“I can feel the fear — fear of infections,” Tian Junhua said as he gazed wide-eyed at a clump of bats clinging to the wall of a dark cave. “Because when you find the viruses, you are also most easily exposed to the viruses.” Tian, a researcher for the Wuhan Center for Disease Control who was featured in a 2019 video released by the Chinese state-owned media company SMG, described his work tracking down viruses from bats in remote caves as “a true battle, only without the smoke of gunpowder.”
Around the globe, the scientists who study the animal origins of infectious diseases are treated with similar reverence. In its documentary “Virus Hunters,” National Geographic tells the story of an American band of researchers who risk their lives in search of bats carrying Ebola in an abandoned Liberian mine shaft. “You are getting aerosolized urine, aerosolized feces, but also, if you’re killing the bats, you’re then exposed directly to their blood as well,” professor Christopher Golden says as the animals screech around him and eerie music plays in the background. The risk, it seems, is part of what makes these anti-outbreak efforts so thrilling — and the people who perform them so heroic.
As the world enters its third year ravaged by a novel coronavirus that may have originated in bats, the endeavor to learn more about SARS-CoV-2 and other pathogens like it is particularly urgent. Much of the success we have had in responding to the Covid pandemic so far has its roots in studying coronaviruses. Recent research on MERS and human cold viruses enabled scientists to develop vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 in record time, and the genetic sequencing of viruses that have jumped from animals to people has helped scientists design Covid treatments. Yet it is not at all clear that tracking down virus-infected wildlife in remote locations, to which the U.S. devotes a substantial share of research dollars, has helped us prepare for our current crisis.
Still, over the past two decades, fears of bioterrorism have increased U.S. funding for a particularly aggressive subgenre of viral surveillance that entails hunting and studying previously unknown viruses in wildlife. “Outbreak prediction,” as it’s sometimes called, pushes beyond the tracking of diseases that affect people, which public health officials have relied on for decades to understand the scope and causes of epidemics. The new viral research aims to find the most dangerous pathogens before they jump to humans. Proponents of this approach — which involves hunting viruses in remote locations as well as transporting, storing, and sometimes experimenting on the most dangerous pathogens — say it’s necessary to prevent the next outbreak.
But others warn that the ongoing pursuit of deadly viruses that have yet to infect people is unlikely to prevent infectious diseases from emerging or help us cope with them when they do. Instead, they say, there are several ways this research could set off the next pandemic — and could have, in fact, led to this one.
Yet virus hunting and related activities have somehow escaped the level of scrutiny that some biosecurity experts feel they should have. “A lab leak in people’s minds means a building and something seeping out,” said Filippa Lentzos, a social scientist at King’s College London who studies the threat posed by biological agents. “But far too little of our pandemic origin discussion has been focused on that fieldwork point. There are really, really high risks involved in this kind of research.”
Most infectious diseases that have recently emerged in humans can be traced back to wild animals. There are about 1 billion of these “zoonotic infections” each year, as well as millions of deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Fruit bats are the natural hosts of the Nipah virus, which can cause brain swelling, seizures, comas, and ultimately death in humans. The Zika virus, which causes babies to be born with very small heads and other potentially deadly birth defects, was first isolated in a rhesus monkey. MERS, the coronavirus that causes the deadly Middle East respiratory syndrome, has been traced to camels from Saudi Arabia. And HIV infected chimpanzees before it jumped species and went on to kill some 36 million people worldwide.
The SARS coronavirus, which began infecting people in southern China in 2002, also originated in animals. The spread of SARS was brought under control in 2003, at which point it was already clear that humans had been exposed through contact with masked palm civets sold in wet markets. It was more than a decade before researchers found the SARS virus in horseshoe bats living in a remote cave in China’s Yunnan province. Peter Daszak, president of a New York-based research group called EcoHealth Alliance, and Shi Zhengli, director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, were among the researchers who found the virus in bats. Daszak and Shi had worked together since at least 2014, and finding SARS in bats gave additional credence to the exhaustive sampling and cataloging of viruses they employed. By pinpointing the origin of the SARS virus, which spread from bats to civets to humans, they were able to underscore the dangers of the wildlife trade, which presents an ongoing viral threat.
But Daszak didn’t need the extra feather in his cap. By 2017, when he helped solve the SARS origin puzzle, he already had tens of millions of dollars in U.S. government grants under his belt, much of it from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense. He sat on the editorial boards of scientific journals and was advising science organizations around the world, including the U.S. Global Change Research Program and the Australian Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre for Emerging Infectious Disease. He was also a member of the WHO’s Blueprint Pathogen Prioritization Committee.
A British parasitologist who had begun his career studying frogs, Daszak went to work for a conservation group called the Wildlife Trust in 2001. The organization then focused mostly on endangered species. But Daszak, who became its director in 2010 and helped rebrand the group as EcoHealth Alliance, shifted the organization’s emphasis toward an idea known as “one health.” The concept, which has gained ground in public health circles in recent years, recognizes that the health of humans, animals, and plants is inextricably linked.
EcoHealth’s rebranding allowed it to incorporate research on how the climate crisis and other emerging environmental factors were driving disease outbreaks. Through the interdisciplinary lens of “one health,” EcoHealth Alliance began studying the ecological and health effects of oil and gas extraction in Liberia, tracing the impacts of forcing wild animals from their habitats and into greater contact with humans, which in turn opened the possibility of animal-borne infections. The group also quantified the health costs of deforestation in Malaysia, showing that chopping down trees to make room for palm oil plantations has given rise to an increase in malaria infections.
The broader framing was helpful in the search for funding too. “We go to foundations and say, ‘Look, you’ve been trying to stop the wildlife trade in China for 20 years. You’ve put all this money into this. If you have a health angle to that, it really does work,’” Daszak said in a May 2020 interview with virologist Vincent Racaniello. “That’s the argument we use.”
EcoHealth Alliance’s funding from the U.S. government, which Daszak has said makes up some 80 percent of its budget, has also grown in recent years. Since 2002, according to an Intercept analysis of public records, the organization has received more than $118 million in grants and contracts from federal agencies, $42 million of which comes from the Department of Defense. Much of that money has been awarded through programs focused not on health or ecology, however, but on the prevention of biowarfare, bioterrorism, and other misuses of pathogens.
It might seem odd that an organization focused on naturally occurring organisms would receive such funding. But it also makes a certain amount of sense, as the Wildlife Trust pointed out in a 2008 grant proposal to the NIH, which The Intercept obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. Even microbes found in wild animals could become weapons if they fell into the wrong hands, noted the proposal for the grant, titled “Risk of Viral Emergence from Bats.” The work entailed studying the Hendra and Nipah viruses. “HeV and NiV are not only novel discoveries, they are also BSL4 agents that possess several biological features that make them highly adaptable for use as bioterror agents,” the grant proposal explained, referring to biosafety level 4 laboratories that work with the most dangerous microorganisms.
A proposal for a grant that the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a division of the Defense Department, awarded EcoHealth Alliance in 2017 takes a slightly different angle. The bat coronavirus research the organization and its partners planned to conduct in Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan, and Georgia would fill a dangerous data gap on viruses, EcoHealth argued in the proposal for “Understanding the Risk of Bat-Borne Zoonotic Disease Emergence in Western Asia,” which The Intercept obtained through a separate Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. “Viral emergence, both nefarious and natural, poses a significant threat to global security,” the proposal explains. “The current regional gap in capabilities to conduct research and facilitate early detection of bat borne diseases in Western Asia severely weakens our ability to counter the threats of biological weapons of mass destruction.”
In part, the justification for harnessing the “one health” concept to defend one nation-state from another seems to be that if U.S. scientists don’t learn about these viruses, someone else will. These projects were described as efforts to make the world safer: to alert people in the surrounding area to a new disease before it hits and to create treatments and potentially vaccines that could prevent it. But in the throes of the current pandemic, the risk calculus behind this decision is coming under new scrutiny.
With more than 5 million people dead from a disease that could have been unleashed as the result of research, this scientific attempt at staving off worldwide calamity is being reappraised as a double-edged sword.
Virtually every part of the work of outbreak prediction can result in an accidental infection. Even with the best of intentions, scientists can serve as vectors for the viruses they hunt — and as a result, their work may put everyone else’s lives on the line along with their own. Seeking out animals and pathogens in areas where they might not have otherwise come into contact with people is especially risky, as is sending viruses from these locations to more densely populated urban areas such as Wuhan, where scientists sent samples of bat coronaviruses collected under a grant from the NIH. “There is immense danger when you go into remote areas in a highly intrusive fashion, directly seeking viral samples, and return those samples to laboratories where then they are tested for pandemic potential,” said Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University.
Ebright has been outspoken about the risks involved in “gain-of-function” research, in which researchers tweak viruses to make them more infectious or pathogenic. Ebright has called research that EcoHealth was conducting to enhance dangerous viruses — which The Intercept documented through materials obtained via an ongoing lawsuit with the NIH — “reckless.” But he is also concerned about the work that happens both before and after gain-of-function experiments. “Every aspect of that work plan, from beginning to end, entails risks,” he said.
The virus hunting itself is particularly perilous. The work of catching and taking biological samples from animals is inherently messy and dangerous. “Squirming, clawed and toothy animals bite and scratch during collection of body fluids. Teeth and talons easily penetrate the thin gloves required to maintain dexterity when handling fragile wildlife. And overhead, angry bats release a fine patina of virus-laden urine aerosols,” as infectious disease specialist Michael Callahan recently wrote in Politico of his virus-hunting expeditions. “The fact that researchers are not infected every time they do a field collection is a question that continues to stump us.”
“Every aspect of that work plan, from beginning to end, entails risks.”
In fact, some scientists have been infected in the course of virus hunting, including two researchers in Asia whom Callahan notes were recorded as having lab-acquired infections despite having contracted a disease when exposed to the pathogen during field collection. Because it took several days for their symptoms to appear, the researchers had already returned from their virus-hunting expedition to work in the lab by the time they realized that they were sick.
Scientists may become infected even when they’re not doing particularly dangerous experiments with pathogens, as an analysis of the spread of the Marburg virus in the Journal of Infectious Diseases made clear. The Marburg virus, which causes an often fatal hemorrhagic fever and infects bats and monkeys as well as humans, was spread through three different labs in the 1960s. Workers in the labs became infected with the virus after having direct contact with the blood, organs, and cell cultures from infected monkeys.
Even the seemingly straightforward reproduction of the virus in the lab, a step scientists often need to take before assessing its pathogenicity or analyzing its genetic makeup, entails danger, according to molecular biologist Alina Chan. “Just the act of trying to isolate and grow up the virus for studies involves making large volumes, far more than found in a bat,” said Chan, who emphasized that workers don’t need to be directly involved in producing the virus to be at risk. “The presence of a sample alone can result in accidental contamination.”
Lab workers can become infected through all sorts of routine encounters with lab animals. This was apparently the case when a researcher who worked on SARS-CoV-2 in Taiwan contracted Covid in early December 2021. The lab worker was infected in a biosafety level 3 lab that employs equipment and precautions meant to prevent such transmissions. But according to a report from Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center, she had broken several rules by failing to wear proper protective gear, handling infected mice outside biosafety cabinets, and removing her mask before the rest of her protective gear.
And while Taiwan has advanced health security measures in place — and the facility where the lab worker was recently infected was part of Taiwan’s top research institution and used state-of-the-art equipment — many other facilities do not have the latest equipment, including negative pressure systems, HEPA filters, biosafety cabinets, and sewage incinerators. And those that do have biosafety level 4 labs, which offer the greatest containment of bio-agents, are often located in urban centers like Wuhan.
Our vulnerability to bioterrorism was brought home by the anthrax-laced letters that were mailed just after 9/11, the first of which was sent less than a week after the Twin Towers fell. The handwritten phrase “Death to America” was part of what fueled suspicions that the letters, addressed to senators and members of the media, had been sent by a Muslim terrorist. Over the next few months, 22 people were infected by anthrax sent through the mail. Five of the recipients died from exposure to the bacteria. Although the letters stopped arriving within a month, their impact on the U.S. government’s approach to research on biological agents continues to this day.
In 2002, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a somewhat sleepy division of the NIH that had its roots in studying tick-borne diseases, announced that it would be receiving an extraordinary $1.5 billion funding increase. Much of the new funding would be spent defending the United States against bioterrorism, or the intentional release of dangerous viruses and other pathogens. The NIAID focused its new efforts on the most dangerous “Category A agents,” which include the bubonic plague, smallpox, viruses that cause hemorrhagic fevers, and anthrax. But the federal institute was also seeking a broader understanding of microbes and would try to genetically sequence “virtually any potential pathogens,” as NIAID Director Anthony Fauci, who began serving in that role in 1984, said at the time.
That year, some of the NIH’s new funding went to Daszak and the Wildlife Trust to study the Nipah and Hendra viruses the group had identified as “BLS4 agents.” In 2008, the NIAID provided the group with another grant to study the Nipah virus as well as bat viruses. Ultimately, the NIAID would award more than $15 million to the group.
After the anthrax attacks, additional funding to combat biological threats came from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense, which expanded the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, a division of the Army that had conducted biological weapons research in Fort Detrick, Maryland, since 1969.
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, whose mission is to counter and deter weapons of mass destruction and other emerging threats, funded EcoHealth Alliance’s bat research in western Asia and has awarded nine grants to the group to study a number of dangerous viruses and diseases, including henipaviruses in Malaysia, Rift Valley fever in South Africa, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever in Tanzania, avian influenza in Jordan, and high-risk pathogens in Liberia.
Other grants paid for the tracking of specific flu viruses that had already been transmitted through animals to cause human disease. Biodefense concerns had sparked disease surveillance in the past, including during the Korean War, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created its Epidemic Intelligence Service to track the spread of infectious diseases. But after the anthrax letters, funding was increasingly directed toward the pursuit of pathogens that had not yet infected humans.
In 2008, after conducting thousands of interviews and creating a new Chemical Biological Sciences division, the FBI announced that it had solved what it had begun calling the “Amerithrax case.” The person who sent the letters, the FBI said, was not a Muslim terrorist after all, but Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist who had worked at the Army’s biodefense laboratory in Fort Detrick and had devoted much of his career to trying to thwart bioterrorism. Ivins, who had been experiencing mental health problems, killed himself after learning that the federal government was planning to file charges against him. But even after the evidence of the external bioweapons threat faded — and the internal threat posed by researchers working on bioterrorism was made frighteningly clear — large-scale U.S. funding for biodefense projects around the world has continued.
By 2017, Daszak, Shi, and many of their colleagues had already pressed beyond studying past outbreaks into predicting future ones. The work involves mapping hotspots of potentially dangerous zoonotic diseases, trapping and sampling animals and analyzing the viruses that infect them, and then studying the viruses they find to determine which have the greatest potential to infect people. The ultimate goal is to create an open-source atlas of potential pandemic pathogens, complete with genetic sequencing information and a ranked list of the organisms that present the greatest threat.
In scope and ambition, the work is not unlike trying to predict the weather by studying individual raindrops. According to an article Daszak himself co-authored in Science, there are an estimated 631,000 to 827,000 undiscovered viruses capable of infecting humans circulating in birds and mammals — so many that it would take a global army of scientists decades to track them all down.
The U.S. Agency for International Development is another unlikely funder of viral research. Historically focused on providing economic aid to low-income countries, it began giving out grants for projects that could counter the threat of bioterrorism after 9/11, including Predict, a 10-year project launched in 2009 that would ultimately cost more than $210 million. Through the program, scientists in 35 countries collected samples from more than 160,000 bats, rodents, birds, and other animals. The work led to the identification of more than 1,100 previously unknown viruses and involved training scientists in more than 60 labs.
Predict had some clear benefits. Stephen Morse, who co-directed the first five years of the program, said that it left countries where the research took place better prepared to respond to outbreaks. “You don’t just fly in and take samples and test them using high-tech equipment,” said Morse, now a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University. “You try to work with local people to build the capacity in the countries where you’re working. And I think that’s the morally, ethically, as well as scientifically good thing to do.”
In an emailed response to questions from The Intercept, a spokesperson for USAID wrote that “USAID is building on previous efforts by expanding its global health security portfolio to help partner countries prepare for future health threats. This includes investing in risk reduction as well as discovering and understanding the risk of unknown viruses.”
While helping advance science in partner countries, such international aid is also sometimes seen as securing national security interests. As Callahan, the infectious disease physician, who has worked on global outbreaks for three federal agencies, has noted, an important part of the U.S. government’s international work on biological agents over the past decades has been securing and rooting out bioweapons in foreign labs through a program known as “cooperative threat reduction.”
After the anthrax letters, cooperative threat reduction efforts were also increased. The U.S. sent infectious disease specialists and bioweapons experts to the former Soviet Union to help repurpose bioweapons labs and retrain the scientists who work in them. U.S. biosafety experts were also dispatched to countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
Predict may have also served the similar purpose of allowing U.S. scientists to keep an eye on viral research in other countries. Yet as a predictive tool, it was of little value. Even Morse described its ability to enable scientists to anticipate and prevent disease outbreaks based on the enormous amount of data they collected as “aspirational.”
“The problem,” said Morse, “is then, how do you decide which ones to pay attention to?”
Many other scientists have pointed to the same foundational problem. Alexander Kekulé, director of the Institute of Medical Microbiology at the University of Medicine in Halle, Germany, thinks that it is important to study viruses and has spent his career doing so. But he said that no amount of data on viruses will allow scientists to anticipate how they will behave in the future. “It’s almost impossible to predict which virus will spill over and when and how,” said Kekulé. “It’s science fiction to do this. To look to see if a virus might become dangerous is so arbitrary. Why should nature follow your path?”
“To look to see if a virus might become dangerous is so arbitrary. Why should nature follow your path?”
The sheer number of potentially dangerous viruses that have yet to infect humans also makes it unlikely that a catalog of the viral universe could help create countermeasures to treat and prevent the spread of the new diseases, according to Kevin Esvelt, a biotechnologist and assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. “There are so many viruses out there that we’d be lucky to prevent a single pandemic,” said Esvelt, who points to the difficulty of deciding which of the many viruses to target. “As for vaccines, forget about it. Are we really going to infect unvaccinated volunteers with a virus that hasn’t yet infected any human and might never do so and then do it again for dozens of different pathogens?”
Dennis Carroll, who designed and led Predict, defended the program. While Carroll, who has a doctorate in biomedical research, called the criticisms about its inability to predict the viral future “legitimate,” he also said that wasn’t the real point of the program. “It’s more about forecasting than predicting,” said Carroll. “It’s fool’s gold to think that you’re going to predict which is the next virus. But you can begin forecasting where that emergence is most likely to occur,” he said, and the hope is that such information can be used to change human behaviors that might lead to an outbreak. “I probably never should have named Predict ‘Predict,’” he added.
Other researchers have observed that rapid viral evolution would quickly render any collected data obsolete. “New variants of RNA viruses appear every day,” biologist Edward C. Holmes and his colleagues wrote in Nature in 2018. “This speedy evolution means that surveys would need to be done continuously to be informative.” Holmes, a professor at the University of Sydney, dubbed the idea that scientists could prevent the next pandemic by genetically characterizing all viruses the “forecasting fallacy” and urged his fellow researchers to focus on more cost-effective approaches to mitigate disease outbreaks.
Kekulé points to the recent failure of the scientific community to anticipate the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 to underscore the futility of outbreak prediction. “It was clear that there would be a variant which is a little bit more effective,” Kekulé said. “But how would the virus do this? What is the exact mechanism? No one knew.” Similarly, the close scrutiny of the Ebola virus that followed its jump to humans in West Africa in 2013 did not enable researchers to prevent or better respond to its reemergence in 2018. And many scientists who were carefully tracking flu viruses were nevertheless surprised by the emergence of the swine flu in 2009.
But perhaps the best indicator that viral surveillance won’t prevent future pandemics is that it didn’t prevent the current one, which, as many have noted, first arose in a city that is home to multiple labs engaged in studying dangerous coronaviruses, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology. “Despite the fact that they had been conducting intensive surveillance and characterization of SARS-like coronaviruses, they failed to identify the SARS-like coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, that jumped into humans right where they were doing their studies,” said Jesse Bloom, who studies the evolution of viruses with a particular focus on the flu at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center.
Bloom, who thinks that it’s valuable to understand the diversity of viruses in nature, also acknowledges the alternate possibility: that the Wuhan Institute of Virology did know about SARS-CoV-2 and it somehow escaped from its laboratory and went on to cause the pandemic. “In either case, that particular line of research wasn’t productive,” he noted, going on to point out the problematic premise underlying the pursuit of any previously unknown dangerous virus: “Either this virus is an animal virus and it can’t actually infect humans, in which case the entire rationale for the research is undermined because the rationale for this research is to predict the next pandemic virus,” said Bloom, “or, if it is actually the next pandemic virus and you’re collecting it and bringing it back to a lab and studying it, there’s some risk that if something goes wrong, it could cause a pandemic.”
The $3.1 million grant that EcoHealth Alliance received from the NIAID in 2014 to study bat coronaviruses was also meant to anticipate and avert future outbreaks. The proposal described the project as a “predictive, proactive approach to combating the most high profile group of emerging pathogens.” Shi and five other Chinese scientists were co-investigators on the project, which involved catching bats in caves; taking samples of their blood, urine, and feces; transporting them to the Wuhan Institute of Virology; and subjecting them to various experiments to gauge the dangers they pose to humans.
The increasingly heated debate over the origins of SARS-CoV-2 has recently centered on those experiments. The Intercept has reported that under the NIH grant to study bat coronaviruses, the Wuhan Institute of Virology and EcoHealth Alliance created mutant versions of bat coronaviruses that were both more transmissible and more virulent than the original viruses. The majority of scientists we interviewed said that one experiment documented in records we obtained fit the NIH’s own definition of gain-of-function research, which had been a source of consternation within the scientific community for years before the pandemic.
But as a microbiologist named James LeDuc recognized early in 2020, all sorts of activities besides gain-of-function experiments could have led SARS-CoV-2 to leap from bats to humans. LeDuc was clearly worried about such activities when he emailed a colleague at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Yuan Zhiming, in early February of last year. As the first U.S. cases were being reported in Washington state and Wuhan was still under lockdown, LeDuc suggested that Yuan and others at the institute conduct their own investigation into whether the new coronavirus might have escaped from its main campus or the newly constructed biosafety labs, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know.
Then serving as director of the biosafety level 4 Galveston National Laboratory in Texas, LeDuc had previously worked on infectious diseases for the WHO, the CDC, and the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick — and had trained scientists in biosafety procedures when the biosafety level 4 lab opened in Wuhan. And his list of questions for Yuan demonstrated his deep knowledge of the potential perils of viral research: Where were the coronavirus stocks stored? How many people had access to them? Were any of them disgruntled? Were exhaust air filtration systems working correctly? What about autoclaves and waste stream disinfection systems? Were biological safety cabinets used and appropriately certified? Was the waste stream properly managed?
LeDuc, who did not receive a response from his colleague, remained convinced that researchers could have caused the outbreak. “It is certainly possible that a lab accident was the source of the epidemic,” he wrote to another scientist named Philip Russell in April 2020. A physician and Army major who had also worked on biodefense, Russell agreed: “I have no doubt that Zheng Li Shi is a brilliant scientist and very charming. That does not rule out the possibility that one of the many bat coronaviruses isolated in the Wuhan lab infected a technician who walked out the door. No need for engineering the virus.”
Recently released communications between the NIH and EcoHealth Alliance hint at one plausible way that virus hunters might have aided the movement of SARS-CoV-2 from animals to people. A pre-print of a paper being considered for publication in Nature, released in September, described the discovery of three coronaviruses that were more than 95 percent identical to SARS-CoV-2 — the closest relatives yet discovered — in horseshoe bats found in the wild in northern Laos. The findings were presented by a team of researchers from the Pasteur Institute and the National University of Laos, and were received by many in the scientific community, as additional evidence that the pandemic began through a natural spillover from animal hosts.
But emails between EcoHealth Alliance and the NIH, which were released via a public records request and lawsuit by the White Coat Waste Project in November, raise questions about that conclusion. While the researchers had said that they planned to sample bats only in China in their grant proposal, the emails show that the group had actually written to the NIH about plans to conduct several “free-ranging bat surveys” during field trips to Laos — where the close viral relatives of SARS-CoV-2 were found — as well as in Vietnam, Myanmar, and Cambodia. All samples were to be tested at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, according to a 2016 email Daszak sent to the NIH.
Gilles Demaneuf, a data scientist and researcher who works with the group of Covid-19 researchers known as DRASTIC — Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating Covid-19 — which has been conducting an online investigation into the possibility of a lab leak, said that the emails’ reference to sampling in Laos made him more inclined to think that the pandemic was caused by research-related work.
“There was a concerted effort to actually take some of these samples from Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and bring them to the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” said Demaneuf. “That’s a big change because now we have a direct link between Laos and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
The Intercept reached out to six of the scientists EcoHealth Alliance listed as viral sampling collaborators in its letter to the NIH, including Watthana Theppangna, who was listed as the group’s in-country contact in Laos, to get additional information about the sampling trips, like the number and dates of trips and the kind and number of animals sampled. Only one of the researchers, Dr. Veasna Duong of the Pasteur Institute in Cambodia, responded, saying that she did not have the requested information.
EcoHealth Alliance did not respond to The Intercept’s questions for this story. But Daszak did speak with Science’s Jon Cohen in November, telling him that he and his organization have broken no rules and “done nothing wrong.” On Twitter, EcoHealth Alliance insisted that it did not follow through with its plan to perform bat surveys in Laos, though it did seek and receive permission from the NIH to do so. “No work was ever conducted in Laos as a part of this collaborative research project,” the organization tweeted in November. The NIH did not answer questions for this article.
As outbreak prediction has grown from an idea into a well-funded research field, another danger has emerged. When the global hunt for potential pandemic pathogens began almost two decades ago, only a handful of people were able to create viruses from their genomic sequences. In the intervening years, technological advances have made it vastly easier to construct viruses, and now thousands of scientists can do so. The shift means that a ranked list of the most potentially destructive viruses would be available to an expanding group of people who, with little effort and expenditure, could use that information to create viruses capable of causing massive suffering and death.
Ironically, this also means that the NIAID’s funding for virus research, which ballooned because of bioterrorism fears, has inadvertently resulted in what could be a bioterror arsenal if it fell into the wrong hands.
“Creating a ranked-order list of every pandemic-capable pathogen we can find makes sense only if you assume that no one would ever dream of misuse.”
“A credible pandemic-capable virus on the level of SARS-CoV-2 is a weapon of mass destruction, one that can be assembled in a minimal lab for just a few thousand dollars in synthetic DNA and reagents,” said Esvelt, of the MIT Media Lab. While acknowledging the small possibility that the characterization and ranking of viruses that could infect humans might help address future pandemics, Esvelt believes that no benefit would be worth the possible costs.
“Creating a ranked-order list of every pandemic-capable pathogen we can find makes sense only if you assume that no one would ever dream of misuse,” he said.
Carroll, who directed Predict, acknowledged that a scientist could use the genetic sequence of a dangerous virus malevolently but said that risk already exists. “We don’t need to find some new virus in order to elevate that risk.” Even so, he recognized the more general concern. “If you go out and cavalierly begin collecting and characterizing these viruses, there’s inherent risk attached to that. And you have to be accountable for that risk.”
Given the numerous routes through which virus research can cause catastrophe, ensuring its safety requires keeping a close and constant eye on equipment, research practices, and anyone who has contact with biological samples in the field and the lab. Yet such oversight is all but impossible from afar.
Documents obtained in December by The Intercept as part of its litigation with the NIH reveal new details about EcoHealth Alliance’s monitoring of biosafety issues at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. In an April 23, 2021 letter to NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Michael Lauer, Daszak stated that such monitoring consisted of “semi-annual meetings with the lead investigator and assessments of compliance against all conditions of the award.”
Presented with Daszak’s description of its biosafety oversight, Lentzos, the biological threat researcher, said, “I don’t think that’s appropriate at all — every half a year — when you’re talking about really fast-paced, high-risk work.” She said that there should be ongoing bio-risk management as scientists design, carry out, and review research. “Formal assessments need to be regular, but, in addition, whenever unexpected results arise or any biosafety lapses occur, these need to be relayed straight away without delay.”
Lentzos also expressed concern about the NIH’s apparent lack of oversight. “It’s not clear how NIH is doing risk assessment or whether they’re completely outsourcing it to the grantees,” she said. “It seems a little bit of a free-for-all, like cowboy country.”
Indeed, more than 7,000 miles from the lab it was funding, the NIH operated at an even greater remove than EcoHealth Alliance. In April 2020, the NIH suspended the bat coronavirus grant, offering only that the “NIH does not believe that the current project outcomes align with the program goals and agency priorities,” as Lauer wrote to Daszak. At the time, the decision was condemned as being unscientific, both because President Donald Trump had ordered it and because it recognized the possibility of a lab leak, then considered by many — including Daszak — to be an outlandish conspiracy theory. Yet more than a year later, the agency was still struggling to understand what biosafety protocols had been in place at the Wuhan Institute of Virology while the agency-funded research was underway, as the recently released correspondence between Daszak and Lauer makes clear.
For months, Lauer had been asking Daszak for a series of documents, including monitoring, safety, and audit reports. And while the organization supplied many of the requested documents, it appeared unable to find several that related directly to the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s inner workings. Throughout the spring of 2021, Daszak seemed hopeful that he might persuade the NIH to reinstate the bat coronavirus grant. Its cancellation had taken a toll on EcoHealth Alliance staff, particularly Daszak himself, as he explained to Lauer in an April 25 email. “During the last 12 months we have been the subject of a growing series of horrific attacks in the press, and via online conspiracy theorists, and physically (including a white powder letter delivered to my home address).”
Daszak said he hoped that the NIH would correct course by reinstating the bat coronavirus grant — which, he reminded Lauer, could both help prevent “future spillover events” and offer “a critical opportunity for the USA to have eyes and ears on the ground in a country that has seen two coronaviruses emerge and spread globally in the past 2 decades,” as he explained in his April 25 email, concluding that “we await your decision on this suspension with great interest and remain at-the-ready to continue this work, as do our collaborators in China.”
As part of his pitch, Daszak told Lauer that EcoHealth Alliance had begun to shore up its biosafety operations in China after the bat coronavirus grant was canceled. “We have contracted with a leading lab biosafety contractor based in Southeast Asia [redacted] who has extensive experience commissioning, accrediting and auditing BSL-2,-3, and -4 labs, and has worked for over a decade at the BSL-4,” Daszak wrote in an April 23 letter to Lauer. “We will be using their services where appropriate for foreign lab subcontractees to assess lab biosafety procedures and conduct audits, including following the full reinstatement of [the bat coronavirus grant].” EcoHealth Alliance also hired someone to ensure the safety of virus hunting and other activities that take place outside the lab, writing that “we have appointed a Senior Field Veterinarian who will oversee all EcoHealth Alliance fieldwork in the region and ensure continued compliance with biosafety when conducting animal capture, sampling and sample handling.”
While the improvements in the oversight of its lab and fieldwork in China were clearly offered up to assuage any concerns that the NIH might have about reinstating the grant, the decision to bolster its biosafety practices could also be interpreted as an admission of its previous inadequacy.
It is not clear how the NIH, which had apparently never asked EcoHealth Alliance to put any of these higher-level precautions in place before, saw Daszak’s pitch. But the agency did not restore the funding for the bat coronavirus grant. And on June 11, the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services launched an audit “to determine whether: (1) the National Institutes of Health (NIH) monitored grants to EcoHealth Alliance in accordance with Federal regulations and (2) EcoHealth Alliance used and managed its NIH grant funds in accordance with Federal requirements.”
Yet on the very same day in June that the audit was launched, the NIAID awarded the second year’s funding of an even larger grant the agency had given EcoHealth in August 2020 — after the earlier grant had been terminated. A month later, Lauer sent a letter noting that he still had not received the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s “records validating expenditures specific to [the bat coronavirus grant] as well as any and all monitoring, safety, and financial reports specific to [the grant] that WIV submitted to you.” Lauer reminded Daszak that the grant terms had specified that the NIH “must have the right of access to any documents” and that the right “applies not only to awardee records, but also to subawardee records.” If a grantee doesn’t comply with the terms of a grant, it can withhold funding for other projects, Lauer noted in his letter.
The NIH does not appear to have withheld any of EcoHealth Alliance’s new funding.
The new NIAID grant, titled “Understanding Risk of Zoonotic Virus Emergence in Emerging Infectious Disease Hotspots of Southeast Asia,” provides $7.5 million for researchers to track down, sample, store, and collect viruses obtained from animals throughout Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia. The proposal, obtained by The Intercept through FOIA litigation, details much of the same work that was underway through the suspended bat virus grant. As with the previous grant, Daszak is the principal investigator.
The new grant, which is funded through 2025, seeks to identify and rank the spillover risk of the most dangerous viruses from wildlife, including bats, in remote locations. EcoHealth Alliance is also using this funding to build chimeric, or hybrid, viruses from SARS- and MERS-like bat coronaviruses, as it did under the grant that was suspended. This time, however, the scientists are using a pangolin virus rather than a bat virus to serve as the “backbone” of their chimeras.
The new grant attempts to tighten the oversight of anything that might be considered gain-of-function research. Both the NIH and EcoHealth Alliance said that work done under the canceled bat coronavirus did not qualify for review under HHS guidelines known as P3CO, which have been in place to guard against the risk posed by federally funded gain-of-function research since 2017. But under the new grant, “building chimeras based on SARS-CoV-1, SARS-CoV-2, and MERS-CoV may be subject to the DHHS P3CO Framework and must be submitted to NIAID for review and approval prior to the work commencing.” In other words, there may be a better chance that guidelines meant to safeguard against the dangers of the research will be effective — but there’s still no guarantee. The new grant also requires EcoHealth to give the NIAID detailed descriptions of its plans and the expected changes “prior to further altering the mutant viruses.”
But scientists who have been concerned about the possibility that the bat coronavirus grant may have led to the pandemic remain concerned that the research paid for through this next round of funding may involve some of the same risks. Instead of sending viral samples to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is not a partner on this project, the scientists will send the collected samples, including relatives of the Hendra virus and the Nipah virus, to the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories in Boston and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, both of which operate the highest-level biosafety labs.
“It’s good it’s not going to China now. But it doesn’t need to be brought here to my home,” said Chan, the molecular biologist, who lives in Boston. “Why don’t we just keep the virus characterization local?”
“It’s good it’s not going to China now. But it doesn’t need to be brought here to my home.”
Along with the new grant, the NIH also gave Daszak his own research center. The South East Asia Research Collaboration Hub is one of 10 Centers for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases that the NIAID created in 2020 at a cost of $82 million over five years. Some of these new projects entail potentially dangerous research. In Malaysia and Thailand, scientists are now searching for novel viruses in bats, rodents, and primates, according to the website of the CREID network. In Ethiopia, similar work is being conducted on camels and bats. In Nigeria and Sierra Leone, scientists are isolating the Lassa mammarenavirus, which causes a deadly hemorrhagic fever, and plan to ship the virus samples to a biosafety level 4 lab at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Another project, taking place in “North America,” is simply described as “Engineering of reverse genetics for SARS-CoV-2 and testing of mutant viruses in cell culture and animal models.”
In April, the NIAID also launched another network of research sites. The Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Response will give out $24 million in contracts in its first year for the study of emerging viruses of pandemic potential and SARS-CoV-2 as well as flu viruses. The NIH did not answer questions about what measures have been implemented to ensure biosafety under these new efforts.
Additional federal funding for outbreak prediction is also on the way. In October, USAID, which closed out the Predict project in 2019, announced that it would be spending $125 million to scale up the agency’s previous efforts to identify and understand unknown viral threats through a new project called Discovery & Exploration of Emerging Pathogens – Viral Zoonoses, or Deep VZN. Like Predict, Deep VZN will conduct sampling in select countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America; the project aims to strengthen the detection and characterization of previously unknown viruses and promises that the data and information it gathers will play a critical role in developing diagnostics, medicines, and vaccines. The project has already awarded a $10 million grant to Washington State University.
In an emailed statement in response to questions from The Intercept, a USAID spokesperson wrote that “USAID is working to detect and prevent future outbreaks by discovering and sequencing new viruses. These efforts help lead to better understanding of whether a new virus can infect humans, whether a human can fight off the virus, and how well the virus can replicate in humans. This information is critical to understanding whether new viruses have the potential to spillover and infect humans.” The USAID statement also said, “Our comprehensive global health security portfolio, including DEEP VZN, works to ensure systems are in place to prevent avoidable outbreaks; detect threats early; and respond rapidly and effectively when outbreaks occur” and that the agency ensures compliance with all safety protocols and procedures.
Meanwhile, Daszak and Carroll are leading an even more ambitious outbreak prediction effort. The Global Virome Project plans to find and map the genomes of more than 500,000 viruses around the world at a cost of roughly $1.2 billion. Carroll, who previously directed the NIAID’s emerging pandemic threats program, refers to the 10-year, $200 million Predict project that he oversaw as a mere “pilot project” for the new endeavor.
As with Predict, the rationale for the Global Virome Project is to track down potential pathogens so that we can prepare treatments and vaccines before the diseases emerge and “kick your door in,” as Carroll explained to Kaiser Health News in a 2020 interview. But Carroll bristles at criticism that the project is overly broad. “The work that I’m advocating isn’t about identifying and characterizing every virus on the planet,” he told The Intercept, emphasizing that the research focuses on global hotspots where viruses found in wildlife would be most likely to infect people. “It’s trying to be a lot smarter about risk and future risk.”
A 2017 State Department cable from the American Embassy in Beijing offers another reason why the U.S. government might want to invest in the project: to maintain U.S. dominance over China in the field of viral research. “Absent U.S. government leadership in GVP agenda-setting, governance, and funding the Chinese government could likely take a leading position in this potentially path breaking endeavor undermining years of USG leadership and considerable investment in this critical field of public health,” the cable states. “The Chinese government has shown strong interest in the Global Virome Project and is not shy about expressing interest in funding projects where Chinese scientists will take a lead.” Indeed, China and Thailand both launched partner virome projects before the pandemic, and the State Department cable, obtained via a public records request by U.S. Right to Know, notes that the Chinese Academy of Sciences had already allocated funding for the project. In an interview, Carroll said that both the Thai and Chinese virome projects are now “on hold.”
The scientists behind the Global Virome Project emphasize its potential to help the world prepare for future pandemics. In an email to The Intercept, Edward Rubin, a physician and geneticist who serves on the project’s board, wrote that the collection of viruses on a massive scale has already put scientists on a path to developing a universal flu vaccine and could potentially help with the development of a similar vaccine for coronaviruses: “This theoretically might be vaccine specific not only for a single coronavirus family but effective against different families of coronaviruses: SARS, MERS, COVID-19 and its variants.”
While Carroll told The Intercept that he and others are “still negotiating” possible federal support for the Global Virome Project, the 2017 State Department cable suggests that the U.S. had already begun funding the project. “Significant USG support for GVP-related research already exists, including the Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases Program, which is jointly supported by NIH, USDA and [National Science Foundation].”
Asked about the cable, Carroll said, “Further development of GVP has been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Issues of sample ownership remain to be resolved.”
Even as it was getting underway, U.S. officials saw a possible hitch in the plan. “General view is that we do not want China to take a leadership role in isolation in fear of their reluctance to share data,” Rubin wrote to his colleagues in 2017 about a gathering of international officials to discuss the Global Virome Project. Similarly, the State Department cable described the project as having several “significant challenges” and unresolved questions. “Who will own the samples that are collected from many countries? Where will they be analyzed? Will all the GVP data be freely available to the public?” the cable asked in a section titled, “Like all risky endeavors, failure is a possibility.”
While acknowledging the possibility of failure, the State Department document did not explore what that failure might look like. At the time, it might have seemed unlikely that a lack of oversight of this well-intentioned endeavor could lead to grave global consequences. And it would have been hard to accurately weigh — or even imagine — the scale of worldwide misery, death, and economic disruption that hung in the balance.
The world has shifted in other ways around this massive global undertaking. While the pandemic can make the exhaustive search for dangerous viruses seem all the more necessary, unanswered questions about the origins of SARS-CoV-2 underscore the profound implications of the biosecurity concerns voiced in the State Department cable. The Global Virome Project got its start at a time when scientists from China and the U.S. could work together in a way that felt constructive. But now, as tensions over the origins of the pandemic escalate, it’s hard to imagine such cooperation — and hard to imagine that the U.S. will ever have full access to all the viral research funded through NIH grants at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
“We’re missing the entire period of 2016 to 2019. What viruses and sequences did they find?”
Chief among the missing data are the genetic sequences of viruses the Wuhan Institute of Virology and EcoHealth Alliance collected between 2016 and 2019. A 2020 paper that Shi, Daszak, and others published in Nature, which cited the bat coronavirus grant as one of its funding sources, includes only viral samples collected through 2015. The sequences of viruses collected under the grant since then have yet to become public.
“We’re missing the entire period of 2016 to 2019. What viruses and sequences did they find?” asked Chan, who had similar questions about the projects underway through the new Centers for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases. Is there any way to ensure transparency and accountability around the viruses and information they collect?
Meanwhile, the fate of the China Virome Project, which was begun in the hopes of working in conjunction with the Global Virome Project, is unclear. Rather than collaborating on health security, the U.S. and China are now positioned to operate as competing superpowers in a biological arms race, engaged in separate efforts to hunt down the world’s most dangerous viruses.
Even the experts who see the global pursuit of the most dangerous potential pandemic pathogens as dangerous folly agree that basic research on viruses must continue. The challenge is how to do that safely — and ensure that safety measures cover all areas of research that pose risk.
The shortfalls of recent efforts to shore up the safety of viral research are now becoming clear. The U.S. instituted a carefully thought-out moratorium on gain-of-function research — but the policy specifically carved out an exemption for hunting coronaviruses. “The research funding pause would not apply to characterization or testing of naturally occurring influenza, MERS, and SARS viruses,” as the 2014 HHS document made clear. Similarly, the P3CO guidelines that HHS issued in 2017 apply only to “enhanced potential pandemic pathogens” — and not viruses that have not been altered, even though they may also be dangerous.
And as happened in the case of EcoHealth Alliance, even the best-laid policies can be evaded by powerful scientists. Daszak and Fauci, two powerful leaders in their field, were able to work together to skirt safeguards the U.S. government imposed on gain-of-function research, which might have otherwise prevented experiments that were conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, as The Intercept has previously reported.
The U.S. government does have some strict safety protocols in place for working with dangerous pathogens. Virus hunters are required to report any bites or scratches that happen during sampling and train workers in emergency response. But such rules are only as strong as whoever is enforcing them — and they may be increasingly difficult to enforce.
While countries across the globe are taking part in this research, there are no international standards for bio-risk management. Several of the scientists interviewed for the piece, including Carroll of the Global Virome Project, emphasized the urgent need for such oversight. Without it, the level of attention to the possible dangers of the work varies widely throughout the world. Some partners may not agree with the U.S. government about when such facilities should be used, as was the case with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which had a biosafety level 4 lab but did much of its work on coronaviruses through the NIAID grant in a much less protective biosafety level 2 lab.
“You can say, ‘You have to have this and this equipment in place,’ but it’s harder to ask for certain ways of operating,” said Lentzos, who added that in many countries it is difficult for scientists working on viruses to honestly discuss risk. “Some of this work is taking place in cultures where openness, transparency, and admitting mistakes is not encouraged at all. In fact, the opposite is encouraged.”
An even more vexing challenge to keeping this work safe is the persistent impulse to push past the bounds of acceptability, which can drive researchers around the world to conduct risky gain-of-function experiments or press into the world’s most remote bat caves. According to Lentzos, the pressure to transgress those norms is built into the profession of science. “You have to push the envelope,” she said. “That’s what gets recognition, not just peer recognition, but that’s what gets funding. That’s what gets publication.”
In other words, it’s simply all too human to gravitate toward the most dangerous science — just as it’s only human to have all sorts of accidents once you do.
Documents published with this article:
Documents previously published by The Intercept: