Interior Department Collaborated with EcoHealth Alliance on COVID-19 Bat Study

Interior Department Collaborated with EcoHealth Alliance on COVID-19 Bat Study

  • July 5, 2023
After using federal funds for bat research at Wuhan lab, the pandemic’s likely origin, EcoHealth sought to study whether COVID would infect bats in US

Documents obtained by government watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust reveal that as the pandemic raged in 2020, federal agencies collaborated in the U.S. with EcoHealth Alliance (EHA) to investigate transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, between humans and bats. EHA has also been linked to government-funded studies involving bats and coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in Wuhan, China where the virus was first detected.

On Friday, June 23, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) issued an assessment from the US Intelligence Community (IC) stating, “SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, probably emerged and infected humans through an initial small-scale exposure.” Further, the ODNI document included the assessment of one IC element “that the first human infection with SARS-CoV-2 most likely was the result of a laboratory-associated incident, probably involving experimentation, animal handling, or sampling by the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”

With tragic irony, the U.S. study titled “Assessing the Risks Posed by SARS-CoV-2 in and via North American Bats—Decision Framing and Rapid Risk Assessment (” was concerned with the possibility that humans could give SARS-CoV-2 to bats and bats would in turn spread the infection back to humans. It was led by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in coordination with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, both component agencies of the Department of the Interior. However, EcoHealth’s fingerprints can be seen at key points throughout the document. For example, one author of the study is Kevin J. Olival, EcoHealth Alliance vice president for research. Additionally, a member of the “expert panel” for the study was Jonathan Epstein, EcoHealth Alliance vice president for science and outreach.

The significance of the expert panel for this study cannot be overstated. The study acknowledges, “Ideally, we would obtain parameter estimates from empirical data and associated mathematical models. Because these information are unavailable and time is of the essence for decision makers, we aim to use an expert panel …”  In short, the subjective experience of the experts is apparently being substituted for the gathering of empirical data for purposes of the study at hand. The measure is understandable since, that early in the pandemic, there weren’t enough samples for a more data-driven approach. Even so, EHA has made it difficult to take it at its word. As The Wall Street Journal has reported, “The NIH has repeatedly rapped the outfit for failing to monitor its partners and to comply with its grant terms.”

EHA led the way in claiming that the “lab-leak” explanation for COVID-19’s origin was a “conspiracy theory.” EcoHealth president Peter Daszak co-authored a 2020 letter in The Lancet condemning those who proposed it, while failing to mention EcoHealth’s extensive ties to the WIV. But by the time The Lancet printed an addendum disclosing the relationship, the media were helping “to amplify Daszak’s message and to silence scientific and public debate,” according to journalist Paul Thacker. Since then, EHA has been no more helpful in the search for the cause of the pandemic. According to The Wall Street Journal, “The NIH told the House Oversight Committee that it ‘has requested on two occasions that [EcoHealth Alliance] provide NIH the laboratory notebooks and original electronic files from the research conducted at WIV. To date, WIV has not provided these records.’”

“EcoHealth’s track record doesn’t inspire confidence,” said Protect the Public’s Trust Director Michael Chamberlain. “And here we have another instance of the U.S. government relying on this group – and during a consequential phase of a pandemic. The scandal plagued organization tried – and for a while succeeded – to move investigators’ and media focus away from the Wuhan lab where it was closely involved in research. As we unearth more EHA ties to the federal government, the question is why the federal government has downplayed the organization’s apparent reporting violations and how the public can have any confidence that it is deserving of taxpayer funds.”