Virologists push back on more regulation of viruses made more lethal in the lab

Print Email Share Tweet

An electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2. (Photo credit: NIH)

Virologists pushed back on the possibility of tighter regulation of viruses tweaked in the lab to be more lethal at a public meeting Wednesday.

An enhanced pandemic potential pathogen is a virus or microbe that has gained increased transmissibility —  capacity to spread from person to person and reverberate throughout a population —  or virulence — capacity to cause serious disease.

Experiments that are reasonably anticipated to generate deadlier pathogens are supposed to receive heightened oversight from the Department of Health and Human Services under what is nicknamed the HHS “P3CO,” short for the pandemic potential pathogen committee.

Though established just a few years ago, critics say the committee’s work is hidden from public view, suffers from glaring loopholes and needs a reboot. Work that contributes to vaccine development or results from viral surveillance efforts in nature is exempted from this extra layer of review, for example. 

Speculation by some in the U.S. intelligence community that SARS-CoV-2 may have seeped out of a lab at the pandemic’s epicenter may have prompted a public meeting to consider whether current policies are adequate. Reporting irregularities by a nonprofit partner of the lab involved in gain-of-function research on coronaviruses and funded by the National Institutes of Health called EcoHealth Alliance has also led many to conclude the P3CO needs to apply to more research projects and be more accountable to the public.

One million Americans have died of COVID-19. A review by the U.S. intelligence community last summer about whether the novel coronavirus spilled over from an animal or spilled out of a lab was inconclusive.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy and NIH cohosted the meeting Wednesday.

White House COVID-19 testing czar Tom Inglesby was harshly critical of the existing framework. His top recommendation: Scientists should be required to explain in detail the goals of undertaking such research in the first place, and why less perilous methods could not reach the same goal. 

“There must be an extraordinary and public justification,” he said. “I do think there are experiments we shouldn’t do.”

But lobbying groups representing virologists and other life scientists pushed back.

“The systems of review should not be a solution looking for a problem,” said Felicia Goodrum, president of the American Society for Virology. 

Goodrum said regulation risks “tying two hands behind our backs” when it comes to modeling pandemic risks. 

Goodrum added that the inherently unpredictable nature of manipulating viruses means that it’s unwieldy to determine whether or not an experiment will make a virus more dangerous, so the regulations should be lax.

“We must be careful about dichotomizing research as simply either ‘risky’ or not because it is not possible to absolutely predict the biology of a virus with the committee,” she said.  

But Gregory Koblentz, director of the biodefense graduate program at George Mason University, said that an EcoHealth Alliance grant that funded research that made coronaviruses more deadly by swapping their spike proteins is emblematic of lapses in oversight at NIH. 

The research was not regulated as gain-of-function work, but NIH did add language to the grant requiring extra reporting if the viral engineering led to viruses that were 10 times more pathogenic. (The chimeric viruses proved to be much more pathogenic than even that threshold, but EcoHealth Alliance did not report it.) That language amounts to a “tacit admission” that NIH reasonably anticipated the work was gain of function, Koblentz said.

Stefano Bertuzzi, CEO of the American Society for Microbiology, conceded that labs should report more often to Congress and that scientists could do a better job allaying public concerns, but stated that the framework is otherwise sufficient. 

Bertuzzi signaled he is concerned that Congress could step in.

Labs taking steps toward greater transparency “helps guard against well intended but sometimes overly prescriptive legislative approaches that could undermine the important work that needs to take place.” 

Gigi Gronvall, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said that the “breathless hyping of risks” overshadows strong existing biosafety measures, such as U.S. efforts to train maximum containment labs abroad.

Asked which risks have been misunderstood, Gronvall said that “there is a lot of gray” and that the proper expertise is needed to interpret gain-of-function experiments, but did not go into further detail. 

Indeed, some experts called for decreased transparency for controversial research. Colorado State University Biosafety Rebecca Moritz called for limiting the scope of public records requests. U.S. Right to Know has submitted a public information request for records about the university’s research on bat coronaviruses in collaboration with EcoHealth Alliance, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The documents raise questions about the contagion risks, for example, of shipping of bats and rats infected with dangerous pathogens.

Kanta Subbarao, director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza, disputed the idea that research that contributes to vaccine development or results from surveillance should be included in the framework. 

Many representatives of the life science and biodefense fields emphasized weighing any regulation against lost opportunities for science. But members of the public who participated in the meeting were much more skeptical of the value of certain gain-of-function work.  

Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute, said that the public should not be surprised by controversial gain-of-function experiments for the first time in scientific papers, long after the research has been approved and completed. 

Chan called for controversial experiments to be published on preprint servers and the genomes of novel viruses to be deposited into publicly available databases within a year of discovery.

She also called for greater transparency from private “virus hunting” organizations and middlemen between the NIH and labs, an apparent allusion to the EcoHealth Alliance and the Global Virome Project

Kevin Esvelt, a biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said creating novel viruses in the lab, combined with the ease of synthesizing viruses from a genome sequence, poses a national security threat.

“More Americans have died of COVID than would perish if a Russian Topol SS-25 thermonuclear warhead were to be detonated in the center of Washington, DC,” said Esvelt. “Pandemic viruses can be more lethal than thermonuclear weapons. That makes them a proliferation concern.”

U.S. Right to Know confirms a third maximum containment lab in China

Print Email Share Tweet

Representatives of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences are pictured with representatives of the University of Texas Medical Branch in September 2014. (Photo credit: UTMB)

A new maximum biocontainment lab in Kunming, China, was certified three years ago while remaining under-the-radar in the U.S. biodefense community, documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show.

China’s plans to build an ABSL-4 under the Institute of Medical Biology and Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Kunming were previously known. But U.S. Right to Know can report for the first time that the lab has long been accredited by the China National Accreditation Service for Conformity Assessment, a pivotal step toward becoming operational. Animal biosafety level four, or ABSL-4, refers to the level of biosafety precautions needed to study the world’s most dangerous viruses and other pathogens in animals. 

The quiet start at the Kunming lab could suggest skittishness among Chinese authorities about publicizing it due to the controversy surrounding another BSL-4 lab – the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It also underscores that international standards for reporting and transparency have lagged behind the proliferation of labs working with pandemic potential pathogens. 

The “Kunming National Primate Research Center of High Level Biosafety” received accreditation in late 2018 or early 2019, according to a presentation given at a U.S.-China summit. 

The lab works with rhesus monkeys, according to the documents. 

Yunzhang Hu, a professor at the Institute of Medical Biology, told the summit that the lab’s aims include developing medical countermeasures and supporting emergency response to emerging infectious diseases. 

While U.S. institutions like the National Academies were aware of the Kunming lab, it was apparently not widely understood that the lab has been making strides toward research on high risk pathogens for years. 

A World Health Organization report in 2017 listed three BSL-4 or ABSL-4 labs in China: two in operation in Wuhan and Harbin and a third planned in Beijing. The Kunming lab is not mentioned. A map of BSL-4 labs assembled by top Western biodefense experts does not report the Kunming lab either. 

While the lab’s work appeared in scientific papers in 2020 and 2021, demonstrating it was operational, China may not have publicized it in part because of international concerns about the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a BSL-4 lab at the pandemic’s epicenter, according to Gregory Koblentz, director of the biodefense program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government and co-creator of the map. Koblentz said he became aware of the lab shortly after his map was published in 2021 and that it would be added to its next iteration.

The maximum containment lab in Kunming is one of five to seven China has slated to construct by 2025, Nature reported. Accreditation from the CNAS is needed before the Ministry of Health can approve a BSL-4 lab, according to the scientific journal.

Efforts to support BSL-4 work in Kunming predate the lab’s accreditation.

U.S. researchers funded by the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases traveled to Kunming in 2014 to review animal facilities and present information on BSL-4 technical requirements, according to a federal grant report. Training continued throughout the year. The Kunming lab’s researchers traveled to a U.S. maximum biocontainment lab at the University of Texas Medical Branch for further training. 

U.S.-China summit

The U.S.-China dialogue was co-hosted by the National Academy of Sciences and held in Harbin, China, in January 2019. The topics centered on the opportunities and risks of gene editing in infectious diseases research.

The Harbin summit was the fourth in a series on biosafety involving both American and Chinese institutions, and came just a year before reports of a novel coronavirus first emerged from Wuhan.

U.S. biodefense experts began planning in June for a firth summit slated for October or November 2019, according to other documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know. But Chinese partners suggested a summit under the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan rather than under the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Kunming, the emails indicate. 

The January summit in Harbin included presentations from many experts who have since become central to the COVID-19 origins controversy. The summit included two sessions on “science and ethics in research with pathogens with pandemic potential” and “understanding and engineering viral pathogens with pandemic potential.” The sessions described technical challenges with engineering chimeric viruses as well as the safety and ethical questions the technology raises. 

Zhengli Shi, a top virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, discussed the impact that spike binding domains play in determining whether MERS viruses can spillover from animal to human hosts.

Ralph Baric, one of the world’s leading coronavirus researchers at the University of North Carolina and a collaborator of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, gave a presentation on the lack of predictability when engineering viruses to be more pathogenic. 

He spoke about a “sweet spot” that optimizes the ability of a virus to infect humans and cause severe disease. 

“Creating a virus that is super-adapted to a particular host can actually result in an attenuation of virulence, if the virus interacts overly strongly with a cellular receptor,” the summary of his comments reads. “This shows the complexity of deliberate design as well as the potential sweet spot for pathogenicity.”

This unpredictability can undermine the value of models that attempt to predict viral evolution and the danger a virus could pose to humans, he said. 

Baric also said that a combination of altering a virus’ receptor binding domain and passaging through mice can sometimes be required to generate more dangerous viruses.

Baric also noted the ease of synthesizing coronaviruses, saying the cost had decreased from $42,000 to $6,000, and the relative ease of using CRISPR technology to create humanized mice. 

Stanford School of Medicine microbiologist David Relman ⁠— who has recently been critical of virologists who have prematurely declared the origins debate settled ​​⁠— gave a presentation on responsibly preventing lab accidents as BSL-4 labs proliferate. Relman also raised questions about the feasibility and safety of the Global Virome Project, an effort to collect and catalog millions of animal viruses involving EcoHealth Alliance and Shi. 

“In an era in which most viruses can be synthesized from a genetic sequence, the discovery of new viruses and elucidation of their properties may present both biosafety and biosecurity concerns,” Relman told the group.

Chinese experts expressed concerns about these issues too.

An expert with Tianjin University told the summit that balancing the positive uses and potential for misuse of pandemic potential pathogens made in the lab poses challenges.

The expert voiced concerns about “the potential for rapid changes in science and technology capabilities to outpace ethical and regulatory measures, and the need for appropriate governance,” the summary reads. 

China has invested at least $150 million to $240 million in approximately 50 synthetic biology research projects since 2018, according to the presentation. 

A summary of the summit’s presentations was obtained by U.S. Right to Know through a Freedom of Information Act litigation against the U.S. Department of Education, which had conducted an investigation of the University of Texas Medical Branch’s work with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Wuhan Iab can delete data in ‘explosive’ legal agreement with U.S. lab

Print Email Share Tweet

The interior of the Galveston National Laboratory is pictured. (Photo credit: UTMB)

April 20, 3:40 p.m.: This story has been updated with comment from UTMB. 

The Wuhan Institute of Virology has the right to ask a partnering lab in the U.S. to destroy all records of their work, according to a legal document obtained by U.S. Right to Know. 

A memorandum of understanding between the Wuhan lab and the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch states that each lab can ask the other to return or “destroy” any so-called “secret files” — any communications, documents, data or equipment resulting from their collaboration — and ask that they wipe any copies. 

“The party is entitled to ask the other to destroy and/or return the secret files, materials and equipment without any backups,” it states. 

This right is retained even after the agreement’s five year term ends in October 2022. All documents are eligible for destruction under the agreement’s broad language.

“All cooperation … shall be treated as confidential information by the parties,” the agreement states.

The directors of the maximum biocontainment labs in Wuhan and Texas announced a formal cooperative agreement in Science in 2018. The labs are two of just a handful of facilities in the world that do similar cutting edge work on novel coronaviruses. The lab in Texas, with funding from the National Institutes of Health, was doing biosafety training with the lab in Wuhan, which operates under the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The labs also intended to do joint research projects and share resources, according to the agreement. 

The revelation that the Wuhan lab retained the right to call for the destruction of data on U.S. servers funded by U.S. taxpayers comes amid a debate about what sort of investigation is necessary to exculpate the city’s coronavirus research from suspicions it sparked the COVID-19 pandemic. It also raises questions about assurances from Wuhan Institute of Virology senior scientist Zhengli Shi that she would never delete sensitive data.

The clause also raises a number of legal red flags for the Texas lab, experts say.

“The clause is quite frankly explosive,” said Reuben Guttman, a partner at Guttman, Buschner & Brooks PLLC who specializes in ensuring the integrity of government programs. “Anytime I see a public entity, I would be very concerned about destroying records.”

Guttman said that even private entities are expected to have internal records retention and destruction policies, but that as a public institution the Texas lab faces an even higher standard under laws meant to safeguard federal and state taxpayer dollars. These laws include the federal False Claims Act and the Texas Public Information Act. The Galveston National Laboratory is part of the University of Texas System and receives federal funding. 

“You can’t just willy nilly say, ‘well, you know, the Chinese can tell us when to destroy a document.’ It doesn’t work like that,” he said. “There has to be a whole protocol.”

The clause could also risk obstructing Congressional investigations into the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Texas lab was “built by the National Institutes of Health to help combat global health threats,” said Christopher Smith, a spokesman for UTMB, in a statement. “As a government-funded entity, UTMB is required to comply with applicable public information law obligations, including the preservation of all documentation of its research and findings.”

“UTMB believes it is an operational — and moral — imperative that all scientists working in biocontainment anywhere in the world have first-hand knowledge of the proven best practices in biosafety and laboratory operations,” Smith continued. “All research at UTMB is subjected to a rigorous and transparent pre-experiment approval protocol, including involvement and oversight by scientific experts who helped design federal guidelines.”

Only the Texas attorney general can make a determination about what otherwise releasable public records should be exempted from disclosure, according to Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. It’s also unlawful to destroy records requested under the Texas Public Information Act. 

Liza Vertinsky, an expert in global health law and intellectual property at Emory University, said that the all-encompassing definition of what is considered “secret” in the memorandum of understanding, or MOU, is problematic. 

“The way I read the MOU, although it is poorly drafted, ‘secret’ refers to the ‘cooperation and exchanges, documents, data, details and materials’ that are part of this MOU,”  she said. “It is as broad as the MOU, covering what the MOU is intended to cover.”

Edward Hammond, an independent biosafety proponent and a longtime advocate for more transparency at the Galveston lab, also flagged the broad language.

“In agreements like this that I’ve seen before, you have confidentiality provisions in relation to intellectual property…I can’t recall seeing an instance of these more general confidentiality provisions,” he said in an email. “Doesn’t this run against the purportedly pure academic interests of UTMB?”

In 2009, the Galveston lab unsuccessfully lobbied the Texas legislature for an exemption to the Texas Public Information Act to be written in order to prevent records being released to Hammond. 

WIV calls data deletion accusations appalling

The agreement could also undermine claims that the WIV would never delete records. A WIV virus database that went dark in 2019 remains a source of intrigue for reporters, scientists, and U.S. intelligence agencies interested in the pandemic’s origins. 

Wuhan Institute of Virology senior scientist Zhengli Shi told MIT Technology Review that allegations by Western biosecurity experts that her lab may have scrubbed records relevant to COVID-19 are “baseless and appalling.” 

“Even if we gave them all the records, they would still say we have hidden something or we have destroyed the evidence,” Shi told the outlet, which cast any such suspicions as rooted in anti-Chinese prejudice. 

The agreement also seems to address suspicions that the partnership could aid a bioweapons program either in the U.S. or in China, stating the labs will “exchange the virus resources strictly for the scientific research purposes.”

A number of clunky or unusual provisions in the agreement suggests it may have been drafted at least in part by Chinese partners and translated into English. 

For example, it states nothing in the agreement should be construed as establishing a relationship between “master and servant,” unusual language in modern American legal documents. 

Other documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know demonstrate that despite the formal collaboration, Galveston National Laboratory faced delays in obtaining a sample of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, from its partner lab at the pandemic’s epicenter. The Texas lab ended up obtaining its first sample from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

U.S. Right to Know obtained the WIV-UTMB memorandum of understanding through the Texas Public Information Act as part of an investigation into risky viral research funded through taxpayer dollars.

Written by Emily Kopp 

Emails raise questions about China’s sway over first WHO mission on COVID-19

Print Email Share Tweet

A WHO mission to China led by Bruce Aylward offered the world a first glimpse at COVID-19, but the picture may have been distorted by politics. (Photo credit: WHO)

An early World Health Organization report about the COVID-19 pandemic was influenced by political considerations in China, emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show.

A World Health Organization mission of 13 international experts and 12 Chinese experts ⁠— led by Bruce Aylward, a senior advisor at the World Health Organization, and Wannian Liang, an epidemiologist representing the People’s Republic of China ⁠— was influential to the globe’s understanding of the novel coronavirus. The report was prepared in Feb. 2020, when the rest of the world knew little about SARS-CoV-2.

The new emails follow reports that Chinese authorities exerted tight control over a second WHO mission in January 2021. Liang served on both missions. 

China insisted that the WHO’s first mission meet China’s need for an admiring assessment of its COVID-19 response and plans. 

“In an excellent and encouraging discussion with Liang on the train we agreed that the best way to ensure we meet China’s need for a strong assessment of its response and where it plans to go next, would be to add [REDACTED],” Aylward wrote

The report is a glowing paean of China’s mitigation measures and its data sharing. 

“In the face of a previously unknown virus, China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history,” the report’s number one takeaway reads.

Aylward’s email suggests this section – the report’s “major conclusions” – may have been added to “accommodate” the Chinese scientists.

Other international members of the mission recommended that Aylward “dial it back a bit for a public audience and at least hint at shortcomings.”

Alyward may have anticipated pushback on the laudatory section, saying “it is the opinions of the Internationals that matter most here.”

Aylward, who remains a senior advisor to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, did not respond to a request for comment.

The email also suggests that Wang Bin, deputy director general of China’s Disease Prevention and Control Bureau of the National Health Commission, sought to nix certain recommendations in a section dedicated to the public, but they are not specified. 

In communications with the CDC, Aylward and mission member and infectious-diseases physician at the National University Hospital in Singapore Dale Fisher were “highly complementary” and “did not question the data coming from China,” Director of the CDC’s Global Disease Detection Operations Center Ray Arthur told colleagues. 

Some concerns about China’s response or data were flagged to CDC by Aylward and Fisher, but the nature of those concerns are redacted. 

They were not discussed publicly by Aylward at the press conference that followed the report’s release, during which Aylward repeatedly applauded China’s response to the pandemic.

“It’s the opinion of the joint mission, after looking at it very closely and in different ways, that there is no question that China’s bold approach to the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of what was a rapidly escalating and continues to be deadly epidemic,” Aylward said

The pressure to appease Chinese authorities may have impacted the mission’s report in other ways.

For example, Aylward refused to sign his name to the report unless references to “SARS-CoV-2” were removed.

“Definitely do not use SARS-COV2 – I’m not signing anything with that in it,” Aylward wrote. “I’m not going to be part of that mess.”

Aylward said that his concerns surrounded the “deep history of this country with SARS.”

SARS-CoV-2, the now widely accepted name for the virus that causes COVID-19, was initially resisted by Chinese virologists and the WHO because it tied COVID-19 to the 2003 SARS outbreak and therefore to China.

Wuhan Institute of Virology coronavirus researcher Shi Zhengli appealed to the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses for the virus to be renamed to something like TARS-CoV or HARS-CoV, U.S. Right to Know reported last year.

Premature conclusions

Other key details that could shed a light on the impact of China’s influence are redacted.

But it is clear that some of the report’s takeaways were premature. The report concluded that the pandemic had a zoonotic origin, stating it in at least three places. 

WHO Chief Dr. Tedros indicated in a recent interview with U.S. Right to Know that he considers both a natural spillover and a lab accident to be possible scenarios. 

“COVID-19 is a zoonotic virus,” the Feb. 2020 report states. “The intermediate host(s) has not yet been identified. However, three important areas of work are already underway in China to inform our understanding of the zoonotic origin of this outbreak,” namely sampling at the city’s wet market and an investigation into the species sold there.

The report states that “early cases identified in Wuhan are believed to be have [sic] acquired infection from a zoonotic source as many reported visiting or working in the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market.”

“Wet markets were closed, and efforts were made to identify the zoonotic source,” the report states a third time.

One of the “knowledge gaps” identified by the WHO mission was the “animal original source and natural reservoir” of the virus. 

The report does not mention a lab accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology or China CDC lab in Wuhan as a possible origin of Covid-19.

“It seems quite clear that China exerted some influence over the WHO-China joint mission. It certainly has handicapped WHO in its investigation of the origins of SARS-CoV-2,” said Lawrence Gostin, director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law.

China’s eagerness to suppress questions about Wuhan labs as a possible origin of SARS-CoV-2 has been previously reported.

For example, second WHO mission to China in January 2021 concluded that the lab accident hypothesis was an “extremely unlikely pathway.” WHO mission head Peter Ben Embarek later said that language was the result of a compromise with Chinese experts, who initially pushed to exclude any mention of a lab accident from the report altogether. The White House expressed “deep concerns” about China strong-arming its work.

The Feb. 2020 mission report was circulated with CDC experts responding to the rapidly unfolding pandemic in the U.S., another email obtained by U.S. Right to Know shows. 

The report was shared with dozens of U.S. CDC offices and employees – including Global Disease Detection Operations Center, the head of the division of high consequence pathogens and pathology, the head of the division of global health protection, and leaders of the agency’s COVID-19 response in Rwanda, South Sudan, the Congo and Uganda. 

The report was produced over a 9-day period from February 16 to February 24, 2020. The team visited Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangdong, Chengdu and Sichuan. “Select team members only” visited Wuhan for two days.

U.S. Right to Know obtained the emails reported on in this article from a Freedom of Information Act submitted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 and risky research funded with taxpayer dollars.

Written by Emily Kopp 

WHO chief Tedros: No dispositive evidence yet on COVID’s origin

Print Email Share Tweet

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in an interview that he will “keep pushing” on a COVID-19 origins investigation. (Photo credit: United Nations)

World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that there is no proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” for one COVID-19 origin hypothesis or the other in a brief interview with U.S. Right to Know.

In an interview in Washington on Thursday, Tedros was asked about recent preprint publications claiming “dispositive” evidence that COVID-19 originated from animals sold at a wet market. Tedros replied that all hypotheses are still in play.

“All options are open. We have not found any evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to drop any of the hypotheses that we have,” he said. “All of the hypotheses are still in [WHO’s investigation].”

The two prevailing hypotheses are that COVID-19 naturally spilled over from live animals sold at a wet market or emerged from an accident at one of the labs studying coronaviruses at the pandemic’s epicenter in Wuhan, China. 

Tedros also said that there is a “moral obligation” to keep investigating. 

“We continue to push. Of course we should know the origins. One, for the science. If we know the origin, we can prevent the next [pandemic]. So it’s a must,” Tedros said. “Second, morally, we owe it to the millions who have died and the hundreds of millions whose lives have been affected.”

“So we will not stop pushing,” he continued. 

Tedros was at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services headquarters in DC for World Health Day. 

Tedros also confirmed that he had discussed investigating COVID-19’s origins with U.S. officials during his visit. 

Written by Emily Kopp 

U.S. virologist let Wuhan scientists revise his Congressional briefing

Print Email Share Tweet

James Le Duc (left) gives a tour of Galveston National Laboratory. (Credit: UTMB)

An American virologist asked Wuhan Institute of Virology scientists to edit a briefing he prepared for Congressional staff, according to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know. 

“I certainly do not want to compromise you or your research activities,” wrote leading biosafety expert and virologist James Le Duc to Shi Zhengli, a top virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology nicknamed the “Bat Woman,” in April 2020.

“Make any changes that you would like,” he wrote, attaching a copy of his prepared comments.  

Le Duc also shared his informal testimony with Yuan Zhiming, director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s highest security laboratory, the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory. Le Duc was the longtime director of the Galveston National Laboratory, another high security or “BSL-4” lab studying coronaviruses. The Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory and the Galveston National Laboratory have a formal cooperative agreement. 

Scientists are continuing to investigate whether SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, may have emerged from a lab accident or spilled over naturally from an animal. 

The House Foreign Affairs Committee had asked Le Duc for his input in the pandemic’s early months – and for good reason. The University of Texas Medical Branch’s BSL-4 lab has worked closely with labs in Wuhan for decades, including on issues of laboratory safety.

“Given the long history of collaborations between the GNL and the WIV, I have been approached repeatedly for details on our work,” Le Duc said to his colleagues at the WIV. “Attached is a draft summary that I will be providing to leadership of our University of Texas system and likely to Congressional committees that are being formed now.”

The exchange raises questions about whether Le Duc allowed the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s leading scientists to influence Congress’ understanding of an intensifying pandemic, irrespective of whether they were free to tell the truth.

Days earlier, Le Duc had forwarded Shi information about an article describing calls from Senate Republicans for an investigation of her lab. He asked to speak with her about it, but Shi declined. 

But Shi did send back a reply to Le Duc with reference materials – including several articles she co-authored underscoring the possibility of a spillover of bat coronaviruses into humans, including articles describing the creation of engineered viruses with new spike proteins. 

“I’ve added some detailed information for your reference,” she wrote. 

She did not initially send back a copy of Le Duc’s briefing document.

“I did not receive the document I sent for your review so if you made comments on that, please send,” he responded.

“Sorry, I forgot the reviewed document,” Shi wrote back, suggesting that she did indeed make comments or changes. 

The name of the file that Shi sent back to Le Duc was “WIV-drf2-zl.docx.” “WIV” may be shorthand for the Wuhan Institute of Virology, while “zl” may refer to Zhengli. 

“I’m afraid that this discussion will continue for some time regarding … exactly when scientists at WIV first became aware of the new coronavirus and had possession of specimens in the WIV and where was that work done (level of biocontainment),” Le Duc told Shi. 

Indeed, when exactly Chinese authorities became aware of SARS-CoV-2 was a key factor in an inconclusive 90-day review into COVID-19’s origins by the U.S. intelligence community compiled a year later.

“Next week will be busy,” Le Duc wrote on April 19, a Sunday.

Two days later, on April 21, a Tuesday, Le Duc told colleagues with the National Academy of Sciences that he had met via teleconference with five or six people with the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. 

He passed along information he had shared with committee staff. One of the files attached was saved as “WIV-4-20-20.docx.”

Le Duc appears to ask Shi to review information he compiled in preparation for questions about when the Wuhan Institute of Virology first learned about the novel coronavirus.

Le Duc had also briefed the full committee’s Republican staff earlier that month, according to notes reviewed by a committee staffer.  

The exchange raises questions about how Shi’s influence may have shaped U.S. lawmakers’ understanding of the pandemic’s origins.  

It also indicates that at the height of a once-in-a-century public health crisis, the sort of coronavirus pandemic that Shi had been warning about for years, she was concerned about U.S. perceptions of her work.

Le Duc referred questions to UTMB Director of Media Relations Christopher A. Smith.

“Your organization’s characterization of Dr. Le Duc’s intent in contacting Dr. Shi is incorrect,” said Smith. “This email was very early in the outbreak and the information Dr. Le Duc wanted Dr. Shi to review was a description of her research on coronaviruses as he understood it. He asked her to review that description to ensure accuracy should he be asked.”

“Nothing ever came from this exchange, either in the form of a review/comments by Dr. Shi or any specific request for comments regarding her research,” he continued.

But the documents show that Le Duc told Shi that she could make any changes she would like to his briefing. 

Smith also said that Le Duc did not testify to Congress. After days of follow-up questions, Smith confirmed that Le Duc had briefed Congressional staff.

A request to see the documents exchanged between Shi and Le Duc was declined. 

Nothing ever came of the email exchange between Le Duc and Shi, a spokesman for the University of Texas Medical Branch said. Pressed further, he confirmed Le Duc had indeed briefed Congressional staff.

Shi’s behind-the-scenes influence

In spring 2020, U.S. foreign policy officials privately circulated concerns that Shi’s international influence in the field of virology could cloud an impartial investigation into the possibility of a lab accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

In a State Department memo obtained by U.S. Right to Know, government officials expressed concerns that international virologists would back up Shi before a complete inquiry into the lab in Wuhan was conducted.

“Suspicion lingers that Shi holds an important and powerful position in the field in China and has extensive cooperation with many [international] virologists who might be doing her a favor,” it reads.

In a media interview in April 2020, Le Duc said that Shi was being unfairly scrutinized. 

“I just hate to see a world-class coronavirologist, who’s dedicated her life working with this, being scrutinized as the possible source,” he said.

Shi shaped the discourse about the possibility of an escape from her lab in other ways, too.

She also edited a Feb. 2020 commentary that declared there was “no credible evidence” behind claims that SARS-CoV-2 may have been genetically engineered, according to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know last year. 

The commentary’s authors shared a copy with Shi before its publication in Emerging Microbes & Infections, the emails show. 

Her involvement was not disclosed. 

U.S. Right to Know obtained the records for this article through a Texas Public Information Act request to the University of Texas Medical Branch and from a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the State Department.

Written by Emily Kopp 

Lab accident is ‘most likely but least probed’ COVID origin, State Dept. memo says

Print Email Share Tweet

Wuchang Station in Wuhan, China, is pictured in 2013. (Credit: Tauno Tõhk)

State Department officials considered a lab accident to be the most likely cause of COVID-19 in the pandemic’s early months and worried that international virologists may help with a coverup, according to a 2020 memo obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

“Origin of the outbreak: The Wuhan labs remained the most likely but least probed,” reads the topline. 

The memo is written as a BLUF – “bottom line up front” – a style of communication used in the military. The identity of the author or authors is unknown. 

In response to questions from a reporter, a State Department spokesperson referred U.S. Right to Know to an inconclusive 90-day review by the intelligence community in 2021.

“BLUF: There is no direct, smoking gun evidence to prove that a leak from Wuhan labs caused the pandemic, but there is circumstantial evidence to suggest such is the case,” the memo reads.

Apparently drafted in spring 2020, the memo details circumstantial evidence for the “lab leak” theory — the idea that COVID-19 originated at one of the labs in Wuhan, China, the pandemic’s epicenter. 

The memo raises concerns about the “massive amount” of research on novel coronaviruses apparently conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the nearby Wuhan Center for Disease Control lab. 

“The central issue involves the WCDC and WIV’s obsession with collecting and testing a massive amount of virus-carrying bats,” the memo reads.  

A progenitor of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is believed to have circulated in bats.

The memo also flags biosafety lapses at both labs, calling the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s “management of deadly viruses and virus-carrying lab animals … appallingly poor and negligent.”

The memo provides an extraordinary window into behind-the-scenes concerns about a lab accident among U.S. foreign policy leaders, even as this line of inquiry was deemed a conspiracy theory by international virologists, some of whom had undisclosed conflicts of interest.

The memo also calls into question these virologists’ impartiality. 

Shi Zhengli, a Wuhan Institute of Virology coronavirus researcher nicknamed the “Bat Woman,” has forged wide-reaching international collaborations, including with prestigious Western virologists, the memo notes. 

“Suspicion lingers that Shi holds an important and powerful position in the field in China and has extensive cooperation with many [international] virologists who might be doing her a favor,” it reads. 

Though perhaps unknown to State Department officials at the time, one of the most influential scientists “debunking” the lab leak theory in the media, EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak, had undisclosed ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. 

China’s clampdown 

The memo laments that “the most logical place to investigate the virus origin has been completely sealed off from inquiry by the [Chinese Communist Party].”

“A gag order to both places was issued on [January 1, 2020], and a Major General from the [People’s Liberation Army] took over the WIV since early January,” it states. 

China has strictly controlled information about the pandemic’s origins, including barring access to the mine shaft where one of the viruses most closely related to SARS-CoV-2 was discovered, and pressuring the investigators preparing a 2021 World Health Organization report. 

The memo even suggests that other hypotheses may have served as a distraction from a probe of the city’s extensive research on novel coronaviruses. 

“All other theories are likely to be a decoy to prevent an inquiry [into] the WCDC and WIV,” it states.

While certain portions of the memo were previously reported in the Washington Times, many details, including the depth of concern about a coverup, were not previously known. The memo has never been published in full. 

The circumstantial evidence

The circumstantial evidence presented in the memo seems to draw from public sources. 

Some of that evidence has been shored up over the last two years.

For example, it makes note of so-called “gain-of-function” research Shi collaborated on that made coronaviruses more virulent and transmissible in the lab. 

“[The Wuhan Institute of Virology]’s lead coronavirus scientist Shi Zhengli conducted genetic engineering of bat virus to make it easily transmissible to humans,” the memo states.

That has since been verified by media reports, in peer reviewed papers and U.S. federal grant reports

The memo cites a 2015 paper coauthored by Shi titled “A SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses shows potential for human emergence” that described creating a “chimera,” or engineered virus, with the spike protein of a coronavirus from a Chinese horseshoe bat. 

Editors at Nature Medicine added a note in March 2020 cautioning that the article was “being used as the basis for unverified theories that the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 was engineered.”

“There is no evidence that this is true; scientists believe that an animal is the most likely source of the coronavirus,” the disclaimer still reads. 

But the memo shows that the State Department indeed considered the paper relevant to the pandemic’s origins. 

The memo also describes lapses in safety monitoring at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and Wuhan’s Chinese CDC lab. U.S. Embassy cables describing poor safety monitoring at the Wuhan Institute of Virology have also been reported by the Washington Post.

And it has also been verified that some hypotheses were indeed meant to serve as a decoy, according to another State Department cable released by U.S. Right to Know last year. 

A Nov. 2020 cable stated that the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 could be related to imported seafood products was meant to “deflect PRC responsibility.”

Other bits of information cited in the memo have not been verified. 

The memo describes online posts by a Chinese national with the username Wu Xiaohua who accused Wuhan’s scientists of “playing God,” making coronaviruses more dangerous through animal vectors in the lab, and not properly cremating virus-carrying lab animals. Wu even claimed that laboratory animals were sold as pets, and that laboratory eggs were eaten by lab staff. 

“Wu’s charges … are specific and have not been convincingly rebutted by WIV,” the memo states. 

The memo also raises concerns about Huang Yanlin, a former employee of the Wuhan Institute of Virology whose profile was scrubbed from its website, “fueling speculation of foul play,” it notes. 

“WIV has failed to convince the world of the whereabouts of its former employee Huang Yanlin, rumored to be Patient Zero,” it reads. “Huang herself has never appeared in public and has since ‘disappeared.’”

Further evidence of a clampdown at the Wuhan Institute of Virology surfaced in a State Department cable first reported by U.S. Right to Know last year. The cable stated that lab workers were instructed not to talk about COVID-19 in January 2020, according to a Guangzhou-based blogger’s social media post, before it was censored.

The memo also cites a controversial study by Indian researchers drawing a comparison between the SARS-CoV-2 genome and HIV that was withdrawn from a preprint server after other researchers said it had serious flaws

Chinese CDC

The memo also describes circumstantial evidence suggesting the possibility of an accident at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention lab located near the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market where most early COVID-19 cases are believed to have been clustered. 

The lab houses as many as 10,000 virus-carrying bats, it alleges, citing Chinese state media. 

The lab is a BSL-2 lab, lower than the BSL-4 lab required for the highest risk pathogens.

“The WCDC is a Level 2 virus safety facility which is low. The vast amount of experimental bats poses [a] serious safety issue,” it states. 

The lab’s interest in viruses that circulate in bats is corroborated by a Chinese documentary in which leading virologist Tian Junhua tells filmmakers that bat caves “became our main battlefield.”

The memo alleges Tian once described being “rained on” by bat excrement and quarantining for 14 days, and notes that 14 days is the same quarantine period first recommended for COVID-19 exposure.

U.S. Right to Know obtained the memo on March 24 through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the State Department as part of an investigation into possible links between risky viral research and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

All of the documents about the origins of COVID-19 that USRTK has obtained by public records requests are available here while the full tranche of State Department documents can be found here.

Written by Emily Kopp 

Celebrated virus hunter siphoned taxpayer funds for his private ‘Global Virome Project’

Print Email Share Tweet

A Lassa virus budding off a cell. (NIAID)

A former U.S. Agency for International Development official founded and worked for a controversial organization benefiting from USAID funds while he continued to receive six-figure paychecks from his USAID job, potentially running afoul of ethics laws, according to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know. 

Emerging Pandemic Threats Division Director Dennis Carroll went on to lead the organization — an ambitious, expensive, and potentially dangerous endeavor called the Global Virome Project. Carroll is now the group’s chair.

USAID — a federal agency that typically provides foreign aid — funded a $210 million government program that Carroll designed and oversaw for 10 years called “PREDICT” that served as the “proof of concept” for the Global Virome Project.

Now the Global Virome Project is seeking at least $1.2 billion to collect more than 1 million viruses in wildlife, with the stated aim of forecasting where animals carry pathogens that could evolve to infect humans too. Carroll has pitched the Global Virome Project as the “beginning of the end of the pandemic era.”

Not all experts are convinced Carroll can make good on those promises. Others worry the fieldwork may pose its own pandemic risks

Although the Global Virome Project is controversial even within the field of virology, the idea gained credibility with Carroll’s help and his use of the imprimatur of USAID, the emails suggest. 

They indicate that Carroll’s work as USAID’s leader in viral surveillance and as the chair of the Global Virome Project overlapped for years.

Carroll organized calls and meetings on the project’s work with other co-founders, sought donations and helped refine fundraising pitches, pushed favorable messages in the press, and consulted on its application for tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service — all while still working for USAID. 

Carroll was central to founding the Global Virome Project even when he still worked for the government in 2018. Carroll was featured in the Netflix documentary “Pandemic.”

In a December 2018 email from his USAID email address, for example, Carroll proposed a list of board members of the Global Virome Project, including himself, and looped in other project cofounders. U.S. Right to Know obtained the emails through the Freedom of Information Act and the California Public Records Act in an investigation of potentially dangerous viral research funded through taxpayer dollars.

A Global Virome Project board member said that the idea was “championed by the USAID Emerging Pandemic Threats Division” in one August 2017 pitch.

Under Carroll’s helm, USAID’s Emerging Pandemic Threats Division spent at least $270,969 in funds related to “GVP,” the emails show.

“That’s troubling,” said Walter Shaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics, an ethics agency for executive branch employees. “Separately, his use of a USAID email address is troubling if GVP is not a government project.”

Then-USAID Emerging Pandemic Threats Division President Dennis Carroll pitches the Global Virome Project in Thailand in 2018. (Richard Nyberg/USAID)

As Global Virome Project supporters made their pitch in Bangkok and Beijing, emails show USAID partially paid for the trips.

Carroll told the media he founded the Global Virome Project after he left his job at USAID. 

But the emails show he started in-depth work on the Global Virome Project as early as March 2017, and received six-figure USAID paychecks in 2017, 2018 and 2019. For example, in 2019, USAID paid Carroll $166,500, the maximum allowed for a rank-and-file federal employee.

“The law is clear that officials cannot use government resources to benefit themselves or prospective employers,” said Kedric Payne, senior director of ethics with the Campaign Legal Center, a government watchdog group. “If Carroll was involved in decisions benefitting GVP while he was at USAID, it is likely that he needed approval from the agency’s ethics officials. The public has a right to know if their public officials comply with conflict of interest laws.”

A USAID spokesperson said in a statement that Carroll never sought a waiver either from laws surrounding conflicts-of-interest while in a government job, or from laws regulating the revolving door.

“USAID does not have any record that Mr. Carroll sought clearance for any outside positions while he was still employed at USAID,” a spokesman said in an email. “USAID does not have any record that Mr. Carroll sought advice regarding whether a recusal was necessary or appropriate for any post-government employment negotiations in which he might have been engaging.”

Experts also raised concerns about Carroll appearing to leverage the prestige of his position at USAID to endorse the private organization he founded. 

“There’s numerous conflict of interest laws that should be investigated here to ensure that Carroll didn’t violate the laws on the books,” said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog group.

Carroll did not respond to a request for comment or to a request for the Global Virome Project’s tax records. 

Global Virome Project Board Member Edward Rubin states that USAID “champions” the Global Virome Project in a fundraising pitch.

‘Which one did they prevent?’

A USAID spokesperson said that the group was first recognized as a nonprofit organization after Carroll left USAID. USAID has not provided the Global Virome Project with any further funding since it was formally incorporated, he said.

Still, some experts said that even if Carroll’s organization wasn’t formally recognized by the IRS as a nonprofit yet, his activities raise red flags.

“Even if you could find some loophole out of the criminal statute because GVP wasn’t technically a legal entity yet, this is a fundamental conflict of interest,” said Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington Chief Ethics Counsel Virginia Canter.

The USAID spokesperson did not respond to other questions about how much money the Global Virome Project received before its formal incorporation or whether Carroll should have sought an ethics waiver for his simultaneous work at USAID and GVP.

Meanwhile, even some experts who lean toward the theory that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, first infected humans via two separate intermediate animal hosts, say the idea driving PREDICT and the Global Virome Project is far-fetched. 

“If I thought there was a kind of ‘viral smoke alarm’ I would invest everything imaginable in that, but this project doesn’t give us that, ok?” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, and a former advisor to the State Department on health security. 

Deep knowledge about Zika and Nipah has still not led to proven vaccines against them, he said.

Osterholm said Carroll’s daring “Indiana Jones” image is not backed up by real payoffs for public health. 

“Show me one thing they’ve done that has made a difference, where they could even make a case that they supposedly prevented a pandemic. Which one did they prevent?” he said. “Did they find anything that helped us with this coronavirus?” 

Carroll has pitched the Global Virome Project as the “beginning of the end of the pandemic era.” But not all experts are persuaded. (USAID)

Connections in Wuhan

Global Virome Project cofounder, secretary and treasurer Peter Daszak ⁠— president of another USAID contractor called EcoHealth Alliance — has come under Congressional scrutiny because of his work with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, including on so-called “gain-of-function” work that makes novel coronaviruses more dangerous in the lab. Carroll’s division at USAID funded the Wuhan Institute of Virology through EcoHealth Alliance. 

Shi Zhengli, a top coronavirus researcher at the Wuhan lab, worked with Carroll’s PREDICT and was slated to work with the Global Virome Project. 

The emails demonstrate that there was significant correspondence between Carroll and Daszak about the Global Virome Project while Carroll was a USAID official and EcoHealth was receiving USAID funds. 

In one March 2019 email, Daszak suggests that lawyers flagged the overlap in Carroll’s role. 

“I realize this isn’t the exact language you wanted, but it’s safer for us at this sensitive point where we still receive USAID funding being [used] for GVP related activities,” Daszak wrote to Carroll. 

The details are redacted.

An email obtained through the Freedom of Information Act suggests lawyers flagged the overlap in Carroll’s roles.

Carroll pitches pricey virus collection plan with USAID funds

Carroll marshaled significant taxpayer funds to lay the groundwork for his pet project. 

USAID funded Global Virome Project collaborators’ international trips as they made their pitch to potential investors.

In February 2017, USAID funded the stipend of Eddy Rubin, a member of the Global Virome Project board of directors, while he traveled in Beijing to meet with scientific staff at the U.S. Embassy there about China’s role, the so-called China National Virome Project. 

Again in October 2018, USAID paid for three individuals to fly to Bangkok to pitch the Thailand Global Virome Project: EcoHealth Alliance fellow Alice Latinne, Metabiota, Inc. epidemiologist David McIver, and University of Missouri intellectual property expert Sam Halabi. The itineraries of Latinne and McIver included work for the Global Virome Project, but also included work for USAID’s PREDICT. But Halabi’s trip had no apparent relevance to USAID work.

China and Thailand were two of the five country partners that the Global Virome Project targeted in its first phase

In addition, a cost-benefit analysis of the Global Virome Project was commissioned by Carroll and undertaken with USAID funds in August 2018. The precise costs are unclear, but the endeavor may have involved several cross-country flights by University of Washington economist Dean Jamison, the emails indicate. 

And Cara Chrisman, a USAID official who worked under Carroll, was often looped in on logistical questions about the Global Virome Project. 

An internal USAID spreadsheet indicates Carroll’s division spent $270,969 on “GVP.”

Uncertain future

Critics of the Global Virome Project even include some virologists who are skeptical of the theory that posits research on novel coronaviruses in Wuhan could be related to SARS-CoV-2. 

University of Sydney evolutionary biologist and virologist Edward C. Holmes, University of Edinburgh virologist Andrew Rambaut and Scripps Research virologist Kristian G. Andersen wrote in Nature in 2018 that the Global Virome Project is unlikely to predict pandemics because animal viruses so rarely cause epidemics in humans. 

“Around 250 human viruses have been described, and only a small subset of these have caused major epidemics this century,” they wrote. “Advocates of prediction also argue that it will be possible to anticipate how likely a virus is to emerge in people on the basis of its sequence, and by using knowledge of how it interacts with cells (obtained, for instance, by studying the virus in human cell cultures). This is misguided.”

At the time, they pointed out that its cost would comprise roughly one fourth the entire budget for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the U.S. agency that funds most viral research. And that is not accounting for the speedy evolution of certain viruses, which could quickly make the data collected outdated, they wrote. 

More recently, Holmes again critiqued the idea of deep surveillance of viruses in wildlife in an editorial, even while underscoring the importance of regulating live animal markets. 

Carroll and Daszak have defended the steep price tag of the Global Virome Project by comparing its projected spend to the devastating costs of a pandemic. 

“Pandemics are estimated to cause an average of US $570 billion in economic damages per year to the global economy,” they wrote in 2018. “The Global Virome Project will cost U.S. $1.2 billion, which is less than 0.2 percent of this estimated loss.”

‘What would Jim do?’: U.S. virologist close to Wuhan lab quietly called for investigation

Print Email Share Tweet

Galveston National Laboratory is pictured on the right. (Courtesy of: Wikimedia Commons)

James Le Duc, a biosafety expert and virologist who collaborated closely with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, outlines how he might investigate whether that lab or any other in Wuhan could be implicated in the COVID-19 pandemic in an email obtained by U.S. Right to Know.  

In a June 2021 email titled “What would Jim do?,” Le Duc proposes a set of questions and a survey of coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and other nearby labs.

Le Duc suggests a “detailed examination of the work underway” at each lab, including: 

  1. specimens from bats collected from the field
  2. attempts to adapt [coronaviruses] to growth in cell cultures
  3. gain of function research 
  4. the use of humanized mouse lines expressing human lung ACE-2 receptors

“If nothing significant [was] found, it would help reassure the world that it is unlikely that SARS-CoV2 originated from a laboratory,” Le Duc wrote in the email, which was sent to staff at the National Academy of Sciences.

U.S. Right to Know obtained the emails through a Texas Public Information Act request.

In a separate email published by U.S. Right to Know last year, Le Duc expressed concerns that a lab accident would have been more likely to happen at less secure BSL-2 or BSL-3 labs than the high security BSL-4 lab that has been the focus of international attention and concern. 

Still, the investigation proposed by Le Duc as necessary to absolve Wuhan’s labs has yet to be conducted. 

Le Duc provided training to Chinese researchers who worked at the Wuhan Institute of Virology ⁠— including in biosafety, lab operations and biocontainment ⁠— through a formal cooperative agreement. Since 1986, he has traveled to Wuhan to assist the lab and to meet with Yuan Zhiming, a director at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Le Duc was the longtime director of the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch until his February 2021 retirement. The Galveston lab and the Wuhan Institute of Virology are two of three labs in the world that perform similar risky research on novel coronaviruses, according to Richard Ebright, board of governors professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University. 

While the email has not previously been reported, Le Duc’s questions were also shared at a public meeting of the World Microbe Forum in June 2021.

Le Duc did not respond to a request for comment. 

In other media interviews, Le Duc has expressed warm feelings about Shi Zhengli, the director of the Center of Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and their scientific collaborations. Still, Le Duc has said he supports an impartial investigation into all possibilities related to the pandemic’s origins.

More questions

In the 2021 email, Le Duc suggests this investigation should include an evaluation of the levels of biocontainment used in Wuhan’s labs and an examination of the biosafety infrastructure in place. 

Elements of lab safety Le Duc drills down on include whether any of the labs were studying coronaviruses that can replicate in culture, which may have made them better adapted to infect human cells. He also asks whether biological safety cabinets were certified and used; whether the lab has a history of disgruntled employees; and whether there is controlled access to pathogens.

He suggests an examination of whether the air handling systems were properly maintained, citing the 1979 release of anthrax from a Soviet lab

In an earlier email exchange in April 2020, former president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene Phillip Russell voiced concerns to Le Duc about obfuscation by scientists akin to the longtime coverup of that lab accident. 

“This reminds me of the efforts by Matt Messelson [Meselson] and many colleagues to coverup up the Sverdeslosk [Sverdlovsk] anthrax outbreak,” he wrote. “They succeeded for many years aided and abetted by many in academia until Ken Alibek defected and the truth came out.”

Le Duc also suggests an evaluation of waste decontamination procedures, citing a 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom that resulted from wastewater runoff from a lab. 

‘Unfortunately, I never received a response’

Le Duc, who provided training in biosafety to some Wuhan Institute of Virology staff, suggested asking whether personnel were properly trained in key instruments like autoclaves, a sterilization tool. He also asks whether there is a history of needle sticks or accidental exposures at Wuhan labs. 

He asks: Were any employees sick in the months prior to the start of the pandemic? Were family members or close contacts sick?

Le Duc suggests that investigators could test whether serum banks contain antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Further, he asks, is there an occupational health program or special clinic that serves staff from each institute where coronavirus research was underway? If so, did they see an uptick in cases consistent with COVID-19?

Le Duc posed a similar set of questions to his former collaborator Zhiming, according to an email uncovered by U.S. Right to Know in December.

“Unfortunately, I never received a response,” he wrote.

Written by Emily Kopp 

Military lab changed mission statement after report questioned value of its work

Print Email Share Tweet

A BSL-4 lab at Fort Detrick is shown. (Courtesy of: the Office of the Maryland Governor)

The Army’s premier biolab changed its mission statement after a 2014 report by high-ranking officials concluded its work has become less useful since its Cold War heyday and no longer delivers medical products for service members. 

The report, which had not been previously released, was obtained through a state public records request by U.S. Right to Know.

The challenges at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, come to light at a time of fierce debate about the degree to which research on novel pathogens contributes tangible benefits. Scientists with different theories about the COVID-19 pandemic’s origins have been tangled in arguments over whether certain work on dangerous pathogens can help predict pandemics or poses unacceptable risks. 

Located 50 miles outside of Washington at Fort Detrick, USAMRIID was once charged with responding to the Soviet Union’s biological weapons program, but stopped developing bioweapons in 1969. It now conducts research on biological threats including Ebola, Zika, anthrax and plague, and conducts research for universities and private companies. It employs about 900 military, civilian and contract researchers.

The global biological threat landscape has changed due to gain-of-function technology, the limited capacity of the intelligence community to identify biological threats, and the proliferation of “dual use” research programs that generate pathogens that could be harmful in the wrong hands, the report states.

USAMRIID has in recent years suffered many troubles, including biosafety breaches, a shut down of its high security work, and accusations from Department of Defense leadership of wasting taxpayer funds. 

The report by government experts, including former USAMRIID Commander David Franz, describes an agency adrift as America’s first biodefense research facility struggled to deliver on the promises in its mission statement. 

The report concludes that the lab’s work may not always generate medical advances, and should not be expected to in the eyes of its funders in Washington. 

“The emphasis on products to the warfighter has become less relevant,” the report reads. “Because prophylaxis for ‘biological agents’ (traditional vaccines) requires great specificity and a period of at least weeks before protection is achieved, the era of vaccines for the force, one of USARMIID’s greatest historic strengths, is essentially over.”

The experts behind the report recommended changing the mission of the military lab away from generating vaccines and drugs.

It appears USAMRIID’s leaders listened.

By Jan. 2015 – several months after study’s authors had convened in June 2014 – the vision of the lab had changed on its website from “right product, right time for the Warfighter” to a more general statement about leadership in medical biological defense, according to changes accessed via the WayBack Machine. 

“To be the leader in the advancement of medical biological defense with world renowned experts dedicated to protecting our military forces and the nation,” USAMRIID’s vision statement now reads.

In the years since USAMRIID’s 2014 consultants fought to prove its importance to the Pentagon, the lab has faced allegations of “financial mismanagement,” according to a Defense Department letter reported by CQ Roll Call

Other problems

USAMRIID is one of two facilities at Fort Detrick with laboratories designed to handle the most dangerous pathogens in the world, so-called BSL-4 labs. There are 14 BSL-4 labs in North America. 

These labs have come under greater scrutiny amid concerns by Republicans and some independent biosecurity experts that the COVID-19 pandemic may have arisen from a lab accident in China. 

USAMRIID has not developed a COVID-19 vaccine candidate, though the lab has tested COVID-19 vaccines in the pre-clinical trial stage, according to Caree Vander Linden, public affairs officer at USAMRIID. 

Vander Linden also provided U.S. Right to Know with a spreadsheet of 43 scientific papers produced by the lab about COVID-19. For example, the lab recently announced engineering hamsters to increase their expression of the human ACE2 receptor — a key protein used by SARS-CoV-2 to enter airway cells — to enable the study of more severe disease. Remdesivir, the first therapeutic with approval from the Food and Drug Administration to treat COVID-19, was also developed with the help of USAMRIID. 

Vander Linden did not respond to questions about the report and the change of the USAMRIID mission statement. Franz did not respond to requests for comment.

Morale has plummeted since the deadly release of anthrax from the lab in 2001, the 2014 report suggests. That has been worsened by the expansion of work on biorisks at other labs. Now USAMRIID struggles to retain talent. Much of the work at USAMRIID is that of a contract research organization performing tasks for the private sector. 

“The concept that USAMRIID is more of an ‘insurance policy’ to deal with the unknown and unexpected than a ‘factory’ to produce medical ‘things’ for the soldier should be understood by all,” it states. 

The report criticizes the biosafety regulations at the Fort Detrick lab, saying the routine presence of inspectors is a distraction.

“The heavy regulatory burden … and oversight following the 9-11 attacks and the anthrax letters has diverted both funding and human resources from the research mission,” the report states.

Yet in the years since, serious safety breaches have occurred at USAMRIID. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention flagged failures to “implement and maintain containment procedures sufficient to contain select agents or toxins” in biosafety level 3 and 4 laboratories, the Frederick News-Post reported, culminating in a shutdown of USAMRIID’s two top security labs and a suspension of its registration with the Federal Select Agent Program.

Though work resumed in November 2019, the lab’s Defense Department funding remained frozen until April 2020

Both the Biden and Trump administrations have sought cuts to USAMRIID. But members of the Maryland congressional delegation have fought to maintain funding levels.

Congress appropriated $130 million for the expansion of USAMRIID in fiscal 2021.

Unpredictable threats

While USAMRIID once focused on responding to the Soviet Union, new biological threats are more diverse and harder to nail down, according to the report.

“The intelligence community is limited in its ability to identify specific threats,” the report states.

This unpredictability is due in part to so-called “gain-of-function” research, a term used to describe research that can make pathogens more virulent or transmissible. 

“Threat agents … might include traditional ones to those that blur the line between chemistry and biology or even those modified through ‘gain of function’ techniques,” the report reads. 

Potentially dangerous biological research is now characterized by “small footprint, dual-use offensive capabilities that might be found in a few large and medium nation states,” according to the report.

Two of the 2014 report’s authors – Franz and former director of the National Science Foundation Rita Colwell – have connections to EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit under investigation for its gain-of-function work on coronaviruses with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Colwell is on the board of directors, while Franz was a booster of the organization, according to a 2019 social media post

Other consultants who coauthored the report include former secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig; former deputy commander-in-chief of United States Strategic Command Robert Hinson; former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority Carol Linden; and former chief of staff of the U.S. Army Dennis J. Reimer; executive director of the Maryland Biotechnology Center Judy Britz; distinguished research fellow at National Defense University Seth Carus; Harvard professor of biologically inspired engineering David Walt; and NIH researcher Richard Whitley. 

Written by Emily Kopp