The Media Is Back to Deriding the Lab Leak as a 'Conspiracy Theory'

Even if EcoHealth's "basic research" in Wuhan didn't cause the pandemic, it certainly failed in its mission to stop it.


For a brief moment, speculation that COVID-19 originated in a lab had been upgraded in the discourse from a conspiracy theory to a serious possibility worthy of serious inquiry.

No longer.

In an op-ed published in STAT on Tuesday, AIDS activist Peter Staley bemoans the "witch hunt" being carried out by an "anti-science mob" against EcoHealth Alliance—the New York–based nonprofit that had been using federal funds to do gain-of-function work on potential pandemic pathogens at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.

EcoHealth has been the subject of immense bipartisan controversy in recent months.

Thanks to the work of congressional investigators and investigative journalists, we know that EcoHealth was creating SARS-like coronaviruses in Wuhan and had even proposed in grant applications to create viruses that bear a striking resemblance to SARS-CoV-2.

In grant proposal drafts, the nonprofit's president, Peter Daszak, proposed to do this work at Wuhan because of its "cost-effective" lower biosafety precautions and tried to obscure from federal funders how much of the organization's work would be conducted at Wuhan.

Republicans and Democrats on the House's Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic have criticized Daszak and his organization for their lack of transparency and failure to properly oversee their Wuhan partners' experiments.

The Biden administration has since stripped EcoHealth of its federal funding and launched a debarment investigation that could see it banned from receiving future grants. former National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Anthony Fauci has said he agrees with that decision. So has former National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins.

According to Staley, all the bipartisan sanctions and scrutiny applied to EcoHealth are part of a right-wing "McCarthyite" crusade to stop the crucial basic research the group does into identifying likely sites of the next disease outbreak.

"It scares me—and should scare you—that conspiracy theorists are winning. And because of them, we will be less prepared for the next pandemic," he writes.

He needn't be so worried.

The actual history of the pandemic suggests that EcoHealth's work wasn't useful in spotting the next pandemic or preparing people to respond to it. This is true even if one dismisses the credible accusations that the nonprofit's work led to the creation of SARS-CoV-2 at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

As Staley recounts in his piece, EcoHealth's mission is to surveil areas of the globe where animal viruses are mostly likely to spill over into human populations and cause the next pandemic.

It received millions in NIAID grants to collect viruses in human and animal populations across China, and sequence and study those viruses at Wuhan to identify likely future pandemic pathogens.

If one believes in a natural origin of the COVID-19 pandemic, one also has to believe that EcoHealth was caught totally by surprise by the outbreak of a coronavirus pandemic in its backyard. All its taxpayer-funded disease surveillance would seem to be naught.

Staley compares sanctions on EcoHealth to stripping funding from a New York City firefighting company because a fire brought down the World Trade Center.

A more accurate analogy would be that we're stripping funding from a firefighting company that failed to respond to a massive conflagration that destroyed the building next door.

Indeed, this was a mainstream criticism of EcoHealth's work prior to the pandemic. There are so many viruses circulating in nature that the chances that disease surveillance will identify the one that will evolve into the next human pandemic are infinitesimally small.

Staley is on firmer ground when he says that Fauci and Collins are throwing EcoHealth under the bus by agreeing with the Biden administration's decision to strip the nonprofit of its funding.

If EcoHealth failed to properly oversee its Wuhan work, NIAID and NIH (which funded EcoHealth's work) also failed to properly oversee the nonprofit's grant work.

Fauci and Collins' position, supported by Democrats in Congress, that they are totally blameless for EcoHealth's scandals is a remarkable exercise in blame-shifting. If EcoHealth deserves the sanctions they've received, NIH and NIAID have a lot to answer for as well.

Congress' investigations into COVID's origins are ongoing. In time, perhaps the organizations that funded gain-of-function research on pandemic pathogens in Wuhan will face some accountability for failing to properly police the risky research they knew was happening there.

The worst thing one can say about EcoHealth's work is that it helped create a pandemic it was supposed to prevent. The best thing that can be said about its work is it proved totally useless at stopping a pandemic it was supposed to nip in the bud.

In either scenario, it's hardly anti-science to question the value taxpayers are getting by funding this work.