In an absolutely wild story published this week, Vanity Fair contributor Katherine Eban follows Peter Daszak, the president of the nonprofit non-governmental organization EcoHealth Alliance, and the group’s risky (albeit government-sponsored) work in the United States and China studying how to identify viruses that could jump from animals to humans in order to prevent a global pandemic.

Drawing on 100,000 leaked documents from Manhattan-based EcoHealth Alliance and interviews with 33 sources, Eban painstakingly traces how the once obscure nonprofit accidentally found itself suspected of starting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Helmed by Daszak, EcoHealth Alliance started out, according to the story, as “a struggling nonprofit with a mission to save manatees, promote responsible pet ownership, and celebrate threatened species,” originally operating under the name Wildlife Trust until 2010.

“Constantly on the hunt for ways to close its budget shortfalls,” Daszak’s organization was, in 2009, awarded $18 million over five years in grant money from USAID to test bats for zoonotic viruses in remote locations all over the world. 

From the story:

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 giving 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.

Now, Daszak had long been collaborating with the Chinese scientist Shi Zhengli—”known as ‘bat woman’ for her fearless exploration of their [that is bats’] habitats”—per the story. Shi would eventually become the director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s (WIV) Center for Emerging Infections Diseases.

More from the story:

In 2005, after conducting field research in four locations in China, Daszak and Shi co-authored 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.

Fast forward to 2014, and Daszak and EcoHealth Alliance received a prestigious, $3.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health titled Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence. Working with Shi and the WIV, as well as a partner laboratory at the University of North Carolina, the grant “proposed to screen wild and captive bats in China, analyze sequences in the laboratory to gauge human risk of bat viruses infecting humans, and build predictive models to examine future risk.”

You can probably see what’s happening here: not only did EcoHealth Alliance and WIV fail to foresee the COVID pandemic outbreak, but, with “murky grant agreements, flimsy oversight, and the pursuit of government funds for scientific advancement, in part by pitching research of steeply escalating risk,” it’s not implausible that the WIV’s lab work could have had a “possible role” in the pandemic, if not as the origin point itself rather than the Huanan Seafood Market as has long widely been believed. 

Anyway, there’s your backstory. Dr. Anthony Fauci is involved, and UNC-Chapel Hill’s Dr. Ralph Baric, a professor of epidemiology, microbiology, and immunology, and a coronavirus researcher, plays a supporting role in the story, too. It’s a deftly reported, if at times convoluted, account of what could have happened in late 2019 or early 2020 that has brought us the global the reality of these last two years—a story that’s both maddening and terrifying in its telling of what “shouldn’t happen.”

Read it all here

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