A new leaked document is stirring up another frenzy over the pandemic’s origins. What does it really tell us?

Daniel Engber and Adam Federman:

As the pandemic drags on into a bleak and indeterminate future, so does the question of its origins. The consensus view from 2020, that SARS-CoV-2 emerged naturally, through a jump from bats to humans (maybe with another animal between), persists unchanged. But suspicions that the outbreak started from a laboratory accident remain, shall we say, endemic. For months now, a steady drip of revelations has sustained an atmosphere of profound unease.

The latest piece of evidence came out this week in the form of a set of murkily sourced PDFs, with their images a bit askew. The main one purports to be an unfunded research grant proposal from Peter Daszak, the president of the EcoHealth Alliance, a global nonprofit focused on emerging infectious diseases, that was allegedly submitted to DARPA in early 2018 (and subsequently rejected), for a $14.2 million project aimed at “defusing the threat of bat-borne coronaviruses.” Released earlier this week by a group of guerrilla lab-leak snoops called DRASTIC, the proposal includes a plan to study potentially dangerous pathogens by generating full-length, infectious bat coronaviruses in a lab and inserting genetic features that could make coronaviruses better able to infect human cells. (Daszak and EcoHealth did not respond to requests for comment on this story.)

The document seems almost tailor-made to buttress one specific theory of a laboratory origin: that SARS-CoV-2 wasn’t simply brought into a lab by scientists and then released by accident, but rather pieced together in a deliberate fashion. In fact, the work described in the proposal fits so well into that narrative of a “gain-of-function experiment gone wrong” that some wondered if it might be too good to be true. Central figures in the coronavirus-origins debate were involved: Among Daszak’s listed partners on the grant were Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an American virologist known for doing coronavirus gain-of-function studies in his lab, and Shi Zhengli, the renowned virus hunter from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. (Shi Zhengli has not responded to a request for comment. A UNC spokesperson responded on behalf of Baric, noting that “the grant applicant and DARPA are best positioned to explain the proposal.”)

There is good reason to believe the document is genuine. The Atlantic has confirmed that a grant proposal with the same identifying number and co-investigators was submitted to DARPA in 2018. The proposal that circulated online includes an ambitious scheme to inoculate wild bats against coronaviruses, carried out in concert with the National Wildlife Health Center, a research lab in Wisconsin. A spokesperson for the U.S. Geological Survey, which oversees the center, acknowledged this connection and affirmed the identifying number and co-investigators, noting that the agency’s involvement in the project ended with DARPA’s rejection of the grant proposal. “This is the proposal that was not funded,” USGS Acting Public Affairs Chief Rachel Pawlitz said after reviewing the PDF. She could not, however, vouch for the document in its entirety.