EcoHealth Alliance Statement Correcting Inaccuracies in Testimony to be Delivered Before the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Pandemic on March 8th, 2023
March 8 2023 – Nicholas Wade, Jamie Metzl, and Dr. Robert Redfield will be giving testimony to the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic on March 8th. Their statements have been made available to the public at https://docs.house.gov/Committee/Calendar/ByEvent.aspx?EventID=115426 .
These statements contain several assertions about the work of the EcoHealth Alliance that are inaccurate. The purpose of this statement is to set the record straight.
- Mr. Wade claims (p. 2) that “evidence has been building” for the lab leak hypothesis of COVID-19 origins. He cites “three of the strongest pieces of evidence,” including the DEFUSE proposal submitted to the Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which he claims point toward a laboratory origin of COVID-19, yet correctly states that this work was not funded. That much is correct: the proposal was not funded and the work was never done, therefore it cannot have played a role in the origin of COVID-19.
- Mr. Wade incorrectly asserts that researchers may have done much of the experimentation before applying for the DARPA DEFUSE grant. This is simply not true. The DEFUSE proposal outlined a multi-year project with experiments that required a substantial budget, coordination among multiple labs, and significant development as the work would progress. It was therefore not done prior to the proposal being submitted.
- Mr. Wade’s other “strongest pieces of evidence” for a laboratory origin also fail to stand up to scrutiny. First, he claims that the emergence of COVID-19 in Wuhan, the home of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, is “evidence” for laboratory origin, rather than just a coincidence – but he provides no data to demonstrate that his assumption is correct. Second, he evinces the furin cleavage site (FCS) in the SARS-COV-2 virus as evidence of a laboratory origin based on coding sequences that are otherwise unknown in coronaviruses. Yet virologists who have assessed this evidence do not rule out an evolutionary origin of the FCS in SARS-COV-2. (Robert F. Garry, “SARS-COV-2 furin cleavage site was not engineered,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, September 29, 2022; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2211107119 ) Indeed, on page 4 of his testimony he admits that the case he makes is only “circumstantial.”
- Mr. Wade states (p. 10) that the WHO origins investigation team was not provided “with a single piece of evidence favoring natural origin.” This is not true. In fact, the WHO origins report contains pages upon pages of new data on testing of animals, people, and viral sequences, as well as critical information that the Huanan Seafood Market did indeed have evidence of animals being sold there that are known coronavirus reservoirs. (https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/origins-of-the-virus )
- Mr. Wade states (p. 11) that the NIH funding for the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) was ‘channeled through an intermediary, EcoHealth Alliance’. EcoHealth Alliance did not ‘channel funding’, nor act as an ‘intermediary’. This is not how science funding works. EcoHealth applied for funds jointly with the WIV to do research in China. NIH reviewed the proposal through multiple levels for review, including biosafety requirements, and a State Dept assessment of the eligibility of WIV to receive funding and do this work. NIH then approved the work and required EcoHealth Alliance to subcontract funds to WIV, as is normal for all foreign recipients of NIH funding.
- Mr. Wade states (p.12) that NIH failed to prevent work at BSL-2 safety level. This is because the rules for this work, both in China and the USA, are that BSL-2 is the appropriate and legally correct level because these viruses are wildlife viruses not known to infect people. In fact, Mr. Wade self-corrects by stating it “was not” against the rules to conduct this work at BSL-2.
- DARPA proposal: Mr. Metzl, like Mr. Wade, claims (p. 4) that the DEFUSE proposal submitted to the Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is ‘evidence’ of a laboratory origin of COVID-19. But, as noted above, this was not funded and the work was never done, therefore it cannot have played a role in the origin of COVID-19. Mr. Metzl is also incorrect to state (p. 5) that none of the people associated with the DARPA proposal disclosed the information in the grant proposal. In fact, the proposal was submitted to the US Federal government’s Department of Defense, which had access to its contents since 2018.
- Mr. Metzl suggests (p. 5) that the primary rationale for the Feb 2020 Lancet letter was to ‘protect our Chinese counterparts’. This is not true. As was clearly stated in the Lancet letter, the goal was to raise awareness of unwarranted attacks on scientists who, at the very early stages of the pandemic, before it had spread globally, were working to try and stop its spread. (https://doi.org/10.1016.S0140-6736(20)30418-9 )
- Mr. Metzl says (p. 6) that there was no sufficient idea of what work was being done in China with U.S. government funding, that there was inadequate oversight, and that there was a lack of transparency regarding the exact experiments that were done. This is not an accurate characterization of how EHA’s research in China was conducted. He cites the recent Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (OIG) audit of NIH and EHA as evidence for his claim but doesn’t seem to have read beyond the headline.
The OIG did not find significant issues with EHA’s grant oversight and compliance, summarizing its findings as follows: “EcoHealth had steps in place to conduct risk assessments of its subrecipients, and also had standardized checklists to document routine monitoring of its subrecipients.” (See DHHS OIG audit report A-05-21-00025, available at https://oig.hhs.gov/reports-and-publications .)
In addition, on the question of transparency regarding what work was done in China, EHA routinely shared all unpublished data from its research in China with the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases program office in progress reports, as required by the regular process for NIH oversight of grantee activities. Genetic sequences relevant to our bat coronavirus research were routinely deposited with GenBank. Even after the EHA’s R01 grant covering the work in China was terminated in April 2020, EHA continued to file annual reports with the NIH to provide unpublished data.
In addition, EHA submitted analyses of our NIH-supported work for publication in leading international peer-reviewed journals. Those dozens of publications have been the principal way that EHA made the results of our research in China available to the scientific community for independent analysis and review.
- WHO mission: As Nicholas Wade did, Mr. Metzl also misrepresents the degree to which the WHO Commission appointed to investigate COVID-19 origins was able to obtain data relevant to assessing the natural origins hypothesis. (See item 2 on page 2 above.)
Dr. Robert Redfield
Dr. Redfield asserts (p.2) that COVID-19 originated from a lab leak caused by Gain-of-Function research. The NIH defines “gain-of-function” as research that will create new viral strains with “enhanced transmissibility or virulence” for viruses that are already (1) “likely highly transmissible and likely capable of wide and uncontrollable spread in human populations;” and (2) “likely highly virulent and likely to cause significant morbidity and/or mortality in humans.” Because the SARS-related research conducted by EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology dealt with bat coronaviruses that had never been shown to infect people, let alone cause significant morbidity and/or mortality in humans, by definition it was not gain-of-function research. This was confirmed by NIH on July 7, 2016, in a letter to EcoHealth Alliance made public via FoIA requests stating “NIAID is in agreement that the work proposed … is not subject to the GoF research funding pause” (italics added).
Thus, the evidence shows that the research being conducted in China and the US on coronaviruses prior to COVID-19 was reviewed, assessed, and judged not to be ‘gain-of-function’ and likely to generate information of value for understanding and addressing threats due to emerging viruses. Rather than being a risk, this research was considered critical in learning how to prevent – not cause – an outbreak. Furthermore, despite Dr. Redfield’s unsupported assertion, there is no evidence that any lab in the world had SARS-CoV-2 itself, or a close enough relative, to allow a lab leak to lead to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The fact is that the bat coronavirus research conducted by EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology could not have started the pandemic. As then NIH Director Francis Collins said in a public statement on October 20, 2021:
“NIH wants to set the record straight on NIH-supported research to understand naturally occurring bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, funded through a subaward from NIH grantee EcoHealth Alliance. Analysis of published genomic data and other documents from the grantee demonstrate that the naturally occurring bat coronaviruses studied under the NIH grant are genetically far distant from SARS-CoV-2 and could not possibly have caused the COVID-19 pandemic. Any claims to the contrary are demonstrably false.” (Italics added, https://www.nih.gov/about-nih/who-we-are/nih-director/statements/statement-misinformation-about-sars-cov-2-origins ).
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