One of the first Covid patients to fall ill with the virus in the Wuhan Institute of Virology had received federal dollars from the US government to fund his research.
Ben Hu, one of the scientists who became ill in November 2019 with symptoms consistent with coronavirus, had been the recipient of government grant money administered by the global nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance.
Among the projects that EcoHealth Alliance helped fund was research on infectious diseases in remote parts of the world that could jump from animal hosts to humans.
The revelation was made by the anti-animal testing watchdog group White Coat Waste, whose president Anthony Bellotti said: ‘Taxpayers have a right to know who’s responsible for the deadliest pandemic in 100 years, and now, because of our investigation, they do.’
The watchdog group White Coat Waste sued the sprawling National Institutes of Health to gather information about the three early infections with a virus whose symptoms looked like Covid
Shi Zhengli – dubbed the ‘Bat Lady’ or ‘Bat Woman’ for her work on bat coronaviruses – investigated the possibility Covid could have emerged from her lab back in 2020 according to colleagues. Ben Hu was reportedly one of her star pupil
White Coat Waste filed a series of Freedom of Information Act requests and eventually sued the sprawling National Institutes of Health for answers about funding so-called ‘gain of function’ research which often entails engineering a pathogen to make it more infectious.
Mr Bellotti added: ‘Our FOIA investigation and winning a lawsuit against the NIH have unveiled the pandemic’s ultimate smoking gun: the U.S. government-funded Wuhan gain-of-function experimenter Ben Hu—probable patient zero at the Wuhan Lab—and its wasteful spending on his reckless animal experiments almost certainly caused a lab leak and COVID.’
Ben Hu is described as being a protegee of Dr Shi Zhengli, a top Wuhan-based virologist who has earned the nickname ‘bat woman’ from years of hunting for coronavirus samples in bat caves.
Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and coauthor with Matt Ridley of Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19 said: ‘Ben Hu is essentially the next Shi Zhengli.
‘He was her star pupil. He had been making chimeric SARS-like viruses and testing these in humanized mice. If I had to guess who would be doing this risky virus research and most at risk of getting accidentally infected, it would be him.’
When the term ‘lab leak’ comes up, chances are good that Wuhan Institute of Virology and EcoHealth Alliance will follow close behind.
The controversial EcoHealth Alliance group has been at the center of the Covid origins debate since 2020.
The New York-based nonprofit held millions of dollars in grant money from the National Institutes of Health and doled some of it out to fund research on bat viruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
An oversight investigation conducted by the Office of Inspector General, the watchdog for the federal Department of Health and Human Services, found that NIH grant money dispursed to EcoHealth and awarded to smaller recipents including the WIV was poorly managed.
The federal government’s audit concerned three National Institutes of Health grants that went to EcoHealth totaling $8 million from 2014 to 2021. At least $598,000 went to the WIV.
After more than three years of living with the coronavirus and its many mutations, the origins of the pandemic remain murky. For a while, the prevailing belief was that the opportunistic virus was harbored in an animal host where it was able to mutate and eventually infect humans.
But the consensus on Covid’s origins has slowly shifted away from exclusively favoring the natural origin theory and discounting the lab leak theory as xenophobic conspiracy.
One camp believes it most likely that the virus was either allowed to leech from the highly secure bio lab in Wuhan or did so by accident.
Those on a the lab leak side, which include China hawks and several federal intelligence agencies and officials, have voiced frustration at China for obstructing investigations into the origins of the pandemic.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said in February that China’s government has been trying to ‘thwart and obfuscate’ the investigation both by the US government as well as the World Health Organization.
While China has insisted the virus originated elsewhere, academics, politicians and the media have contemplated the possibility it leaked from a high-level biochemical lab in Wuhan – raising suspicions that Chinese officials simply hid evidence of the early spread
The question of whether the global outbreak began with a spillover from wildlife sold at the market or leaked out of the Wuhan lab just eight miles across the Yangtze River has given rise to fierce debate. Some studies point to a natural spillover at the Huanan wildlife market. Positive swab samples of floors, cages and counters also track the virus back to stalls in the southwestern corner of the market (bottom left), where animals with the potential to harbour Covid were sold for meat or fur at the time (bottom right)
On the other hand, most virologists believe that the coronavirus first infected humans after jumping from an animal reservoir.
Genetic evidence gathered at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China, at the epicenter of the 2020 outbreak strengthened this theory. Genetic material collected from January to March 2020 at the market showed animal DNA in samples already known to be positive for Covid.
A significant amount of the DNA appeared to come from raccoon dogs, which were traded at the market. Their findings do not provide the smoking gun needed to confirm that Covid had its origins in animals, though.
To this day virologists have not been able to pinpoint the intermediary animal that housed Covid before it was able to jump to humans.
While the pandemic has ebbed and years have elapsed since the initial outbreak, the lab leak theory has gained more proponents. The Department of Energy concluded with ‘low confidence’ earlier this year that the virus likely leaked from a lab.
The FBI has also concluded with moderate confidence that the virus emerged from the WIV accidentally.
In another report on Covid’s origins, this time from Senate Republicans out in April doubled down on the accidental lab leak theory and highlights evidence that Chinese officials and scientists ‘possessed some level of awareness of an outbreak of infectious disease well in advance of the first disclosure of this information to the public on December 31, 2019’.
Meanwhile, four agencies and the National Intelligence Council assessed with low confidence that the virus likely jumped from animals to humans through natural exposure.