Updated: Jan 12, 2022
This is a tale of two grant proposals, one very special cleavage site, and a plan to vaccinate bats in caves.
Two pieces of breaking news emerged on Wednesday that further vindicated early theories about the novel coronavirus’ origins—and further implicated the role U.S. taxpayers, via the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and EcoHealth Alliance, might have played in funding it.
First, as Vanity Fair reports (the story has also been picked up by others), the NIH wrote to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce that EcoHealth Alliance had “enhance[d] a bat coronavirus to become potentially more infectious to humans… in partnership with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.” That partnership was funded by the NIH.
Second, the NIH also wrote that EcoHealth Alliance had violated at least one of the terms of its NIH grant by failing to report “research [that had] increased the viral growth of a pathogen by tenfold” (Vanity Fair). EcoHealth was also two years late in reporting its findings to the NIH: the report that revealed these offenses, due in 2019, was filed in August 2021.
As the United States’ medical research agency, the NIH are also the world’s largest public funder of biomedical research, doling out some $32 billion per year in grants and other investments. EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit viral research organization headed by Peter Daszak, is one of the NIH’s grantees and current liaison with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. EcoHealth isn’t a government agency, but it’s funded in part by government agencies like the NIH—meaning it’s funded in part by taxpayers like you.
In 2018, EcoHealth received a $7.5 million NIH grant for purposes of establishing a partnership with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. During 2018 and 2019, two experiments conducted under that partnership and conducted at the Wuhan Institute lab-engineered wild-type bat coronaviruses in order to enhance pathogenesis (the rate at which pathogens multiply). Results showed that the engineered virus, called a chimera virus, caused infected mice to become “sicker than those infected with the [wild-type] bat coronavirus” (Source: Science.org).
In their letter to Congress on 20 October, the NIH claimed that when they issued EcoHealth’s grant, they had determined that, since neither the wild nor chimera viruses were meant to infect humans, the proposed research did not meet their designation of “gain of function research.”
This is strange for three reasons. First, the NIH had no need to make such a qualification at the time of funding. Yes, a moratorium was placed on gain of function research in 2014—but that moratorium was rescinded in December of 2017. EcoHealth’s grant was issued in 2018; and the above experiments were conducted between 2018 and 2019. At the time of issuance, the NIH wouldn’t have needed to make sure EcoHealth’s proposed experiments didn’t involve gain of function research. It was—just barely—legal.
Second, while the experiments infected mice with engineered bat coronaviruses, these were “humanized mice”. Humanized mice, which carry functioning human genes, tissues, or cells, are the norm in biomedical research. The reason for this is simple: the research conducted on humanized mice is meant to approximate the results that would occur if the same research were conducted on humans.
So: the NIH alleges that the research conducted on humanized mice was not gain-of-function research because it involved viruses that were not meant to be transmissible to humans. That leaves the question as to why the research was conducted on humanized mice—which are used specifically to produce results that would be replicable in humans—to begin with.
If you’re thinking that perhaps the humanized mice, being so common, were simply the only mice that the researchers happened to have lying around, know that the experiments also involved a group of “batified mice,” which, as their name suggests, are mice that carry functioning bat genes, tissues, or cells. If the researchers were merely interested in making their viruses more transmissible to bats—or thought their viruses couldn’t be transmitted to humans—why did they use both batified and humanized mice?
Third, the same year that the NIH awarded the grant sponsoring EcoHealth’s partnership with the Wuhan Institute, EcoHealth issued a very similar sounding grant proposal to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Therein, EcoHealth requested $14 million for purposes of “partnering with the Wuhan Institute of Virology and constructing SARS-related bat coronaviruses” engineered with “’human-specific cleavage sites,’” called furin cleavage sites, “as a way to ‘evaluate growth potential’ of the pathogens” (Source: Vanity Fair; leaked documents: DRASTIC Research).
This is important, because the high pathogenesis rate of SARS-CoV-2 has since been attributed to the rare and mysterious furin cleavage site located on its spike protein. EcoHealth’s DARPA proposal also included a moonshot “plan to ‘vaccinate’ wild bats in caves against coronaviruses” using novel recombinant spike proteins (Source: Taiwan News).
The proposal was turned down by DARPA on the grounds that it “failed to fully address the risks of gain of function research” (Vanity Fair).
In other words, EcoHealth applied for a DARPA grant to conduct research—involving, in the first place, engineering viruses with the same cleavage site unique to SARS-CoV-2 and credited for its transmissibility; and, in the second, vaccinating bats with recombinant spike protein titers. This research, according to DARPA, constituted gain of function research; and EcoHealth’s proposal was rejected for failing to adequately attend to the risks of that research. That same year, EcoHealth submitted what sounds like the same proposal to the NIH, which the NIH has retroactively claimed it did not consider gain of function research (I have not located any contemporaneous documents substantiating this claim). Unlike DARPA, the NIH accepted EcoHealth’s proposal; and their grant funded at least two Wuhan Institute experiments whereby humanized mice exposed to lab-engineered coronaviruses became sicker than humanized mice exposed to wild bat coronaviruses.
The engineered virus also enhanced pathogenesis tenfold—something that EcoHealth was meant to report immediately to the NIH and did not.
The same year the experiments were conducted, U.S. science diplomats visiting the Wuhan Institute issued two cables to the State Department, alerting them to unsafe laboratory practices. The cables were damning. One warned “that the lab’s work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic,” according to the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin. In a longer piece in Politico, Rogin adds that Chinese lab workers had told diplomats that “they didn’t have enough properly trained technicians to safely operate their BSL-4 [Biosecurity Level 4] lab.” The diplomats “also warned that the [Wuhan] researchers had found new bat coronaviruses [that] could easily infect human cells, and which used the same cellular route that had been used by the original SARS coronavirus” (emphasis added).
Only in April 2020 were these cables recovered, prompting a public outcry that led the NIH to revoke the grant sponsoring EcoHealth Alliance’s partnership with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The grant was quietly reinstated four months later.
Since the NIH released its 20 October report to Congress, it has scrubbed any definition of gain of function research from its website, which until last week identified gain of function research as “a type of research that modifies a biological agent so that it confers new or enhanced activity to that agent.” The page now contains a new paragraph in place of the former, detailing a new type of research called “ePPP Research,” whose overwrought description looks as though it could have been lifted from the cutting room floor of Armando Iannucci’s Death of Stalin:
“On limited occasions,” the paragraph reads, “when justified by compelling public health need and conducted in very high biosecurity laboratories, NIH has supported certain research that may be reasonably anticipated to create, transfer or use potential pandemic pathogens resulting from the enhancement of a pathogen’s transmissibility and/or virulence in humans. The U.S. Government and the Department of Health and Human Services define such research as enhanced potential pandemic pathogen (ePPP) research.” (There is no record of the U.S. Government and Department of Health and Human Services officially defining anything of the sort prior to last week.)
A brief aside—and at the risk of improving the U.S. government’s capacity for deception—it’s when you oversell the obfuscation that it becomes obvious. If you find yourself equivocating for more than three sentences or using a great many unsubstantiated referents, everyone knows you’re lying. Be better.
It remains unclear the extent to which Anthony Fauci, disgraced NIH director and widely considered by himself to be Science, knew about the research being conducted at the Wuhan Institute—or when he knew it. Although tempting, it’s important not to use one bombastic career bureaucrat as a scapegoat for what is clearly a series of ongoing, multi-institutional (and multi-national) failures. It would be comforting if we could blame this cascade of criminal incompetence on Anthony Fauci. It would also be deceptive and dangerous. The ineptitudes and incentives that led, first, to a mistake; then, to a cover-up; and finally, to a buffoonishly totalitarian attempt to mask the cover-up—leaving in its wake mounting illness, inflation, and international tensions—are beyond systemic.
If our partnership with the Wuhan Institute is an attempt to keep our eye on China’s bioengineering capacity, it’s also funding China’s bioengineering capacity. Our entire relationship with the Chinese government needs to be reevaluated, and the trembling concessions it receives from the international community reconsidered. At the same time, we can reward the innovation and ingenuity of the Chinese people by encouraging immigration, recruiting businesses to our shores, and showing the Chinese Communist Party that the consequence of abusing its people and stealing their capital is the loss of those people and that capital to friendlier nations.
That means becoming a friendlier nation, ourselves. It means casting away many of the Soviet-style tools we’ve picked up over the course of our dealings with the Chinese Communist Party in favor of more courageous measures, like admitting mistakes and accepting critique. It means not blaming one class of people—whether Trump voters or “neoliberal globalists”—for a virus. It means accepting the physical, emotional, and economic risks of living in a plural society, because the alternative is simply not worth living in at all.
Our refusal to confront the virus’ origins is likely prolonging its spread and causing even newer, more effective treatments to evade us. It’s time to ask questions again.