US officials are quietly shutting down a taxpayer-funded $125million project to hunt for new viruses due to fears it could spark another pandemic.
DEEP VZN – pronounced deep vision – was launched in October 2021 with the aim of finding and studying novel pathogens in wildlife in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
While the research was meant to prevent human outbreaks and pandemics, critics, including Biden administration officials, are afraid it could do the opposite and have voiced their fears about the potentially ‘catastrophic risks’ of virus hunting.
And their concerns are amplified due to the growing suspicion Covid emerged from an American-sponsored lab in Wuhan, China – a theory the FBI subscribes to.
The project was meant to run until 2026, but DEEP VZN was shut down in July 2023 after a wide swath of experts stressed concerns over the safety of the research.
USAID’s DEEP VZN (pronounced deep vision) project was hunting viruses among wildlife in Asia , Africa and Latin America.
Announcement of the closure came Thursday in a feature published in The BMJ by investigative journalist David Williams.
While this is the most recent to come to light, it is far from the first research the US has conducted on this matter.
For more than a decade the government has funded international projects aimed at identifying exotic viruses among wildlife that could infect humans someday, sending millions to support various similar projects.
Money has flown overseas from the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
DEEP VZN, which stands for Discovery & Exploration of Emerging Pathogens – Viral Zoonoses, was launched by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in October 2021 and less than two years later, USAID officials informed members of Senate committees with jurisdiction over DEEP VZN the program was being shut down.
The premature closure of the project came abruptly and was privately relayed to Senate aides by the office of Atul Gawande, USAID’s assistant administrator for global health.
The news was buried in a congressional budget document hundreds of pages long and was discussed during interviews Mr Williams conducted with federal lawmakers and researchers.
At its launch, USAID said the ‘ambitious new project’ was meant to work with partner countries and the global community to ‘build better preparedness for future global health threats.’
The organization said the project would ‘strengthen global capacity to detect and understand the risks of viral spillover from wildlife to humans that could cause another pandemic.
‘The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how infectious diseases threaten all of society, up-ending people’s lives and attacking societies at their cores.
‘It is also a strong reminder of the connection between animals, humans, and the environment, and the effect that an emerging pathogen spilling over into humans can have on people’s health and on global economies.’
The project was being carried out by scientists from the Washington State University Paul Allen School for Global Health among other research and partner entities.
The goal was to collect more than 800,000 samples over the five-year period, mostly from wildlife, to identify a subset of ‘previously unknown’ viruses that ‘pose a significant pandemic threat.’
The university sought to detect 12,000 new viruses throughout the program’s run and scientists hoped the information would not only help prevent future pandemics, but also better prepare health officials if one did emerge.
‘DEEP VZN is a critical next step in the evolution of USAID’s work to understand and address the risks posed by zoonotic diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans.’
However, in a statement regarding the closure of the program, USAID said it had determined the research was ‘not an agency global health security priority at this time’ and its decision reflected ‘the relative risks and impact of our programming.’
Now, the organization said it will focus on improving laboratory capacity, disease monitoring, human resources, biosafety and security and risk communication.
Criticism of the program arose almost immediately after its launch from wide-ranging government figures and advisers, including health, biosafety and security officials, as well as Senators and White House officials.
In a private letter to a USAID administrator in November 2021, members and staff at both the Senate foreign relations committee and the Senate appropriations committee said they were ‘particularly concerned’ about DEEP VZN’s research into ‘studying unknown viruses in areas where there is high risk of animal to human spillover.’
They continued: ‘Given all of the outstanding questions surrounding the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is critically important that this initiative be adequately vetted.’
Additionally, a biosecurity, biosafety and White House official, advised the same USAID administrator to shut down DEEP VZN in December 2021, Mr Williams wrote.
After a review of the project aimed to ensure it would be conducted in a way to adequately manage risks, USAID told researchers in March and November 2022 to not collect samples of viruses until proper safety protocols were reviewed.
However, federal records show through the spring of 2023, USAID continued to fund research while the project leaders established more labs, technicians and support staff needed to handle the volume of genetic samples collected.
In interviews, White House officials told Mr Williams the decision to discontinue DEEP VZN reflected the Biden Administration’s ‘commitment to weigh more rigorously the risks and potential benefits of research projects.’
Recent data found between 2015 and 2023, at least seven US entities supplied NIH grant money to labs in China performing animal experiments.
The officials referenced policy recommendations that only supported research like DEEP VZN’s if there was no other safer method that would produce the same benefits and only after ‘unnecessary risks have been eliminated.’
Virus hunting has been a point of contention long before the Covid pandemic and scientists have dismissed the notion it could lead to lifesaving drugs or the prevention of a pandemic.
Now, in the wake of the pandemic, more people in the science community have raised additional concerns, warning the risks of collecting animal-to-animal transmitted viruses should be highly considered as this type of research typically involves collecting animal blood, excrement or saliva and transporting samples to labs for analysis.
A misstep at any point in the process could produce a catastrophic outcome and result in a new pandemic.
In May, three leaders of the Republican-controlled House Energy and Commerce Committee asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to examine the benefits and risks of virus hunting, expressing this very concern.
The lawmakers said in a letter to GAO that while similar research has identified thousands of new viruses, scientists question if collecting animal viruses can ‘accurately predict those that may infect humans, or what the effect would be if and when humans are subsequently infected.’
They continued, according to The BMJ feature, warning that others in the community ‘have suggested these types of programs risk unintentional infection of field or laboratory workers that could result in an accidental outbreak.’
GAO began an audit into DEEP VZN following the letter, but told Mr Williams it would not be completed until spring 2024.