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Inside the Virus-Hunting Nonprofit at the Center of the Lab-Leak Controversy

If a shared podium with Fauci proved that Daszak had become a true player among virus hunters, it also underscored just how far he had come. For years, Peter Daszak sat at the helm of a struggling nonprofit with a mission to save manatees, promote responsible pet ownership, and celebrate threatened species. The organization, which operated under the name Wildlife Trust until 2010, was constantly on the hunt for ways to close its budget shortfalls. One year, it proposed to honor at its annual benefit a mining company operating in Liberia that was paying it to assess the risks of Ebola virus. Another idea was to seek donations from palm-oil millionaires leveling rainforests who might be interested in “cleaning up” their image.

Balding and usually clad in hiking gear, Daszak was one part salesman, one part visionary. He saw clearly that human incursions into the natural world could lead to the emergence of animal pathogens, with bats a particularly potent reservoir. Daszak was “making a bet that bats were harboring deadly viruses,” said Dr. Matthew McCarthy, an associate professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. In 2004, as a 23-year-old Harvard medical student, McCarthy followed Daszak to Cameroon to trap bats. “I left my family, my friends,” he said. “It was a very powerful thing for people like me, going into the most remote parts of the world. I was taken by him, hook, line, and sinker.”

The bioterror attacks of 2001, in which letters dusted with anthrax spores were sent through the U.S. mail, coupled with the first SARS coronavirus outbreak in China the following year, would bring money for the study of lethal natural pathogens pouring into federal agencies. In 2003, the NIAID got an eye-popping $1.7 billion for research to defend against bioterrorism.

Daszak’s office on Manhattan’s Far West Side didn’t have a laboratory. The closest bat colonies were in Central Park. But he cultivated an affiliation with Shi Zhengli, a Chinese scientist who would rise to become the director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases. Slight and sophisticated with an international education, Shi became known in China as “bat woman” for her fearless exploration of their habitats. Dazsak’s alliance with her would open China’s bat caves to him.

In 2005, after conducting field research in four locations in China, Daszak and Shi coauthored their first paper together, which established that horseshoe bats were a likely reservoir for SARS-like coronaviruses. They would go on to collaborate on 17 papers. In 2013, they reported their discovery that a SARS-like bat coronavirus, which Shi had been the first to successfully isolate in a lab, might be able to infect human cells without first jumping to an intermediate animal. “[Peter] respected her,” said the former EcoHealth Alliance staffer. “In the view of everyone, they were doing great work for the world.” Their partnership gave Daszak an almost proprietary sense of the bat caves in Yunnan province, which he would later refer to in a grant proposal as “our field test sites.”

As Daszak’s staff and Shi’s graduate students intermingled, traveling between Wuhan and Manhattan, the exchange flourished. When Shi visited New York, the EcoHealth staff selected a restaurant for a celebratory dinner with great care. “Zhengli is not one to stand on formality; she makes dumplings by hand with her students in the lab!!” Daszak’s chief of staff wrote to another employee. “She got her PhD in France, loves red wine, and likes good food above formality.”

By 2009, bats had turned into big money. That September, USAID awarded a $75 million grant called PREDICT to four organizations, including Daszak’s. It was “the most comprehensive zoonotic virus surveillance project in the world,” USAID stated, and its purpose was to identify and predict viral emergence, in part by sampling and testing bats and other wildlife in remote locations.

The $18 million over five years awarded to what was then Wildlife Trust was a “game-changer,” Daszak told his staff in an ecstatic email sharing the news. “I want to take this opportunity (despite 7 hours of drinking champagne – literally!) to thank all of you for your support.”

The money transformed the ragged nonprofit. It increased its budget by half, ending a yearslong operating loss; began a long-deferred rebranding, which led to the new name EcoHealth Alliance; and spruced up its headquarters, even fixing its chronically broken air conditioner. Over the course of the grant, it allocated $1.1 million to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, USAID recently acknowledged in a letter to Congress.

When Dr. Maureen Miller, an infectious disease epidemiologist, arrived at EcoHealth Alliance in 2014, she landed in an environment that she found to be toxic and secretive. Closed-door meetings were the norm. The senior leadership constituted an unwelcoming “old boys network.” She soon came to believe that she was hired “because they needed a senior-level woman,” she said, adding, “I was excluded from pretty much everything.”

She came aboard shortly before the organization’s PREDICT grant was renewed for five more years. It was also the year the NIH approved Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence, the $3.7 million grant that would come back to haunt Fauci. Miller said she was “lured by the idea of being able to create a pandemic-threats warning system.”

Miller got to work creating a surveillance strategy to detect zoonotic virus spillover. Chinese villagers living near bat caves in Southern Yunnan province would have their blood tested for antibodies to a SARS-like coronavirus, then answer questionnaires to determine if certain behaviors had led them to be exposed. It was a “biological and behavioral warning system,” Miller explained.