same time as I’m keeping an open mind that it might be a lab leak.’
IS U.S. COVERING ITS BACK TOO?
In A further development yesterday, Vanity Fair magazine quoted internal memos from a U.S. State Department meeting in which officials said they were explicitly told not to explore the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s gain-of-function research because it would bring unwelcome attention to U.S. government funding of it and ‘open a can of worms’.
Establishing the origins of this pandemic is crucial to averting another such global outbreak.
However, it is increasingly clear that geopolitical factors, competing views within the scientific establishment, multimillion-dollar research funds and the secrecy of the Chinese are making what is a complex and murky tale ever more complicated and murkier still.
But one question stands out: if the U.S. is partially to blame for Covid by funding risky research in Chinese labs, why is China holding back from revealing that fact?
‘The Chinese political situation is difficult for everyone involved,’ according to Dr Latham of Independent Science News.
‘That’s the origin of their caginess. If there is a perception [that the virus escaped from China], if [Bat Woman] Shi Zhengli has been soliciting money from U.S. organisations that have connections with the U.S. military, it will not look good for her, nor for the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
‘She may not be telling her bosses the reality.’
In trying to predict and prevent a global health catastrophe, did scientists accidentally open Pandora’s Box and unleash one?
Did bio-defence unwittingly become bio-attack?
Until we know the truth, we are at the mercy of the next pandemic.
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