Media pressure on Wuhan lab-linked scientist grows after he was once oft-cited voice decrying lab leak theory

For more than a year, one of the most-cited voices dispelling the notion COVID-19 leaked from a Chinese lab has been Peter Daszak, head of the EcoHealth Alliance research organization.

While an authority on bat coronaviruses, the scientist was hardly an unbiased source of information. His nonprofit funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology for years through grants from the National Institutes of Health. Despite – or perhaps because – of that, the British-born American was the sole representative from the United States on the World Health Organization commission in China that investigated the virus’ origins this year – it concluded the lab theory was “extremely unlikely.”

But now, with revelations that the EcoHealth Alliance conducted “gain of function” research – which involves modifying viruses to make them more infectious for study purposes – on coronaviruses before 2019 at the Wuhan lab, Daszak is facing increased pressure to spill what he knows. The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post editorial boards this week called for Daszak to be hauled in front of Congress.

Peter Daszak, a member of the World Health Organisation (WHO) team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), walks at a lakeside at a hotel in Wuhan, Hubei province, China February 3, 2021. Picture taken February 3, 2021. REUTERS/Aly Song

Peter Daszak, a member of the World Health Organisation (WHO) team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), walks at a lakeside at a hotel in Wuhan, Hubei province, China February 3, 2021. Picture taken February 3, 2021. REUTERS/Aly Song
(REUTERS/Aly Song)

“Mr. Daszak has publicly dismissed the lab-leak theory while organizing scientists behind the scenes to rally against it. He and key subordinates should share all documents related to the WIV and speak under oath about their work,” the Wall Street Journal wrote. “This should be followed by a comprehensive investigation into the federal process that led to Mr. Daszak’s outfit and the WIV being rewarded taxpayer dollars.”

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The Post laid out a series of “unanswered questions” by Daszak, his relationship with the lab, and his promotion of “gain of function” research.

“Why did he not disclose his 2018 proposal to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for research on bat coronaviruses with the WIV and others, which called for engineering a modification onto spike proteins of chimeric viruses that would make them infect human cells in the way the pandemic strain did? What does he know about the databases of viruses that WIV took offline in 2019 and never brought back? Does he know what research the WIV may have done on its own, during or after their collaboration? What was being done at WIV in the months before the pandemic?” the Post wrote.

“Mr. Daszak must answer these questions before Congress. His grants were federal funds, and it is entirely appropriate for Congress to insist on accountability and transparency. He might also help the world understand what really happened in Wuhan,” the Post wrote.

Fox News contributor Dr. Marty Makary said there’s a “99.9% chance” the coronavirus leaked from the Wuhan lab and slammed what he called a medical oligarchy unchecked by the press.

“We have a small group of medical oligarchs appointed by the media because off their ability to schmooze the press and self declare themselves as the exclusive authorities on science, and the media has fallen for it, and that’s why the lab-leak hypothesis was undermined and downplayed and minimized for so long,” he told Fox News Digital.

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The harsh editorials are a far cry from last year, when Daszak was a major voice claiming the virus had natural origins as the media initially dismissed the lab connection as a fringe and even racist conspiracy theory. Some reporters even acknowledged later that the fact Republicans were pushing it played into why they cast it aside.

Daszak appeared in a Washington Post fact-check video – where he praised China’s transparency – that concluded the leak theory was “doubtful,” a “60 Minutes” piece where he said the lab theory had no evidence, and was cited by Facebook fact-checking partner Science Feedback in a February 2020 post headlined, “Scientific evidence indicates virus that causes COVID-19 infection is of natural origin, not the result of human engineering.” 

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Last year, he penned a Guardian op-ed assailing “conspiracy theorists” for blaming a lab leak and was cited in a CNN article headlined, “How did coronavirus break out? Theories abound as researchers race to solve genetic detective story,” where he said he was “very confident” that the virus originated naturally. He was also quoted in an NBC News story about “conspiracy theories” involving the lab. NPR cited Daszak in an article last year – without noting his  association with the lab in question – writing, “Virus researchers say there is virtually no chance that the new coronavirus was released as result of a laboratory accident in China or anywhere else.”

“It will be interesting to see if the media still treats Daszak as an authority on these touchy subjects and if anyone will correct the record on previous reporting,” journalist Drew Holden told Fox News Digital. 

“Now that we know about this conflict, does NPR still stand by their reporting from April 2020 that cites Daszak to claim that the lab leak hypothesis is a ‘conspiracy theory’? In retrospect, do Nature and NPR, who both had detailed interviews with Daszak about the importance of funding this type of controversial research, think they gave a fair and honest accounting of the situation, considering Daszak’s organization had violated NIH protocols on the subject?”

Peter Daszak, a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), waves as he leaves a hotel in Wuhan, Hubei province, China February 10, 2021. REUTERS/Aly Song

Peter Daszak, a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), waves as he leaves a hotel in Wuhan, Hubei province, China February 10, 2021. REUTERS/Aly Song
(REUTERS/Aly Song)

Published emails also showed Daszak orchestrated the widely cited February 2020 letter in The Lancet from 27 scientists who “strongly condemn[ed] conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” it did not disclose to readers that Daszak’s group had funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan lab, and at least three of those signers later stated a laboratory accident merited consideration.

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The letter stated at the time, “We declare no competing interests.”

Dr. Nicole Saphier, a Fox News contributor, told Fox News Digital that anything Daszak had to say regarding the lab should be disregarded over his conflict of interest.

“Dr Daszak’s involvement in all commentary regarding NIH funding and gain of function research and even the origin of the coronavirus completely breaches medical and scientific and ethical conflicts of interest,” she told Fox News Digital, calling the letter he spearheaded in The Lancet “completely self-serving.” “And any of what he put forth should be completely neglected from anyone’s opinion. Unfortunately, it swayed Dr. [Anthony] Fauci and the American mainstream media.”

Indeed, Fauci also was heavily cited last year knocking down the lab-leak theory, although he’s since backtracked slightly and said it was always a possibility. Published emails showed Daszak thanking Fauci in April 2020 for his public comments knocking down the notion from then-President Donald Trump and others; CNN gleefully reported at one point, “Anthony Fauci just crushed Donald Trump’s theory on the origins of the coronavirus.”

Much has changed since 2020. Authoritative voices like former Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield have espoused the lab theory. State Department investigators have said there is scant evidence supporting the natural origin notion. Media outlets that once dismissed the theory outright have reconsidered for numerous reasons, among them the remarkable contagiousness of the virus, revelations about sick researchers with COVID-like symptoms in late 2019, and known security concerns at the Wuhan lab.

Many scientists continue to believe the virus originated naturally, pointing to the proximity of Wuhan wet markets and precedence of animal-borne coronaviruses. However, a letter last week about Daszak’s outfit’s research reignited interest in the possibility that mankind brought the deadly plague upon itself.

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Last week, House Oversight Committee Republicans released a letter saying the NIH had confirmed that EcoHealth had conducted “gain of function” experimentation on bat coronaviruses. Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease that gave grant money to Daszak’s group, has emphatically denied any U.S. money went toward the risky research, with little media scrutiny of his remarks.

In some instances, outlets like CNN outright cheered Fauci on as he clashed with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., over questions about the the research and any U.S. involvement.

Whether or not what EcoHealth was doing came under the definition of “gain of function” is complex. As The Dispatch put it Wednesday, it comes down to a “disagreement over genome sequencing, human ACE2 receptors, and the National Institutes of Health’s grantmaking and sub-award process.” 

The NIH acknowledged, however, in the letter to Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., that a “limited experiment” was conducted in order to test if “spike proteins from naturally occurring bat coronaviruses circulating in China were capable of binding to the human ACE2 receptor in a mouse model.” 

The letter states the laboratory mice infected with the modified bat virus “became sicker” than mice that were given the unmodified bat virus.

Peter Daszak was featured in media fact-checks and Facebook knocking down the Wuhan lab-leak theory.

Peter Daszak was featured in media fact-checks and Facebook knocking down the Wuhan lab-leak theory.

“EcoHealth failed to report this finding right away, as was required by the terms of the grant. EcoHealth is being notified that they have five days from today to submit to NIH any and all unpublished data from the experiments and work conducted under this award,” the letter stated.

Saphier said Fauci may be correct that EcoHealth didn’t say it would do that in its initial grant application, but it “did happen.”

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“It would behoove Dr. Fauci and others to admit that, and then they can move forward, saying, ‘In the future, we will have more oversight to ensure these things are not happening,” she said.

Daszak was quoted in a 2015 Nature report discussing the benefits of such research. In a 2019 interview with virologist Vincent Racaniello, Daszak discussed the ease of manipulating coronaviruses for the purposes of vaccine development. Racaniello told Just The News he believed Daszak was describing gain-of-function research.

“Coronaviruses — you can manipulate them in the lab pretty easily,” he said. “Spike protein drives a lot of what happen with coronavirus, in zoonotic risk. So you can get the sequence, you can build the protein, and we work a lot with Ralph Baric at UNC to do this. Insert into the backbone of another virus and do some work in the lab. So you can get more predictive when you find a sequence. You’ve got this diversity. Now the logical progression for vaccines is, if you are going to develop a vaccine for SARS, people are going to use pandemic SARS, but let’s insert some of these other things and get a better vaccine.”

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Makary slammed gain of function research as old-fashioned in a world where scientists can obtain the genetic sequencing of a virus in “20 minutes” and ripped Daszak as being part of a scientific elite stifling dissent. The downplaying of the lab-leak theory was not limited to just the media last year, as Big Tech giants Facebook and Google also worked to suppress its spread.

“This sort of selective canceling of open ideas is a broader trend in the scientific community and Dr. Daszak was a key part of that narrative,” Makary said.

Daszak was featured on “60 Minutes” again this year, following his return from China. While he was sympathetically treated in 2020 in the wake of the Trump administration cutting his group’s funding – he’s being “being undercut by pandemic politics”, Scott Pelley said – Lesley Stahl grilled him in 2021 after he returned from his WHO trip to China.

“You’re just taking their word for it,” she said, when he recounted asking lab officials about its conditions while admitting Chinese government officials were present.

“Well, what else can we do?” he asked. “There’s a limit to what you can do and we went right up to that limit. We asked them tough questions. They weren’t vetted in advance. And the answers they gave, we found to be believable – correct and convincing.”

“You sit in a room with people who are scientists and you know what a scientific statement is and you know what a political statement is,” he later added. “We had no problem distinguishing between the two.”

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Fox News’ Andrew Mark Miller contributed to this report.

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