The Morning Jolt

Health Care

U.S.-Funded Group Ignored Mask Rules during Bat Coronavirus Research

A bat ecologist studies a trapped bat in Los Banos, Laguna province, Philippines, February 19, 2021. (Eloisa Lopez/Reuters)

On the menu today: EcoHealth Alliance, the U.S.-based health organization that used federal money to fund bat coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, apparently didn’t always see much of a need for personal protective equipment while collecting virus samples; a point about the 9/11 anniversary; and a reminder about Americans still in Afghanistan.

EcoHealth Alliance Ignored Safety Precautions Required by U.S. Government Grants

Last week, The Intercept obtained “more than 900 pages of documents detailing the work of EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S.-based health organization that used federal money to fund bat coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The trove of documents includes two previously unpublished grant proposals that were funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as well as project updates relating to EcoHealth Alliance’s research, which has been scrutinized amid increased interest in the origins of the pandemic.”

The guys over at White Coat Waste notice that on page 134 of the 528-page grant authorization from the U.S. NIAID, the grant laid out specific safety requirements:

Fieldwork involves the highest risk for exposure to SARS or other CoVs, while working in caves with high bat density overhead and the potential for fecal dust to be inhaled. There is also some risk of exposure to pathogens or physical injury while handling bats, civets, rodents or other animals, their blood samples or their excreta. . . . We have strict procedures for handling bats and working with samples from them as they are secured in the field and transported to the lab. Field team members handling animals will be trained to utilize personal protective equipment and practice proper environmental disinfection techniques. This includes wearing coveralls or dedicated clothing, nitrile gloves, eye protection, and a P95 or P100 respirator. All field clothing and equipment will be disinfected using Virkon disinfectant. [Emphasis added.]

And yet, contemporaneous accounts indicate that at least one EcoHealth Alliance staffer did not abide by the requirements for using personal protective equipment — because the researchers brought a journalist along on one of their expeditions to the bat-filled caves.

In February 2020, science writer David Quammen described his trip with EcoAlliance staff in an interview with NPR’s Dave Davies:

DAVIES: Now, when you were looking into this, you actually went to China with – and spent some time in the field with people who were investigating this, right? Tell us about that experience.

QUAMMEN: Right. I went with a fellow named Aleksei Chmura who was working as a researcher for a group that’s called EcoHealth Alliance, based in New York, a group of disease scientists who study these emerging viruses, these emerging pathogens in animals around the world. They generally have cross-training in virology, veterinary medicine, ecology, combinations of skills. So Aleksei was one of them.

Aleksei and a number of his Chinese colleagues and I flew to a city called Guilin (ph) in the province of Guangdong, Southern China. And we went out climbing into caves, bat caves in the Karst mountains, the limestone mountains and hills outside of the city of Guilin, looking to trap various different kinds of small bats, insectivore bats, not giant fruit bats, the small bats that lived in these caves, including horseshoe bats, which is a particular group of bats, so that Aleksei and his colleagues could draw blood samples and test those for looking for the SARS virus at that point or any other virus that was suspect.

DAVIES: You want to just describe a little bit of what it felt like to be trapping bats in these caves?

QUAMMEN: Well, it was a little bit claustrophobic. It’s not for everybody.

DAVIES: How do you catch them?

QUAMMEN: We climbed through – we climbed on our bellies through a very low hole to get into one of these caves. We had to squirm down and then up through this hole to get into the cave. And then the cave opened out. And Aleksei and his Chinese colleagues had essentially pillowcases and butterfly nets. And that’s how we caught these bats. The bats started flying around, and they would catch them in butterfly nets. And they were wearing gloves, and they would untangle a bat from a butterfly net and then drop it into one of these cloth bags that were like pillowcases. And in this case, as I recall, they would tie the knot off and then hand it to me, and I would go over and hang it on sort of a clothesline so that the pillowcase with a bat in it could dangle. And we were doing this – I don’t know. We were in there for a couple of hours. Oddly enough, we were not wearing masks of any sort. We were not wearing what they called personal protective equipment, hazmat suits or anything. And I describe this in the book. I asked Alexis, why the hell are we not? And he was just sort of fatalistic about it. He says there are constraints when you’re wearing personal protective gear. There’s always some danger. And he said, it’s my judgment that the danger here is low enough that I’m not wearing a mask and I’m not recommending that anybody else wear one either. When I did some similar things with other people, some of his colleagues from EcoHealth Alliance, we did wear masks and goggles and coveralls and several layers of gloves. [Emphasis added.]

Alexsei Chmura is now the chief of staff for the EcoHealth Alliance.

In Quammen’s 2013 book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, he describes his conversation with Chmura about the lack of safety gear:

At this moment, I became conscious of a dreary human concern. Though we were searching for SARS-like coronavirus in these animals, and sharing their air in a closely confined space, none of us was wearing a mask. Not even a surgical mask, let alone an N95. Um, why is that? I asked Aleksei. “I guess it’s like not wearing a seat belt,” he said. What he meant was that our exposure represented a calculated, acceptable risk. You fly to a strange country, you jump into a cab at the airport, you’re in a hurry, you don’t speak the language — and usually there’s no seat belt, right/ DO you jump out and look for another cab? No, you proceed. You’ve got things to do. You might be killed on the way into town, true, but probably you won’t. Accepting that increment of risk is part of functioning within exigent circumstances. Likewise in a Chinese bat cave. If you were absolutely concerned to shield yourself against the virus, you’d need not just a mask but a full Tyvek coverall, and gloves, and goggles — or maybe even a bubble hood and visor, your whole suit positive-pressurized with filtered air drawn in by a batter-powered fan. “That’s not very practical,” Aleksei said.

Oh, I said, and continued handling the bagged bats. I couldn’t disagree. But what I thought was, catching SARS — that’s practical?

Hey, it’s not like a novel coronavirus from a bat could set off a global pandemic that would kill more than 4.6 million people and counting, right?

Quammen said that his trip with Chmura in China was in 2009. That trip was likely funded in part by a National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases EcoHealth Alliance grant that started in 2008. And then EcoHealth Alliance received another NIAID grant in 2014 . . . after Quammen’s book came out, describing the lack of personal protective equipment on the virus-collecting expeditions.

What Didn’t Happen on Saturday

What remains of al-Qaeda, ISIS, ISIS-K, and every other Islamist group in the world would have loved to kill American citizens on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. They would have loved to set off bombs, hijack airliners, behead innocent people, shoot and stab innocent people, commit cyber-attacks against our infrastructure, disperse poison gases, unleash bioweapon viruses, and detonate stolen nuclear weapons.

But they didn’t succeed in doing any of that.

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, it became almost stylish to declare that America did everything wrong in the past two decades. (Matthew Continetti lays out the insufferable ubiquitous conventional wisdom here.) And yet, for all of our mistakes, bad decisions, alleged overreaction, etc., every day, the terrorists wake up, full of an appetite for destruction and a lust for killing innocent people . . . and they can’t. Once in a great while, a radicalized lone wolf or duo slips through and pulls off a San Bernardino or Pulse-nightclub shooting. But day after day, one aspiring Mohammed Atta after another ends up talking to an informant or has his communications intercepted the National Security Agency or the Central Intelligence Agency or Federal Bureau of Investigation gets word of their plans or the Pentagon drops a Hellfire missile from a drone on him. Week after week, year after year, one setback and disrupted plot after another.

Yes, we’ve made mistakes, but if the Islamists aren’t able to kill us as they wish, we must be doing something right, too.

I would describe the discussion around the 9/11 anniversary as self-flagellation, but I guess it’s more accurately an attempted flagellation of others — you silly Americans, you were so scared, you overreacted so severely to the mere destruction of lower Manhattan and nearly 3,000 dead. God grant us all the confidence and clarity of a big media essay writer, 20 years after a catastrophe, so certain that he would handle things just right. (It’s no longer online, but a fantastic Tom the Dancing Bug cartoon once mocked Tom Daschle’s suggestion that if he had been president, 9/11 would never have occurred.)

And yes, I do mean “he.” Did you notice these “If I were in charge, I would have done this instead and everything would be fixed” essays are always written by men? Maybe more women with memories of 9/11 can be more honest with themselves about how scared they, and all of us, were that the hijackings were just step one, and that more of us would be burying empty caskets and grieving our loved ones.

The Forgotten Americans

Oh, and because it must be repeated until everyone comes home, at least 100 American citizens, an unknown but considerable number of U.S. green-card holders, and more than 100,000 Afghan allies who qualified for Special Immigrant Visas remain trapped in Afghanistan, despite the president’s promise that, “If there’s American citizens left, we’re gonna stay to get them all out.”

Hugh Hewitt observes that as of Sunday, the Biden administration still cannot say with any precision how many American citizens and how many U.S. green-card holders are left in Afghanistan. This is two weeks after all U.S. forces left the country.

ADDENDUM: In case you missed it over the weekend, the U.S. State Department is now informing those concerned about Afghan allies that the department has temporarily stopped processing Special Immigrant Visas for the government’s Afghan allies, but “if you have concerns about your safety, you may contact the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees protection office.” The U.N., meanwhile, is declaring that the Taliban is harassing and intimidating its Afghan staff.

Recommended

The Latest