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Imagine this post-9/11 scenario: A New York City fire company is forced to shut down and lay off its firefighters because some Americans believe a bizarre conspiracy theory that this fire company brought down the World Trade Center towers.

A Covid-19 version of this freakish tale is happening today. Instead of a fire company, the conspiracy gang is targeting an important, successful, decades-old nonprofit organization that researches viral epidemics and tries to predict and forestall future “fires” — new viral outbreaks — that might kill millions of people. It broke my heart to hear testimony in a hearing convened by the House of Representatives that staunch supporters of science like Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci have tacitly agreed to this witch hunt.


Why do I care? I was diagnosed in 1985 with HIV, then an assuredly deadly virus, and joined ACT UP protests against government scientists and pharmaceutical companies, often condemning them in harsh terms. But we never wanted them to stop doing research. We wanted them to do more research, on a faster timeline. Basic science saved my life, and AIDS activists are among its greatest defenders.

The basic science organization threatened now, EcoHealth Alliance, was founded in 1971. Early on, the alliance worked on the connections between wildlife and human health and the environmental changes that were causing a rise in emerging diseases. By the early 2000s its reputation at tracking and predicting viral outbreaks was second to none. It identified the key bird reservoirs of West Nile virus in the U.S. and predicted how it might spread to important conservation sites like the Galapagos and Hawaii. That work was used by the State of Hawaii and the Department of the Navy to change the way they managed the risk of importing mosquitoes that could carry the virus.

EcoHealth Alliance worked in Australia to assess the risk of Hendra virus, a lethal virus harbored by fruit bats. In Malaysia, the organization showed that a related virus, Nipah virus, emerged from bats into pigs, leading to a severe outbreak in people, because of the intensification of pig farming.


In 2008, EcoHealth Alliance published the world’s first ever hotspot map of emerging diseases that showed where pandemics originate: mostly in countries with high wildlife biodiversity, growing human populations, and lots of environmental changes that push people and animals closer together. Published in the journal Nature, it was a seminal report that has been used by governments around the world, as well as by the World Health Organization, to identify where to conduct surveillance and build pandemic preparedness to stop diseases from emerging and spreading.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) have used the hotspot map to design and fund large programs assessing what viruses might emerge next, and to help design vaccines and drugs against them.

EcoHealth’s work on H5N1 bird flu in the 2000s showed that the U.S. had vulnerabilities for infection via the poultry trade and was used by the U.S. Government Accountability Office to assess the Department of Agriculture’s flu surveillance program.

After severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) emerged from Chinese wildlife markets in 2003, the National Institutes of Health funded work by EcoHealth to identify the origins of this virus. And it did, showing in 2005 that SARS had originated from bats, and that other viruses circulating in bats in China had the potential to infect people. The organization became a leading expert on the risk of bat coronaviruses, and repeatedly raised a red flag that these viruses were likely to emerge and had pandemic potential.

As early as 2004, EcoHealth’s president, Peter Daszak, basically predicted Covid-19 on 60 Minutes, saying, “what worries me most is that we’re going to suddenly find a SARS virus that moves from one part of the planet to another, wiping people out as it moves along. … That’s something to be keeping you awake at night.”

EcoHealth Alliance worked with the WHO to have SARS-related viruses listed on WHO’s “Disease X” list of high priority pathogens to help raise funds to develop drugs and vaccines against them. Early Covid treatments like remdesivir and molnupiravir were studied against viruses that EcoHealth Alliance identified, allowing researchers to place a short-list of drugs in a kind of break-glass-in-an-emergency box should Daszak’s prediction come true.

As badly prepared as our country was against Covid-19, the basic science prep had been strong, leading to much quicker vaccines and treatments. EcoHealth deserves thanks for this. Instead, it is struggling to keep its doors (and labs) open.

Why? Because one of its partners in studying bat viruses had been the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Once rightwing media outlets discovered that NIAID, led by Dr. Anthony Fauci, a man these outlets revile, had funded some of the research EcoHealth Alliance did with the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the years before Covid-19, all hell broke loose. The lab leak theory on Covid’s origin — which claims that the virus causing Covid-19 emerged from a viral research laboratory in Wuhan, either accidentally or as part of a bioweapons program — was given specific villains. President Trump ordered the NIH to cancel the grant, the only time in history when the White House has overruled the peer-review process at the NIH.

The White House got lucky in finding a willing partner at NIH, Michael Lauer, the deputy director for extramural research, to pull off the abrupt cancellation. Since 2018, Lauer had been leading a secretive purge of Chinese-born scientists from ongoing NIH grantees, with more than 100 of these scientists losing their jobs at American universities. Lauer wrote the grant cancellation letter to EcoHealth Alliance, citing “for convenience” as the reason for cancellation.

Within months, though, Lauer was forced to backtrack and reinstate the grant after EcoHealth’s lawyers appealed the blatantly illegal cancellation. But he immediately suspended the grant, pointing to new concerns about biosafety at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. From that point forward, Lauer launched multiple fishing expeditions, including an investigation by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General to find reasons to re-cancel the grant.

Lauer’s vendetta is made clear in an internal email he wrote to other NIH officials in May 2021. The subject line said, “Gift.” After searching for more than a year for reasons to support terminating EcoHealth’s grant, Lauer and the NIH uncovered the late submission of a report and used it to justify their actions.

The Inspector General’s report ultimately found some compliance issues on all sides, including the NIH’s, but did not recommend any sanctions. The Inspector General asked the NIH and EcoHealth Alliance to work through the issues they found and, by October 2023, an NIH audit committee determined that all of them had been resolved.

None of this mattered to the lab leak mob blaming Daszak and Fauci for creating Covid in a Wuhan lab. All the compliance issues raised with the Inspector General’s report became fodder, morphing into major crimes.

By the time Daszak was brought before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic for a Republican-led thrashing, even the Democrats, in a calculated decision to find something they could use for an improbable unified report by the entire subcommittee, joined in voicing their dismay at perceived — but not real — ethical lapses by EcoHealth Alliance. Democrats offered the mob their pound of flesh.

The NIH caved to Republican demands by launching a debarment investigation against Daszak and EcoHealth Alliance. Debarment is a rarely used blunt tool for punishing extreme malfeasance by an individual or organization receiving an HHS grant, resulting in a permanent ban from all current and future funding by the government. Such a ban would effectively shut down EcoHealth Alliance, ending all of its ongoing basic research.

For me, the saddest moment of the House subcommittee’s hearings came when it grilled former NIH director Francis Collins, former NIH acting director Larry Tabak, and former NIAID director Anthony Fauci, and asked each of them whether or not they supported debarment of EcoHealth. In what now stands as a tragic example of how McCarthyite these hearings have become, all three, in order to save their own necks, said “Yes.”

As an activist, I’ve worked with Collins and Fauci for many years, and consider Fauci a close friend. It was painful to watch the hunted help the hunters, turning scientist against scientist.

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.

Peter Staley is a long-time AIDS activist, currently as a co-founder of PrEP4All, an advocacy organization promoting a national HIV prevention plan.

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