I thought I was done with writing about Covid-19. But Covid-19 isn’t done with me—or with any of us.

I’m writing this precisely four years after Chinese health officials first announced the emergence of a mysterious new form of pneumonia in the city of Wuhan. “No obvious human-to-human transmission has been observed,” the officials added in that December 30, 2019, release. (Already, the Chinese were lying.) Today, Covid cases are ticking up for the umpteenth time. And documents keep coming to light that expose how American officials and scientists similarly suppressed unsettling facts about the pandemic’s origins.

While the death rate from each new wave of Covid keeps dropping, the disturbing revelations about our public health leaders keep getting worse. In December 2023, a new disclosure revealed how leading U.S. virus experts lobbied to conduct dangerous gain-of-function research at the substandard Wuhan Institute of Virology laboratory. The latest leak provides yet more evidence that the pandemic likely emerged from a lab experiment gone awry, and that U.S. scientists actively covered up their possible role in that world-historical catastrophe.

After both the 1986 Challenger explosion and the 9/11 attacks, bipartisan commissions were convened to investigate the disasters. Covid has killed more than a million Americans and has cost our economy at least $14 trillion. And yet we see no great urgency to investigate the pandemic’s murky origins or prevent a recurrence. Republicans in Congress continue to hold productive hearings. But, according to the New York Times, the Biden administration is “privately resisting” pressure to create a 9/11-style commission on the pandemic. The press has largely moved on. And the public health officials most deeply involved in the debacle—including Anthony Fauci and his National Institutes of Health (NIH) colleague Francis Collins—continue to tap-dance around the truth, even after leaving their posts.

Rutgers University molecular biologist Richard Ebright first heard about the alarming new disease spreading in Wuhan on January 3, 2020. Ebright is a long-time opponent of gain-of-function (GoF) research—experiments that modify natural pathogens in ways that might make them more infectious to humans. In 2015, he’d criticized a GoF project involving bat viruses that had been conducted jointly by the University of North Carolina and the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). “The only impact of this work is the creation, in a lab, of a new, non-natural risk,” he told the journal Nature. Two years later, he opposed a plan to expand the WIV facility so that it could take on even more hazardous research. So Ebright was dismayed—but not surprised—by the 2020 news from China. “I immediately thought it likely that a lab accident had occurred,” he told me in a recent email.

As information about the new SARS-CoV-2 virus spread through the scientific community in early 2020, many virus experts had similar suspicions. In texts and emails, scientists shared worries that the virus “looked almost engineered to infect human cells,” as one put it. The virus seemed “to have been pre-adapted for human spread since the get go,” another said. These concerns were privately shared with Fauci and other top health officials. But then, after a still-mysterious February 1 conference call that included Fauci, Collins, and about a dozen scientists, the notion that the virus might have escaped from a lab was dropped like a lit firecracker. Six weeks later, several of those scientists published the now-famous (or notorious) “Proximal Origin” paper asserting that the virus likely spilled over from some animal at a Wuhan wet market, adding, “We do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”

As I’ve written in several previous columns, that seeming consensus among top experts shut down almost all further discussion of the Wuhan lab as a possible source of Covid. Fauci dismissed the lab-leak hypothesis as “just a conspiracy theory,” and the media eagerly doubled down on that politically useful framing. The New York Times’ top Covid reporter called the idea “racist.” Only a few brave scientists—including Ebright and Alina Chan, a young researcher at the Harvard-MIT Broad Institute—dared to challenge the fast-jelling conventional wisdom. It took over a year before a few mainstream media outlets began gingerly to consider the lab-leak question, and two more years before the FBI and the U.S. Department of Energy announced that their investigations now pointed to the Wuhan lab as the contagion’s likely source.

But in the absence of any high-level nonpartisan inquiry, we still don’t have a clear picture of how Covid emerged. China has been predictably truculent, throwing out absurd claims that the virus must have been carried into their country by visiting Americans or in imported seafood. Worse, Chinese authorities took the entire database of WIV virus data offline. Even international scientists who conducted joint research with their WIV colleagues—and whose governments helped fund those projects—have no access to data that might hold clues to the source of one of the most devastating pandemics in centuries.

At this point, China’s intransigence is a given. Americans should be more outraged that, when it comes to transparency, U.S. officials and scientific institutions haven’t been much better than their Chinese counterparts. In the early months of the pandemic, Fauci and Collins could have come clean and volunteered that the NIH had funded some research at the suspect lab. Ralph Baric, the University of North Carolina professor who collaborated with WIV on risky bat-virus research back in 2015, might have disclosed the details of that relationship and explained why he thought the benefits of GoF research outweigh the dangers. Peter Daszak, head of the EcoHealth Alliance (a nonprofit that helps distribute federal grant money to virus researchers), might have volunteered that his organization had advocated a potentially riskier joint project involving WIV and Baric’s UNC lab in 2018. (More on that project below.) None of that happened, of course.

Ebright tells me he has witnessed what he calls “a decade of dishonesty and misfeasance by Fauci, Collins, and their associates on biodefense policy, biosafety, biosecurity, and biorisk management.” He says he was “unsurprised” that our nation’s public health leaders “would lie when it became apparent their misfeasance likely had caused a lab-generated pandemic.”

Most of what we know about the likely Wuhan lab leak comes to us, not courtesy of the scientists and officials closest to the data, but despite their stonewalling. The key disclosures about the UNC-WIV virus research have been dragged out of federal agencies—slowly, reluctantly—via endless Freedom of Information Act requests. Other insights have been gleaned by unaffiliated researchers poring over Chinese-language databases and sharing their findings online. Even now, our knowledge of just who was researching what risky virus remains an incomplete patchwork.

The December breakthrough came when the medical watchdog group U.S. Right to Know unearthed an early draft of a 2018 grant proposal for a “Project DEFUSE.” The proposal outlines a joint project between Baric’s UNC lab and a team headed by WIV senior scientist Zhengli Shi, the famous “Bat Lady” of the Wuhan lab. The proposal was drafted under the supervision of Peter Daszak—whose EcoHealth Alliance would funnel the hoped-for grant money to the researchers—and was addressed to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In the end, DARPA declined to fund the project. But many experts suspect the Wuhan lab conducted research along these lines using other funding sources.

The existence of the Project DEFUSE proposal was not news in itself; another draft of the document had been uncovered two years earlier by an ad hoc group of online researchers. But the latest version of the proposal includes a trove of related emails between the key scientists and unguarded comments still visible within the proposal draft itself. These provide a window into the researchers’ reckless research plan and their willingness to sidestep safety guidelines. At the time the DEFUSE proposal was written, the NIH had recently lifted a ban on gain-of-function research. Still, the technique remained highly controversial, and NIH officials vowed to maintain “multiple layers of oversight” on all GoF research projects. Some of the most telling passages in the newly released documents show how EcoHealth’s Daszak and UNC researcher Baric planned to evade this oversight.

The DEFUSE proposal states that critical GoF work would be conducted by Baric in his North Carolina lab. But, in a comment on the draft, Daszak notes that much of the hands-on research would actually take place at WIV under Zhengli’s supervision: “Once we get these funds, we can then allocate who does what exact work, and I believe that a lot of these assays can be done in Wuhan as well.” Daszak then tells his colleagues he needs to minimize WIV’s visibility and instead wants “to stress the US side of this proposal so that DARPA are comfortable with our team.” Slightly apologetically, Daszak also explains that the proposal includes his and Baric’s résumés, but not those of Zhengli and another Chinese researcher, again in order “to downplay the non-US focus of this proposal so that DARPA doesn’t see this as a negative.”

Why would DARPA or any other U.S. agency see the involvement of China’s premier virus-research center as “a negative”? Perhaps because WIV had a long history of sloppy standards, often performing research at lower bio-safety levels than would be routine in the United States.

Daszak’s and Baric’s deceptiveness about how and where their research would take place is all the more stunning when you consider how dangerous their proposal was. The project called for combining various bat-borne coronaviruses, modifying them by adding a “furin-cleavage site” that might help the virus bind to human cells, and then testing the supercharged virus on mice bred to have human-like cells in their lungs. When SARS-CoV-2 surged out of Wuhan in early 2020, it featured this exact type of furin-cleavage site, something never before seen in this family of viruses. This was the genetic quirk that alarmed many virologists who thought the virus looked “engineered.”

So, while DARPA didn’t fund the DEFUSE project, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Wuhan scientists followed this general roadmap (perhaps without the Americans’ knowledge). In the online science journal Undark, Alina Chan writes, “To a skeptical observer it was as if these scientists proposed to put horns on horses and not two years later a unicorn showed up in their city.” The details included in the latest DEFUSE document, “make the case for a lab leak almost certain,” concludes biologist Matt Ridley (who co-wrote the book Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19 with Chan).

So it seems almost conclusive that Covid-19 was a man-made disaster. Aside from wars, it has already proved to be the worst such disaster in history. So whom do we hold responsible? How do we prevent the next viral catastrophe?

Ebright, the Cassandra whose warnings went unheeded, advocates a scorched-earth approach: “Entities that defrauded the US-government and violated terms and conditions of US-government contracts (including EcoHealth Alliance) need to be defunded, debarred, and dismantled,” he says. People who violated U.S. government policies or who lied to Congress—he includes Fauci and Collins on that list—“need to be prosecuted.”

Ebright recently helped launch Biosafety Now, a nonprofit that works to reduce the risks of lab-generated pandemics and fights to limit the spread of poorly supervised biocontainment labs. The group’s focus is on enhanced potential pandemic pathogen (ePPP) research, which includes gain-of-function experiments likely to enhance risks from pathogens. Such research “needs to be banned,” Ebright tells me. Who am I to argue?

As a conservative with libertarian leanings, it pains me to admit that some problems require rigorous government regulation. At the same time, we must face the fact that the Covid pandemic was likely the result of a government program intended to keep us safe. It’s a paradox. Our public health elite apparently helped trigger this global disaster. And their blame-shifting and dishonesty compounded the damage. These actions also helped destroy the nation’s confidence in public health, in medicine, even in science itself. There will be no easy road back from this dangerous state of affairs.

This article has been revised for clarity. The original noted that DARPA declined to fund the DEFUSE project. This version adds that we have no knowledge that either UNC researchers or the EcoHealth Alliance directed or were aware of any research WIV might have conducted along the path described in that proposal.

Photo: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

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