New Delhi: EcoHealth Alliance, the New York-based non-profit organisation now under fire for using grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US to fund controversial gain-of-function research in Wuhan, China, has been assisting the Government of India since August 2020 to set up an integrated platform for public health interventions to tackle zoonotic diseases transmitted from animals to humans.
As the world now asks increasingly tough questions about the origin of the coronavirus and whether a lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China is behind the pandemic, the role of EcoHealth Alliance (EHA) is under the scanner globally as the ‘third party’ used by Anthony Fauci’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which is a part of the NIH, to fund the risky virus research at the Wuhan institute.
EHA head Dr Peter Daszak is also under a cloud as he had drafted, signed and got 12 more scientists to sign an open letter to The Lancet as early as in February 2020, burying any discussion on any possibility of the virus escaping from a lab.
To assist the Government of India in setting up a ‘One Health’ platform, EHA had received a $1.5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation is now taking a hard re-look at the matter and may withdraw the grant, ThePrint has learnt.
When ThePrint reached him last week for a comment, Atul Chaturvedi, Secretary, Department of Animal Husbandry, said: “We are in consultation with the BMGF for a project in the livestock sector and are in the process of signing a memorandum of understanding with them. It is a technical cooperation agreement, we are not receiving any money from them. They have hired EHA as a third party agency to assist us.”
EHA is part of a global consortium that includes University of California-Davis, Smithsonian Institution, Wildlife Conservation Society, and Columbia University Center for Infection and Immunity that has experience of working across 30 countries in developing OneHealth platforms to prevent, detect and respond to emerging infectious disease threats.
EHA’s presence in the OneHealth project, Chaturvedi explained, is as an agency that has the technical knowhow in this work.
Days after this conversation, however, Chaturvedi got back to ThePrint and said: “I have just been told by my officials that we have received a verbal communication that the grant may be discontinued.”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), ‘One Health’ lays down ground rules for designing and implementing programmes, policies, legislation and research with multi-sectoral elements. The rules are meant to ensure better communication and collaboration between sectors that, ordinarily, rarely talk to each other — veterinarians and human healthcare workers, for example.
“The areas of work in which a One Health approach is particularly relevant include food safety, the control of zoonoses (diseases that can spread between animals and humans, such as flu, rabies and Rift Valley Fever), and combatting antibiotic resistance (when bacteria change after being exposed to antibiotics and become more difficult to treat),” says the WHO.
When ThePrint reached BMGF with queries on the partnership between them, the Government of India and the EHA, a spokesperson said the grant had been given for a period of three years.
“Our grant to the EcoHealth Alliance (EHA) was given in August 2020 for a period of 3 years, and the grant amount is $1.5 million. The grant was focused on providing technical assistance to support the development of a national One Health Platform by Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying (DAHD), in line with their priorities. As part of the Gates Foundation’s approach to work more with domestic entities the support to DAHD is being transitioned to a new India-based partner,” the foundation said Tuesday.
The original statement the foundation had issued on 2 June did not mention the plan to look for a new partner. The decision to work with domestic entities came 10 months after the US partner had been given the grant, and at a time when that agency is mired in a controversy.
EHA under global scrutiny
EHA is a global environmental health non-profit organisation dedicated to protecting wildlife and public health from the emergence of disease. It is headed by Dr Peter Daszak, a well known public health figure who has been working on emerging diseases and is also one of the founders of what is known as conservation medicine — that deals with environmental conservation as one of the interventions that can reduce public health challenges.
Daszak is said to have been the organiser of the early 2020 letter in The Lancet, which was also signed by other renowned scientists who dismissed any hypothesis that might have existed at the time on the possibility of the SARS-CoV-2 having leaked from a Chinese laboratory.
Daszak was among the signatories, and the letter declared that they had “no conflict of interest”. But findings have since emerged suggesting EHA had in fact been funding gain of function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
‘Gain of function’ is a field of research focused on growing generations of microorganisms, under conditions that cause mutations in a virus. These experiments are termed ‘gain of function’ because they involve manipulating pathogens in a way that they gain an advantage in or through a function, such as increased transmissibility.
This would mean that far from being a disinterested party, Dr Daszak had it in his interest to try to take the world’s gaze away from the possibility of a lab leak.
“The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins. We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” the scientists wrote in the open letter.
“Scientists from multiple countries have published and analysed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), 1 and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife, as have so many other emerging pathogens. This is further supported by a letter from the presidents of the US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine and by the scientific communities they represent,” they added.
The letter, thanks to its illustrious list of signatories, foreclosed any meaningful exploration of the origins of the virus — at a time when WHO was yet to declare Covid-19 as a pandemic.
These scientists made the claims even before the virus had reached many countries, and it is a fact that there are no scientific conclusions that have been made to this day on the origins of SARS-CoV-2.
ThePrint sent an email to EHA for a comment but is yet to get a reply. This report will be updated when a response is received.
EHA has attempted Indian collaborations in past
While its association with the Department of Animal Husbandry, which is a part of the Ministry of Agriculture, is ongoing, there have been attempts in the past to institute collaborations between Indian states and the EHA.
For example, top officials in Uttar Pradesh said, a pilot project was attempted in the district of Maharajganj with the EHA some time in 2014 on a tool called PREDICT. According to the UC Davis Veterinary Medicine One Health Institute, PREDICT is “a project of USAID’s Emerging Pandemic Threats (EPT) program, was initiated in 2009 to strengthen global capacity for detection of viruses with pandemic potential that can move between animals and people”.
In UP, institutional memory of that experience is fading particularly because there is no clarity on what happened to the project. A senior official in the UP government said: “I have made enquiries on PREDICT. There was a project in Maharajganj some time in 2014. Nothing much came of it and nobody is too sure what happened. We never used it for Covid.”
The EHA website also talks about the use of another tracking tool called FLIRT in tracing Nipah in Kerala. FLIRT deals with mapping the spread of an infectious disease based on the air traffic from the epicentre.
Rajiv Sadanandan, who was principal secretary, health, in Kerala during the 2018 Nipah outbreak, told ThePrint: “FLIRT was developed by Imperial College but we never had any collaboration with EHA.”