Engineering Contagion: UPMC, Corona-Thrax, and ‘The Darkest Winter’

Researchers at a BSL-3 lab tied to the organizers of the 2001 Dark Winter simulation, DARPA, and the post-9/11 biodefense industrial complex are genetically modifying anthrax to express Covid-19 components, according to FOIA documents.

Soon after having been fired from his post as secretary of the treasury in December 2002, after a policy clash with the president, Paul O’Neill became a trustee of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Despite having just worked under and clashed with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, it wasn’t until O’Neill began answering to UPMC CEO Jeffrey Romoff as a member of the Center’s board that he chose to publicly denounce a superior as “evil.”

He wants to destroy competition. He wants to be the only game in town,” O’Neill would later state of Romoff, adding that “after 18 months I quit [the UPMC board] in disgust” due to Romoff’s “absolute control” over the board’s actions. O’Neill subsequently noted that UPMC “board members who have wealth of hundreds of millions of dollars are not willing to take this guy on.” When pressed by a local reporter, O’Neill further elaborated that he had been told by other board members that they were “afraid” of Romoff because Romoff might “harm them in some way.”

O’Neill’s criticisms of Romoff are hardly an outlier, as local community activists and even a state attorney general have noted that UPMC’s board lets Romoff do as he pleases.

Jeffrey Romoff has ruled UPMC with an iron fist since his predecessor, Thomas Detre, had a heart attack in 1992. As a result of the Center’s massive wealth accumulation, at first spurred by his magic touch for receiving National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants, Detre was able to use the financial power afforded to him to consolidate control over enough of the University of Pittsburgh to create his “own personal fiefdom,” which is now the stand-alone corporation known as UPMC.

Not long after Romoff took over the Center’s reins, he made his intentions clear to faculty and staff, stating at one 1995 UPMC meeting that his “vision” for the future of American health care was “the conversion of health care from social good to a commodity.” Motivated by profit above all else, Romoff aggressively expanded UPMC, gobbling up community hospitals, surgery centers, and private practices to create a “health-care network” that has expanded throughout much of Pennsylvania and even abroad to other countries, including China. Under Romoff, UPMC has also expanded into the health-insurance business, with 40 percent of the medical claims it pays out going straight back into places of care that are owned by UPMC—meaning UPMC is essentially paying itself.

In addition, since UPMC is officially a “charitable nonprofit corporation,” it is exempt from property taxes and has special access to the tax-exempt municipal bond market. UPMC can also solicit tax-deductible grants from private individuals and organizations, as well as governments. These grants totaled over $1 billion dollars between 2005 and 2017.

Despite these perks being officially justified because of UPMC’s “charitable institution” status, the UPMC board, with Romoff at the top, have seen their own multimillion-dollar-per-year salaries continue to climb. Perhaps this perk also comes from UPMC being a nonprofit corporation, as there are no stockholders to whom Romoff and the board must explain their increasingly exorbitant salaries. For instance, Romoff made $8.97 million last year as UPMC’s CEO, a marked increase over the $6.12 million he had raked in the prior year.

UPMC’s financial chicanery is so out of control that even Pennsylvania’s attorney general has taken action against it, suing UPMC in February 2019 for violations of the state’s charity laws based on their “unjust enrichment” and engaging in “unfair, fraudulent or deceptive acts or practices.” Though UPMC decided to settle out of court, the Center and Romoff came out of the affair relatively unscathed.

Now, thanks to the crisis caused by Covid-19, UPMC is once again on the path toward growing even larger and more powerful in pursuit of Romoff’s ultimate goal, which is, in his own words, to make UPMC the “Amazon of health care.”

In this fourth installment of the The Last American Vagabond series Engineering Contagion: Amerithrax, Coronavirus and the Rise of the Biotech-Industrial Complex”, the “nonprofit” health-care behemoth that is UPMC is squarely placed at the intersection of post-9/11 “biodefense” public-private partnerships; corporate-funded academics who shape public policy on behalf of their private-sector benefactors; and risky research on dangerous pathogens that threatens to unleash the very “bioterror” that these institutions claim to guard against.

The Odd Trajectory of UPMC’s Covid-19 Vaccine Efforts

In January 2020, when much of the world remained blissfully unaware of the coming global pandemic, UPMC was already at work developing a vaccine to protect against the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19, known as SARS-CoV-2. That month, before the state of Pennsylvania had a single case of Covid-19, UPMC formed a “coronavirus task force,” which was initially focused on lobbying the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to obtain samples of live SARS-CoV-2 for research purposes. That research was to be conducted at the Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) Regional Biocontainment Laboratory (RBL) housed within UPMC’s Center for Vaccine Research. A day after the director of UPMC’s Center for Vaccine Research, W. Paul Duprex, revealed UPMC’s efforts to access the SARS-CoV-2 virus, he announced that the virus samples, containing an estimated 50 to 60 million coronavirus particles, were already en route to the university. At the time, UPMC was one of only a handful of institutions on the CDC’s short list to receive live SARS-CoV-2 samples.

UPMC later stated that they began work on a vaccine for Covid-19 on January 21st, weeks before the February 14th announcement that the virus was on its way to the university. That original vaccine candidate used the published genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2, released in early January 2020 by Chinese researchers, to synthetically produce SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins that would be transported into cells by an adenoviral vector, which is commonly used in a variety of vaccines. The vaccine candidate was nicknamed PittCoVacc, short for Pittsburgh Coronavirus Vaccine.

A little over a month after the live SARS-CoV-2 samples were received by UPMC’s Center for Vaccine Research, UPMC received a $5 million grant from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), an international organization founded in 2017 by the governments of Norway and India along with the World Economic Forum and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The grant was officially awarded to “an international academic-industry partnership” that the Center for Vaccine Research had recently formed with the Institut Pasteur in France and Austrian vaccine manufacturer Themis. Soon after, in May, Themis was acquired by vaccine giant Merck, which began recruiting volunteers for human trials earlier this month on September 11. Merck has incredibly close ties with UPMC, particularly its commercialization arm known as UPMC Enterprises.

The CEPI grant seems to have drastically altered the Center for Vaccine Research’s interest in the original adenovirus-vector vaccine candidate, PittCoVacc, as the CEPI grant was specifically aimed at funding a different vaccine candidate that instead uses the measles virus as a vector. The measles virus and the genetic manipulation of measles for use in the measles vaccine is, notably, the principal research interest and expertise of Center for Vaccine Research director Paul Duprex.

This measles-based vaccine candidate has been described as “a modified [genetically altered] measles virus that delivers bits of the new coronavirus into the body to prevent Covid-19” as well as an “attenuated [genetically modified yet weakened] measles virus as a vector with which to introduce genetic material from SARS-[CoV-]2 to the immune system.” The combination of this weakened measles virus and SARS-CoV-2, per Duprex, will produce a “more benign version of coronavirus [that] will acquaint a person’s immune system” with SARS-CoV-2. No vaccine using this modality has ever been licensed.

On April 2nd, less than a week after the CEPI award had been announced, the UPMC researchers who had developed the original vaccine candidate using the more traditional adenovirus-vector approach published a study in EBioMedicine (a publication of the medical journal Lancet) that reported promising results of their vaccine candidate in animal studies. The news that a US institution was among the first in the world to develop a Covid-19 vaccine candidate with promising results from an animal study was heavily amplified by mainstream US media outlets, with those reports noting that UMPC was requesting government permission to quickly move onto human trials.

This original vaccine candidate, however, was mysteriously dropped from subsequent reports and statements from UPMC regarding its Covid-19 vaccine efforts. Indeed, in recent months, Duprex’s statements on the center’s Covid-19 vaccine candidates no longer mention the once-promising PittCoVacc at all. Instead, new reports, citing Duprex, claim that the only UPMC vaccine candidates are the CEPI-funded measles-vaccine candidate and another, more mysterious vaccine candidate, whose nature has only been recently revealed by documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Equally odd is that recent media reports on the original vaccine candidate have stopped mentioning UPMC at all, instead citing only Themis, its new owner Merck, and France’s Institut Pasteur. There are no reports indicating a break-up of the original “academic-industry partnership” that had received the CEPI grant. It seems that this is what may have come to pass, as Duprex stated that the UPMC measles-vector vaccine candidate had partnered with the Serum Institute of India for mass production, first for trials and then for public use, depending on how the vaccine advances through the regulatory process. In contrast, Themis/Merck have stated that their vaccine is being produced in France. It remains unclear what the relation is between these two, and apparently analogous, vaccine candidates.

Though Duprex has been relatively forthcoming about the nature of the first UPMC vaccine candidate (i. e., the CEPI-funded measles-vector vaccine), he has been much more tight-lipped about its second vaccine candidate. In late August, he told the Pittsburgh Business Times that the second vaccine candidate that UPMC was developing “works by delivering genetic material coding for a viral protein instead of the entire weakened or killed virus as is standard in other vaccines.” Yet Duprex declined to state what vector will be used to deliver the genetic material into human cells. Recent FOIA revelations, nevertheless, have revealed that UPMC’s second vaccine candidate involves genetically engineering a combination of SARS-Cov-2 and anthrax, a substance better known for its potential use as a bioweapon.

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