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

If the podium joint with Fauci proves that Daszak has become a real player among virus hunters, it also confirms how far he has come. For years, Peter Daszak has sat at the head of a nonprofit organization that struggles with the mission of saving manatees, promoting responsible pet ownership, and celebrating endangered species. The organization, which operated under the Wildlife Trust until 2010, was constantly looking for ways to fill its budget shortfalls. One year, she suggested honoring a mining company operating in Liberia in their annual benefits, and she was paying them for an Ebola risk assessment. Another idea was to seek donations from palm oil millionaires to settle the rainforest who might be interested in “cleaning up” their image.

Bald and usually wearing hiking gear, Daszak was one part salesman, one part visionary. He clearly saw that human incursions into the natural world could give rise to animal pathogens, with bats as a particularly powerful reservoir. Dr. Matthew McCarthy, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York, said Daszak was “betting that bats harbor deadly viruses.” In 2004, as a 23-year-old Harvard student, McCarthy followed Daszak to Cameroon to hunt bats. “I left my family, my friends,” he said. “It was a very powerful thing for people like me, going to the most remote parts of the world. He took me, and a hook, and a string, and a diver.”

The biological terrorist attacks of 2001, in which letters dusted with anthrax spores were sent through the US mail, along with the first outbreak of the SARS coronavirus in China the following year, would bring in money to study the deadly natural pathogen pouring into federal agencies. In 2003, the Netherlands Institute received $1.7 billion for its research to defend against bioterrorism.

Daszak’s westernmost office in Manhattan did not have a laboratory. The earliest bat colonies were in Central Park. But he struck up a relationship with Shi Jingli, a Chinese scientist who would rise to become director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology for Emerging Infectious Diseases. Young, well-developed and with an international education, Shi became known in China as the “bat woman” for her daring exploration of her habitats. Daszak’s alliance with her will open the Chinese Bat Caves to him.

In 2005, after conducting field research at four sites in China, Daszak and Shi co-authored the first paper together, which demonstrated that horseshoe bats were a potential reservoir for SARS-like coronaviruses. They will continue to collaborate on 17 papers. In 2013, they reported their discovery that the SARS-like bat coronavirus, which Shi was the first to successfully isolated in the lab, might be able to infect human cells without first jumping to an intermediate animal. “[Peter] said the former EcoHealth Alliance employee. “From everyone’s point of view, they were doing an amazing job for the world.” Their partnership gave Daszak a semi-proprietary feel to the bat caves of Yunnan Province, which he would later refer to in the grant proposal as “Our Field Test Sites.”

As Daszak employees and Shi’s graduate students mingled, traveling between Wuhan and Manhattan, the exchange boomed. When Shi visited New York, the staff of EcoHealth chose a restaurant for a festive dinner with great care. “Zhengli is not the one standing up for formality; she makes dumplings by hand with her students in the lab!!” Daszak’s Chief of Staff wrote to another employee. “She’s got her PhD from France, she loves red wine, and she loves good food above formalities.”

By 2009, bats had turned into big money. In September of that year, USAID awarded a $75 million grant called PREDICT to four organizations, including Daszak’s. USAID said it was “the world’s most comprehensive zoonotic virus surveillance project,” the purpose of which was to identify and predict the emergence of the virus, in part by sampling and testing bats and other wildlife in remote locations.

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

Transform the torn nonprofit organization. It increased its budget by half, ending an operating loss that lasted for years; The long-awaited rebranding process has begun, resulting in the new name EcoHealth Alliance; And it renovated its headquarters, even repairing a chronically malfunctioning air conditioner. Over the course of the grant, $1.1 million was allocated to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the US Agency for International Development recently acknowledged in a letter to Congress.

When Dr. Maureen Miller, an infectious disease epidemiologist, arrived at the EcoHealth Alliance in 2014, she landed in an environment that she found toxic and clandestine. Closed meetings were the norm. The senior leadership formed an unwelcome Senior Boy Network. She quickly thought she was hired “because they needed a high-ranking woman,” she said, adding, “She was left out of just about everything.”

I got on board shortly before the organization’s PREDICT scholarship was renewed for another five years. This was also the year that the National Institutes of Health agreed to understand the risks of emerging bat coronavirus, the $3.7 million grant that will go back to haunt Fauci. Miller said she was “caught with the idea of ​​being able to create a pandemic threat warning system.”

Miller worked on developing a surveillance strategy to detect the spread of the animal virus. Chinese villagers living near bat caves in southern Yunnan province will have their blood tested for antibodies to the SARS-like virus, and then answer questionnaires to determine if certain behaviors have led to their exposure. It was a “biological and behavioral warning system,” Miller explained.

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