Daszak's coronavirus grant was rejected by Pentagon over ‘gain of function’ concerns a year before pandemic
The Pentagon's research and development arm rejected a multimillion-dollar proposal by EcoHealth Alliance’s Peter Daszak in 2018 over concerns the experiments involved gain-of-function research and “could have put local communities at risk.”
Daszak, a longtime collaborator with China's Wuhan Institute of Virology, has dismissed as conspiracy theories the possibility that COVID-19 was created through gain-of-function research. But the online sleuth group DRASTIC released documents from EcoHealth Alliance’s “DEFUSE Project” last month, revealing a March 2018 proposal to Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) seeking $14.2 million for research to make bat viruses more dangerous.
“Our goal is to analyze, predict, then ‘DEFUSE’ the spillover potential of novel bat-origin high-risk SARSr-COVs in Southeast Asia," read Daszak's proposal. "This will safeguard the U.S. warfighter.”
The proposal called for inserting spike proteins that could bind to human cells into "SARSr-CoV backbones" and said, "We will introduce appropriate human-specific cleavage sites and evaluate growth potential in Vero cells and human airway epithelial cells cultures.”
DARPA rejected the proposal, saying it potentially involved the controversial gain-of-function research, which entails manipulating viruses to make them more transmissible and was restricted by the U.S. government at the time.
“The proposal is considered to potentially involve [gain-of-function] research because they propose to synthesize spike glycoproteins which bind to human cell receptors and insert them into SARSr-CoV backbones to assess whether they can cause SARS-like disease," DARPA wrote, adding, "The proposal hardly addresses or discusses ethical, legal, and social issues.”
DARPA further warned, "It is clear that the proposed DEFUSE project led by Peter Daszak could have put local communities at risk.”
DARPA spokesman Jared Adams neither confirmed nor disputed the authenticity of the documents released by DRASTIC. However, he did say that his agency has never funded research associated with EcoHealth Alliance or the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Neither Daszak nor EcoHealth Alliance returned requests for comment. The Telegraph said that a former member of the Trump administration confirmed the authenticity of the documents.
It is unclear if Daszak was ever able to execute his proposed experiments. A declassified State Department fact sheet said the Wuhan lab conducted gain-of-function research to engineer "chimeric" viruses and engaged in secret experiments with the Chinese military.
A rare spike protein in the SARS-CoV-2 known as the furin cleavage site has been determined to have increased the infectiousness of COVID-19 in humans. There is significant debate over whether the cleavage site evolved naturally or if it was genetically inserted.
Richard Ebright, professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, told the Washington Examiner that the proposal to DARPA "proposes a systematic program of inserting furin cleavage sites into spike genes of bat SARS-related coronaviruses.”
Ebright, who said he suspects Daszak's group had already started the research when it applied for the grant, said there is no doubt the project sought to make viruses more infectious.
“The proposed work, by any definition, represents gain of function research of concern and potential pandemic pathogen enhancement,” Ebright said. “The proposal contradicts statements by EcoHealth president Peter Daszak over the last twenty months, showing, again, Daszak is a serial liar.”
Last month, Daszak fired off a Twitter thread, seemingly in response to the leaked DARPA records.
“There have been dozens of FoIA’d docs, emails, reports, proposals (even ones that didn’t get funded!)," he wrote. "None provide anything more than supposition based on a false accounting of motives or misinterpretation of normal scientific communication & grant review.”
Those tweets followed earlier denials in which Daszak claimed the suspicions of a man-made COVD-19 were baseless and disputed the relevance of the furin cleavage site.
The article from Current Biology contended that furin cleavage sites are also “presented in wildlife (bats),” which “strongly suggests that they are of natural origin.”
But many experts believe the furin cleavage site points strongly toward gain-of-function research. Nicholas Wade, a former New York Times science writer, penned a lengthy May article for the Bulletin arguing there was “substantial” evidence that COVID-19 emerged from a Wuhan lab and going into detail about the furin cleavage site.
“It’s hard to explain how the SARS2 virus picked up its furin cleavage site naturally, whether by mutation or recombination. That leaves a gain-of-function experiment.”
A House Foreign Affairs GOP report said that some scientists believe that COVID-19's "double codon" genetic sequencing "is a telltale sign of the furin cleavage site being artificially inserted into the virus.”
Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican, called for Daszak and EcoHealth Alliance to come clean.
“The detail Daszak uses in the proposal to describe how he would work on cleavage sites suggests that his team of researchers had already done preliminary work introducing cleavage sites into coronaviruses in a laboratory setting,” Gallagher said, adding, "EcoHealth and the federal agencies must release all of their data and documentation surrounding their work.”
House Republicans want Daszak to be subpoenaed to testify before Congress.