by KATHERINE EBAN
On June 18, 2021, an evolutionary biologist named Jesse D. Bloom sent the draft of an unpublished scientific paper he’d written to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to the president of the United States. A bespectacled, boyish-looking 43-year-old often clad in short-sleeved checkered shirts, Bloom specializes in the study of how viruses evolve. “He is the most ethical scientist I know,” said Sergei Pond, a fellow evolutionary biologist. “He wants to dig deep and discover the truth.”
The paper Bloom had written—known as a preprint, because it had yet to be peer-reviewed or published—contained sensitive revelations about the National Institutes of Health, the federal agency that oversees biomedical research. In the interests of transparency, he wanted Fauci, who helms an NIH subagency, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), to see it ahead of time. Under ordinary circumstances, the preprint might have sparked a respectful exchange of views. But this was no ordinary preprint, and no ordinary moment.
More than a year into the pandemic, the genesis of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was still a mystery. Most scientists believed that it had made the leap from bats to humans naturally, via an intermediary species, most likely at a market in Wuhan, China, where live wild animals were slaughtered and sold. But a growing contingent were asking if it could have originated inside a nearby laboratory that is known to have conducted risky coronavirus research funded in part by the United States. As speculation, sober and otherwise, swirled, the NIH was being bombarded by Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits. Fauci himself needed a security detail, owing to death threats from conspiracy theorists who believed he was covering up some dark secret.
Bloom’s paper was the product of detective work he’d undertaken after noticing that a number of early SARS-CoV-2 genomic sequences mentioned in a published paper from China had somehow vanished without a trace. The sequences, which map the nucleotides that give a virus its unique genetic identity, are key to tracking when the virus emerged and how it might have evolved. In Bloom’s view, their disappearance raised the possibility that the Chinese government might be trying to hide evidence about the pandemic’s early spread. Piecing together clues, Bloom established that the NIH itself had deleted the sequences from its own archive at the request of researchers in Wuhan. Now, he was hoping Fauci and his boss, NIH director Francis Collins, could help him identify other deleted sequences that might shed light on the mystery.
Bloom had submitted the paper to a preprint server, a public repository of scientific papers awaiting peer review, on the same day that he’d sent a copy to Fauci and Collins. It now existed in a kind of twilight zone: not published, and not yet public, but almost certain to appear online soon.
Collins immediately organized a Zoom meeting for Sunday, June 20. He invited two outside scientists, evolutionary biologist Kristian Andersen and virologist Robert Garry, and allowed Bloom to do the same. Bloom chose Pond and Rasmus Nielsen, a genetic biologist. That it was shaping up like an old-fashioned duel with seconds in attendance did not cross Bloom’s mind at the time. But six months after that meeting, he remained so troubled by what transpired that he wrote a detailed account, which Vanity Fair obtained.
After Bloom described his research, the Zoom meeting became “extremely contentious,” he wrote. Andersen leapt in, saying he found the preprint “deeply troubling.” If the Chinese scientists wanted to delete their sequences from the database, which NIH policy entitled them to do, it was unethical for Bloom to analyze them further, he claimed. And there was nothing unusual about the early genomic sequences in Wuhan.
Instantly, Nielsen and Andersen were “yelling at each other,” Bloom wrote, with Nielsen insisting that the early Wuhan sequences were “extremely puzzling and unusual.”
Andersen—who’d had some of his emails with Fauci from early in the pandemic publicly released through FOIA requests—leveled a third objection. Andersen, Bloom wrote, “needed security outside his house, and my pre-print would fuel conspiratorial notions that China was hiding data and thereby lead to more criticism of scientists such as himself.”
Fauci then weighed in, objecting to the preprint’s description of Chinese scientists “surreptitiously” deleting the sequences. The word was loaded, said Fauci, and the reason they’d asked for the deletions was unknown.
That’s when Andersen made a suggestion that surprised Bloom. He said he was a screener at the preprint server, which gave him access to papers that weren’t yet public. He then offered to either entirely delete the preprint or revise it “in a way that would leave no record that this had been done.” Bloom refused, saying that he doubted either option was appropriate, “given the contentious nature of the meeting.”
At that point, both Fauci and Collins distanced themselves from Andersen’s offer, with Fauci saying, as Bloom recalled it, “Just for the record, I want to be clear that I never suggested you delete or revise the pre-print.” They seemed to know that Andersen had gone too far.
Both Andersen and Garry denied that anyone in the meeting suggested deleting or revising the paper. Andersen said Bloom’s account was “false.” Garry dismissed it as “nonsense.” Sergei Pond, however, confirmed Bloom’s account as accurate, after having it read aloud to him. “I don’t remember the exact phrasing—I didn’t take any notes—but from what you described, that sounds accurate. I definitely felt bad for poor Jesse.” He added that the “charged-up” atmosphere struck him as “inappropriate for a scientific meeting.” A spokesperson for Fauci declined to comment.
Six months after his contentious meeting with Fauci and other top scientists on June 20, 2021, Jesse Bloom made a written record of his recollections. Vanity Fair later obtained the document. Click here to see and download the full document.
The wagon-circling on that Zoom call reflected a siege mentality at the NIH whose cause was much larger than Bloom and the missing sequences. It couldn’t be made to disappear with creative editing or deletion. And it all began with a once-obscure science nonprofit in Manhattan that had become the conduit for federal grant money to a Wuhan research laboratory.
In 2014, Fauci’s agency had issued a $3.7 million grant to EcoHealth Alliance, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to predicting and helping to prevent the next pandemic by identifying viruses that could leap from wildlife to humans. The grant, titled Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence, proposed to screen wild and captive bats in China, analyze sequences in the laboratory to gauge the risk of bat viruses infecting humans, and build predictive models to examine future risk. The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) was a key collaborator to whom EcoHealth Alliance gave almost $600,000 in sub-awards. But the work there had been controversial enough that the NIH suspended the grant in July 2020.
As it happened, EcoHealth Alliance failed to predict the COVID-19 pandemic—even though it erupted into public view at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, a short drive from the WIV itself. In the ensuing months, every move of EcoHealth Alliance, and its voluble president Peter Daszak, came under scrutiny by a small army of scientific sleuths and assorted journalists. What, they wanted to know, had really gone on at the WIV? Why had Daszak been so cagey about the work his organization had been funding there? And were Fauci and other officials trying to direct attention away from research that the U.S. had been, at least indirectly, financing?
The dispute over COVID-19’s origins has become increasingly acrimonious, with warring camps of scientists trading personal insults on Twitter feeds. Natural-origin proponents argue that the virus, like so many before it, emerged from the well-known phenomenon of natural spillover, jumping from a bat host to an intermediate species before going on to infect humans. Those suspecting a lab-related incident point to an array of possible scenarios, from inadvertent exposure of a scientist during field research to the accidental release of a natural or manipulated strain during laboratory work. The lack of concrete evidence supporting either theory has only increased the rancor. “Everyone is looking for a smoking gun that would render any reasonable doubt impossible,” says Amir Attaran, a biologist and lawyer at the University of Ottawa. Without cooperation from the Chinese government, that may be impossible.
In 2018, Daszak had appeared on Chinese state-run TV and said, “The work we do with Chinese collaborators is published jointly in international journals and the sequence data is uploaded onto the internet free for everyone to read, very open, very transparent, and very collaborative.” He added, “Science is naturally transparent and open…. You do something, you discover something, you want to tell the world about it. That’s the nature of scientists.”
But as COVID-19 rampaged across the globe, the Chinese government’s commitment to transparency turned out to be limited. It has refused to share raw data from early patient cases, or participate in any further international efforts to investigate the virus’s origin. And in September 2019, three months before the officially recognized start of the pandemic, the Wuhan Institute of Virology took down its database of some 22,000 virus samples and sequences, refusing to restore it despite international requests.
As for transparency-minded scientists in the U.S., Daszak early on set about covertly organizing a letter in the Lancet medical journal that sought to present the lab-leak hypothesis as a groundless and destructive conspiracy theory. And Fauci and a small group of scientists, including Andersen and Garry, worked to enshrine the natural-origin theory during confidential discussions in early February 2020, even though several of them privately expressed that they felt a lab-related incident was likelier. Just days before those discussions began, Vanity Fair has learned, Dr. Robert Redfield, a virologist and the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), had urged Fauci privately to vigorously investigate both the lab and natural hypotheses. He was then excluded from the ensuing discussions—learning only later that they’d even occurred. “Their goal was to have a single narrative,” Redfield told Vanity Fair.
Why top scientists linked arms to tamp down public speculation about a lab leak—even when their emails, revealed via FOIA requests and congressional review, suggest they held similar concerns—remains unclear. Was it simply because their views shifted in favor of a natural origin? Could it have been to protect science from the ravings of conspiracy theorists? Or to protect against a revelation that could prove fatal to certain risky research that they deem indispensable? Or to protect vast streams of grant money from political interference or government regulation?
The effort to close the debate in favor of the natural-origin hypothesis continues today. In February, The New York Times gave front-page treatment to a set of preprints—written by Michael Worobey at the University of Arizona, Kristian Andersen at Scripps Research Institute, and 16 coauthors, including Garry—claiming that a new analysis of public data from the Huanan market in Wuhan provided “dispositive evidence” that the virus first leapt to humans from animals sold there. But a number of top scientists, Bloom among them, questioned that assertion, saying the preprints, while worthy, relied on incomplete data and found no infected animal.
“I don’t think they offer proof. They provide evidence that more strongly supports the link to the wild animal market than to the WIV, and that’s the way I would have phrased it,” says W. Ian Lipkin, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who favors the natural-origin theory.
“Some scientists seem almost hell-bent on naming the Huanan market as the site of the origin of the pandemic; and some members of the media seem more than happy to embrace these conclusions without careful examination,” said Stanford microbiologist David Relman. “This issue is far too important to be decided in the public domain by unreviewed studies, incomplete and unconfirmed data, and unsubstantiated proclamations.”
Perhaps more than anyone, Peter Daszak—a Western scientist immersed in Chinese coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology—was uniquely positioned to help the world crack open the origin mystery, not least by sharing what he knew. But last year, Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia University economist who oversees the Lancet’s COVID-19 commission, dismissed Daszak from the helm of a task force investigating the virus’s genesis, after he flatly refused to share progress reports from his contested research grant. (In written responses to detailed questions, Daszak said he was “simply following NIH guidance” when he declined Sachs’s request, because the agency was withholding the reports in question “until they had adjudicated a FOIA request.” The reports are now publicly available, he said.)
“[Daszak] and NIH have acted badly,” Sachs told Vanity Fair. “There has been a lack of transparency…and there is a lot more to know and that can be known.” He said that the NIH should support an “independent scientific investigation” to examine the “possible role” in the pandemic of the NIH, EcoHealth Alliance, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and a partner laboratory at the University of North Carolina. “Both hypotheses are still very much with us,” he said, and “need to be investigated seriously and scientifically.” (“We are also on record as welcoming independent scientific investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Daszak told Vanity Fair.)
This story is based on more than 100,000 internal EcoHealth Alliance documents obtained by Vanity Fair, as well as interviews with five former staff members and 33 other sources. The documents, most of which predate the pandemic, span a number of years and include budgets, staff and board meeting minutes, and internal emails and reports. While the documents do not tell us where COVID-19 came from, they shed light on the world in which EcoHealth Alliance has operated: one of murky grant agreements, flimsy oversight, and the pursuit of government funds for scientific advancement, in part by pitching research of steeply escalating risk.
The story of how Daszak’s grant entangled Fauci in the specter of Wuhan coronavirus research began years earlier, at a stately Beaux Arts social club in Washington, D.C. For more than a decade, EcoHealth Alliance hosted a series of cocktail parties at the Cosmos Club near DuPont Circle to discuss the prevention of viral outbreaks. There, expert biologists, virologists, and journalists mingled with the true guests of honor: federal government bureaucrats who were in the position to steer grants.
On invitations, EcoHealth Alliance described the events as “educational.” Inside the nonprofit, however, officials called them “cultivation events.” The return on investment was excellent: For about $8,000 in Brie and Chardonnay per event, they got to network with prospective federal funders. As the organization’s 2018 strategic plan spelled out, “Given our strength in federal funding, we enhanced our cultivation events at the Cosmos Club in Washington DC, which now regularly attract 75-150 people at high levels in govt agencies, NGOs and the private sector.” (“These kinds of events are common among many nongovernmental organizations and nonprofits, which depend upon both public and private donors for support,” Daszak told Vanity Fair.)
Of all those high-level people, almost no one ranked as high as Fauci, a scientific kingmaker who dispensed billions in grant money each year—and Daszak was determined to share a podium with him. The idea was admittedly a reach. Though he’d met with Fauci and received funding from his agency, Daszak was relatively obscure. But he had cultivated back-channel access to the minders who guarded Fauci’s calendar.
On September 9, 2013, Daszak emailed Fauci’s senior adviser David Morens to see if the sought-after NIAID chief would be available as a panel speaker. Morens emailed back, recommending that Daszak “write Tony directly, thanking him for meeting with you all recently and then inviting him to be a member of this Cosmos Club discussion. That way, it is personal and doesn’t look ‘cooked’ by us.”
Though Fauci declined that invitation and several others, Daszak kept trying. In February 2016, Morens passed along a valuable tip: Fauci “normally says no to almost everything like this. Unless ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox are all there with cameras running. If he were asked to give THE main talk or the only talk that might increase the chances.”
The gambit worked. Fauci signed on to give a presentation on the Zika virus at the Cosmos Club on March 30, and the RSVPs flowed in. The guests came from an array of deep-pocketed federal agencies: the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Pentagon, even NASA. As Daszak would declare at a board meeting on December 15, the “Washington, DC cultivation events have been a great way to increase our visibility to federal funders,” according to meeting minutes. A month earlier, Donald Trump had been elected president. One board member at the meeting asked what his incoming administration might mean for a conservation nonprofit dependent on federal grants. Daszak offered breezy reassurance: The organization’s “apolitical mission” would help it adapt
Little did he know that, in the era of Trump and COVID-19, science itself would become the ultimate political battleground.
EcoHealth Alliance’s D.C. “cultivation events,” whose guest speakers would include Dr. Anthony Fauci, are said in board meeting minutes to improve “visibility” to federal funders. Click here to see and download the full document.
If a shared podium with Fauci proved that Daszak had become a true player among virus hunters, it also underscored just 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 threatened species. The organization, which operated under the name Wildlife Trust until 2010, was constantly on the hunt for ways to close its budget shortfalls. One year, it proposed to honor at its annual benefit a mining company operating in Liberia that was paying it to assess the risks of Ebola virus. Another idea was to seek donations from palm-oil millionaires leveling rainforests who might be interested in “cleaning up” their image.
Balding and usually clad in hiking gear, Daszak was one part salesman, one part visionary. He saw clearly that human incursions into the natural world could lead to the emergence of animal pathogens, with bats a particularly potent reservoir. Daszak was “making a bet that bats were harboring deadly viruses,” said Dr. Matthew McCarthy, an associate professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. In 2004, as a 23-year-old Harvard medical student, McCarthy followed Daszak to Cameroon to trap bats. “I left my family, my friends,” he said. “It was a very powerful thing for people like me, going into the most remote parts of the world. I was taken by him, hook, line, and sinker.”
The bioterror attacks of 2001, in which letters dusted with anthrax spores were sent through the U.S. mail, coupled with the first SARS coronavirus outbreak in China the following year, would bring money for the study of lethal natural pathogens pouring into federal agencies. In 2003, the NIAID got an eye-popping $1.7 billion for research to defend against bioterrorism.
Daszak’s office on Manhattan’s Far West Side didn’t have a laboratory. The closest bat colonies were in Central Park. But he cultivated an affiliation with Shi Zhengli, a Chinese scientist who would rise to become the director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases. Slight and sophisticated with an international education, Shi became known in China as “bat woman” for her fearless exploration of their habitats. Dazsak’s alliance with her would open China’s bat caves to him.
In 2005, after conducting field research in four locations in China, Daszak and Shi coauthored their first paper together, which established that horseshoe bats were a likely reservoir for SARS-like coronaviruses. They would go on to collaborate on 17 papers. In 2013, they reported their discovery that a SARS-like bat coronavirus, which Shi had been the first to successfully isolate in a lab, might be able to infect human cells without first jumping to an intermediate animal. “[Peter] respected her,” said the former EcoHealth Alliance staffer. “In the view of everyone, they were doing great work for the world.” Their partnership gave Daszak an almost proprietary sense of the bat caves in Yunnan province, which he would later refer to in a grant proposal as “our field test sites.”
As Daszak’s staff and Shi’s graduate students intermingled, traveling between Wuhan and Manhattan, the exchange flourished. When Shi visited New York, the EcoHealth staff selected a restaurant for a celebratory dinner with great care. “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 got her PhD in France, loves red wine, and likes good food above formality.”
By 2009, bats had turned into big money. That September, USAID awarded a $75 million grant called PREDICT to four organizations, including Daszak’s. It was “the most comprehensive zoonotic virus surveillance project in the world,” USAID stated, and its purpose was to identify and predict viral emergence, in part by sampling and testing bats and other wildlife in remote locations.
The $18 million over five years awarded to what was then Wildlife Trust was a “game-changer,” Daszak told his staff in an ecstatic email sharing the news. “I want to take this opportunity (despite 7 hours of drinking champagne – literally!) to thank all of you for your support.”
The money transformed the ragged nonprofit. It increased its budget by half, ending a yearslong operating loss; began a long-deferred rebranding, which led to the new name EcoHealth Alliance; and spruced up its headquarters, even fixing its chronically broken air conditioner. Over the course of the grant, it allocated $1.1 million to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, USAID recently acknowledged in a letter to Congress.