American on WHO team probing Covid-19 origins in China denies his ‘dangerous research’ caused pandemic

By Ji Siqi

A notable scientist who was the lone American citizen on a World Health Organization coronavirus fact-finding mission in China three years ago refuted allegations that his “dangerous research” collaborating with a lab in Wuhan caused the pandemic.

Grilled by US lawmakers at a House select subcommittee hearing in Washington on Wednesday, Peter Daszak, president of New York-based EcoHealth Alliance, said its work in China “provided direct public health benefits to the American people”.

“Viruses that we identified in bats in China were used by US labs during the Covid pandemic to test drugs, vaccines and therapies that saved countless lives,” said Daszak, a disease ecologist.

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Before Wednesday’s hearing, the House panel released a report claiming EcoHealth Alliance funded “dangerous research” at the Wuhan Institute of Virology using US government grants without sufficient oversight.

Amid high tensions between Washington and Beijing, the Wuhan institute has felt the glare of scrutiny in recent years, with some US politicians and intelligence agencies claiming the pandemic resulted from the coronavirus escaping from its laboratory.

Chinese officials have repeatedly and vehemently denied the allegation.

Having received funding worth millions of US dollars from the American government-backed National Institutes of Health since 2014, EcoHealth Alliance worked with the Wuhan institute for years before the outbreak.

The collaboration included research on understanding the risk of a novel bat virus spilling into humans in China. That research has come under the spotlight.

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Daszak in his testimony stated there was “incredibly substantial evidence that this virus emerged through so-called natural zoonotic origins” – namely, the spread of germs between animals and people.

To date, there remains no direct verifiable or scientific evidence that Covid-19 originated in a lab, the scientist added.

“If we are serious about preventing pandemics, we will have no choice but to work collaboratively with governments in those places where they will most likely begin,” he said.

“Supporting global health research, rather than trying to shut it down, will guarantee the best outcomes for the American people.”

This was the case, Daszak continued, “because it allows us rapid access to information at the earliest stages of a pandemic so we can act quickly and prevent what begins over there from affecting us here at home”.

Peter Daszak (front passenger seat), a member of a World Health Organization team tasked with investigating the origins of Covid-19, arriving at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, on February 3, 2021. Photo: Reuters

But some US lawmakers, especially Republicans, urged on Wednesday that Daszak and his research group be barred from receiving any federal funds and face criminal investigation.

Brad Wenstrup, an Ohio Republican and the select subcommittee’s chairman, asserted that Daszak’s research “puts the world at the risk of a pandemic” and is “a threat to national security”.

“It’s nice if you can do work in the country where the greatest risk is and we can do the surveillance there,” the congressman said.

“But the problem is you’re in a country that is not trustable and not accountable and not cooperative with the [World Health Organization]. In this case, we have a problem. That’s not where you should be.”

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Meanwhile, Democrats on the panel questioned “weaknesses” in how EcoHealth used its funding, while saying the US should not “throw out the baby with the bathwater” in terms of future scientific research collaboration with non-US entities.

At present, no evidence has yet substantiated allegations that EcoHealth Alliance used US taxpayer dollars to fund work involved in the creation of the pandemic, said Raul Ruiz, a California Democrat and the subcommittee’s ranking member.

Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, said the US “must focus our attention on the future and how we can best protect all Americans from and against future pandemics”.

“Sowing distrust in the scientific and medical communities is not a way to accomplish this goal,” Dingell added.

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