The debate around the origins of Covid has been ongoing since the virus first began causing chaos in early 2020.
Some top virologists believe the coronavirus spread to humans from an infected animal, potentially in a wet market in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Others think it leaked from a secretive laboratory in the same city. Whether or not it was deliberate or accidental is an even more contentious part of the ‘lab leak’ theory.
One of the most stringent deniers of the man-made hypothesis is British zoologist Dr Peter Daszak, who is known among friends as a ‘funny northerner’ but considered a potential orchestrator of the pandemic by advocates of the lab-leak theory.
He became renowned for his role in facilitating ‘risky’ coronavirus research in China through EcoHealth Alliance, the non-profit he is president of.
The New York-based organisation has secured $60million (£53million) of US Government funds for scientific research over the past decade.
Some of this cash, it has emerged, has since ended up in the pocket of researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), the lab at the centre of lab leak claims. Some of this research involved manipulating Covid-like viruses.
Now, it has been revealed that EcoHealth Alliance has gained another $650,000 (£580,000) from the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to trawl through caves in Southeast Asia looking for bats carrying coronaviruses, despite fears similar work sparked the pandemic.
The new contract gives the green light to project leader Dr Daszak and his team to analyse the behaviour and environmental risk factors for coronaviruses to spillover into humans from animals.
It warns that that part of the world has a ‘high diversity of wildlife coronaviruses’ and a large proportion of the population is regularly exposed to wildlife that could be infected.
Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam are particularly high risk, according to the project details published by the US National Institutes of Health.
Over the course of five years, the team will identify cases where people become infected with coronaviruses, assess the risk and drivers of community transmission and spread and test public health interventions to contain an outbreak.
Scientists argue such research is vital to contain diseases like Covid. But others have raised alarm over its potential involvement in outbreaks.
The latest contract puts the spotlight back on Dr Daszak, who hails from the mining town Dukinfield, on the outskirts of Manchester.
The researcher, who grew up with a younger brother, Ukrainian father and Welsh mother, studied zoology at the University of Bangor in Wales and the University of East London.
The expert in zoonosis — the spread of viruses from animals to humans — has authored more than 300 scientific papers over his career, which has spanned more than three decades, and seen him become friendly with Dr Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to the US President.
Dr Daszak, who lives in New York with his wife Janet, joined EcoHealth — formerly The Wildlife Trust — in 2001. His early career focused on diseases spread by frogs.
But he has also worked with researchers in China for 15 years, including Dr Shi Zhengli, a virologist at the WIV nicknamed ‘Bat Woman’.
EcoHealth, which originally focused on conservation, now works around the world to find out the origins of viruses, map where they have spread and analyse them to find out where the next outbreak could occur.
Records show Dr Daszak raked in millions of dollars’ worth of grants from US Government bodies on behalf of EcoHealth alliance and was paid $354,000 (£314,000) in 2019.
This funding was often dished out to other laboratories, including the WIV, to conduct research in mines to examine bat coronaviruses.
The partnership saw researchers sample thousands of bats and determine that Sars originated in horseshoe bats, which are common in southern and central China and traded in wet markets.
And two years before Covid emerged, Dr Daszak proposed working with WIV scientists to alter coronaviruses and release them into bats as part of a plan to inoculate them against the virus.