Timeline: The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2

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Anthony Fauci shaped an editorial dismissing the idea COVID-19 emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology after being alerted to coronavirus work his institute funded there. (Photo credit: White House Archives)

Updated: September 29, 2022

Introduction

The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2 is one of the most influential scientific articles in history.

In February 2020 — about a month before a pandemic had been declared — five top virologists huddled to examine aspects of a rapidly emerging coronavirus that seemed primed to infect human cells. (The furin cleavage site kept one virologist up all night.) A few days later, they concluded the virus had not been engineered. In March, their conclusions were published in Nature Medicine.

“We do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible,” the article read.

The article assured much of the media, Washington and the broader infectious disease community that there was no need to scrutinize the labs at the pandemic’s epicenter in Wuhan, China. The Wuhan Institute of Virology is well known for research on SARS-like coronaviruses, including gain-of-function research. Though a “correspondence” and not a formal paper, the article has been cited in the press 2,127 times.

It took 15 months and a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to reveal that each of the five authors had expressed private concerns about engineering or the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s store of novel coronaviruses.

Also troubling: A confidential teleconference organized by Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar had framed early drafts of the article. But several scientists on the call had undisclosed conflicts of interest.

Two authors were later found to have collaborated with the Wuhan lab or its American partner, EcoHealth Alliance. Another virologist who shaped the article’s central ideas without credit is synonymous with controversial viral engineering.

Also present on the call for “advice and leadership” but not publicly credited: director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins and director of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci. NIAID had funded the Wuhan Institute of Virology — a fact Fauci had been alerted to by late January. 

The scientists’ familiarity with the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s work on novel coronaviruses calls into question a central premise of the paper — that SARS-CoV-2 could not have been engineered because it appeared to be novel.

Farrar said that “proximal origin” was motivated by the absence of an investigation by the WHO. However, emails show that Farrar simultaneously shepherded along the article and appealed to the WHO.

This timeline compiles several sources in an effort to flesh out the backstory of the enormously influential article. The timeline is likely to grow as more information emerges. All times have been approximated to Eastern Time.

The authors of the “proximal origin” article are Scripps Research virologist Kristian Andersen, University of Sydney virologist Edward Holmes, Tulane School of Medicine virologist Robert Garry, University of Edinburgh virologist Andrew Rambaut and Columbia University virologist Ian Lipkin.

“Just a few of us – Eddie, Kristian, Tony and I – were now privy to sensitive information that, if proved to be true, might set off a whole series of events that would be far bigger than any of us. It felt as if a storm was gathering,” Farrar wrote of the period leading up the publication of “proximal origin.”

Summary

January 27, 2020: Fauci learned he funds the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

January 29, 2020: Andersen discovered a paper describing gain-of-function techniques with coronaviruses involving the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

January 31, 2020: Fauci and Andersen spoke privately. Four virologists, including three authors of the article — Andersen, Holmes and Garry — found the virus to be inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory.”

February 1, 2020: Farrar organized a secret teleconference between the virologists and NIH. Separately, Fauci sought to learn more about which projects NIAID funded at the lab.

February 2, 2020: The virologists exchanged thoughts. Several leaned toward a lab origin. Garry said he cannot understand how SARS-CoV-2 could have emerged naturally after comparing it to RaTG13.

February 4, 2020: A draft was circulated. Holmes, 60-40 lab,” said the draft does not mention other anomalies as that will make us look like loons.Andersen derided the idea of an engineered virus as “crackpot” and promoted the phrase “consistent with natural evolution” to scientists outside of the confab.

March 6, 2020: Andersen thanked Farrar, Collins and Fauci for their “advice and leadership.”

April 17, 2020: Fauci told reporters COVID-19 is “totally consistent with a jump of a species from an animal to a human,” citing the paper.

August 19, 2020: Collins and Fauci discussed the termination of an EcoHealth Alliance grant and the lab leak theory. Eight days later, a new grant is extended from NIAID to EcoHealth and Andersen’s lab.

June 20, 2021: Collins, Fauci, Andersen and Garry encouraged a researcher to rethink a preprint about early SARS-CoV-2 sequences that NIH improperly spiked from its database. Andersen proposed deleting it from a preprint server.

July 31, 2022: New entries to an NIH database indicated a relationship between Holmes and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, including work on RaTG13.

Timeline

‘Mid-January’: CDC director sounds the alarm

Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a virologist, voiced the concern that a lab accident occurred at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. He shared this concern with Fauci, Farrar, and World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus, Vanity Fair reported.

Farrar noticed email chatter among credible scientists “suggesting the virus looked almost engineered to infect human cells” in the last week of January, according to his memoir Spike.

January 27, 2020: Fauci learns he funded the Wuhan Institute of Virology

6:59 a.m.

Farrar acquired a second phone for discussing the origin of SARS-CoV-2.

Source: Spike (2021)

“We should use different phones; avoid putting things in emails; and ditch our normal email addresses and phone contacts,” Farrar wrote in his memoir. “I didn’t know the term then but I now had a burner phone, which I would use only for this purpose and then get rid of.”

6:24 p.m.

By January 27, Fauci knows his institute funded work on coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology through the EcoHealth Alliance, according to an email obtained by the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

Source: House Oversight and Reform Committee

Details about EcoHealth’s NIAID-funded research are shared with Fauci, but these details are redacted.

January 28, 2020: Discussions begin

Farrar called Holmes, concerned about chatter about the possibility of a lab accident and a recently published preprint on the server BioRxiv.

Farrar’s memoir does not name the preprint.

But Holmes identified the preprint in a 2022 interview as “Discovery of a novel coronavirus associated with the recent pneumonia outbreak in humans and its potential bat origin,” coauthored by Wuhan Institute of Virology Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases Director Zhengli Shi and published on January 23. The preprint described the sequence of SARS-CoV-2 and compared the virus to similar bat coronaviruses discovered by the Wuhan lab, including a coronavirus called RaTG13 with 96 percent similarity to SARS-CoV-2.

“I got an email from Jeremy Farrar saying, ‘There is some chatter in the U.S. about whether this virus has come out of a lab, do you have time for a talk now?’” Holmes said. “I think this is started because Zhengli Shi posts her first paper that ends up in Nature that has her sequence and RaTG13.”

“RaTG13 being the closest relative to SARS-CoV-2… so of course that leads to lots of chatter,” Holmes continued.

(Patrick Vallance, chief scientific advisor to the United Kingdom, may have also been on the line, Holmes said.)

Holmes was “indifferent” to the similarity between SARS-CoV-2 and RaTG13, according to Farrar’s memoir, finding the pattern of variation to be normal.

“I didn’t think much of it, if I’m honest. I was busy traveling and trying to write a scientific paper,” Holmes recounted to Farrar.

Holmes is a coauthor on partial sequences of RaTG13 alongside Shi. These partial sequences were submitted to NIH’s database in 2018, but published in July 2022.

January 29, 2020: Andersen flags gain-of-function research

Andersen became alarmed that a bat coronavirus may have been engineered to infect humans, pointing to the receptor binding domain and furin cleavage site, according to Farrar’s memoir.

He also flagged a gain-of-function study that “looked like a how-to manual for building the Wuhan coronavirus in a laboratory,” the memoir states.

“Andersen found a scientific paper where exactly this technique had been used to modify the spike protein of the original SARS-CoV-1 virus, the one that had caused the SARS outbreak of 2002/3,” Farrar wrote. “The pair knew of a laboratory where researchers had been experimenting on coronaviruses for years: the Wuhan Institute of Virology, in the city at the heart of the outbreak.”

The title of this paper is unknown.

But it is clear that a 2015 paper involving gain-of-function work with a SARS-CoV backbone at the Wuhan Institute of Virology appears to have alarmed Fauci a few days later. The 2015 paper had been given an abbreviated title: “SARS Gain of function.”

Andersen and Holmes arrange to meet a Zoom call.

“Kristian said, ‘Eddie, can we talk? I need to be pulled off the ledge here,’” Holmes later recounted.

Andersen directs Holmes’ attention to a concerning part of the genome.

“He said there’s this furin cleavage site between the S1 and S2 junctions,” Holmes recounted. “There are two restriction sites, BamHI, around it. And that section, between the restriction sites, looks like it has reduced variation.”

In other words, the furin cleavage site — a feature of SARS-CoV-2 that makes it unusually infectious — had features characteristic of genetic engineering. Restriction sites are snippets of the genome recognized by restriction enzymes that cleave at or near that site. And the portion of the genome between these sites did not at first appear natural.

“Fuck, this is bad,” Holmes said in response to Andersen’s findings.

January 31, 2020: ‘Inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory’

5:23 p.m.

Farrar asked to speak to Fauci.

Farrar then told Fauci the people involved” included three top virologists: Andersen, Garry and Holmes.

Fauci and Andersen also spoke privately.

8:43 p.m.

Science Magazine published the article “Mining coronavirus genomes for clues to the outbreak’s origins” by staff writer Jon Cohen. The article quoted Holmes, Andersen and Rutgers Board of Governors Professor Richard Ebright, who told Cohen he had concerns about a new maximum biocontainment lab called the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Fauci forwarded the article to Farrar and Andersen.

“It is of interest to the current discussion,” he wrote.

10:32 p.m.

Andersen wrote back to Fauci.

While SARS-CoV-2 fits within the family tree of bat coronaviruses, that doesn’t illustrate whether it has been engineered. Indeed, the virus looks unnatural to Andersen and three other virologists, he wrote.

“You have to look very closely at the genome to see features that are potentially engineered… I should mention that after discussions earlier today, Eddie, Bob, Mike, and myself all find the genome to be inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory,” he wrote. “We have a good team lined up to look at this, so we should know more by the end of the weekend.”

Mike” referred to Michael Farzan, chair of the Scripps Research Department of Immunology and Microbiology, who has made key discoveries related to how SARS-CoV infects human cells.

Other members of the team looped into early conversations included Garry and Rambaut. Christian Drosten, director of the Institute of Virology at Charité Hospital, also participated in early discussions.

The team also sought the advice of a proponent of gain-of-function research, Erasmus MC virologist Ron Fouchier, and Erasmus MC Department of Viroscience Director Marion Koopmans.

At the time, Holmes was 80 percent sure the novel coronavirus had a lab origin, while Andersen favored a lab origin by about 60 to 70 percent, according Farrar’s memoir.

“Andrew and Bob were not far behind. I, too, was going to have to be persuaded that things were not as sinister as they seemed,” Farrar wrote.

Andersen would later say he was intimidated by the idea of breaking the news to the world that the virus may be engineered. 

“I was battling with the idea that, having raised the alarm, I might end up being the person who proved this new virus came from a lab,” he told Farrar. “And I didn’t necessarily want to be that person.”

February 1, 2020: The teleconference

12:29 a.m.

“IMPORTANT,” Fauci wrote in the subject line of an email to an aide a little after midnight — about two hours after Andersen told him the genome may not have evolved naturally. 

“Hugh: It is essential that we speak this AM. Keep your cell phone on,” he wrote.

He instructed Hugh Auchincloss, NIAID principal deputy director, to read the attached paper and added an urgent instruction: “You will have tasks today that must be done.”

The attached paper was likely a 2015 Nature paper titled “A SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses shows potential for human emergence,” a study NIH had funded through a grant to EcoHealth Alliance.  

The file name included the phrase SARS Gain of function.”

The paper shows that a team co-led by Shi had spliced the spike protein of one coronavirus into a SARS-CoV backbone. The authors wrote that future experimentation on these viruses “may be too risky to pursue.”

12:38 a.m.

Fauci emailed Farrar and Andersen, but the details are redacted.

10:55 a.m.

Farrar invited Fauci to a teleconference later that day.

“My preference is to keep this [a] really tight group,” Farrar wrote. “Obviously ask everyone to keep in total confidence.”

An analysis that framed the February 1, 2020, teleconference was titled “Coronavirus sequence comparison[1].pdf.” This document has not been released to the public. 

Participants were asked to keep the call confidential until next steps are outlined.

11:47 a.m.

Auchincloss reported back to Fauci that the work was performed before a 2014 gain-of-function pause, but reviewed and approved by NIH after the pause was lifted in 2017.

This appears to be confusing, as Auchincloss reported back to Fauci that another NIH aide said that no coronavirus work has gone through the P3 framework,” a reference to the pandemic potential pathogen” framework put in place to regulate gain-of-function research after the pause.”

In any case, this NIH aide will investigate if we have any distant ties to this work abroad,” Auchincloss says.

11:48 a.m.

Collins sent a recent preprint by Shi to Fauci. The preprint shared between NIH’s leaders described several coronaviruses, including RaTG13.

No evidence this work was supported by NIH,” Collins wrote.

I did see it, but did not check the similarities. Obviously we need more details,” Fauci wrote back.

Any ties between the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s work on coronaviruses and NIH were apparently top of mind for Fauci and Collins just two hours before they conferred with the authors of the proximal origin” paper.

2 p.m.

Collins and Fauci joined the teleconference at 2 p.m. Washington time (7 p.m. GMT and 6 a.m. in Sydney) along with Farrar, Andersen and Holmes.

Garry and Rambaut were invited by Andersen and Holmes. 

Others on the call included: Vallance; Fouchier; Koopmans; Drosten; Stefan Pohlmann, a virologist at the German Primate Centre in Gottingen; Mike Ferguson, Wellcome’s deputy chair and a biochemist; Paul Schreier, also from Wellcome.

Despite his appeals both to Fauci and Farrar, Redfield is left out of the teleconference.

Andersen presented slides to the group, with Holmes providing some input. A discussion follows.

Virologists on the call insist the NIH grantmakers did not seek to spin the science.

“Tony Fauci says very little. Francis Collins says even less,” Holmes recounted emphatically. “Their behavior was completely impeccable.”

Gain-of-function research practitioners were clearly influential, however.

Fouchier ⁠— who ignited a debate about gain-of-function research when he altered the highly lethal H5N1 virus to be airborne between ferrets — was among the first to voice the argument that would become central to the paper, according to Holmes.

“People like Ron very correctly point out that if you were going to do this … you would use a standard lab background, and this is not a standard lab background,” Holmes said. “They gave a whole set of very cogent points about what you would do if you were going to do this.”

Drosten and Koopmans, Fouchier’s boss, both agreed, Farrar recollected.

“The conference call finished and the conclusion was that we should write something up, a sort of summary statement,” Holmes said.

In an email sent after the call, one of the virologists referred to a viral backbone” and insert.”

February 2, 2020: ‘There are possible ways in nature, but highly unlikely’

After the call, Farrar collected some thoughts from the group and emailed Fauci and Collins. 

“On a spectrum if 0 is nature and 100 is release – I am honestly at 50! My guess is that this will remain grey, unless there is access to the Wuhan lab – and I suspect that is unlikely!” Farrar said.

Source: Spike (2021)

6:53 a.m.

Farrar relayed more thoughts from participants on the call to Fauci and Collins. These emails, first obtained through FOIA by BuzzFeed News, were viewed un-redacted by congressional staff in camera and reported by The Intercept.

“From Mike Farzan (discoverer of SARS receptor): 

  1. The RBD didn’t look ‘engineered’ to him – as in, no human would have selected the individual mutations and cloned them into the RBD (I think we all agree) 
  2. Tissue culture passage can often lead to gain of basic sites – including furin cleavage sites (this is stuff they have seen with human coronaviruses) 
  3. He is bothered by the furin site and has a hard time explain that as an event outside the lab (though, there are possible ways in nature, but highly unlikely) 
  4. Instead of directed engineering, changes in the RBD and acquisition of the furin site would be highly compatible with the idea of continued passage of virus in tissue culture
  5. Acquisition of the furin site would likely destabilize the virus but would make it disseminate to new tissues. 

So, given above, a likely explanation could be something as simple as passage SARS-live CoVs in tissue culture on human cell lines (under BSL-2) for an extended period of time, accidently creating a virus that would be primed for rapid transmission between humans via gain of furin site (from tissue culture) and adaption to human ACE2 receptor via repeated passage. 

…So, I think it becomes a question of how do you put all this together, whether you believe in this series of coincidences, what you know of the lab in Wuhan, how much could be in nature – accidental release or natural event? I am 70:30 or 60:40.” 

You were doing gain of function research you would NOT use an existing close [clone] of SARS or MERSv. These viruses are already human pathogens. What you would do is close a bat virus th[at] had not yet emerged,” Garry said.

“Before I left the office for the ball, I aligned nCoV with the 96% bat CoV sequenced at WIV. Except for the RBD the S proteins are essentially identical at the amino acid level – well all but the perfect insertion of 12 nucleotides that adds the furin site. S2 is over its whole length essentially identical. I really can’t think of a plausible natural scenario where you get from the bat virus or one very similar to it to nCoV where you insert exactly 4 amino acids 12 nucleotide that all have to be added at the exact same time to gain this function – that and you don’t change any other amino acid in S2? I just can’t figure out how this gets accomplished in nature. Do the alignment of the spikes at the amino acid level – its stunning. Of course, in the lab it would be easy to generate the perfect 12 base insert that you wanted. Another scenario is that the progenitor of nCoV was a bat virus with the perfect furin cleavage site generated over 3 evolutionary times. In this scenario RaTG13 the WIV virus was generated by a perfect deletion of 12 nucleotides while essentially not changing any other S2 amino acid. Even more implausible IMO. 

That is the big if. 

You were doing gain of function research you would NOT use an existing close [clone] of SARS or MERSv. These viruses are already human pathogens. What you would do is close a bat virus th[at] had not yet emerged. Maybe then pass it in human cells for a while to lock in the RBS, then you reclone and put in the mutations you are interested – one of the first a polybasic cleavage site.”

8:30 a.m.

Fouchier emailed Farrar, and apparently the other participants on the call, calling for further inquiry. However he also calls the question of the virus’ origin a distraction for the moment, and possibly harmful to science and to China.

“Dear Jeremy and others, 

“Thanks for a useful teleconference. Given the evidence presented and the discussions around it, I would conclude that a follow-up discussion on the possible origin of 2019-nCoV would be of much interest. However, I doubt if it needs to be done on very short term, given the importance of other activities of the scientific community, WHO and other stakeholders at present. It is my opinion that a non-natural origin of 2019-nCoV is highly unlikely at present. Any conspiracy theory can be approached with factual information. 

… An accusation that nCoV-2019 might have been engineered and released into the environment by humans (accidental or intentional) would need to be supported by strong data, beyond a reasonable doubt. It is good that this possibility was discussed in detail with a team of experts. However, further debate about such accusations would unnecessarily distract top researchers from their active duties and do unnecessary harm to science in general and science in China in particular.”

9:38 a.m.

Under the subject line “Re: Teleconference,” Rambaut emails Farrar, Fauci, and the other call’s participants.

“Thanks for inviting me on the call yesterday. I am also agnostic on this – I do not have any experience of laboratory virology and don’t know what is likely or not in that context. From a (natural) evolutionary point of view the only thing here that strikes me as unusual is the furin cleavage site. It strongly suggests to me that we are missing something important in the origin of the virus. My inclination would be that it is a missing host species in which this feature arose because it was selected for in that host. We can see this insertion has resulted in an extremely fit virus in humans – we can also deduce that it is not optimal for transmission in bat species.

… The biggest hinderance at the moment (for this and more generally) is the lack of data and information. There have been no genome sequences from Wuhan for cases more recent than the 6 beginning of January and reports, but no information, about virus from non-human animals in Wuhan. If the evolutionary origins of the epidemic were to be discussed, I think the only people with sufficient information or access to samples to address it would be the teams working in Wuhan.”

10:27 a.m.

Collins emailed Farrar, Fauci, and NIH official Lawrence Tabak, raising concerns about the potential harm to science and international harmony” a lab origin of COVID-19 could pose.

“Though the arguments from Ron Fouchier and Christian Drosten are presented with more forcefulness than necessary, I am coming around to the view that a natural origin is more likely. But I share your view that a swift convening of experts in a confidence inspiring framework (WHO seems really the only option) is needed, or the voices of conspiracy will quickly dominate, doing great potential harm to science and international harmony.

I’m available any time today except 3:15 p.m. – 5:45 pm EST (on a plane) for a call to Tedros. Let me know if I can help get through his thicket of protectors.”

11:28 a.m.

Farrar updated Collins and Fauci on his efforts to pressure the WHO, but the aim is unclear.

“Tedros and Bernard have apparently gone into conclave….they need to decide today in my view. If they do prevaricate, I would appreciate a call with you later tonight or tomorrow to think how we might take forward.

Meanwhile…..

https://www.zerohedge.com/geopolitical/coronavirus-contains-hiv-insertions-stoking-fears-over-artificially-created-bioweapon

1:57 p.m. (approximate)

Twitter suspended Zero Hedge — the blog that Farrar had flagged to Fauci and Collins — apparently because of a separate post that shared the contact information of a Chinese scientist. The ban appeared to coincide with an effort by the WHO to work with social media companies to bar “misinformation.”

3:30 p.m.

Fauci weighed in on the virologists’ comments but the details are redacted.

4:49 p.m.

Fauci asked Collins for a private phone call.

At some point on February 2, Holmes received an email from University of Hong Kong Tommy Lam about a receptor binding domain found in pangolin coronaviruses that resembled the one in SARS-CoV-2, bolstering the natural origin theory, Holmes shared in a 2022 interview.

February 4, 2020: ‘Did not mention other anomalies as this will make us look like loons’

2:01 a.m.

Farrar shared an early draft of “proximal origin” with Fauci and Collins, with the promise of a more polished version soon. Farrar said that he was “pushing WHO again today.” 

Holmes had emailed Farrar the summary, noting that it  “did not mention other anomalies as this will make us look like loons.” 

6:08 a.m.

Farrar reported to Fauci and Collins that Holmes is 60-40 lab,” while Farrar is 50-50.”

6:23 a.m.

Fauci praised what appears to be an early draft of “proximal origin.”

“Very thoughtful summary and analysis. We really need to get the WHO moving on getting the convening started,” he wrote.

12:05 p.m.

As “proximal origin” progressed, Andersen also participated on a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine team responding to a request from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for next steps on determining the origin of the novel coronavirus. 

Andersen was one of the eight experts tapped by NASEM, along with EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak and University of North Carolina virologist Ralph Baric. 

Andersen encouraged the NASEM to dispel the lab leak theory.

“Reading through the letter I think it’s great, but I do wonder if we need to be more firm on the question of engineering,” he wrote.

Andersen previewed the argument that would become a central premise of “proximal origin.”

“The main crackpot theories going around at the moment relate to this virus being engineered with intent and that is demonstrably not the case. Engineering can mean many things and could be done for either basic research or nefarious reasons, but the data conclusively show that neither was done (if in the nefarious scenario somebody would have used a SARS/MERS backbone and optimal ACE2 binding as previously described, and for the basic research scenario would have used one of the many already available reverse genetic systems),” he wrote. 

As for communicating these ideas to the public, just a few days after emailing Fauci that he had found the genome to be “inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory,” Andersen encouraged the scientists to communicate the virus had arisen naturally using a similar phrase, only inverted: “consistent with natural evolution.”

“If one of the main purposes of this document is to counter those fringe theories, I think it’s very important that we do so strongly and in plain language (“consistent with [natural evolution] is a favorite of mine when talking to scientists, but not when talking to the public – especially conspiracy theorists),” he wrote.

1:18 p.m.

Fauci sees an early version of the “proximal origin” paper and gives feedback — appearing to express confusion about “serial passage in ACE2-transgenic mice,” which may have been a phrase included in earlier versions. 

Fauci: “?? Serial passage in ACE2-transgenic mice”

The phrase refers to a way to adapt viruses in the laboratory to become more infectious. 

February 5, 2020: ‘I spoke with the WHO again this morning’

Farrar tells Fauci that their groups should “pressure” the WHO. He asked Fauci to recommend the names of individuals who could serve on an origins investigation, but none of the names Fauci recommends ultimately end up on any probe. 

“Francis and Tony,

Couple of things:

    • I spoke again with the WHO this morning. I believe they have listened and acted. Let me know if you agree
      • At the WHO meeting next week they will set up the Group who will “look at the origins and evolution of 2019n-CoV”
      • They have asked for names to sit on that Group – please do send any names
      • We can have a call this week with a core group of that to frame the work of the Group including – if you could join?
      • I think this puts it under the umbrella of WHO, with action this week and into next
      • With names to be put forward into the Group from us and pressure on this group from your and our teams next week

The team will update the draft today and I will forward it immediately – they will add further comments on the glycans”

February 7, 2020: ‘There’s always that concern’

Farrar emailed Victor Dzau, head of the National Academy of Medicine, to offer help investigating the origins of COVID-19. 

The email followed the February 6 publication of a NAESM letter in response to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on the virus’ origins. Despite Andersen’s pressure, the letter did not explicitly rule out a lab origin.

“Tony (Francis) Patrick, myself and a close knit group have been looking at this for the last 10 days and might have some information to share which might help,” Farrar writes, copying Fauci and Collins. 

Farrar linked to an ABC News article reporting that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy had called on the academies to lay out next steps in investigating the origins of COVID-19. 

Fauci is quoted in the ABC article, and alludes to the drafting of “proximal origin.”

“There’s always that concern,” Fauci said on the question of engineering. “And one of the things that people are doing right now is very carefully looking at sequences to see if there’s even any possibility much less likelihood that that’s going on. And you could ultimately determine that. So people are looking at it, but right now, the focus is on what are we going to do about what we have.”

February 8, 2020: ‘Summary.Feb7.pdf’

4:08 a.m.

Farrar shared a summary of discussions between the scientists with Dzau as well as the head of the National Academy of Sciences and the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The document — “Summary.Feb7.pdf” — is redacted in full.

“Eddie Holmes and a small group have been looking extensively at the origins and evolution of n-CoV including all theories,” Farrar wrote in an email to Dzau, referring to an early abbreviation for the novel coronavirus.

“This is the latest summary, written as part of a series of [teleconference] discussions we set up and included [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci] and [National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins] as well as a small group from USA, UK, Europe and Australia,” Farrar wrote. 

All seven pages are redacted. 

Responding to U.S. Right to Know reporting, Andersen said in a tweet that the idea this document arose out of a joint teleconference was a “conspiracy theory,” but did not elaborate. 

This same document, “SummaryFeb7.pdf,” would later emerge when Fauci, Holmes and Andersen conferred on how to respond to an anonymous tip shared with Cohen, the reporter for Science Magazine. 

February 11, 2020: ‘A nightmare of circumstantial evidence’

9:01 a.m.

Lipkin emailed his coauthors about a “nightmare of circumstantial evidence” pointing to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, according to Vanity Fair.

Source: Vanity Fair

“It’s well reasoned and provides a plausible argument against genetic engineering. It does not eliminate the possibility of inadvertent release following adaptation through selection in culture at the institute in Wuhan,” Lipkin wrote. “Given the scale of bat CoV research pursued there and the site of emergence of the first human cases we have a nightmare of circumstantial evidence to assess.”

February 13, 2020: ‘Not my area of expertise’

CDC National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases Director Nancy Messonnier ⁠— who reports to Redfield ⁠— asked Fauci for more clarity on the National Academies’ report on SARS-CoV-2’s origin.

Fauci described the teleconferences and emails being convened by Farrar, and said that he has joined two of these calls.

“There is an ad hoc group informally led by Jeremy Farrar of Wellcome Trust,” Fauci wrote. “This group has about 15 people, all of whom are highly respected scientists, mostly evolutionary biologists who are convening by email and conference calls (I have been on 2 of these calls since Jeremy invited me) to look at all of the bat, pangolin and human coronavirus sequence to try and determine the evolutionary origin.”

“This is not my area of expertise so I have backed off and am leaving it all to Jeremy,” Fauci added.

February 17, 2020: Preprint publishes

The correspondence is published as a preprint on virological.org.

February 19, 2020: ‘Strongly condemn conspiracy theories

A letter in The Lancet to “strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin” includes Farrar as a signatory.

EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak organized the letter but purposefully omitted EcoHealth’s partnership with the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the name of University of North Carolina virologist Ralph Baric, a coronavirus engineering expert who works with EcoHealth and the lab, in order to feign impartiality.

The letter publicly called upon the WHO to play a role in curbing the lab leak theory.

The Lancet cited the National Academies letter, even though that letter had not asserted that the virus had a natural origin, despite Andersen’s pressure.

It’s not precisely clear when Farrar opted to sign The Lancet letter, but emails show that a first draft was sent to potential signatories on February 6.

March 6, 2020: ‘Thanks for your advice and leadership’

The paper has been accepted by Nature Medicine. Andersen thanks Fauci, Farrar and Collins for “advice and leadership” with the paper, shares a press release, and asks if they have any further suggestions. Andersen loops in Garry, Rambaut and Lipkin. 

“Dear Jeremy, Tony, and Francis,

Thank you again for your advice and leadership as we have been working through the SARS-CoV-2 ‘origins’ paper. We’re happy to say that the paper was just accepted by Nature Medicine and should be published shortly (not quite sure when).

To keep you in the loop, I just wanted to share the accepted version with you, as well as a draft press release. We’re still waiting for proofs, so please let me know if you have any comments, suggestions, or questions about the paper or the press release. 

Tony, thank you for the straight talk on CNN last night – it’s being noticed.” 

March 8, 2020: Nice job on the paper

Fauci replies: “Thanks for your note. Nice job on the paper.”

March 17, 2020: Sorry, conspiracy theorists

The paper is published in Nature Medicine and rejects the lab leak theory in even stronger terms than the preprint. The paper receives a lot of media attention. 

Fox News: “The coronavirus did not escape from a lab: Here’s how we know”
Vice News: Once and for All, the New Coronavirus Was Not Made in a Lab
ABC News: Sorry, conspiracy theorists. Study concludes COVID-19 is not a laboratory construct

Despite the strong statements by the scientists and definitive headlines, Holmes would say two and a half years later that the scientists never intended the paper to be the final word.

“It’s just a paper. It’s not a papal decree. It’s not a government order. If you disagree with it, you can disagree with it,” he said in late 2022. “It’s science, right?”

March 26th, 2020: Some folks are even making outrageous claims

Collins publishes a blog post amplifying the study, but does not mention his own involvement in its conception.

Some folks are even making outrageous claims that the new coronavirus causing the pandemic was engineered in a lab and deliberately released to make people sick, he wrote. A new study debunks such claims by providing scientific evidence that this novel coronavirus arose naturally.

April 16, 2020: ‘Wondering if there is something NIH can do to help put down this very destructive conspiracy’

Under the subject line “conspiracy gains momentum” Collins asks Fauci — copying NIH subordinates Lawrence Tabak, Cliff Lane, John Burklow — for more ideas on how to “put down” the lab leak theory. 

Wondering if there is something NIH can do to help put down this very destructive conspiracy, with what seems to be growing momentum: 

https://www.mediaite.com/tv/foxs-bret-baier-sources-increasinglyconfident-coronavirus-outbreak-started-in-wuhan-lab/

I hoped the Nature Medicine article on the genomic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 would settle this. But probably didn’t get much visibility. Anything more we can do? Ask the National Academy to weigh in?”

April 17, 2020:  ‘It is a shiny object that will go away in times’

2:45 p.m.

Fauci tells the concerned Collins: “I would not do anything about this right now. It is a shiny object that will go away in times.”

6:22 p.m.

At a White House press conference, Fauci cited “proximal origin” and told reporters that the virus certainly arose naturally. Fauci adopted the phrase that Andersen had recommended to the National Academies.

He described the genome as “totally consistent with a jump of a species from an animal to a human.”

“I don’t have the authors right now, but we can make that available to you,” he said. 

April 20, 2020: ‘Can you please help me get a copy of that paper?’

A reporter with The Washington Examiner followed up with NIH after the press conference to ask for a copy of the paper. 

“Dr. Fauci on Friday said he would share a scientific paper with the press on the origin of the coronavirus. Can you please help me get a copy of that paper?” he wrote. 

Fauci personally replied, sharing the “proximal origin” paper. Fauci also shared a paper coauthored by Holmes titled “A genomic perspective on the origin and emergence of SARS-CoV-2” and Holmes’ accompanying statement. Holmes argues in the statement that RaTG13 was sampled from Yunnan Province, while COVID-19 first appeared in Wuhan, and that the 20 to 50 years of evolution would be required to transform RaTG13 into SARS-CoV-2.

May 5, 2020: We deeply appreciate your efforts in steering and messaging

Lipkin, a coauthor of the paper, forwarded Fauci an email exchange with Chen Zhu, China’s former Minister of Health, about COVID-19’s origins.

“We deeply appreciate your efforts in steering and messaging,” he wrote.

The details of his exchange with Chen are mostly redacted.

“Uncertainty about the origin of COVID-19 pandemic is causing friction worldwide, particularly between China and the United States. There is agreement that the causative agent, SARS-CoV-2 originated in a bat. There is also a high level of confidence that the virus was not deliberately modified in any laboratory,” Lipkin’s note reads in part.

July 25-27, 2020: Here is what one person … is saying behind your backs

7:22 a.m.

An anonymous whistleblower emailed Cohen, the journalist with Science Magazine, about the unknown “bizarre backstory” behind the paper. 

“Hello Jon, Given your recent mentions of the origin of SARS-CoV-2 I thought you might be interested to hear the bizarre backstory of the paper “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2” (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0820-9).

Several paragraphs of details shared by the tipster are redacted. 

July 27, 3:02 p.m.

Cohen forwarded the message to two sources: Holmes and Andersen.

“Here is what one person who claims to have direct knowledge is saying behind your backs…” he wrote. 

July 27, 6:05 p.m.

Andersen and Holmes conferred with Fauci and Farrar on how to respond. 

“I am sorry to be contacting you, as I know you have critically important priorities, including developing a vaccine for COVID-19. We just received the email below from Jon Cohen (from Science),” Andersen wrote.

“At the very end of this email, I have added a draft email that Eddie put together. I have a few clarifying points that I will add then Eddie and I will reply back to Jon. … please let me know if you have any comments, questions or concerns in this regard,” Andersen wrote.

Andersen also attached the “Summary.Feb7.pdf” document. 

Cohen has thus far declined to release the email he received from an anonymous tipster or Holmes’ response. But Cohen told U.S. Right to Know that he decided against writing about the tip because it involved a petty grievance over credit. 

Why was Fauci looped in?

“They were being assailed for not sharing credit — which is a serious accusation in the world of science — with someone on the now famous ‘Fauci call.’ I imagine they wanted him in the loop on this attack on their credibility. Ironies never end,” Cohen wrote. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: This is barking up a tree that has no animal in it.”

August 19, 2020: A woeful attack on the traditional way

Collins and Fauci confer with former NIH Director Harold Varmus about three news articles.

One article described a letter from Michael Lauer, NIH deputy director for extramural research, seeking lab books and an inspection of the Wuhan Institute of Virology through EcoHealth Alliance as a condition of reinstating a grant.

“This whole episode is just a woeful attack on the traditional way NIH has maintained its integrity,” Varmus said in the article.

A second article postulated a lab origin of SARS-CoV-2.

A third article reported that NIAID had awarded a new grant to EcoHealth Alliance, despite not meeting the conditions set by Lauer.

August 27, 2020: NIAID awards funding to EcoHealth, Andersen

NIAID awarded $82 million over 5 years to a network of new Centers for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases, including Andersen’s lab and the EcoHealth Alliance.

“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic serves as a potent reminder of the devastation that can be wrought when a new virus infects humans for the first time,” Fauci said in a statement. “The knowledge gained through this research will increase our preparedness for future outbreaks.”

March 30, 2021: Extremely unlikely

The World Health Organization’s report on COVID’s origins is released dismissing a lab origin as “extremely unlikely,” but Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus immediately suggests the investigation is incomplete. 

Daszak and Koopmans, two scientists who had dismissed the lab leak theory in February 2020 — Daszak through The Lancet and Koopmans through an undisclosed role in writing proximal origin — comprised two members of the team.

The annex of the WHO report showed that when investigators visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology, lab leadership cited “proximal origin.”

“A paper by leading virologists in Nature rebutted the idea of a bioengineered source,” Shi told the WHO team. 

June 1, 2021: A clear example of the scientific process

Redacted emails released by BuzzFeed News following a FOIA lawsuit revealed that the virologists behind “proximal origin” had initially found the genome “inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory.”

Andersen denied the idea that NIH shaped the article. Andersen deleted tweets before temporarily disabling his Twitter account amid the backlash.

“What the email shows is a clear example of the scientific process,” he told the New York Times in an email.

June 20, 2021: I want to be clear that I never suggested you delete … the preprint

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center evolutionary biologist Jesse Bloom reached out to Collins and Fauci about a forthcoming preprint reporting that NIH deleted early SARS-CoV-2 genomic data sampled in Wuhan from its public database, and to ask about recovering other data that may have been deleted that could shed light on the virus’ evolution.

Collins scheduled a Zoom call for June 20, a Sunday, according to a Vanity Fair report.

The NIH leaders invited two of the coauthors of the “proximal origin” paper: Andersen and Garry.

Andersen urged Bloom to allow him to spike the preprint, according to Bloom’s notes. Fauci distanced himself from those comments by Andersen, but did ask Bloom not to use the word “surreptitiously.”

Bloom declined to delete his paper.

January 12, 2022: That will just add fuel to the conspiracists

Congressional staff and NIH negotiated an agreement to view unredacted copies of the emails obtained by BuzzFeed in June in camera. In other words, congressional staff could view the emails at NIH, transcribe them, and describe their contents, but not reproduce copies.

The fully unredacted notes starkly showed concerns among the authors about unusual features of the genome.

Garry insisted that the participation of the NIH did not influence their analysis in emails to The Intercept.

“Neither Drs. Fauci or Collins edited our Proximal Origins paper in any way. The major feedback we got from the Feb 1 teleconference was: 1. Don’t try to write a paper at all — it’s unnecessary or 2. If you do write it don’t mention a lab origin as that will just add fuel to the conspiracists,” Garry said in an email to the outlet.

After the story published, Garry emailed a follow-up comment: “One thing that could be misconstrued is that neither Dr Fauci or Dr Collins suggested in any way that we not write the Proximal Origin paper. Likewise, neither one suggested that we not mention the possibility of a Lab origin. These were comments from others in emails after the call.”

July 1, 2022: Lipkin revealed to be former EcoHealth partner

Lipkin, a coauthor of “proximal origin,” was found to have once been featured as a “partner” on the EcoHealth Alliance website. This relationship, confirmed by EcoHealth Alliance, is not reported in the paper’s conflict of interest section.

July 31, 2022: Tie between Holmes and Wuhan Institute of Virology

One hundred and sixty-three partial sequences describing SARS-like coronaviruses appeared on an NIH database, but quickly disappeared from the database’s search results. (These partial sequences remain searchable to people who know their accession numbers.)

Two of the authors are Shi, senior scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and Holmes, a coauthor of the “proximal origin” paper.

The uploads included partial sequences of RaTG13, a cousin virus to SARS-CoV-2.

“The really shocking thing about these submissions was that my name was on them … I couldn’t compute. I thought, ‘why am I on this?’” Holmes said in a September 2022 interview. “Then I looked back, and it turns out there was this paper that was never published.”

Holmes had contributed analysis and helped write an unpublished paper about bat coronaviruses in January 2018 at the request of a Shanghai scientist named Jie Cui, he said.

“It’s just some [phylogenetic] trees and some recombination analysis,” Holmes said. “They’re interested particularly in what they call the ‘southern lineage,’ and where there was SARS1, and where SARS1 bat viruses are found in Guangdong and Yunnan Province. … Is there a lineage that goes along that southern part of China?”

A handful of journals reject the paper because it does not include full genomes. Cui struggles to obtain the full genomes. The paper was withdrawn in October 2018.

“This is why I completely forgot about it, because it was never published,” Holmes said.

Holmes has provided the partial sequences to the World Health Organization’s Scientific Advisory Group on the Origins of Novel Pathogens, which is investigating the origins of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, this apparent conflict of interest has also gone undisclosed in Nature Medicine.

Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci emailed about whether NIH funded Wuhan lab before secret call

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Leaders in infectious diseases research funding may have unduly shaped the public’s understanding of where COVID-19 began, emails suggest. (Photo credit: NIH images)

In the earliest days of the pandemic, Anthony Fauci and Francis Collins emailed about coronaviruses under study at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and about whether they had steered money to the lab, an email obtained by U.S. Right to Know shows.

Collins, then leader of the National Institutes of Health, and Fauci, leader of its infectious diseases institute, exchanged emails on February 1, 2020, about a preprint authored by Zhengli Shi, director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases. The preprint described bat coronaviruses under study at the lab, including a coronavirus 96 percent genetically similar to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. 

The emails show that Collins and Fauci were concerned about links between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and NIH.

“In case you haven’t seen this preprint from one week ago,” Collins said in a February 1, 2020, email to Fauci. “No evidence this work was supported by NIH.” 

“I did see it, but did not check the similarities. Obviously we need more details,” Fauci replied, a little before noon.

Some details of the short exchange are redacted. 

The email shows that these concerns were top of mind at a critical time. 

About two hours after the email exchange, Collins and Fauci would join a secret teleconference with a group of virologists who were closely examining the novel coronavirus. The teleconference touched off a high profile push to discredit the lab leak hypothesis. 

The revelation that Collins and Fauci were discussing whether NIH had funded work on coronaviruses similar to SARS-CoV-2 at the Wuhan lab in the hours before suggests that politics may have been at play.

Those virologists’ claims that the virus could not have been engineered may have been influenced by Collins and Fauci. The NIH leaders may have sought to obscure links between federal funding and coronavirus research at the advancing pandemic’s epicenter. The emails raise questions about these virologists’ assurances that their deliberations were apolitical.

An analysis that framed the teleconference was called “Coronavirus sequence comparison[1].pdf.” This document has apparently not been released to the public, so it’s not clear which coronavirus they were comparing to COVID-19. 

But it’s clear from notes exchanged after the call that an analysis comparing the spike proteins of SARS-CoV-2 and RaTG13, the Wuhan Institute of Virology coronavirus with a 96 percent identical genome, had been performed. 

The February 1 teleconference kicked off the drafting of an influential correspondence arguing against the idea that SARS-CoV-2 had been engineered. 

“The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2” in Nature Medicine claimed “strong evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is not the product of purposeful manipulation.” 

It has been cited in 752 media outlets.

Collins and Fauci were repeatedly updated on its drafting and provided “advice and leadership.” 

While not disclosed, the participation of NIH’s leaders in drafting the correspondence presented a conflict of interest.

Because while Collins had concluded that NIH did not support that particular study, the agency had indeed funded the Wuhan Institute of Virology for coronavirus work, including the engineering of chimeric viruses that combine components of multiple viruses to make them more infectious to human cells.

Fauci had been alerted days before that his institute, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, supported a “virus hunting” nonprofit called EcoHealth Alliance with a grant called “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence” and that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was a collaborator, according to an email shared with U.S. Right to Know by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. 

Their concerns might have been aggravated further when lead authors of “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2” shared concerns that the genome of SARS-CoV-2 appeared “inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory.”

The virologists’ concerns about features of the virus that appeared engineered were shared with Collins and Fauci on January 31, 2020, and again on February 2

RaTG13

The preprint authored by Shi about viruses related to SARS-CoV-2 – including RaTG13 – would eventually be published in Nature and continued to trouble the NIH leaders.

An addendum was added months later clarifying that miners had become sick and died after visiting a cave in Yunnan Province in 2012 where RaTG13 was found after independent researchers uncovered this information, despite RaTG13 being named something else in the earlier literature, stoking suspicions of obfuscation

In August 2020, Collins emailed his predecessor Harold Varmus, former director of the NIH, about an article describing NIH’s pressure on EcoHealth Alliance to provide records about the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and another link to an article calling attention to the fact that RaTG13 was identical to the coronavirus that had sickened the miners and postulating a lab origin of SARS-CoV-2.

“Tony and I would like the chance to speak to you about this,” he wrote.

Collins announced his retirement in October 2021 after 12 years as director of NIH. Fauci announced his retirement in August 2022 after 38 years as the director of NIAID.

Collins currently serves as science advisor to President Joe Biden, while Fauci serves as his chief medical advisor. 

Despite stepping back from their roles at NIH, both Collins and Fauci could be called to testify about the origins of COVID-19 if Republicans win a majority in either chamber of Congress this fall, according Republicans poised to wield the gavel in key committees. 

The new emails in this report were obtained from a Freedom of Information Act request to the National Institutes of Health. 

Correction 9/7 4:25 p.m.: This article has been corrected to reflect the relationship between RaTG13 and the sickness experienced by the miners is uncertain.

Critic of congressional probe into gain-of-function research helped fund Wuhan gain-of-function study

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Baylor College of Medicine National School of Tropical Medicine President Peter Hotez funded research on a chimeric virus that has come under Congressional scrutiny. (Photo credit: U.S. Mission in Geneva)

A prominent scientist who has denounced a congressional investigation into gain-of-function research helped fund Wuhan Institute of Virology gain-of-function work flagged by congressional investigators. 

Peter Hotez, dean of the Baylor College of Medicine National School of Tropical Medicine, has been a fierce critic of potential hearings next year into a possible lab origin of COVID-19 and whether the National Institutes of Health prematurely discredited the hypothesis.

Hotez decried the hearings as nothing less than “a plan to undermine the fabric of science in America” in a viral tweet thread last week. Hotez also dismissed as an “outlandish conspiracy” the possibility that a lab accident sparked the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, Hotez’s own 2012 to 2017 NIH grant for the development of a SARS vaccine had the stated aim of responding to any “accidental release from a laboratory,” in addition to a possible zoonotic spillover of the virus. 

The $6.1 million NIH grant also raises the possibility of “deliberate spreading of the virus by a bioterrorist attack.” 

“SARS outbreaks remain a serious concern mainly due to possible zoonotic reintroduction of SARS-CoV into humans, accidental release from a laboratory or deliberate spreading of the virus by a bioterrorist attack,” the grant’s description reads. 

It’s not clear why Hotez has dismissed a possible lab release of SARS-CoV-2 as preposterous, after having conducted research for years to prepare for a possible accidental or deliberate release of SARS-CoV.

Hotez did not reply to emailed questions.

Hotez helped fund research on controversial chimeric coronavirus

While casting concerns about Wuhan’s labs as “fringe,” Hotez has not mentioned his own connection to a project involving a laboratory-generated chimeric SARS-related coronavirus that has come under Congress’ microscope. 

The project was helmed by Zhengli Shi, a senior scientist and “virus hunter” at the Wuhan Institute of Virology nicknamed the “Bat Lady.” 

As part of his NIH grant, Hotez subcontracted funding for research on combined or “chimeric” coronaviruses, a scientific paper shows. Hotez’s grant underwrote two of Shi’s collaborators on the project.

In the 2017 paper co-funded by Hotez, Shi and her colleagues generated a recombinant virus from two SARS-related coronaviruses: “rWIV1-SHC014S.” 

It’s not clear whether the paper co-funded by Hotez should have been stopped under a temporary “pause” on gain-of-function work before 2017. However, some independent biosecurity experts have said research on this chimeric virus in some ways epitomizes lapses in NIH oversight of risky research in the years before the COVID-19 pandemic.

A prior study of one of the coronaviruses that comprised the chimera, WIV1, found it to be “poised for human emergence.” Another prior paper on the other coronavirus, SHC014, stated that its future study in lab-generated viruses may be “too risky to pursue.” 

“The work here should have been at the very least, heavily scrutinized,” said David Relman, a Stanford microbiologist and biosecurity expert. “This work should have been heavily reviewed for [gain-of-function], and probably should have been subject to the pause prior to December 2017.” 

Shi’s participation in the joint project was funded in part by EcoHealth Alliance, the paper shows. This NIH grant to EcoHealth — “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence”has garnered scrutiny for its research on manipulated novel coronaviruses in Wuhan labs. 

Specifically, an EcoHealth Alliance grant report obtained by congressional investigators demonstrated that a WIV1-SHC014 chimera generated thousands of times the viral load and enhanced lethality in mice with human airway cells. This prompted concerns among some biosecurity experts, scientists and members of Congress

In response to questions from congressional Republicans, NIH acknowledged that the research was out of compliance with its own regulations on gain-of-function research. 

“In this limited experiment, laboratory mice infected with SHC014 WIV1 bat coronavirus became sicker than those infected with WIV1 bat coronavirus,” the letter read. “As sometimes occurs in science, this was an unexpected result rather than something the scientists set out to do.”

An investigation could shed light on whether the risks of such experiments outweigh the benefits, but Hotez has not been forthcoming about this apparent conflict of interest.

“The construction and threat-characterization of rWIV1-SHC014 was – unequivocally – gain-of-function research,” said Richard Ebright, Rutgers Board of Governors Professor of Chemistry at Rutgers University. “It is a conflict of interest that, to my knowledge, has not previously been disclosed to The Lancet Commission … and that surely will be of interest to The Lancet Commission.” 

The Lancet Commission

Hotez serves on The Lancet COVID-19 Commission, a panel of experts working to scrutinize the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. 

Commission Chair Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia University economist, has in recent weeks called for an impartial investigation of the lab leak hypothesis.

Meanwhile, Hotez has suggested that the commission’s final reports should not incorporate Sachs’ concerns.

“Whenever I discussed the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 was a laboratory release, Hotez strongly rejected that possibility, but never explained to me or to the Lancet Commission that he actually had a grant that was based on that very kind of risk. He should certainly have been clear on that,” said Sachs.

Sachs said the 2017 paper generated questions about whether a potential conflict of interest should have been disclosed to the commission. 

“I asked all of the Commissioners repeatedly to be transparent about any possible conflicts of interest,” Sachs added.

American lab says its contract with Wuhan Institute of Virology may have violated the law

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A Texas congressman voiced concerns about a legal agreement between the Galveston National Laboratory and the Wuhan Institute of Virology that permitted data to be deleted. (Photo credit: UTMB)

A Texas lab said it assumes responsibility for entering into “poorly drafted” agreements with three Chinese maximum biocontainment labs that granted them broad authority to delete so-called “secret files,” including research data stored on U.S. servers.

The University of Texas Medical Branch acknowledged that data destruction provisions in its contracts with three Chinese labs — including the Wuhan Institute of Virology — may have violated Texas state law in a new statement to U.S. Right to Know. 

U.S. Right to Know revealed earlier this year that Galveston National Laboratory at UTMB signed a legal agreement with the Wuhan Institute of Virology that called for any so-called “secret files” produced under their collaboration to be deleted at the request of either lab. Any and all research data resulting from the collaboration could be destroyed under the contract, experts said.

Now UTMB has revealed that the Galveston lab drafted legal agreements with two other labs — the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute and the Institute of Medical Biology in Kunming — containing the same provision empowering each to ask the other party to destroy any files and any backup files. The Institute of Medical Biology in Kunming — which recently certified its maximum biocontainment lab — had apparently not yet signed the agreement. 

“All cooperation and exchanges [sic] documents, data, details and materials shall be treated as confidential information by the parties,” the provision reads. “The party is entitled to ask the other to destroy and/or return the secret files, materials and equipment without backups.”

Given global interest in whether an accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology sparked the COVID-19 pandemic, the confidentiality provision prompted concerns that valuable information about China’s coronavirus research could have been lost. 

But UTMB said that the Galveston lab has never destroyed records and that its Chinese partners never demanded that records be destroyed. UTMB said that its collaborations never resulted in any “financial engagement” such as grant funding or joint patents, and that the labs never conducted joint research on coronaviruses

“The University of Texas Medical Branch takes responsibility for the oversight in allowing memorandums of understanding to include a poorly drafted confidentiality provision in potential conflict with applicable state laws,” the statement reads. “Upon learning of the error, UTMB immediately terminated any MOU that contained language that conflicts with law and policy. A review of processes and practices at UTMB is underway and new levels of oversight for procedures are being implemented.”

UTMB has terminated all of the contracts and launched an internal review, according to the statement. 

Experts said the record destruction provision could violate the Texas Public Information Act. UTMB’s Galveston National Laboratory is part of the University of Texas System and receives federal funding.

The Galveston lab shared the two new contracts “in the spirit of transparency,” a UTMB spokesman said.

Calls for a revamp of American biosecurity policy have grown in light of the possibility that the worst pandemic in a century resulted from a lab accident, and some of those calls are coming from Galveston, Texas.

Jim Le Duc, the former longtime director of the UTMB lab who entered into the legal agreements, earlier this month joined nearly three dozen scientists in calling for greater regulation of research that could generate viruses with the potential to spark pandemics.

Le Duc, a world leading expert in biosafety, worked with senior scientist Zhengli Shi to dampen speculation surrounding a possible lab leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in early 2020. But later he quietly outlined how a lab leak investigation might be conducted.

Le Duc had championed his lab’s partnership with the Wuhan Institute of Virology in an op-ed in Science as a step toward greater mutual cooperation and a step toward global standards in biosafety.  

But the possibility of a lab accident at the Wuhan lab has prompted some to voice concerns that certain grants and technology transfers from the U.S. to China may have damaged global biosecurity rather than enhancing it.

Earlier this month, U.S. Right to Know’s reporting about the UTMB lab’s prompted concerns in the Texas press and in Congress.

Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, expressed concerns about that contract’s record destruction provisions — or “memory hole” provisions — in a letter to Le Duc, citing U.S. Right to Know reporting. 

“It raises serious concerns that a prominent recipient of federal taxpayer dollars would enter into an agreement with any foreign entity — but especially an adversary — with such a glaring ‘memory hole’ provision,” the letter states.

Accession Numbers: Malaysia

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A group of scientists tasked by the WHO to outline next steps in the origin of COVID-19 investigation have pointed to bat populations in Southeast Asia. (Photo credit: MyBukit)

EcoHealth shared the unique identifiers for PCR fragments of coronaviruses identified by PREDICT in Malaysia between May 2016 and August 2020.

KX285051

KX285052

MT891180

MT891181

MT891182

MT891183

MT891184

MT891185

KX286261

KX284939

MZ293757

KX286262

MZ293757

KX284940

MZ293742

KX286260

MZ293742

KX285112

KX285787

KX285113

KX285114

MT221682

MT221683

MT221684

MT221687

MT221685

MT083276

MT064634

MT064635

MT221686

MT221688

MT064612

MT064613

MT083277

MT083282

MT083283

MT083281

MT064661

MT083284

MT083280

MT221689

MT064660

MT083278

MT064662

MT064659

MT083279

MT083285

MT064663

MT083289

MT083288

MT083263

MT083441

MT221690

MT221691

MT221692

MT083290

MT221693

MT221694

MT221696

MT221695

MT083326

MT083327

MT083324

MT083325

MT083328

MT083329

MT083362

MT064735

MT064736

MT083393

MT064804

MT064821

MT064822

MT064800

MT064801

MT064802

MT064805

MT064806

Another missing database? EcoHealth project in Southeast Asia is under construction

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Scientists tasked by the WHO to outline next steps toward investigating the origin of COVID-19 have pointed to bat populations in Southeast Asia. (Photo credit: MyBukit)

EcoHealth Alliance conducted field research for years in Southeast Asia, a region central to the origin of COVID-19, but some of the data appears to have been withdrawn from public view.

EcoHealth Alliance, an American scientific organization that receives funds from several federal agencies, has come under scrutiny for its controversial work hunting for novel viruses in collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a lab at the pandemic’s epicenter. 

One of the group’s projects in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia — the Infectious Disease Emergence and Economics of Altered Landscapes Project or “IDEEAL” — culminated in a disease modeling app that no longer appears on the EcoHealth Alliance website

A final report summarizing the project in 2019 describes the app as functional, but it appears that the link that once housed the project’s app is now broken, and the organization’s website instead links to a page that states it is “under construction.” 

“The app’s domain is currently under construction,” said Majelia Ampadu, communications director for EcoHealth Alliance. 

Requests for more details were not answered. 

Another website describing the IDEEAL project – the url of which was discovered through grant reports obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests – was taken down in the summer or fall of 2021, according to the WayBack Machine.

IDEEAL worked on minimizing human diseases associated with deforestation, not virus hunting, and focused on malaria, not coronaviruses. But IDEEAL also worked closely with another USAID-funded project that searched for novel viruses called PREDICT, including sharing staff. 

IDEEAL’s app may have pulled data from EcoHealth’s work hunting for viruses in wildlife with PREDICT, the grant reports show.

“Models will be parameterized using empirical data from our extensive collection of datasets as well as existing datasets and new data generated by USAID investments including EPT PREDICT,” one grant document reads. 

And IDEEAL’s modeling has become unavailable at a time of intense interest in disease emergence in Southeast Asia.

The World Health Organization’s Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens – which examines the state of the evidence and makes recommendations for further study – has pointed to bat populations in Southeast Asia, where scientists identified the closest known relative of SARS-CoV-2. 

French and Laotian scientists located coronaviruses in Northern Laos with highly similar receptor-binding domains in 2020, but they proved much less dangerous in the lab without SARS-CoV-2’s signature furin cleavage site, a recent preprint suggests. These discoveries underscore the importance for more sampling in Southeast Asia, as well as retrospective tests of old samples, according to the WHO team. 

EcoHealth Alliance sampled wildlife in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar, and the samples were tested by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, according to documents obtained via FOIA by the animal rights group White Coat Waste Project

Some experts in biosafety have voiced concerns that a lab accident with a novel virus may have sparked the COVID-19 pandemic. While virologists agree none of the Wuhan lab’s known viral backbones are progenitors of SARS-CoV-2, a key question is whether unknown coronaviruses identified in wildlife may have been studied there, and whether that data may be accessible through records kept by its American partner.

A central disagreement between scientists who favor the natural origin theory and scientists who worry about a lab accident is whether SARS-CoV-2 traveled hundreds of miles from Southeast Asia to the metropolis of Wuhan, China, due to virus hunting or due to the wildlife trade.

EcoHealth Alliance Malaysian Project Coordinator Tom Hughes said in an email that all of the coronaviruses identified by the team have been shared in another database called GenBank. Hughes shared the unique identifiers for PCR fragments of coronaviruses identified by PREDICT in Malaysia between May 2016 and August 2020.

Still, the IDEEAL app’s unavailability follows a pattern of opacity about data on the part of EcoHealth Alliance and its partner in Wuhan. For example, EcoHealth President Peter Daszak sought to prevent the release of viral samples taken in China after the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, U.S. Right to Know previously reported. The Wuhan Institute of Virology’s extensive coronavirus database went dark in 2019.

The IDEEAL project was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, for nearly $2.5 million. U.S. Right to Know obtained a grant proposal through Freedom of Information Act requests to USAID. 

Some biosafety experts say that data should be taken offline if it poses security risks — if a nefarious actor threatens to exploit it, for example — but that otherwise scientists should strive for public trust.

“All research with potential societal implications and downside risks, including EHA’s virus hunting, should be publicly recorded to create accountability,” said Jonas Sandbrink, a biosecurity researcher at the University of Oxford.

When organizations like EcoHealth Alliance are dismissive of concerns, it damages more thoughtful researchers, according to David Gillum, assistant vice president of environmental health and safety at Arizona State University.

“It puts this dark cloud over the people who are doing it right. It makes it hard for an average person to know who’s doing it right and who’s skirting the rules,” said Gillum.

A grant proposal shows that EcoHealth pitched IDEEAL as incorporating data from virus hunting work.

‘We have this SARS-like coronavirus not very far from here’

It’s clear that EcoHealth uncovered at least one novel coronavirus they believed was capable of spilling over into humans in Southeast Asia. 

“We have this SARS-like coronavirus in the cave not very far from here,” said Hughes in a 2017 Malaysian documentary. “If that spills over, it would be very, very damaging to the Malaysian economy and the global economy.”

The documentary also features a graduate student in an EcoHealth Alliance T-shirt. He states that the team discovered three novel viruses poised for spread among humans, including a SARS-related coronavirus. 

This sarbecovirus is known as PREDICT-51, according to Hughes. A U.S. Right to Know analysis of the PREDICT-51’s genetic sequence demonstrates that it does not bear much resemblance to SARS-CoV-2. Their genomes overlap by just 58 percent.

A separate app built by another PREDICT partner, the University of California Davis, named “SpillOver,” lists viruses that the PREDICT project identified. 

The app categorizes the viruses in Malaysia as being relatively low to moderate risk – about 50 to 80 points on a 155 point scale.

EcoHealth Alliance referred questions as to whether the viruses listed in the SpillOver app represent a complete list of the sarbecoviruses identified to UC Davis. 

UC Davis did not respond. 

While there are many exceptions and carve-outs, the Federal Records Act generally holds that federal contractors maintain records for three years, according to Pete Sepp, president of the National Taxpayers Union. The grant period for the IDEEAL ended in Feb. 2019, 41 months ago.

Virologist who tried to discredit the lab leak theory was once a ‘partner’ to EcoHealth Alliance

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Columbia University virologist Ian Lipkin has coauthored several articles with EcoHealth Alliance since 2011. (Photo credit: kris krüg)

A virologist who coauthored a paper marginalizing the lab leak theory did not disclose his ties to the research group at the center of it.

Director of Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity Ian Lipkin has often worked with EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S.-based collaborator of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the group confirmed in an email. 

EcoHealth Alliance listed Lipkin as a “partner” from 2012 to 2014, an archived version of the group’s website shows. Lipkin has coauthored at least ten scientific papers with EcoHealth researchers from 2011 to 2021, EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak said in an email. These publications include a paper about novel coronaviruses EcoHealth and its partners sampled around the world. 

EcoHealth Alliance hunts for novel viruses in wildlife and funds research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Lipkin did not disclose his partnership with EcoHealth in “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2,” a highly influential paper that states that COVID-19 arose from nature.

A central premise of that paper: COVID-19 is too dissimilar from viruses commonly employed in experiments to have spilled out of a lab. 

“It is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus,” the paper states. “The genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone.”

But Lipkin did not disclose his connection to a nonprofit that uncovers new and novel viruses. Some of those viruses were likely studied at its partnering lab in Wuhan, which housed one of the world’s largest collection of bat coronaviruses. 

Lipkin did not return several requests for comment. 

At 5.7 million views, the Nature Medicine article may be one of the most widely read scientific papers in history — though the piece is formally a “correspondence.” 

David Relman, a Stanford University microbiologist and emerging infectious diseases expert for the National Academies, said conflicts of interest are especially troublesome when writing on high profile issues. 

“For any major, controversial issue, I believe that all of us have an even greater responsibility to reveal those conflicts upfront—and let others have an opportunity to judge what effect those conflicts might have had,” said Relman.

Relman also called into question the logic of the paper’s premise. The Wuhan Institute of Virology may have simply been experimenting with unfamiliar viruses. The disappearance of the lab’s coronavirus sequence database in 2019 and the lab’s history of gain-of-function experiments also weaken the claims of Lipkin and his coauthors, Relman said. 

“The Proximal Origins paper is flawed in its assumptions, logic and the soundness of its conclusions. I was very surprised that it passed review at Nature Medicine,” he said. 

Columbia University Center for Sustainable Development Director Jeffrey Sachs — chair of The Lancet COVID-19 Commission — said the citation the authors used to prop up the paper’s premise deserves more scrutiny. 

“The Proximal Origins paper has no credibility,” Sachs wrote in an email. “The paper’s central claim — that SARS-CoV-2 is not related to viruses previously reported in laboratory research — offers as proof a footnote to a 2014 paper!”

“It ludicrously claims to debunk a 2019 lab emergence using a 2014 paper,” he continued. “The paper offers no real evidence whatsoever against the possible lab origin of the virus, even though it claimed to do so.” 

Lipkin himself has since acknowledged the possibility that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was experimenting with unknown viruses, contradicting the popular paper he coauthored.

“If they’ve got hundreds of bat samples that are coming in, and some of them aren’t characterized, how would they know whether this virus was or wasn’t in this lab? They wouldn’t,” Lipkin said in an interview with the Washington Post last year. 

But Lipkin has not disclosed his work with EcoHealth to reporters.

Nature Medicine, the journal that published the paper, defines a “competing interest” requiring disclosure as including “personal or professional relations with organizations and individuals” — paid or unpaid. A spokesperson for parent company Springer Nature did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Lipkin’s connection to a group at the center of lab leak suspicions is the latest revelation to cast doubt on the correspondence.

Significant questions remain. It’s still unclear how the authors dispelled their own private concerns that the virus had been engineered within a couple of days.

For example, Lipkin privately voiced concerns to his coauthors about a “nightmare of circumstantial evidence” pointing to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Vanity Fair reported

It’s also unknown to what extent leaders of the National Institutes of Health, which funded the EcoHealth Alliance, may have shaped the paper. 

Grant reports that led a reporter to the defunct link showing Lipkin’s partnership with EcoHealth Alliance were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the U.S. Agency for International Development. 

FOIA reveals another secret call on COVID’s origin. The details are redacted.

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Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar, pictured here in 2019, hosted a series of teleconferences with top virologists discussing whether the pandemic was the result of a lab accident in early 2020. Notes from a Feb. 7 meeting were obtained by USRTK, but are fully redacted. (Photo credit: World Economic Forum)

Top virologists may have continued privately discussing “all theories” of the pandemic’s origin in the days after they began outlining an influential article that dismissed the lab leak theory in February 2020, an email obtained by U.S. Right to Know suggests.

The group — led by Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar and University of Sydney virologist Edward Holmes — apparently continued dissecting the data on Feb. 7, three days after the article was first drafted.  

“Eddie Holmes and a small group have been looking extensively at the origins and evolution of n-CoV including all theories,” Farrar wrote in an email on the morning of Feb. 8, 2020, to National Academy of Medicine President Victor Dzau, referring to an early abbreviation for the new novel coronavirus.

“This is the latest summary, written as part of a series of [teleconference] discussions we set up and included [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci] and [National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins] as well as a small group from USA, UK, Europe and Australia,” Farrar wrote. 

It’s not clear whether the group had concluded the virus arose naturally by that date, or whether the lab origin hypothesis was still in play. 

Six pages of notes from the Feb. 7 discussion are fully redacted.

Dzau forwarded Farrar’s message to National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt and President Trump’s Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Kelvin Droegemeier. 

McNutt later forwarded the email with an attachment called “Summary.Feb7.pdf.” 

The redacted documents surface as questions swirl about whether virologists consulting with NIH leadership may have prepared a public relations blitz to marginalize the “lab leak theory” at the same time they privately wrestled with it. 

Three days earlier, on Feb. 4, Farrar had shared with Fauci a first draft of a correspondence co-authored by Holmes titled “​​The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2” that ultimately dismissed the possibility of a lab accident, according to emails transcribed by congressional staff. 

Farrar held a series of teleconferences with about 11 scientists around the world in early February. Fauci attended at least two of these teleconferences, according to a separate email released under FOIA by BuzzFeed News

While a Feb. 1 meeting of the Farrar group had been disclosed through that earlier FOIA request and a subsequent congressional investigation, the Feb. 7 meeting has not been previously reported. 

In a tweet after this story’s publication, Scripps Research virologist Kristian Andersen, a coauthor of the “proximal origin” article, said that the emails reported by U.S. Right to Know do not refer to one of these teleconferences, but did not provide further detail.

“There was no ‘teleconference’ on Feb 7,” he wrote. “Time for a new conspiracy theory.”

Andersen did not directly reply to a request for comment.

These teleconferences have come under scrutiny in recent months, as journalists and congressional committees have uncovered that three of the five authors of the “proximal origin” article had concluded on Jan. 31 that the genome of SARS-CoV-2 was “inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory.”

On Feb. 4, Farrar emailed Fauci and Collins that he was split “50-50” between a lab origin and natural origin and that Holmes was split “60-40,” leaning toward a lab origin. 

The participation of Fauci and Collins on the calls and their possible involvement in the shaping of the “proximal origin” article have raised concerns about a conflict of interest. NIH funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a connection Fauci may have been aware of by Feb. 1.

The scientists, including Fauci, have countered that the about-face —  from believing a lab origin was probable on Feb. 1 to a consensus that it was improbable in the article first circulated on Feb. 4 — simply reflected the scientific method at work

Notes from the Feb. 7 meeting may help clarify whether this shift indeed reflected rigorous scientific inquiry or amounted to a coverup. 

Requests to Farrar, Dzau, McNutt, each of the five “proximal origin” authors, and NIH to see notes from the Feb. 7 meeting were not returned. 

While Farrar’s memoir Spike describes his sleepless nights following these teleconferences on the pandemic’s source, it does not mention the Feb. 7 meeting. Farrar’s book describes the Feb. 1 meeting, then jumps to the March 17 publication of the “proximal origin” paper. 

Farrar directed questions to a media officer for the Wellcome Trust, who cited a January statement about COVID’s origins.  

“The scientific evidence continues to point to SARS-CoV-2 crossing from animals to humans as the most likely scenario,” the statement reads. “However, as the efforts to gather evidence continue, it is important to stay open-minded and work together internationally to understand the emergence of Covid and variant strains.”

Holmes did not respond to a request for comment. 

The National Academies 

Farrar’s email to the leader of the National Academy of Medicine coincided with a call by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for the prestigious professional society to investigate the pandemic’s origin. 

“I sent a memo from OSTP to [the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine] about data needs … and a meeting was held that same day, though I didn’t attend (one of my staff did),” Droegemeier told U.S. Right to Know in an email. “NASEM responded in writing on February 6 saying that additional genomic sequence data were needed to determine the origin of the virus.”

The NASEM held a call with experts on Feb. 3, including two U.S.-based collaborators of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. 

Andersen was also on the call. 

Andersen described the possibility that the virus was manipulated as “crackpot” in an email to the other NASEM participants. He urged the Academies to push back on it more forcefully in its public response to OSTP. 

Just four days after voicing concerns that the viral genome appeared “inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory,” he recommended the Academies use the language “consistent with [natural evolution]” in its reply.

Droegemeier said he did not recall the email from Farrar and does not have access to emails since he left public service. 

U.S. Right to Know obtained the email through a Freedom of Information Act request to OSTP as part of an investigation into risky virology research funded with taxpayer dollars. 

Updated June 3, 1:13 p.m. to reflect public comments by Kristian Andersen

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

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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

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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.