In 2004, 60 Minutes in the US aired a segment on what it called “virus hunters”, scientists searching for bugs that can leap from animals to humans and cause pandemics. “What worries me the most is that we are going to miss the next emerging disease,” said a scientist named Dr Peter Daszak, describing his fear of a coronavirus “that moves from one part of the planet to another, wiping out people as it moves along”.
In the intervening years, Dr Daszak became president of the EcoHealth Alliance, a non-profit research organisation focused on emerging pandemics. EcoHealth worked with China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology to study coronaviruses in bats that could infect humans, and, as Science magazine put it, “to develop tools that could help researchers create diagnostics, treatments and vaccines for human outbreaks”. Since 2014, the EcoHealth Alliance has received a grant from the National Institutes of Health, until its funding was abruptly cut two weeks ago.
The reason, as 60 Minutes reported on Sunday evening, was a conspiracy theory spread by Florida Republican Representative, Matt Gaetz, who in March wore a gas mask on the House floor to mock concern about the new coronavirus. On April 14, Gaetz appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and claimed that the NIH grant went to the Wuhan Institute, which Gaetz intimated might have been the source of the virus — the institute may have “birthed a monster,” in his words.
The first of Gaetz’s claims was flatly false, and the second unlikely; the CIA has reportedly found no evidence of a link between the virus and the Wuhan lab. But at a White House briefing a few days later, a reporter from right-wing website Newsmax told US President Donald Trump that under the former president, Barack Obama, the NIH gave the Wuhan lab a $US3.7 ($A5.7) million grant. “Why would the US give a grant like that to China?” she asked.