Inside the virus-hunting nonprofit at the center of the lab leak controversy


While a shared podium with Fauci proved Daszak had become a true player among virus hunters, it also underscored how far he’s come. For years, Peter Daszak headed up a struggling nonprofit with a mission to save manatees, promote responsible pet ownership, and celebrate endangered species. The organization, which operated as the Wildlife Trust until 2010, was constantly looking for ways to make up for its budget shortfalls. One year, she offered to honor with her annual profit a mining company operating in Liberia that paid her to assess the risks of the Ebola virus. Another idea was to seek donations from palm oil millionaires leveling rainforests who might be interested in “cleaning up” their image.

Balding and usually clad in hiking gear, Daszak was both a salesman and a visionary. He saw clearly that human incursions into the natural world could lead to the emergence of animal pathogens, bats being a particularly potent reservoir. Daszak “was betting that bats harbor deadly viruses,” said Dr. Matthew McCarthy, associate professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. In 2004, as a 23-year-old Harvard medical student, McCarthy followed Daszak to Cameroon to trap bats. “I left my family, my friends,” he said. “It was a very powerful thing for people like me to go to the most remote parts of the world. I was caught by it, hook, line and sinker.

The 2001 bioterrorist attacks, in which letters sprinkled with anthrax spores were sent through the US Post Office, coupled with the first SARS coronavirus outbreak in China the following year, would bring in money for the study deadly natural pathogens pouring into federal agencies. In 2003, NIAID received $1.7 billion for research to defend against bioterrorism.

Daszak’s office on Manhattan’s Far West Side did not have a lab. The closest bat colonies were in Central Park. But he cultivated an affiliation with Shi Zhengli, a Chinese scientist who would become the director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Light-hearted and sophisticated with an international education, Shi became known in China as the “Bat Woman” for her fearless exploration of their habitats. Dazsak’s alliance with her would open the bat caves of China to him.

In 2005, after conducting field research in four locations in China, Daszak and Shi co-authored their first paper together, which established that horseshoe bats were a probable reservoir for SARS-like coronaviruses. They would go on to collaborate on 17 articles. In 2013, they reported their discovery that a SARS-like bat coronavirus, which Shi had been the first to successfully isolate in a lab, might be able to infect human cells without first switching to a intermediate animal. “[Peter] respected her,” the former EcoHealth Alliance staffer said. “Everyone agreed they were doing a great job for the world.” Their partnership gave Daszak an almost exclusive sense of bat caves in Yunnan Province, which he would later refer to in a grant proposal as “our field test sites.”

As Daszak staff and Shi graduate students mingled, traveling between Wuhan and Manhattan, the exchange flourished. When Shi traveled to New York, EcoHealth staff carefully selected a restaurant for a celebratory dinner. “Zhengli is not one to stick to formality; she makes dumplings by hand with her students in the lab!! Daszak’s chief of staff wrote to another employee. “She got her doctorate in France, loves red wine and likes good food above formality.”

By 2009, bats had turned into big bucks. In September, USAID awarded a $75 million grant called PREDICT to four organizations, including Daszak’s. It was the “world’s most comprehensive zoonotic virus surveillance project,” USAID said, and its goal was to identify and predict viral emergence, in part by sampling and testing bats. mice and other wild animals in remote locations.

The $18 million over five years given to what was then Wildlife Trust was a “game changer,” Daszak told his staff in an ecstatic email sharing the news. “I want to take this opportunity (despite 7 hours of champagne to drink – literally!) to thank you all for your support.”

The money turned the nonprofit organization to shreds. It increased its budget by half, ending a year-long operating loss; began a long-delayed rebranding, which led to the new name EcoHealth Alliance; and beautified its headquarters, even fixing its chronically broken air conditioner. During the grant, he allocated $1.1 million to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, USAID recently recognized in a letter to Congress.

When infectious disease epidemiologist Dr. Maureen Miller arrived at EcoHealth Alliance in 2014, she landed in an environment she found toxic and secretive. Closed meetings were the norm. Senior management was an unwelcoming “old boy network”. She soon came to believe she was hired ‘because they needed a high-level woman’, she said, adding, ‘I was shut out of almost everything.’

She arrived shortly before the organization’s PREDICT grant was renewed for five years. It was also the year the NIH approved Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence, the $3.7 million grant that would come back to haunt Fauci. Miller said she was “excited by the idea of ​​being able to create a pandemic threat alert system.”

Miller got to work creating a surveillance strategy to detect spillovers of zoonotic viruses. Chinese villagers living near bat caves in southern Yunnan province would have their blood tested for antibodies to a SARS-like coronavirus, then answer questionnaires to determine whether certain behaviors had caused them to be exposed. It was a “biological and behavioral warning system,” Miller explained.


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