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US scientist who worked with China lab targeted in coronavirus leak allegations barred from funding

A prominent American disease ecologist who collaborated with a Chinese lab targeted in coronavirus leak allegations has had his federal funding suspended and faces being cut off from working with the US government for years.

The Department of Health and Human Services said the suspension and proposed debarment took effect on Tuesday. The move came a week after it suspended federal funding for New York-based EcoHealth Alliance, led by Peter Daszak.

In a letter sent to Daszak on Tuesday, the agency said “the alleged conduct of EHA is imputed to you, because during all or part of the time relevant, you participated in, knew of, or had reason to know of EHA’s improper conduct, through your role as the president of EHA” and as the project director and principal investigator of grants for the research project on “understanding the risk of bat coronavirus emergence”.

While a ban usually lasts less than three years, it could be lengthened or shortened “as the circumstances warrant”, the department added. It also said Daszak could contest the action within 30 days.

Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance is a non-profit organisation that was involved in investigations into the origin of the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Getty Images via AFP

Daszak came under scrutiny for collaborating with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The lab has been at the centre of yet-to-be-proved claims that a laboratory leak caused the Chinese city’s first coronavirus outbreak at the end of 2019.

He also joined a World Health Organization coronavirus fact-finding mission in China in 2021. The international team of scientists visited key locations in Wuhan including the lab and the Huanan seafood market linked to early coronavirus cases.
Brad Wenstrup, an Ohio Republican who chairs the US House select subcommittee on the coronavirus pandemic, described Daszak’s debarment as ensuring he “never again receives a single cent from US taxpayers nor has the opportunity to start a new, untrustworthy organisation”.

The panel “intends to hold Dr Daszak accountable for any dishonesty and reminds him that this debarment decision does not preclude him from producing all outstanding documents and answering all the questions of this congressional body”, Wenstrup said in a statement on Wednesday.

For years before the pandemic, EcoHealth Alliance worked with the Wuhan lab, having received funding worth millions of US dollars from the American government-backed National Institutes of Health since 2014.

Earlier this month, Daszak refuted allegations that his research collaborating with the lab had caused the pandemic.

“In China, with approval from NIH and the State Department, we partnered with the country’s leading virology lab in Wuhan to do this work, just as many other US government-funded institutions have done,” he testified during a House select subcommittee hearing chaired by Wenstrup.

“Viruses that we identified in bats in China were used by US labs during the Covid pandemic to test drugs, vaccines and therapies that saved countless lives,” Daszak said.

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