NIH Documents Provide New Evidence U.S. Funded Gain-of-Function Research in Wuhan
U.S.-funded experiment in China posed biosafety risks but did not cause Covid-19 pandemic, scientists say.
September 9 2021, 8:03 p.m.
Documents obtained by The Intercept contain new evidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the nearby Wuhan University Center for Animal Experiment, along with their collaborator, the U.S.-based nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, have engaged in what the U.S. government defines as “gain-of-function research of concern,” intentionally making viruses more pathogenic or transmissible in order to study them, despite stipulations from a U.S. funding agency that the money not be used for that purpose.
Grant money for the controversial experiment came from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is headed by Anthony Fauci. The award to EcoHealth Alliance, a research organization which studies the spread of viruses from animals to humans, included subawards to Wuhan Institute of Virology and East China Normal University. The principal investigator on the grant is EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak, who has been a key voice in the search for Covid-19’s origins.
Scientists unanimously told The Intercept that the experiment, which involved infecting genetically engineered mice with “chimeric” hybrid viruses, could not have directly sparked the pandemic. None of the viruses listed in the write-ups of the experiment are related to the virus that causes Covid-19, SARS-CoV-2, closely enough to have evolved into it. Still, several scientists said the new information, which the NIH released after it was sued by The Intercept, points to biosafety concerns, highlighting a general lack of oversight for research on pathogens and raising questions about what other information has not been publicly disclosed.
“As a virologist, I personally think creating chimeras of SARS-related bat coronaviruses that are thought to pose high risk to humans entails unacceptable risks,” said Jesse Bloom, who studies the evolution of viruses at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, is a disease caused, like Covid-19, by an airborne coronavirus.
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci listens during a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic at the White House on March 26, 2020, in Washington, D.C.
Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty ImagesThe experiment also raises questions about assertions from Fauci and NIH Director Francis Collins that NIH-funded projects at the Wuhan Institute of Virology did not involve gain-of-function research. In May, Fauci testified before Congress: “The NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.” The documents do not establish whether Fauci was directly aware of the work.
Scientists working under a 2014 NIH grant to the EcoHealth Alliance to study bat coronaviruses combined the genetic material from a “parent” coronavirus known as WIV1 with other viruses. They twice submitted summaries of their work that showed that, when in the lungs of genetically engineered mice, three altered bat coronaviruses at times reproduced far more quickly than the original virus on which they were based. The altered viruses were also somewhat more pathogenic, with one causing the mice to lose significant weight. The researchers reported, “These results demonstrate varying pathogenicity of SARSr-CoVs with different spike proteins in humanized mice.”
But the terms of the grant clearly stipulated that the funding could not be used for gain-of-function experiments. The grant conditions also required the researchers to immediately report potentially dangerous results and stop their experiments pending further NIH review. According to both the EcoHealth Alliance and NIH, the results were reported to the agency, but NIH determined that rules designed to restrict gain-of-function research did not apply.
The Intercept consulted 11 scientists who are virologists or work in adjacent fields and hold a range of views on both the ethics of gain-of-function research and the Covid-19 origins search. Seven said that the work appears to meet NIH’s criteria for gain-of-function research.
One said that the experiment “absolutely does not meet the bar” for gain-of-function research. “You can’t predict that these viruses would be more pathogenic, or even pathogenic at all in people,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist with the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan. “They also did not study transmissibility at all in these experiments,” meaning that the scientists did not look at whether the viruses could spread across a population.
Three experts said that, while they did not have enough knowledge of U.S. policies to comment on whether the research met NIH criteria, the experiment involving humanized mice was unnecessarily risky.
One virologist, Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University, said while he considered the mouse experiment described in the document to clearly fall into the gain-of-function category, he didn’t see it as problematic. “You can do some kinds of gain-of-function research that then has unforeseen consequences and may be a problem, but that’s not the case here,” said Racaniello.
Robert Kessler, communications manager for EcoHealth Alliance, denied that the work on the humanized mice met the definition of gain-of-function research. Kessler insisted that bat viruses are not potential pandemic pathogens because, he said, “a bat virus is not known to be able to infect humans.” The proposal justified the work on WIV1 by explaining that it is “not a select agent” — referring to a list of closely monitored toxins and biological agents that have the potential to pose a severe threat to public health — and “has not been shown to cause human infections, and has not been shown to be transmissible between humans.”
But the group’s bat coronavirus research was focused on the very threat that bat viruses pose to people. Kessler did acknowledge that, while the original bat coronavirus in the experiment did not spread among humans, the research was designed to gauge how bat coronaviruses could evolve to infect humans.
All but two of the scientists consulted agreed that, whatever title it is given, the newly public experiment raised serious concerns about the safety and oversight of federally funded research. “In my point of view, the debate about the definition of ‘gain-of-function’ has been too much focused on technical aspects,” said Jacques van Helden, a professor of bioinformatics at Aix-Marseille Université. “The real question is whether or not research has the potential to create or facilitate the selection of viruses that might infect humans.” The experiments described in the proposal clearly do have that potential, he said.
NIH spokesperson Elizabeth Deatrick said that the agency had considered the research — and decided not to restrict it under its own rules. “In 2016, NIAID determined that the work was not subject to the Gain-of-Function (GoF) research funding pause and the subsequent HHS P3CO Framework,” Deatrick wrote, referring to criteria put in place in 2017 to guide the agency’s funding decisions about research that involves, or is reasonably anticipated to involve, potential pandemic pathogens.
A five-day courseof molnupiravir, the new medicine being hailed as a “huge advance” in the treatment of Covid-19, costs $17.74 to produce, according to areportissued last week by drug pricing experts at the Harvard School of Public Health and King’s College Hospital in London. Merck is charging the U.S. government $712 for the same amount of medicine, or 40 times the price.
Last Friday’sannouncementthat the new medicine cut the risk of hospitalization among clinical trial participants with moderate or mild illness in half could have huge implications for the course of the coronavirus pandemic. Because it’s a pill — as opposed to monoclonal antibodies, a comparable antiviral treatment that is administered intravenously — molnupiravir is expected to be more widely used and, hopefully, will cut the death rate. In the first 29 days of the trial, no deaths were reported among the 385 patients who received the drug, while eight of the people who received a placebo died, according to the statement put out by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, the two companies that are jointly launching it.
In addition to having huge implications for health, the pill could bring staggering profits to both Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics. A small Miami-based company, Ridgebacklicensedthe medicine from Emory University in 2020 and two months later sold the worldwide rights to the drug to Merck for an undisclosed sum. Although Ridgeback remains involved in the development of the drug, some have described the deal as “flipping.”
Like the vast majority of medicines on the market, molnupiravir — which was originally investigated as a possible treatment for Venezuelan equine encephalitis — was developed using government funds. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a division of the Department of Defense, provided more than $10 million offundingin 2013 and 2015 to Emory University, asresearchdone by the nonprofit Knowledge Ecology International has revealed. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, also provided Emory with more than $19 million in additional grants.
Yet only Merck and Ridgeback will reap the profits from the new antiviral, whichaccordingto Quartz could bring in as much as $7 billion by the end of this year. After the announcement of the encouraging clinical trial results on Friday, Merck’s stock price climbed, while stock prices of some vaccine makerssagged. Despite its initial investment, the U.S. government seems to be facing a steep markup in prices. In June, the government signed a$1.2 billion contract with Merck to supply 1.7 million courses of the medication at the $712 price. The transaction is due to take place as soon as molnupiravir receives emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.
Good government advocates are pointing out that because federal agencies spent at least $29 million on the drug’s development, the government has the obligation to ensure that the medicine is affordable. “The public funded this drug, and therefore the public has some rights, including the rights you have it available under reasonable terms,” said Luis Gil Abinader, senior researcher at Knowledge Ecology International.
In aninterviewon CNBC, Ridgeback co-founder Wendy Holman noted that the company asked for but “never got government funding” to help manufacture molnupiravir. A whistleblower complaint filed by Rick Bright, the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, in May 2020,describedRidgeback’s unsuccessful efforts “to secure approximately $100 million” from BARDA to develop the drug as a Covid-19 treatment. The company’s press release about the study results also noted that “since licensed by Ridgeback, all funds used for the development of molnupiravir have been provided by Merck and by Wayne and Wendy Holman of Ridgeback.”
Abinader was critical of Ridgeback’s failure to acknowledge the government’s initial investment in the drug before the company acquired it. “What they want to do, apparently, is to shape the narrative about who paid for the development of this drug in order to avoid demands from the public to make it available at reasonable prices,” he said.
In an emailed response to questions submitted to Ridgeback Biotherapeutics for this article, Davidson Goldin wrote, “Ridgeback has never received any government funding for molnupiravir and self-funded the development of this medicine for treating SARS-CoV-2 when the government did not provide financial support.” Merck did not respond to inquiries about this article.
No Strings Attached
Merck has promised to make molnupiravir accessible around the world and has already entered into licensing agreements with five Indian companies that manufacture generic drugs. “Merck has committed to providing timely access to molnupiravir globally, if it is authorized or approved, and plans to implement a tiered pricing approach based on World Bank country income criteria to reflect countries’ relative ability to finance their health response to the pandemic,” the company said in its announcement of the trial results on Friday. Indian companies are planning to price the drug at less than $12 for a five-day course,according to recent reports.
In the U.S., and likely in many upper-middle-income and all high-income countries, the price will be determined by the market. Noting that the treatment may be offered to people who are not yet severely sick with Covid-19, health advocates fear that will mean some in these countries will not be able to afford the new drug. “Offering someone a $700 treatment when they don’t yet feel that ill is going to mean that a lot of people are not going to take it,” said Dzintars Gotham, a physician at King’s College Hospital in London and a co-author of the report on the pricing of molnupiravir. According to the report, pricing molnupiravir at $19.99 would allow a company a 10 percent profit margin.
Melissa Barber, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard School of Public Health and co-author of the report on molnupiravir, said that, while its pricing is not as extreme as that of someother drugs, it will likely still place the antiviral out of reach of some who could benefit from it. “If you can’t afford medicine because it’s 1,000 times more than you can afford, or because it’s 100 times more than you can afford, it doesn’t matter,” said Barber. “Those are both bad.”
Barber and Gotham acknowledge that the $17.74 cost of producing a five-day course of the antiviral pills is an estimate but said that the algorithm they used, and have employed to estimate the production costs for hundreds of drugs, tends to result in overestimates in the long run.
Meanwhile, the prices that private companies charge for drugs tend to go up rather than down. “For all these deals that have happened for therapeutics or vaccines, the price has only increased as uncertainty has decreased,” she said. “One price is given and then, for the next sale, the price goes up. The price went up for other drugs and vaccines, so I would be very surprised if this price didn’t go up, too.”
The pricing differential should be grounds todemand a better price under the Bayh-Dole Act, according to Knowledge Ecology International’s Abinader. Bayh-Dole, passed in 1980, regulates the transfer of federally funded inventions into commercial property and allows the government to “march in” and suspend the use of patents that were developed with government funding if it determines that the products are excessively priced.
“The pressure for march-in rights around this drug is going to be huge,” predicted Abinader, who suggested that the government could use the law to lower the price of molnupiravir. “When the Biden administration negotiates another supply agreement with Merck, they should probably leverage those rights in order to get a better price,” he said.
According to Gotham, who is based in London, the short story of molnupiravir already sums up the best and the worst of the U.S. pharmaceutical system. “It’s a great coup that the American government funded some scientists to develop antivirals,” he said. “The great tragedy is that, after their great success, they just gave it away to private industry with apparently no strings attached.”
The National Institutes of Health edited a section of its website explaining gain-of-function research this month as scrutiny over the research the NIH funded in Wuhan, China intensified.
The original page, seen on the Wayback Machine, displays several sections including Potential Pandemic Pathogens, Gain-of-Function Research, U.S. Government Funding Pause, HHS P3CO Framework, Research Within P3CO Scope, Research Outside P3CO Scope, and a Timeline.
The Gain-of-Function section stated:
The term gain-of-function (GOF) research describes a type of research that modifies a biological agent so that it confers new or enhanced activity to that agent. Some scientists use the term broadly to refer to any such modification. However, not all research described as GOF entails the same level of risk. For example, research that involves the modification of bacteria to allow production of human insulin, or the altering of the genetic program of immune cells in CAR-T cell therapy to treat cancer generally would be considered low risk. The subset of GOF research that is anticipated to enhance the transmissibility and/or virulence of potential pandemic pathogens, which are likely to make them more dangerous to humans, has been the subject of substantial scrutiny and deliberation. Such GOF approaches can sometimes be justified in laboratories with appropriate biosafety and biosecurity controls to help us understand the fundamental nature of human-pathogen interactions, assess the pandemic potential of emerging infectious agents, and inform public health and preparedness efforts, including surveillance and the development of vaccines and medical countermeasures. This research poses biosafety and biosecurity risks, and these risks must be carefully managed. When supported with NIH funds, this subset of GOF research may only be conducted in laboratories with stringent oversight and appropriate biosafety and biosecurity controls(link is external) to help protect researchers from infection and prevent the release of microorganisms into the environment. (NIH)
Now the page lists only Potential Pandemic Pathogens, ePPP Research, and Oversight.
The edits come as Sen. Rand Paul is calling for Dr. Anthony Fauci to resign for lying about gain-of-function research.
“He should be fired,” Paul told “Axios on HBO” in an interview that aired Sunday.
“The thing is, is just for lack of judgment of nothing else, and I, you know, he’s probably never going to admit that he lied, he’s going to continue to dissemble and try to work around the truth and massage the truth,” he added.
While Paul has been making this case for awhile, the sentiments were renewed after Lawrence Tabak, the principal deputy director at the NIH, revealed new details in a letter about an NIH grant to EcoHealth Alliance, which conducted research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
This undoubtedly the worst idea ever. I can not believe that anyone would agree to this! This is going to be disastrous!!
For those yearning for an end to pandemic-related restrictions, credential programs certifying their vaccination against Covid-19 have been marketed as the key to reopening the economy and restoring their personal freedom. But the implementation of immunity passports is also accelerating the establishment of a global digital identity infrastructure.
As the military surveillance firm and NATO contractor Thales recently put it, vaccine passports “are a precursor to digital ID wallets.”
And as the CEO of iProove, a biometric ID company and Homeland Security contractor, emphasized to Forbes, “The evolution of vaccine certificates will actually drive the whole field of digital ID in the future. So, therefore, this is not just about Covid, this is about something even bigger.”
For the national security state, digital immunity passports promise unprecedented control over populations wherever such systems are implemented. Ann Cavoukian, the former privacy commissioner of Ontario, Canada has described the vaccine passport system already active in her province as “a new, inescapable web of surveillance with geolocation data being tracked everywhere.”
For tech oligarchs such Bill Gates and neoliberal institutions such as the World Economic Forum, digital ID and digital currency systems have already enabled the extraction of unbelievable profits in the Global South, where hundreds of millions of people remain “unbanked” and therefore outside the sphere of electronic payments systems.
Now, with grassroots protest building against an exclusionary regime of vaccine passports, the captains of global capitalism are campaigning with more urgency than ever to bring digital ID to the West.
For these elite interests, the digitization of immunity passports represent a critical tool in a long-planned economic and political transformation.
“With no Covid Pass, my wife and I are banished from society”
Across the globe, the certification of vaccination against COVID-19 is already a requirement to participate in daily life.
In Indonesia, COVID-19 vaccines are mandatory, and those who refuse may face fines or be refused access to public services. In Greece, residents must present immunity to work in or enter bars, theaters, and other indoor public spaces.
France has similarly required residents to carry a health pass for access to all restaurants, bars, trains, and any venue accommodating more than 50 people, a decision that has stoked widespread protests throughout the country. The socialist French former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon has blasted the new restrictions as “absurd, unfair and authoritarian.”https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?dnt=true&embedId=twitter-widget-0&features=e30%3D&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1424730996738568195&lang=en&origin=safari-reader%3A%2F%2Fwww.zerohedge.com%2Fgeopolitical%2Fpublic-health-or-private-wealth-how-digital-vaccine-passports-pave-way-unprecedented&theme=dark&widgetsVersion=f001879%3A1634581029404&width=550px
Restrictions for Lithuanians who are not double vaccinated or unable to demonstrate recent prior infection from Covid-19 represent some of the harshest in the world. They are banned from restaurants, all non-essential stores, shopping centers, beauty services, libraries, banks or insurance agencies, universities, inpatient medical care, and train travel.
Gluboco Lietuva, a self-described “Lithuanian father” who has refused vaccination, stated on Twitter: “With no Covid Pass, my wife and I are banished from society. We have no income. Banned from most shopping. Can barely exist.”https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?dnt=true&embedId=twitter-widget-2&features=e30%3D&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1441691330825031680&lang=en&origin=safari-reader%3A%2F%2Fwww.zerohedge.com%2Fgeopolitical%2Fpublic-health-or-private-wealth-how-digital-vaccine-passports-pave-way-unprecedented&theme=dark&widgetsVersion=f001879%3A1634581029404&width=550px
Four out of ten Canadian provinces currently require citizens to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 to enter indoor public venues like restaurants and theaters. All federal public servants and some other workers must be vaccinated to keep their jobs.
The government of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also requires all air travelers and interprovincial train travelers to be vaccinated. Canada’s Alberta province took the measures a step further this September when it announced that those who cannot prove full COVID vaccination will no longer be allowed to socialize indoors in groups of more than 12.
In Israel, meanwhile, only those who have received three doses can work or shop indoors and go to restaurants; citizens who received two shots over six months ago are now considered unvaccinated. This rule has consolidated what even the New York Times has deemed a “two-tier system for the vaccinated and unvaccinated … raising legal, moral and ethical questions.”
In the US, President Joe Biden is “moving forward with vaccination requirements wherever [he] can.” Biden, who declared that his “patience is wearing thin” with unvaccinated Americans, recently announced new federal requirements mandating that about 80 million Americans – including all those who work at companies with more than 100 employees – must either be vaccinated or get tested for COVID-19 weekly.
Biden has also mandated that those working at facilities which receive Medicare or Medicaid must show proof of immunity to keep their jobs. According to AP, President Biden is considering proof of immunity for interstate travel, a restriction his former public health advisor, Ezekiel Emanuel, has clamored for.
In the state of Colorado, the UCHealth hospital system has announced that it will not allow organ transplants to be performed on unvaccinated patients, prompting some to travel to Texas for life-saving procedures.
New York City offers a glimpse of the program in store for the rest of the country. The city’s “Key to NYC” requirement, which went into effect September 13, requires proof of vaccination to work at or attend indoor dining, indoor fitness, and entertainment venues like museums, stadiums, arcades, and theaters.
“If you want to participate in our society fully, you’ve got to get vaccinated,” Mayor De Blasio stated. “[New York City] is a miraculous place literally full of wonders … if you’re un-vaccinated, unfortunately, you will not be able to participate.”
COVID-related mandates could be permanent
While outlets like CNN have referred to vaccine passports as a “useful, temporary measure,” it is increasingly evident that the proof of immunity restrictions imposed on Western populations may not go away any time soon.
Australia’s New South Wales Ministry of Health Dr. Kerry Chant has stated that citizens “need to get used to being vaccinated with COVID vaccines for the future… it will be a regular cycle of vaccination and revaccination.”
Albert Bourla, CEO of the Pfizer corporation that has seen its stock skyrocket during the pandemic, remarked that the “most likely scenario” is coronavirus vaccine shots mandated on an annual basis.
As a February Nature headline read, “the coronavirus is here to stay.” Or, as Dr. Mike Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Health Emergency Program, put it: it is “very, very, unlikely” that COVID-19 will ever go away.
“Eradicating this virus right now from the world is a lot like trying to plan the construction of a stepping-stone pathway to the Moon,” said Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “It’s unrealistic.”
“This is our life from now, in waves,” Israel’s Coronavirus Czar, Salman Zarka, acknowledged.
Already, Zarka has prepared plans to mandate a fourth dose for Israelis.
COVID mandates to be digitally enforced
While a state-mandated treadmill of boosters may seem unappealing to many, if not outright hellish, for others the nightmare presents the opportunity of a lifetime. As early as May 2020, only seven weeks after the pandemic was declared, US tech billionaire Bill Gates predicted that “eventually we will have some digital certificates to show who has recovered or been tested recently or when we have a vaccine who has received it.”
Now, over a year later, a growing number of local and national governments require some form of digital proof of vaccination or natural immunity against COVID-19.
Those who want to travel to Canada, for example, are required to download an app that verifies the vaccination status of incoming travelers. The government also plans to introduce a federal, Canada-wide digital vaccine passport in the coming months.
When the European Union (EU) opened up to foreign tourists this summer, it introduced a “Digital COVID Certificate” which granted entry to those vaccinated against COVID-19, those who have had a negative test, or those who recently recovered from an infection. Its proposed “Digital Green Certificate” has been branded as a means to facilitate safe free movement inside the EU during the pandemic.
The government of France is partnering with a biometric technology company called IDEMIA to “make it easier for its citizens to prove their identity and complete online transactions using a smartphone.” The new app will “enable French citizens to place their national electronic identification cards [introduced to France as a COVID-19 response in August 2021] … on the back of their smartphones and have their identity instantly confirmed.” IDEMIA is also helping France certify travelers immunity data with their Health Travel Pass suite.
The US is still accepting paper vaccination records, and President Biden has insisted no national app is in the works. However, seven U.S. states (California, New York, Louisiana, Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey, and Hawaii) have already implemented apps certifying vaccination against COVID-19 and have various degrees of COVID-19 vaccine mandates in place.
ImmunaBand, a wearable wristband, whose company mission is “to bring the world a little closer in a time of the COVID-19 pandemic and for you to demonstrate to the world your vaccination status,” has also been approved by New York City as proof of vaccination.
“In typical American fashion, the US government is relegating the creation of digital vaccination certifications to the private sector,” stated the non-profit Data & Society.
Indeed, behind the push for digital vaccine passports is a coterie of supra-national neoliberal institutions guided by oligarchic tech industry donors.
Elite corporate interests behind digital COVID passports
Mega-corporations, international finance institutions, and billionaire-backed private foundations have played a vital role in lobbying for and implementing digital immunity passports.
The burgeoning global health passport system has been coordinated under the umbrella of the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO). However, this institution is so intertwined with wealthy private interests it can hardly be characterized as a “public” health body.
As former WHO director Margaret Chan told filmmaker Lilian Franck, “only 30 percent of my budget is predictable funds. The other 70 percent, I have to take a hat and go around the world to beg for money. And when they give us the money, [it] is highly linked to their preferences, what they like.”
Chief among those private funders is the second wealthiest man in the world, Bill Gates, and his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which happens to be the second largest donor to the WHO.
Bill Gates with World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom
The Gates Foundation recently helped fund a WHO paper providing “implementation guidance” for proof of vaccination certifications across the world. The authors crafted the paper alongside the Rockefeller Foundation and with guidance from several high-level representatives of the World Bank.
According to Foreign Affairs, “few policy initiatives or normative standards set by the WHO are announced before they have been casually, unofficially vetted by Gates Foundation staff.” Or, as other sources told Politico in 2017, “Gates’ priorities have become the WHO’s.”
Also at the forefront of the shift to digital credentials is the World Economic Forum (WEF). “The Forum is involved in the WHO task force to reflect on those [vaccine credential requirements] standards and think about how they would be used,” reads a May WEF article.
On paper, the WEF (also known as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation) is an NGO and think tank “committed to improving the state of the world.” In reality, it is an international network of some of the wealthiest and most influential people on the planet. The Forum positions itself as the thought leader of global capitalism.
The organization is best known for its annual gathering of the global ruling class. Each year, hedge fund managers, bankers, CEOs, media representatives, and heads of state gather in Davos to “shape global, regional and industry agendas.” As Foreign Affairs put it, “the WEF has no formal authority, but it has become the major forum for elites to discuss policy ideas and priorities.”
In 2017, German economist and WEF founder Klaus Schwab introduced the concept of “The Fourth Industrial Revolution” with the title of the book he published that year. The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) denotes the current “technological revolution” that is changing the way people “live, work, and relate to one another,” and with implications “unlike anything humankind has experienced,” according to Schwab.
In January 2021, several WEF partners, including Microsoft, Oracle, Salesforce, and several other “heavyweights,” announced a partnership to launch the Vaccine Credential Initiative (VCI) to develop digital immunization authentication tools, according to Forbes.
Aiming to institute a single “SMART Health Card” for the world, the VCI intends for its SMART Health Cards to be recognized “across organizational and jurisdictional boundaries.”
As of today, those who received a vaccine in California, Hawaii, Louisiana, New York, Virginia, or certain counties in Maryland can obtain a SMART Health Card from the state.
In most other states, a SMART Health Card is available to those who were vaccinated at one of more than 17,100 CVS, Walgreen’s, or Rite Aid pharmacy chains nationwide.
“More states, pharmacies, and health systems will begin issuing SMART Health Cards very soon,” promises the site of the Commons Project, one of the founders of the VCI initiative.
Commons Project CEO Paul Meyer happens to be a WEF “young leader.”
Commons Project CEO and World Economic Forum Young Leader Paul Meyer
In India, tech oligarchs use digital ID to force social credit on rural poor, spawning exclusion and even death
In 2015, The Gates Foundation provided seed money to a Yale School of Public Health project that would become known as Khushi Baby. Now a non-profit, Khushi Baby makes microchip-equipped necklaces for a child to wear at all times to track their vaccination status and establish continuous monitoring from their first immunizations through adulthood. The non-profit says it is now using data from over 35,000 villages in India to create algorithms that “predict health outcomes for mothers and children.”
From the website of KhushiBaby.org
In 2016, IDEMIA, the security firm now working with the French government on vaccination and identity verification, designed the microchip-equipped necklaces. The necklaces have been used to track health data for 13 million people in India since the beginning of the pandemic.
These programs have been marketed by corporate consultants as essential tools for improving equality and inclusion in the Global South. “Digital identification is key to inclusive growth,” claimed McKinsey, the global consulting firm, in 2019.
“Something like 1 billion people could be more financially included and participative,” said Mike Kubzansky, managing partner of Ebay founder and media mogul Pierre Omidyar’s Omidyar Network during a WEF panel exploring how “Digital Identification Provides a Significant Opportunity for Value Creation.”
A closer look at the push for “inclusion” by corporate behemoths reveals their altruistic language as little more than public relations cover for raw profit motives, resulting in marginalization and even death for many of those roped into their digital ID systems.
Besides serving as the staging ground for the Khushi Baby venture, India has become a laboratory for digital tracking and identity systems. With support from Western capitalist outfits like the Gates Foundation and the World Bank, the country has become the site of the world’s largest digital ID database, known as Aadhaar.
The Aadhaar system is named for a 12 digit number that serves as a proof of identity and address, among other markers, anywhere in India. To date, a whopping 1.3 billion Indians have been enrolled in the system, making it the largest biometric ID database ever constructed. It contains iris scans and fingerprints from both hands of each user. The technology for this system was provided by none other than the French security firm IDEMIA.
Nandan Nilekani, creator of the Aadhar digital ID system, with Bill Gates
Aadhaar was implemented in 2014, the year that the free marketeering, tech-centric Narendra Modi entered the prime minister’s office. Its creator, tech billionaire Nandan Nilekani, has been branded “the Bill Gates of Bangalore,”celebrated by globalization enthusiasts like Thomas Friedman, and hailed by none other than Gates as an altruistic “hero.” Gates’ foundation has collaborated with Nilekani through its “Co-impact” project alongside billionaire eBay co-founder Jeffrey Skoll’s Skoll Foundation.
“Aadhaar is a huge asset for India,” effused Gates in a 2019 interview with the Indian network Times Now. “The fact that you can make digital payments and open a bank account so easily, India is a leader in that. There are huge benefits in being able to get digital government money to the beneficiary.”
But behind the neoliberal spin, Nilekani’s Aadhar digital ID system has wreaked havoc on the lives of India’s most vulnerable and stigmatized populations.
In the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, a wave of deaths took place in 2017 when impoverished citizens were cut off from government-subsidized food rations by the Aadhaar system. In several cases, aging widows were denied rice for several months because the system rejected their fingerprint scans.
Around the same time, three brothers died of starvation after they failed to properly register with Aadhaar and were subsequently denied rations for six months. The same cruel fate was visited on the Kumari family, which was unable to obtain an electronic Aadhaar ID, lost its ration card, and saw its 11-year-old daughter, Santoshi, die of hunger.
“Many people in Jharkhand have been victims of similar deprivation of food entitlements during the last few months,” reported India’s Scroll. “The main reason is that Aadhaar-based biometric authentication is now compulsory in about 80% of ration shops in the state.”
According to Scroll, a random sample of 18 villages where biometric authentication was compulsory found that a staggering 37% of cardholders were unable to buy their food rations.
Besides making Aadhaar the key to obtaining government services, the Modi government has integrated data collected by Aadhar to establish a “360-degree database” that “automatically track[s] when a citizen moves between cities, changes jobs, or buys a new property,” according to the Huffington Post.
When Covid-19 first reached India in early 2020, Nilekani proposed employing Aadhar as the basis for an anti-Covid vaccination and tracking program. “We must ensure that everybody gets a digital certificate with the date of vaccination, name of the vaccine and through which vendor and at what location,” he declared in 2020.
The system’s serial breaches of privacy even prompted some HIV-positive Indians to drop out of antiretroviral treatment programs that require the Aadhaar card. Though the Aadhaar is said to be voluntary, individuals with HIV have complained to Indian media that they were pressured into enrolling into the ID program, and had been threatened with the loss of medical services.
US privacy advocates have pointed to digital national identity programs like Aadhaar as gargantuan surveillance tools that establish the basis for a social credit system.
Addressing the US House Committee on Financial Services in July 2021, Elizabeth Renieris of Notre-Dame’s Technology Ethics Lab warned, “The Aadhaar number in India is able to track your activity across all facets of your life, from employment to healthcare, to school, to pretty much everything you do. You can’t retain autonomy over specific domains of your life. You can’t separate your personal and professional reputation. You can’t have this kind of contextualized personal identity. I think that’s really problematic.”
“We must avoid building digital identity systems and infrastructure in a way that further expands and entrenches the surveillance state, as does the national identity system in India,” Renieris continued.
But it is the all-encompassing social credit aspect of Aadhaar that has made Gates so fond of the system.
Addressing India’s top policy makers in 2016, the world’s second wealthiest man declared, “Over time, all of these transactions create a footprint and so when you go in for credit, the ability to access the history that you’ve paid your utility bills on time, that you’ve saved up money for your children’s education, all of those things in your digital trail, accessed in an appropriate way allow the credit market to [score the risk properly].“
ID4D expands digital ID to track more human activity than ever
In 2016, the Gates Foundation ponied up funding for a World Bank project called the Identity for Development (ID4D) Initiative for the declared purpose of bringing the “Aadhaar approach to other countries.”
To date, the World Bank has invested $1.2 billion into the ID4D initiative, with the official aim of creating “identification systems using 21st Century solutions.”
Among the four financial partners that established the initiative were two familiar Big Tech-backed operations: The Gates Foundation and The Omidyar Network, along with Australian Aid and UK Aid. According to the World Bank, the Gates Foundation’s “catalytic contributions” in particular transformed the project from an idea to a functional World Bank initiative.
According to the World Bank, ID4D “promote[s] the use of digital ID systems for free movement and service delivery, by creating linkages across systems that allow users to authenticate themselves for key services such as receiving social transfer payments, completing financial transactions, and crossing borders.”
Yet a closer look at the initiative’s backers and their agenda reveals a longstanding goal of the captains of global capitalism: creating a digitally centered identity system that enables powerful public and private institutions to track more human activity than ever.
“Digital ID … can be leveraged by government and commercial platforms to facilitate a variety of digital transactions, including digital payments,” explains the World Bank.
In an August 2021 white paper, the World Bank called on African nations to achieve a “single digital market” and loosen regulations on digital infrastructure to lower the risk for investors. The paper revealed the real intentions behind the World Bank’s push for a closure to the digital divide: opening up the continent for foreign investment. “Government regulation,” the paper declared, “needs to smoothen the path to digital transformation in the region.”
“By accelerating Africa’s digital transformation, businesses can reap the benefits,” the World Economic Forum (WEF) proclaimed in a 2020 article titled, “Africa has the potential to boost global growth.”
“There will […] be lucrative opportunities in Algeria, Angola, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Sudan, and Tunisia … a good bet for companies seeking to enter new markets,” the WEF advised.
As the World Economic Forum recently wrote, “COVID-19 has highlighted the advantages of creating a digital economy.” Yet the advantages the group speaks of will likely fall on the side of its stakeholders.
Partners of the World Economic Forum’s “Platform for a Good Digital Identity ” include the biometric ID firm Accenture, Amazon, Barclays Bank, Deutsche Bank, HSBC Bank, Mastercard, the biometric technology firm Simprints, and the credit giant, Visa.
The initiative’s stakeholders represent the key beneficiaries of a biometric ID system imposed on the Global South, with Western multinational financial firms functioning as the gateway for its inhabitants to participate in the global economy.
The WEF has also made clear that the “end goal” of its agenda is expanding the model it established in India until every person in the world holds a unique digital ID.
In an article titled “Digital ID is the Catalyst of Our Digital Future,” Mohit Joshi, a WEF ‘young leader,’ argued that “governments should use [Aadhaar] to streamline the delivery of services and payments, and massively increase financial inclusion.”
In a separate paper, however, the WEF conceded that the new digital system will not necessarily provide users with the liberation they have been promised: “Fourth Industrial Revolution digital identity will determine what products, services, and information we can access – or, conversely, what is closed off to us,” the WEF stated.
ID2020 leverages vaccinations to push “beyond dystopian” digital ID’s and payments
Back in 2016, Bill Gates’ Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), Microsoft, Accenture and the Rockefeller Foundation established a new consortium to provide digital ID certificates to infants when they receive their routine immunizations. They called it ID2020, incidentally naming it for the year that a global pandemic would be declared.
ID2020 says it is “dedicated to spearheading a global digital biometric identity standard,” and claims Digital IDs will lead to “financial independence.”https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?dnt=true&embedId=twitter-widget-7&features=e30%3D&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1444132060935897091&lang=en&origin=safari-reader%3A%2F%2Fwww.zerohedge.com%2Fgeopolitical%2Fpublic-health-or-private-wealth-how-digital-vaccine-passports-pave-way-unprecedented&theme=dark&widgetsVersion=f001879%3A1634581029404&width=550px
Partners in the ID2020 initiative include the credit card giant Mastercard and Simprints, a biometric technology firm supported by the US Agency for International Development, a traditional front organization for US intelligence.
Mastercard’s ‘community pass’ project aims to capture the biometrics of 30 million individuals in remote parts of Africa over the next three years and issue them a Mastercard Community Pass biometric smart card, which will in turn provide Africans with a digital biometric identity and a digital bank account.
ID2020 is currently operating in Bangladesh, where it administers biometric enrollment and digital ID to infants when they receive routine immunizations. GAVI CEO Seth Berkely has said he plans to expand the program across the underdeveloped world, working with mega-corporations such as Facebook and Mastercard to tie vaccination status to a biometric identification system.
“Eighty-nine percent of children and adolescents without identification live in countries supported by Gavi,” Berkley stated. “We are enthusiastic about the potential impact of this program not just in Bangladesh, but as something we can replicate across Gavi-eligible countries.”
With the WHO’s declaration of a global pandemic in March 2020, an unprecedented opportunity arrived for the forces advancing digital IDs. As Andrew Bud, the CEO of biometric tech company and Department of Homeland Security contractor iProov, enthused, “The evolution of vaccine certificates will actually drive the whole field of digital id in the future. So, therefore, this is not just about Covid, this is about something even bigger.”
By the following year, ID2020 and the USAID-partnered biometric ID firm, Simprints, had leveraged funding from Gates Foundation to publish an article entitled, “COVID-19 Vaccine Delivery: An Opportunity to Set Up Systems for the Future.” The authors argued that COVID-19 vaccines in the Global South could be used as a “potential lever” to deliver digital biometric IDs.
They went on to admit that such digital biometric systems would stay in place long after the COVID-19 pandemic was over, and would be exploited for an array of purposes after the rollout: “Biometrics have the advantage of being agnostic to use case,” the co-authors wrote, “meaning they can connect different systems during or even after rollout.”
Elizabeth Renieris of the Notre Dame-IBM Tech Ethics Lab resigned from a technical advisory role on ID2020, citing “risks to civil liberties” after the initiative teamed up with tech giants to design COVID immunity passports backed up by experimental blockchain technology.
Renieris went on to denounce the burgeoning ID system as a civil liberties nightmare: “The prospect of severely curtailing the fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals through ill-thought-out plans for ‘immunity passports’ or similar certificates, particularly ones that would leverage premature standards and a highly experimental and potentially rights-infringing technology like blockchain, is beyond dystopian.”
Digital ID mavens prey on the global poor
While linking a digital biometric ID to individuals’ finances is almost certain to exclude masses of people, and has even killed some by cutting impoverished citizens off from government services, predatory financial and credit institutions see the technology as the perfect means for capitalizing on untapped and developing markets.
A September 2021 report by BankservAfrica, the largest automated digital payments clearinghouse in Africa, which is headed by former executives at MasterCard, VISA, and IBM, urged South Africa to adopt a biometric digital ID system.
The report proclaimed, “The time has come for consumers, investors, and the private and public sectors to work collectively to achieve the common goal of enabling a robust, secure, and trusted digital identity for South Africa.”
BankServAfrica’s digital payment platform is currently being tested in Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania with financial support from the World Bank, USAID, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown just how critical a digital ID is,” BankServAfrica’s Chief Business Officer insisted.
BankservAfrica’s report argued that a robust biometric digital ID system will help South Africa achieve “simpler FICA [credit score] processes” and “a fair, transparent, competitive, sustainable, responsible, efficient and effective consumer credit market.”
But behind the lofty neoliberal rhetoric deployed by the financial industry lies a sordid record of profiteering and privacy invasion on a massive scale.
In 2007, Vodafone and Safaricom launched mPesa, a system that allows users to digitally deposit, withdraw, transfer, and pay with money. The project was “able to make credit and growth capital available to millions of people who have never had access to credit before,” according to Areiel Wolanow, who led the team that designed and built the credit scoring engine for mPesa in Kenya.
But a study by economist Alan Gibson revealed that it was the financial sector – not the rural population of the Global South – that truly benefited from mPesa. Meanwhile, the living conditions of the system’s mostly impoverished participants failed to improve at all:
“What is indisputable is that the supply-side of the finance market has benefited greatly from the last ten years. Banks’ sales have increased by 2.5 times and profits by 3.5 times, with profit margins also increased; the inclusion years have undoubtedly been good years for the banks. This apparent contrast between conspicuous supply-side success and a still-poor economy … raises questions on the role of the finance sector. In particular, it begs questions on who/what it is there to serve, and on the incentives that drive behavior.”
In a further indictment of supposedly “inclusive” digital payment schemes, the Review of African Political Economy found that “the bulk of this [mPesa] value does not go to the poor. Rather, such fintech is very clearly designed to hoover up value and deposit it into the hands of a narrow global digital-financial elite that are the main forces behind the fintech revolution.”
Despite the evidence of widening inequality, Bill Gates – whose foundation spends hundreds of billions of dollars promoting digital financial services for the poor – gushed praise for mPesa.
“M-Pesa is an excellent program,” Gates effused on Twitter in one of severaltweets hailing the digital payments system.
Gates linked to an article promoting the program by NPR, the US public broadcaster which has received upwards of $17.5 million from Gates while producing hundreds of articles praising the tech billionaire and his initiatives around the world.
Back in the US, meanwhile, Gates’ ID2020 campaign has collaborated with the forces advancing a system that registers Americans’ vaccination status with the same corporation that calculates their financial credit score.
The US credit industry and digital immunity ID outfits collaborate on “huge opportunities for the commercial sector”
In Illinois, residents are currently required to verify that they have received the COVID-19 vaccine through an online portal called Vax Verify which will work in concert with Chicago’s soon-to-be-implemented vaccine passport.
To register their proof of vaccination, Illinois residents must turn to Experian, the world’s leading credit score service.
Already, the Vax Verify portal is facing backlash for providing inaccurate vaccine status information. It is also the subject of serious security concerns given Experian’s record of breaches that leaked the personal data of millions of citizens from Brazil to South Africa.
Further, the online portal requires that any resident with a freeze on their credit must unfreeze it with Experian before registering a vaccination.
“Using Experian is definitely one of the worst [vaccine passports] I’ve seen yet,” Electronic Frontier Foundation Director of Engineering Alexis Hancock commented to Yahoo News.
After Illinois became the first US state to forge a formal relationship between vaccine certifications and Experian, Illinois Congressman and financial industry darling Bill Foster introduced legislation that would foist a digital biometric ID onto the entire American population.
The Improving Digital Identity Act of 2021, introduced by Foster in July, calls for the public sector, and particularly the Department of Homeland Security, to work with the private sector to develop a new biometric digital ID infrastructure for the United States.
In November 2020, the Gates-sponsored ID2020 provided an online forum for Foster to promote his bill. During the event, the congressman advocated for a “trusted biometric digital immunity certificate system” while explaining that his bill would obtain biometrics from every citizen so private corporations could then “leverage” it to generate enormous profits.
Rep. Bill Foster headlined the Gates-backed ID2020’s November 2020 webinar
“Once the government has [taken] those fairly serious biometrics from you – there will be huge opportunities for the commercial sector to leverage that,” he said. “And to try to get this all started, I introduced the ‘Improving Digital ID Act.’”
Banking and credit card companies are among the many “commercial sectors” that Foster’s bill will benefit through digital biometric IDs. The bill plainly states that the corporate ID system will give “under-banked and unbanked individuals better access to digital financial services,” cloaking the opening of markets for finance giants in the same woke language that ID4D and ID2020 employ.
But as tech oligarchs and their partners in the financial and national security industries leverage the coronavirus epidemic to institute a lucrative apparatus of digital monitoring, dissent is erupting in the countries where vaccine passports have begun to exclude millions.
Protests erupt against vaccine passports and “people who have very little to do with parliament”
In New York City – ground zero of the US vaccination passport roll-out – where over 80 percent of all Covid social distancing arrests were conducted against Black residents in 2020, simmering tensions boiled over when three Black diners initiated a brawl with staff at Carmine’s, an Upper West Side restaurant that prevented them from dining without their vaccination proof.
France has been the site of some of the world’s largest protests against the vaccine passport system imposed under the watch of former banker and President Emanuel Macron. On August 14, over 210,000 people took to the streets in over 200 protests across France against the nascent biomedical security regime.
Puncturing the corporate media’s pigeonholing of the demonstrators as far-right shock troops, France’s Le Monde described them as “alone, coupled up, here with their family or friends, of all ages, white, Black, employed, retired, some vaccinated, others who refuse to get the shot.”
French journalist Pauline Bock noted that in her country, “the only trade that’s exempt from mandatory vaccination — the police — will be the one to make sure everyone else obeys. The policy is ripe for authoritarian misuse.”
In Italy, meanwhile, Italian Prime Minister and former European Central Bank President Mario Draghi has mandated that all employees of both public and private businesses produce a Green Pass proving vaccination in order to enter their place of work.
The Green Pass vaccine passport system has already excluded unvaccinated individuals from restaurants, gyms, as well as trains, buses and domestic flights across the country. Official government numbers show the pass has failed to increase vaccine uptake.
On October 9, hundreds of thousands of protesters poured into Italian streets from Rome to Trento to voice their rejection of Draghi’s policy. In Rome, where police repressed peaceful demonstrators with batons and riot shields, a group of about 20 far-right hooligans attacked a local union office while police stood by. Interior Minister Carlo Sibilia exploited the incident to claim that “neo-fascist groups hide behind the so-called anti-vaxxers.”
In an October 10 statement, Rizzo warned that the incident of “fascist violence” the day before played directly into the hands of the neoliberal government, and questioned whether a new “strategy of tension” was in play. The communist leader was referring to the Italian state’s covert weaponization of far-right militants during the 1970’s “years of lead” to foment violence and neutralize Marxist organizations.
Two days before anti-Green Pass protests exploded across Italy, the renowned philosopher Giorgio Agamben appeared before the Italian Senate’s Constitutional Affairs Commission to issue a dramatic statement of opposition to the Green Pass.
Agamben is most famous for his concept of Homo Sacer, or bare life, in which an individual is stripped of rights and reduced to their biological essence in an extra-legal regime justified by war or other emergencies. When Italian authorities declared the first lockdown in March 2020, the philosopher applied the theory to his own country’s heavy-handed restrictions.
“The defining feature…of this great transformation that they are attempting to impose is that the mechanism which renders it formally possible is not a new body of laws, but a state of exception – in other words, not an affirmation of, but the suspension of constitutional guarantees,” the philosopher explained in the foreword to his collection of 2020 writings on Covid-19, “Where Are We Now: The Epidemic As Politics,”
In his remarks before the Italian Senate, Agamben pointed to a sinister agenda behind the official rationale for vaccine passports: “It has been said by scientists and doctors that the Green Pass has no medical significance in itself but serves to force people to get vaccinated. Instead, I think we must say the opposite: that the vaccine is a means of forcing people to have the Green Pass. That is, a device that allows individuals to be monitored and tracked, an unprecedented measure.”
The philosopher concluded his address by taking aim at the supra-national forces – Bill Gates, the World Economic Forum, and Rockefeller Foundation, among others – determined to impose a system of digital identification and high-tech social credit as much of the human population as possible.
“I believe that in this perspective,” Agamben warned, “it is more urgent than ever for parliamentarians to consider the political transformation underway, which in the long run is destined to empty parliament of its powers, reducing it to simply approving – in the name of bio-security – decrees emanating from organizations and people who have very little to do with parliament.”
The titans of global capitalism are exploiting the Covid-19 crisis to institute social credit-style digital ID systems across the West…
The death by starvation of Etwariya Devi, a 67-year-old widow from the rural Indian state of Jharkhand, might have passed without notice had it not been part of a more widespread trend.
Like 1.3 billion of her fellow Indians, Devi had been pushed to enroll in a biometric digital ID system called Aadhaar in order to access public services, including her monthly allotment of 25kg of rice. When her fingerprint failed to register with the shoddy system, Devi was denied her food ration. Throughout the course of the following three months in 2017, she was repeatedly refused food until she succumbed to hunger, alone in her home.
Premani Kumar, a 64-year-old woman also from Jharkhand, met the same demise as Devi, dying of hunger and exhaustion the same year after the Aadhaar system transferred her pension payments to another person without her permission, while cutting off her monthly food rations.
A similarly cruel fate was reserved for Santoshi Kumari, an 11-year-old girl, also from Jharkhand, who reportedly died begging for rice after her family’s ration card was canceled because it had not been linked to their Aadhaar digital ID.
These three heart-rending casualties were among a spate of deaths in rural India in 2017 which came as a direct result of the Aadhaar digital ID system.
With over one billion Indians in its database, Aadhaar is the largest biometric digital ID program ever constructed. Besides serving as a portal to government services, it tracks users’ movements between cities, their employment status, and purchasing records. It is a de facto social credit system that serves as the key entry point for accessing services in India.