EcoHealth Alliance’s Response to Recent Allegations

June 3, 2024 – If you are reading this, you have likely heard some of the allegations about EcoHealth Alliance’s coronavirus research. These focus on our work in China, which was designed to try to understand why that region is an emerging disease hotspot and how SARS, H5N1 high path avian flu, and COVID-19 originated. Over the past four years, as we’ve all lived through a global coronavirus pandemic that originated in China and its aftermath, our work has become politicized, with negative narratives amplified. EcoHealth Alliance strongly refutes these allegations. We have provided dozens of statements to the press to show that they are patently false, but in a difficult political landscape, these false narratives find fertile ground. We believe that a comprehensive review of the facts and evidence will help people understand the value of our work, and realize that allegations about our work and our management of grants are baseless and without merit.

Whether you are a long-time supporter of EHA or a recent newcomer who discovered us through the current news cycle, we hope you will take the time to review our responses to the many false claims and allegations below. This is a long document, and we hope you’ll bear with us; we are being as open and transparent as possible and aim to provide you with the information and facts, with citations and references to source material, to make up your own mind.

“Lab Leak” Theory

There is much being said about the lab leak theory—the theory that COVID-19 is a “man-made” virus that originated from a laboratory, either purposefully or accidentally. While many Americans believe this to be proven, this simply reflects its tireless iterations in the press, often with unfounded and sweeping generalizations, and without any credible supporting scientific evidence.

And, while there may be the occasional scientist who has agreed to go on record giving credibility to this theory, the fact is that most of the scientific community does not support the lab leak theory. Species to species transmission, i.e., zoonotic disease spillover, remains by far the most likely genesis, as supported by a growing body of scientific evidence1—it was most likely transmitted from infected animals in the wildlife farms and markets of China to its first human hosts, in a manner similar to the Ebola, SARS, MERS, and avian flu outbreaks in recent years.

In fact, while there is no evidence that COVID-19 came from a laboratory, there is substantial evidence that it didn’t. The bat coronavirus research conducted by EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology could not have started the pandemic; as then-NIH Director Frances Collins said in a public statement on October 20, 2021:

“NIH wants to set the record straight on NIH-supported research to understand naturally occuring 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 studies under the NIH grant are genetically far distant from SARS-CoV-2 and could not have possibly caused the COVID-19 pandemic. Any claims to the contrary are demonstrably false.”2

“The closest known relative to SARS-CoV-2 is only around 96 percent similar; to put this into context, humans and chimps are around 99 percent similar, demonstrating the significant differences even at this similarity.”–Office of the Director of National Intelligence3

We understand that the current narrative is a seductive one for those trying to make sense of the years of loss and chaos caused by the COVID-19 pandemic; researchers studying bat coronaviruses at the epicenter of a global outbreak seem like culpable suspects. However, while there is no evidence that COVID-19 came from a laboratory, there is substantial evidence that it originated from the wildlife farms and markets throughout Southeast Asia and China, including Wuhan. There are now well over a dozen peer-reviewed scientific papers in some of the world’s highest impact scientific journals, by researchers not linked to EcoHealth Alliance, demonstrating the following:

  • There is a large diversity of SARS-related coronaviruses in bats in Southeast Asia, and particularly in China.
  • The closest related viruses to SARS-CoV-2 (the cause of COVID-19) are from bats in countries adjacent to China, or within China.
  • The wildlife farms and markets in China had reached an industrial scale just prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, employing 14 million people in China alone by 2016.
  • We now know that live wild animals of the species known to harbor coronaviruses were being shipped into the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan prior to the outbreak.
  • There is substantial epidemiological evidence demonstrating the first human cases were from people in the wild animal market in Wuhan, not at the labs that are miles away.
  • Analysis of the genetics of SARS-CoV-2 points to an origin in the wild animal market in Wuhan, and does not support genetic engineering.

The citations for each of these research findings are available in a summary paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.4

The fact is, while most of the world has been blissfully unaware of terms like zoonotic disease spillover, EcoHealth Alliance has devoted itself, for decades, to studying exactly that. We were positioned in Wuhan because China was long considered a hotspot for emerging diseases, based on a variety of factors: the co-existence of large bat and human populations, the extensive wildlife trade network, and the proliferation of wet markets, wherein a variety of live animals, both wild and farmed, were kept and slaughtered in close proximity to each other.5

EcoHealth’s presence in Wuhan at that time has been misused to suggest our complicity in creating COVID-19; rather, it is proof of our prescience in predicting the emergence of disease. In the 15 years prior to the COVID outbreak, our scientists repeatedly stated that a bat-origin coronavirus originating in the wildlife farms and markets of China was at a high risk of becoming a pandemic. EcoHealth Alliance President Dr. Peter Daszak sounded this alarm on 60 Minutes interview, filmed almost 20 years ago: “What worries me the most is that we’re going to miss the next emerging disease, that we’re going to suddenly find a SARS virus that moves from one part of the planet to another, wiping people out as it goes along.”67

While it was unfortunate that our research was not able to prevent COVID-19 from happening, it was able to provide a lot of data and information that was used to test the COVID-19 vaccines, drugs, and treatments that saved millions of lives, both in the U.S. and globally, during the pandemic.

In our field, there is a term known as the Prevention Paradox; it posits that you will never know the extent of the pandemic you have successfully prevented. We do, however, know the costs of the COVID-19 pandemic, in both dollars and lives, and now that a highly pathogenic strain of avian flu is circulating the world, with evidence of transmission between multiple species—we’d like nothing more than to get back to the work of preventing the next pandemic.

Gain of Function

Many people insist that EcoHealth Alliance conducted gain of function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. That is categorically untrue. The phrase “gain-of-function” has a very specific definition when applied to virological research. This is governed by Department of Health and Human Services rules8 to oversee research that would genetically modify viruses, and might, in some cases, enable viruses that already are known to infect people to have “enhanced transmissibility or virulence” in humans.9

EHA and its subawardee, Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), were studying bat coronaviruses that were never shown to be capable of infecting humans; in fact, the degree of difference between SARS-CoV-2 and the closest bat coronavirus under study is about the same difference between human and chimp DNA. Therefore, according to this definition, EHA and its subawardee, Wuhan Institute of Virology, were not conducting gain of function research; this was confirmed by a letter from NIH to EHA dated July 7, 2016, after reviewing our proposed research.10

EcoHealth Alliance’s work is “Smart Surveillance”

EcoHealth Alliance’s work has been criticized by some as involving unnecessary risks and without direct benefits to public health. Neither claim is true. In fact, EcoHealth Alliance’s mission is to try to understand why viruses emerge, and to work with communities in the places they originate, to help reduce the risk of them emerging. Our scientists work in emerging disease hotspots, with wildlife farmers and hunters, in markets and bat caves, according to the highest standards of field biosafety.

This work, known as “Smart Surveillance” research, entails using an evidence-based approach to conduct biosurveillance of people, wildlife, and livestock in regions considered to be the frontline of potential pandemics. Because most new outbreaks have origins in wildlife or livestock, these regions are usually areas where there is a high volume of potentially risky animal-human interfaces, such as places where rapid development has decimated animal habitats, or there is frequent handling of wildlife for trade or consumption. Taking samples from both humans and animals at these hotspots helps us understand the presence and movement of viruses, and to monitor risks of larger outbreaks.

EcoHealth Alliance is a leader in setting biosafety field standards and has even authored the first evidence-based field safety manual. This guide provides guidance on safe handling of wildlife and livestock, no matter the species or locale.

Surveillance and sampling programs have proven helpful for disease outbreak forecasting and risk reduction. And in the case of outbreaks, samples from such programs are used to create vaccines, drugs, and treatments.

Allegations about a “Late Progress Report”

There have been attempts to spin an allegation about a late progress report on an NIH grant into a conspiracy to hide the results of our research.

Nothing could be further, or more pedestrian, from the truth. Here are the facts:

EHA attempted to upload its Year 5 report into the NIH system in July 2019, ahead of the September deadline; this was intended to be the final report closing out a five-year grant.

However, the grant was renewed on July 24, 2019, well in advance of September, and the NIH system locked EHA out from submitting a Year 5 report at that point. NIH did not follow up with a request for this report, despite EHA being in frequent communication with grants management staff at the time. The fact that the new award was granted, and work was allowed to commence, suggested to EHA that they were in compliance.

The next communication that EHA received from NIH was in April 2020, notifying us of  President Trump’s decision, mid-press conference, to terminate the grant. EHA did not receive any notification about this missing report at all until July 23, 2021, at which point we were able to get into the system to submit the report—but only with considerable effort by NIH staff to circumvent the system’s lockout.

There has been a lot of discussion in some media outlets about this report, insinuating that it contained information that EHA was trying to hide. In fact, the Year 5 report contains dozens of pages of information that organizations have to file about their research results, and adds little to what was already published in the Year 4 report, in our renewal application that NIH read in 2018, and in the many scientific paper that EHA  has already published in peer review journals.

In terms of information related to the experiment in question, an investigation by the US Government Accountability Office found that EHA attempted to report on its experimental findings ahead of the deadline, in April 2018. The report also found that while some laboratory mice became sicker from one of the bat coronaviruses under experiment at WIV, the difference was not statistically significant and there was disagreement that the experimental results showed clear evidence of viral growth.11

Suspension and Proposed Debarment

Shortly after the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic hearing on May 1, 2024, in which Republican members repeatedly stated they were recommending EcoHealth Alliance for debarment, the Department of Health and Human Services suspended EHA from receiving federal funds while awaiting a debarment hearing. The official reason for this decision was that EcoHealth Alliance “lacks present responsibility” to manage federal funds, based largely on the allegations made by the SSCP.

EHA will contest debarment vigorously, with substantial evidence to refute each of the allegations and to demonstrate that we are a good steward of federal funding, with a 25-year track record of high quality results, and continued federal support. We eagerly await the chance to present our case and the strong evidence in our favor, and it’s important to remember that we have not so far been given an opportunity to do this, either with the SSCP or the HHS. There has been a rush to judgment, with no due process. 

In the meantime, we believe our track record of federal grants management speaks for itself. EHA has been a good steward of federal funding for around 25 years, with a stellar track record of world-leading scientific research, and hundreds of papers in leading scientific journals. These papers cover wide-ranging topics such as the positive impact of reforestation on public health; the effect of climate change on disease-spreading insects; and how to predict the likelihood of emerging diseases crossing into US borders via trade and travel. This work has direct benefit to the American people, e.g. by allowing us to be better prepared for H5N1 high path avian flu, West Nile virus and other emerging diseases.

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

Much has been made of NIH’s Dr. David Morens’ use of personal emails to communicate with, among others, staff at EHA. What is clear, if the bulk of the FOIA’d emails are read, is that the emails do not show communications about research or any official NIH business. In fact, Dr. Morens has never had any direct managerial responsibility for any of EHA’s funding, and has never had any role in deciding if EHA should, or should not, receive funding.

Over 30,000 pages of emails have been made available to the SSCP. Despite this volume of information, the same few quotes are being circulated in the press, and none of these are about the origins of COVID-19 or any inappropriate activity by EcoHealth Alliance. In fact, we encourage you to read all of these emails, and see for yourself that these represent a group of scientists highly concerned about the political attacks on EcoHealth Alliance’s research, and on science in general. Many of them are personal discussions about the terrible security threats that EcoHealth Alliance staff have been put through.

Noncompliance with Investigations

There have been accusations that EHA has not complied with federal investigations. Despite many assertions to the contrary, the facts do not support these allegations. We have complied with myriad bipartisan requests for information, and over the last few years, we estimate that approximately 15 million pages of EcoHealth Alliance data — including emails, documents, financial records, and audit materials — has been made public for review. (This is in addition to the record of our research findings available to all in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.)

EHA has worked closely with the National Institutes of Health, the Government Accountability Office, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, three committees in the Congress, and the Office of Inspector-General (OIG) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide data on COVID origins, or to ensure that EcoHealth Alliance research was in compliance with all relevant regulations. The NIH, GAO, and DHHS OIG have made recommendations for improving oversight, all of which were implemented by EHA, with alacrity. We have even created new staff positions just to ensure that EHA—and all subawardees—are working under the highest levels of openness and transparency. In January 2023, the OIG concluded an 18-month long audit of EHA compliance with NIH grants and found that EHA has systems in place to provide grant oversight and compliance. In October 2023, NIH’s Division of Financial Advisory Services further concluded that EHA is in full compliance with oversight issues.

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  8. Gain of Function definition valid between October 17, 2014 through 2016: P3CO rules, valid from 2017 onwards: ↩︎
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