Statement Regarding Inaccuracies in Reporting on USDA Research

JULY 26, 2023 – In the Washington Times article, “Senators challenge USDA to detail spending to group that funded Wuhan lab”, Stephen Dinan uncritically repeats claims made by a group of US Senators. These statements are misleading and are based on false assumptions.

Mr. Dinan and the Senators quoted in the article suggest that a grant EcoHealth Alliance received from USDA’s National Wildlife Research Center to study the H5N1 avian influenza in Mexico could somehow have links to the origins of COVID-19. But H5N1 is a flu virus, and COVID-19 is caused by SARS-CoV-2 – a coronavirus. These two viruses are genetically and evolutionarily distinct: to suggest that surveillance work done on a flu virus in Mexico in 2009 would have anything to do with a coronavirus outbreak in China ten years later reflects a basic misunderstanding of virology. The research conducted for the NWRC grant was done entirely in Mexico and had no connection with subsequent research conducted in China.   

Mr. Dinan also raises questions about EcoHealth Alliance’s relationship with the Global Virome Project (GVP), which is characterized as a “private organization,” and repeats the claim that “…the Chinese and Thai governments promised financial support to the GVP.” This is not true. The Chinese government made a commitment to support similar research in China, not to provide financial support to the Global Virome Project. The Thai government ultimately conducted surveillance research related to the GVP, with support from USAID. International scientific collaborations of this sort are essential to preventing the next pandemic. It is only through strong international scientific relationships that proactive, robust surveillance work can be done on viruses of concern. The discussions and travel that Mr. Dinan refers to were approved activities for the PREDICT project; after that project ended, the GVP was set up as an independent 501(c)(3) organization to continue efforts to focus on preventing pandemics.   

Finally, contrary to Mr. Dinan’s assertion, EcoHealth Alliance does not publish the journal EcoHealth. This journal is a publication of the Springer Nature group, a widely respected international publishing house responsible for a wide range of important scientific journals. Work conducted by EcoHealth Alliance staff is limited to managing editorial activities in collaboration with the Springer Nature editorial office. Members of the editorial review board serve on a voluntary basis without compensation. The claim that it would represent a conflict of interest for USDA researchers to serve in this capacity demonstrates a misunderstanding of how science operates. The system of voluntary peer review is a key pillar of global scientific collaboration. Having unpaid reviewers who are experts in their fields contributing to the peer review process ensures that science conducted at home and abroad is held to the highest possible standard. It is normal for scientists employed by the federal government to engage in the review of scientific articles within their field. Indeed, the ethics guidance for USDA scientists states: “…science is a collaborative profession. Hence, science, as both a profession of the employee and as a mission of an agency, often requires close interaction with non-Federal individuals and entities. Our scientists must interact closely with other members of the scientific community, both inside and outside the Federal Government, in order to attain and maintain their professional standing and reputation as scientists.”  (Further detail on the ethics guidelines can be found here).