If the platform shared with Fauci proved that Daszak had become a true player among virus hunters, it also underscores how far he had come. For years, Peter Daszak sat at the helm of a struggling nonprofit with a mission to save manatees, promote responsible pet ownership, and celebrate the threatened species. The organization, which operated under the name Wildlife Trust until 2010, was constantly on the lookout for ways to address its budget shortfall. One year, it offered to honor a mining company operating in Liberia on its annual profit it was paying to assess the risks of the Ebola virus. Another idea was to solicit donations from rainforest leveling palm-oil millionaires who might be interested in “cleaning up” their image.
Bald and usually dressed in hiking gear, Daszak was one part salesman, one part visionary. They clearly observed that human intrusion into the natural world could lead to the rise of animal pathogens, with bats a particularly potent reservoir. Dr. Matthew McCarthy, associate professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York, said, “Dasak was “making a bet that bats were harboring the deadly virus.” In 2004, as a 23-year-old Harvard medical student, McCarthy went from Daszak to Cameroon to trap the bats. “I left my family, my friends,” he said. “It was a very powerful thing for people like me, who were going to the most remote parts of the world. Me. Taken by him, hook, line, and sinker.”
The 2001 bioterror attack, in which letters covered with anthrax spores were sent via US mail, with the first SARS coronavirus outbreak in China the following year, would bring funding for studies of deadly natural pathogens pouring in to federal agencies. In 2003, the NIAID received an eye-popping $1.7 billion for research to combat bioterrorism.
Daszak’s office on Manhattan’s far west side did not have a laboratory. The closest bat colonies were in Central Park. But he did develop an association with Shi Zhengli, a Chinese scientist who became director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases. A little more sophisticated with an international education, Xi became known in China as the “Bat Woman” for her fearless exploration of their habitats. Dajasak’s alliance with him will open the bat caves of China for him.
In 2005, after conducting field research at four locations in China, Daszak and Xi produced their first paper together, which established that horseshoe bats were a potential reservoir for coronaviruses such as SARS. They will collaborate on 17 papers. In 2013, they reported their discovery that a SARS-like bat coronavirus, which Xi was the first to successfully isolate in a laboratory, may be able to infect human cells without first jumping to an intermediate animal. ,[Peter] Respect that,” said the former EcoHealth Alliance employee. “In everyone’s eyes they were doing a great job for the world.” Their partnership gave Daszak an almost proprietary understanding of bat caves in Yunnan province, which he later referred to in the grant proposal as “our field test sites”.
As Daszak’s staff and Xi’s graduate students met, traveling between Wuhan and Manhattan, the exchange flourished. When Shea visited New York, EcoHealth staff very carefully selected a restaurant for the celebratory dinner. “Zhengli is not one to stand on formality; She makes dumplings by hand with her students in the lab!!” Daszak’s chief of staff wrote to another employee. “She received her PhD in France, loves red wine, and prefers good food above formality. Is.”
By 2009, bats had turned into big money. That September, USAID provided a $75 million grant called PREDICT to four organizations, including Daszak. USAID said, “This was the most comprehensive zoonotic virus surveillance project in the world, and aimed to identify and predict viral emergence by sampling and testing bats and other wildlife in remote locations.
The $18 million award over five years that was then awarded to the Wildlife Trust was a “game-changer,” Daszak told his staff in a spirited email sharing the news. “I’d like to take this opportunity (despite drinking champagne for 7 hours – literally!) to thank you all for your support.”
Money transformed the ragged nonprofit. It slashed its budget in half, eliminating a one-year operating deficit; initiated a long-delayed rebranding, which led to the new name EcoHealth Alliance; and desecrated its headquarters, even fixing its old broken air conditioner. During the grant, it allocated $1.1 million to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, USAID recently acknowledged in a letter to Congress.
When Dr. Maureen Miller, an infectious disease epidemiologist, arrived at the EcoHealth Alliance in 2014, she was exposed to an environment she found toxic and secretive. Closed door meetings were the norm. The senior leadership formed an unwanted “Old Boys Network”. She was soon convinced that she was hired “because they needed a senior-level woman,” she said, adding that “I was excluded from everything.”
She got on board shortly before the organization’s PREDICT grant was renewed for five more years. It was also the year the NIH approved Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence, a $3.7 million grant that would come back to haunt Fauci. Miller said she was “tempted by the idea of being able to build a pandemic-threat warning system.”
Miller was tasked with creating a surveillance strategy to detect zoonotic virus spillovers. Chinese villagers living near bat caves in southern Yunnan province would have their blood tested for antibodies to coronaviruses such as SARS, then answer questionnaires to determine whether certain behaviors had exposed them. It was a “biological and behavioral warning system,” Miller explained.