EcoHealth Alliance Letter to the Editor Re: Kelly Laco’s Daily Mail Article

May 9, 2023 – In the article, “GOP fury grows over Biden’s reckless renewal of $2 million grant to EcoHealth Alliance”, Kelly Laco repeats several baseless assertions and uncritically presents claims surrounding the origins of COVID-19. 

Laco quotes a statement by Representative Morgan Griffith (R-VA) that “it is widely understood COVID likely came out of a lab incident in Wuhan”, but this is simply not true. There are now over a dozen peer-reviewed scientific papers analyzing primary data that suggest instead that COVID-19 emerged through a wildlife-to-human spillover via the wildlife trade. This body of evidence includes hundreds of coronavirus strains circulating in bats in Southeast Asia (including some very closely related to SARS-CoV-2) spilling over to an estimated 66,000 people annually; a wildlife market where the first cluster of cases occurred, with evidence for multiple spillover from animals to people; and evidence from Chinese scientists in the WHO origins report and from surveys and now genetic sequencing to demonstrate that the wildlife, including raccoon dogs, known to carry coronaviruses were being sold live in that market. 

Ms. Laco, in describing the conclusions made by the FBI and the Department of Energy that COVID-19 originated from a lab accident, fails to mention that these conclusions were made with low or moderate confidence, meaning that the information obtained – which has not been made available to the public – is not reliable enough to make any sort of definitive judgment. Of the remaining 17 US intelligence agencies, 13 have made no conclusions, whereas 4 intelligence agencies conclude a ‘natural’ origin via the wildlife trade. A more balanced assessment of this question would have made it clear that the question of COVID-19 origins still requires further research before a definitive conclusion can be offered.  

Representative Griffith is also quoted as saying that Ecohealth Alliance “…has “refused to cooperate with Congress.” He seems to be unaware that EcoHealth Alliance is currently cooperating with three Congressional committees. EcoHealth Alliance is sharing documents and responding to written questions from the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, and the House Energy & Commerce Committee, on which Representative Griffith himself sits. 

It is critically important to study questions of disease spillover risk in emerging infectious disease hotspots rigorously, to be better prepared to deal with the next pandemic. Zoonotic coronaviruses represent a significant threat to global health, as demonstrated by the emergence of SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2. Bats were identified as the wildlife reservoirs of SARS-CoV by EcoHealth Alliance, and since then, we have published hundreds of novel SARS-related CoV sequences from wildlife in China and across Southeast Asia. Our work has demonstrated that bats in this region harbor an extraordinary diversity of SARSr-CoVs. Our surveillance studies found serological evidence of prior bat-SARSr-CoV infections in people in rural China before the COVID-19 outbreak. This critical work – supported by the U. S. taxpayer – will generate knowledge that will enable the global community to prevent the next pandemic, thus keeping American citizens safer and more secure.