Two years after the covid-19 pandemic broke out in Wuhan, China, troubling revelations continue to emerge about U.S.-government-sponsored research there. New documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit released last month showed that the U.S.-contracted nonprofit organization EcoHealth Alliance worked in Wuhan to manipulate bat coronaviruses, making them more dangerous to humans. EcoHealth maintains this was not “gain of function” research. But on Wednesday, the National Institutes of Health reported to Congress in a letter that EcoHealth had failed to properly disclose how this research resulted in viruses that could infect humans more easily, which should have triggered an official review to determine whether it was “gain of function.”
The U.S. Agency for International Development gave $65 million to EcoHealth over the years as part of USAID’s $200 million PREDICT program, which aimed to give advance warning of future pandemics. USAID continues to ignore congressional requests for documents and information about its extensive collaborations with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. And yet, USAID saw no problem in announcing this month that it intends to spend an additional $125 million to expand its work hunting viruses and bringing them back to labs all over the world.
Called the “DEEP VZN” project, USAID will partner with a consortium of universities and public health organizations, led by Washington State University, to drastically expand the work of discovering new viruses in the wild to study how they might spill over into humans in the future. The goal, according to Washington State, is to collect 800,000 samples in Asia, Africa and Latin America over five years, to identify 8,000 to 12,000 new viruses, including some in the same family as SARS-CoV-2.
Not so fast, says Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), the ranking Republican on the Senate appropriations state and foreign operations subcommittee. In an interview, Graham told me he would stop the funding until USAID provides Congress with transparency about its past work on virus-hunting and more information about this new project. Graham is not against doing the research in principle, he said.
“Logically, it makes sense to inventory threats we have out there and get ahead of it. But in the process of trying to find out how to stop a pandemic, are you creating one?” he told me. “We need to slow down and get a better accounting of where the money’s going to go.”
A USAID spokesperson told me there were no plans to include China in the DEEP VZN project, which seems obvious because China has shut down international access to its labs. The spokesperson also said the program would not include the EcoHealth Alliance, will have a sound biosafety plan with strict compliance mechanisms and will exclude “gain of function” research.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) told me he will work with USAID to ensure safety, transparency and accountability, “especially if it expands its research on zoonotic diseases in the future to include China — where I would expect congressional consultation.”
Some biosafety experts argue that restarting this research before overhauling the global system for managing the risks — or even knowing how it might have been related to the covid-19 outbreak — is dangerous. Rutgers University molecular biologist and biosafety expert Richard Ebright told me the money would be better spent on monitoring and responding to outbreaks rather than trying to predict them.
“USAID’s new program of pathogen surveillance in wildlife doubles down on its previous failed bet and could cause a next pandemic,” he said. “It is foolhardy to expand these high-risk, low-benefit activities.”
It’s too easy to dismiss calls for oversight of scientists as “anti-science.” One of the lessons we must learn from the current crisis is that none of our public institutions are self-policing. If USAID wants to spend $125 million more U.S. taxpayer money to fund risky virus research abroad, the least it can do is be transparent about how the previous $200 million was spent.
Even if the current pandemic was not the result of a lab accident, what’s clear is that this research carries risks that the agencies and contractors conducting it refuse to acknowledge, much less mitigate. Expanding this research before putting better biosafety oversight measures in place could be disastrous.
And what if this research was related to the outbreak? Shouldn’t we focus on finding that out first? We must do more to determine how this pandemic started — before we potentially create the conditions for sparking another one.