Why did Wuhan lab director decline trip to Europe before Covid-19 outbreak?

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Early in November 2019, Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) Director Zhiming Yuan turned down a trip to Geneva for a World Health Organization (WHO) meeting, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

The question is why?

Dr. Yuan’s email from November 6, 2019 came at a time when some of the first cases of Covid-19 may have begun to occur in Wuhan, China. Exactly when Covid-19 emerged is a contested issue – while some scientists argue that the earliest cases did not occur until early December, multiple intelligence, scientific and news reports suggest the first cases of Covid-19 may have emerged in Wuhan sometime between mid-late October and early November 2019.

Some scientists and news outlets have pointed to the Wuhan Institute of Virology as a possible source of the Covid-19-causing virus, SARS-CoV-2.

Dr. Yuan’s email seems consistent with news reports that something important may have happened at the Wuhan institute in early November 2019, and perhaps for that reason he could not attend the WHO biocontainment meeting.

However, the email provides limited information, and its significance is unclear. It does not prove in any way that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was responsible for creating or releasing SARS-CoV-2.

WIV’s Dr. Yuan wrote his November 6 email in response to American biosecurity expert and WIV ally Dr. James LeDuc, wondering whether they would see each other at the following week’s WHO meeting in Geneva.

Dr. Yuan replied, “Sorry I can not go to WHO meeting at this time, and I hope to see you soon…”

When did the first Covid-19 case occur?

The Chinese government has tightly controlled and suppressed information sharing with the public and international bodies about Covid-19, its origins and onset.

There remains substantial disagreement regarding when the earliest Covid-19 cases appeared.

According to the WHO, the first confirmed Covid-19 cases in Wuhan, China occurred in December 2019, but the international agency does not by itself monitor the disease and depends on national governments for such information.

Officials in Wuhan have written that the first unexplained cases of viral pneumonia started on December 8, 2019.

Chinese doctors from Jinyintan Hospital in Wuhan, who treated some of the earliest Covid-19 patients, published a report in The Lancet medical journal that identified the date of the first known infection as December 1.

According to a paper in Science by Michael Worobey, the earliest cases occurred around December 10-11.

Media reports say the WIV has denied links between WIV and the first Covid patient (patient zero), but the Biden administration has confirmed prior State Department claims that “several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019… with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”

The email from Dr. Yuan was released as part of a Texas Public Information Act request to the University of Texas-Medical Branch, Galveston (UTMB), where Dr. LeDuc headed the Galveston National Laboratory until recently.

Dr. Yuan did not respond to a request for comment about this article.

Written by Sainath Suryanarayanan

EcoHealth Alliance wanted to block disclosure of Covid-19-relevant virus data from China

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EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak opposed the public release of Covid-19-related virus sequence data gathered from China as part of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) PREDICT program, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

The conversation in late April 2020 involved employees of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that has received millions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer funding to genetically manipulate coronaviruses, including with scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology; and Metabiota, a San Francisco-based biotechnology company backed by Google that works with PREDICT, a “virus hunting” program that tracks unknown viruses.

Tammie O’Rourke of Metabiota emailed Hongying Li, who coordinates EcoHealth programs in China and Southeast Asia, an attachment with virus sequences detected in China that had been submitted to the public genetic sequence database GenBank. They then discussed whether the genetic sequences should be uploaded into the public database.

Hongying Li wanted to hold off on uploading the virus sequence data for several reasons, including that, “due to the COVID-19, any relevant data publication needs to be reviewed and approved by the institution in China…”

Daszak then wrote, “It’s extremely important we don’t have these sequences as part of our PREDICT release to Genbank at this point. As you may have heard, these were part of a grant just terminated by NIH.” He referred to an article in Politico, “Trump cuts U.S. research on bat-human virus transmission over China ties,” and urged holding off on public sharing of Chinese viral genomic data, even though the generation of the data was funded by U.S. taxpayers.  Having them as part of PREDICT will being [sic] very unwelcome attention to UC Davis, PREDICT and USAID,” Daszak wrote.

The emails were released as part of a California Public Records Act request to UC Davis. They do not contain attachments and so the actual viral sequence data are not included in the information received by U.S. Right to Know. It  is not known whether the data referred to in the emails are still embargoed or were subsequently shared on GenBank.

EcoHealth Alliance denied that any sequences were kept out of GenBank. In response to a query, Daszak emailed an August 2020 Nature Communications article co-authored by EcoHealth and Wuhan Institute of Virology scientists, and wrote: “All sequences of SARS-related coronaviruses discovered by EcoHealth Alliance in China were sequenced using NIH funding and have been made public in peer-reviewed scientific papers and via the publicly available Genbank database. The Genbank accession numbers for over 600 sequences can be found in the attached paper. Two further sequences were identified and submitted separately to NIH on 11/18/21  (Genbank Accession # OK663614 & OK663615).”

For more information

All four batches of documents USRTK obtained by public records requests to UC Davis – including the most recent one, which as reported on in this article – are available here.

Wuhan’s lower biosafety level labs posed greater risk for coronavirus lab leak, experts said

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Biosafety experts, including one with longstanding ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), privately harbored questions about risks taken with coronavirus research at biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) labs, including those in Wuhan, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know. The researchers felt that BSL-3 labs were more vulnerable to accidents, even more so than BSL-4 labs, a level used for the most potentially dangerous of pathogens.

While the WIV’s BSL-4 has been at the center of attention about biosafety practices related to the origin of Covid-19, the emails raise more questions about whether SARS-CoV-2 could have emerged from a lower biosafety level lab in Wuhan.

The emails cast doubt upon the biosafety protocols in place when the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded EcoHealth Alliance (EHA), a U.S-based nonprofit research organization, to carry out research with the WIV and the University of North Carolina (UNC) that infected mice expressing human receptors with engineered novel bat coronaviruses. Much of that work on bat coronaviruses appears to have taken place in BSL-3 labs in Wuhan, according to grant documents submitted to the NIH; and in some cases, even lower containment BSL-2 labs in Wuhan, according to a Journal of Virology article, and other sources.

James Le Duc, a leading biosafety expert, and former director of the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), and David Franz, a bioweapons expert and former commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), exchanged concerns about U.S. and Chinese BSL-2 and BSL-3 labs.

Le Duc has had significant contact with scientists in Wuhan over the years. He trained WIV scientists at the Galveston National Laboratory, and records show he made multiple trips to Wuhan since 1986 to train virologists there.

On May 15, 2021, after Franz shared a letter in Science in support of investigating the origins of Covid-19, including a possible lab origin, Le Duc wrote: “I’m afraid that it may be way too late to find much out but it should be attempted, including the bsl2 and bsl3 labs where I suspect the risk for accidental release is greater.”

On Jun 2, 2021, Le Duc wrote to Franz: “The focus on BSL4 is justified but the bigger problem is likely at BSL3 where many more exist and standards are varied.”

Franz wrote back to Le Duc, “I also mentioned the issue you raise about a focus on 4s, both because they tend to be taken more seriously by governments (possibly making them safer and more secure) than 2s or 3s and also that the 2s and 3s are generally more vulnerable than 4s.”

Biosafety level (BSL) designations were established in the mid-1970s. Biosafety labs are designated BSL-1 to BSL-4, with 4 as the most stringent in practices and containment of potential pathogens. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the NIH establish BSL designations. Pathogen Level [P] lab 1 to 4 designations are used interchangeably with BSL.

BSL-2 labs include ‘biosafety cabinets’ with HEPA filtration, where experiments are performed, providing lab researchers protection from infectious agents, according to the biosafety manuals of the CDC and Boston University. Personal protective equipment (PPE), including lab coats, gloves, and eye protection as well as decontaminating procedures, are standard. BSL-3 labs have additional biosafety measures, particularly to protect against agents with respiratory transmission routes; these include full gowns or Tyvek suits, face shields, and additional “risk-based” protections such as ventilation devices, which may differ depending on the agent being used. BSL-3 labs require negative pressure and a specialized anteroom, so that agents will be contained within the lab even in the case of an accidental spill or contamination; and have more extensive HEPA filtration systems.

BSL-4 facilities have been a focus of biosafety discussions because the most deadly and dangerous pathogens, such as Ebola and Marburg viruses, are studied there. BSL-4s have more custom-designed containment and stricter requirements, including “mandatory use of positive-pressure (“space”) suits” and “dedicated nonrecirculating ventilation systems.

In EHA-led work conducted in Wuhan, scientists infected humanized mice with engineered novel bat coronaviruses in a BSL-3 facility, according to grant documents EHA submitted to the NIH.  Some collection and engineering of bat coronaviruses were done in a BSL-2, with less stringent protocols and containment, according to multiple sources including a paper in the Journal of Virology .

“I think we need to remember that a lot of the work, especially on coronaviruses, has been done (presumably) at BSL3…”, wrote Le Duc.

In the NIH-funded EHA grant proposal, there was ambiguity as to where the humanized mouse infections would be performed. While many biosafety details were specified in the proposal for Ralph Baric’s UNC BSL-3 animal facility – such as “rodent-sized Seal-Safe systems (~192 cages) for maintaining animals in a Hepa-filtered Air in/out environment, exhausted into the BSL3 Hepa-filtered exhaust system” – few details were provided about biosafety measures for the animal work in Wuhan. EHA President Peter Daszak wrote to NIH staff in the summer of 2017, that “UNC has no oversight of the chimeric work, all of which will be conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” according to emails obtained by the White Coat Waste Project, a nonprofit watchdog group.

Confusingly, the infections of humanized mice with chimeric coronaviruses were said to be performed not only in Ralph Baric’s UNC animal BSL-3 lab, but at two locations in Wuhan – Wuhan University and the WIV. The animal BSL-3 labs at Wuhan University, were more sparsely described than those at the WIV, with general statements such as, experimental work using humanized mice will be conducted at the Center for Animal Experiment Biosafety 3 lab of Wuhan University at the School of Medicine in Wuhan, China…Animals will be housed in a BSL-3 facility and will be under the care of a full-time veterinarian.” More detailed descriptions of the animal protocols, however, were said to be available through the WIV or Wuhan University Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUC) .

Franz wrote to Le Duc: “I haven’t worried about the BSL-4 lab, but certainly the one downtown [in Wuhan].”

Earlier this year, the Global Times reported that, “Bai Chunli, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said in April 2020 that China had two P4 labs in operation and 81 P3 labs in operation or approved for construction.”

Franz wrote, “There are also so many 2s and 3s that it is almost impossible to deal with them; it’s what happened with the legally binding protocol proposal to the BWC [Biological Weapons Convention] in the mid-90s.”

Le Duc wrote to Franz: “…the greatest risk is from the lower levels of biocontainment, but we don’t want to suggest that everything be moved to BSL4 either.”

U.S. Right to Know obtained the records reported on in this article through a Texas Public Information Act request to the University of Texas Medical Branch. We believe these records underscore the importance of transparency to minimize biosafety risks, prevent lab leaks and contain potential pandemic pathogens. They also highlight the need for scrutiny of current biosafety precautions.

Written by Sainath Suryanarayanan

Wuhan Institute of Virology has many unreported bat virus samples, collaborating virologist says

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The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) “has many bat samples not yet worked out or results published,” according to emails of Ohio State University virologist Shan-Lu Liu, which were obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

Shan-Lu Liu has collaborated with WIV’s chief coronavirologist Zhengli Shi. For example, Liu consulted with Shi on a Feb 26, 2020 commentary in Emerging Microbes & Infections (EMI), which tried to rebut the hypothesis that the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 came from a lab.

The WIV, one of the world’s foremost coronavirus research institutes, is under investigation by U.S. governmental authorities, academic virologists and independent researchers and journalists as a potential source for SARS-CoV-2’s origin in Wuhan.

In February 2020, WIV scientists reported discovering the closest known relative of SARS-CoV-2, a bat coronavirus called RaTG13. RaTG13 has become central to the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 emerged from wildlife. However, key questions persist about the provenance of RaTG13 and about the reliability of the WIV scientists’ claims about the closest known bat coronavirus relatives of SARS-CoV-2.

Scientists have posited that SARS-CoV-2 may be a product of WIV’s experiments on an unpublished bat coronavirus that is more closely related to SARS-CoV-2 than RaTG13. However, this cannot be verified because WIV’s authorities shut down outside access to its virus database in September 2019.

Zhengli Shi has denied speculations that her lab was working in secret on other bat viruses. In an interview with Science magazine in July 2020, Shi wrote: “We tested all bat samples that we collected, including bat anal swabs, oral swabs and fecal samples, and 2,007 samples were positive for coronavirus. We did not find any viruses whose gene sequence is more similar to SARS-CoV-2 than RaTG13.”

The statement about the WIV working on many unpublished bat viruses occurred in an email exchange on Feb 16, 2020 between Shan-Lu Liu and University of Pennsylvania coronavirologist Susan Weiss. Discussing SARS-CoV-2’s origin, Weiss asked: “Do you think it could come from a bat virus- which one or an unpublished one? RaTg13 is the closest? Is it close enough in sequence? Do you think it came through an intermediate host and sequence drifted? This is a very chilling idea”

Liu replied: “I have looked at carefully the RaTG13 sequence, and it is unlikely from it – also see attached file. But we cannot rule out the possibility of other bat viruses from the lab – The Wuhan lab has many bat samples not yet worked out or results published. There are some concerns that some of their samples may not have been handled properly and leaked out of the lab…But just a possibility.”

The Emerging Microbes and Infections commentary made no mention of the WIV’s work on unpublished bat coronaviruses.

For more information

Ohio State University Professor Shan-Lu Liu’s emails, which U.S. Right to Know obtained through an Ohio Public Records Act request, can be found here: Shan-Lu Liu emails: Ohio State University (488 pages)

U.S. Right to Know is posting documents from our public records requests for our biohazards investigation. See: FOI documents on origins of SARS-CoV-2, hazards of gain-of-function research and biosafety labs.

Background page on U.S. Right to Know’s investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

Written by Sainath Suryanarayanan

Senior Chinese scientist acquired SARS-CoV-2 in lab infection accident, virologist says

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In what may be the first known case of a lab-acquired infection with the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19, a senior scientist was infected with SARS-CoV-2 in a prestigious laboratory in Beijing in early 2020, according to virologists’ emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

The National Institute for Viral Disease Control and Prevention (NIVDC), where the infection is said to have occurred, is a part of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2004, a SARS virus outbreak was traced to a labacquired infection from the NIVDC.

The revelation that an experienced scientist was infected with SARS-CoV-2 while working in a premier virology lab in Beijing underscores concerns about the health risks posed by biolabs researching pandemic pathogens, and in particular, facilities operated by the Chinese government.

The SARS-CoV-2 lab-acquired infection came to light in a set of emails dated Feb 14, 2020, between virologists Shan-Lu Liu (Ohio State University), Lishan Su (then of the University of North Carolina) and Shan Lu (University of Massachusetts Medical School). The context of the email exchange was in the preparation of a commentary to refute the hypothesis that the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 came from a lab, which Shan Lu had solicited as editor-in-chief of Emerging Microbes & Infections (EMI), a China-linked journal.

Shan-Lu Liu noted that his former director at NIVDC “has now been infected with SARS-CoV-2”, and in a separate email acknowledged that his former colleague “was infected in the lab!” Shan Lu responded, “I actually am very concerned for the possibility of SARS-2 infection by lab people. It is much more contagious than SARS-1. Now every lab is interested in get[ting] a vial of virus to do drug discovery. This can potentially [be] a big issue.”

There does not appear to be any public disclosure or reporting of this lab-acquired infection of SARS-CoV-2 from the NIVDC. This raises more questions about whether there is adequate disclosure of lab-acquired infections in China. It also reinforces the idea that if SARS-CoV-2 originated as a lab-acquired infection at the Wuhan Institute of Virology or Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there may not have been disclosure of such an accident.

For more information

Ohio State University Professor Shan-Lu Liu’s emails, which U.S. Right to Know obtained through an Ohio Public Records Act request, can be found here: Shan-Lu Liu emails: Ohio State University (488 pages)

U.S. Right to Know is posting documents from our public records requests for our biohazards investigation. See: FOI documents on origins of SARS-CoV-2, hazards of gain-of-function research and biosafety labs.

Background page on U.S. Right to Know’s investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

Wuhan lab director ordered staff not to discuss Covid-19, State Department cable says, citing blogger

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The director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) ordered staff in January 2020 to “not discuss COVID-19,” according to a Guangzhou-based blogger’s social media post that is cited in a February 2020 U.S. State Department cable obtained by U.S. Right to Know. The WIV is at the center of debate surrounding the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19.

The cable, which states that the blogger’s post “has since been blocked on social media,” adds to reports of Chinese government gag orders surrounding information about Covid-19, including revelations that  Chinese Centers for Disease Control staff have been instructed not to share any information related to the new coronavirus with outside institutions or individuals.

The cable was among State Department records released in response to a U.S. Right to Know Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. Other items in the records include:

  • A February 2020 cable reported that the U.S. Consulate’s South China Public Affairs Section (PAS) “media contacts discussed the rumors circulating on social media that a graduate of the Wuhan Institute of Virology is patient zero of COVID-19, which has been denied by the Institute.” Media reports say the Wuhan Institute of Virology has denied links between WIV and patient zero, but the Biden administration has confirmed prior State Department’s claims that “several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019… with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”
  • A March 2020 cable analyzed the Chinese government and affiliated media’s messaging on Covid-19.
  • Cables from August and October 2020 show the quasi-governmental role played by EcoHealth Alliance in Malaysia as an “implementing partner” of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s PREDICT program. EcoHealth Alliance is a New York-based nonprofit that has received millions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer funding for projects, which include genetically  manipulating coronaviruses with scientists at WIV.

For more information

U.S. State Department records, which U.S. Right to Know obtained through ongoing FOIA litigation, can be found here: State Department Batch #4 (129 pages)

Background page on U.S. Right to Know’s investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

Written by Sainath Suryanarayanan

Three State Department Cables

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On May 24, 2021, the U.S. State Department released more records in response to our FOIA lawsuit. These may be of interest:

  1. “PRC claims of COVID transmission via cold chain food imports growing”: A November 18, 2020 State Department cable expressed skepticism of Chinese state media claims that SARS-CoV-2 was transmitted via imported cold chain food. These claims were used to raise doubts on a Wuhan origin for the novel coronavirus.
  2. “China’s interest in the Global Virome Project presents an opportunity for global health cooperation”: A September 28, 2017 State Department cable conveyed the Chinese government’s interest in collaborating with the U.S. government on the Global Virome Project (GVP) — an ambitious effort to map the global diversity of potential pandemic pathogens. The GVP is a successor of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s PREDICT project. PREDICT supported scientists from WIV and the U.S. nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance to gather bat coronaviruses from a mineshaft in Yunnan, China, including RaTG13 — SARS-CoV-2’s closest-known relative to date. In 2012, six miners who entered this mineshaft fell sick with Covid-like pneumonia of unknown origin, with three eventually dying.
  3. “Wuhan Institute of Virology cancels meeting”: A December 2017 State Department cable, titled “A Most Inconvenient Year: Central China’s Interference in U.S. Activities in 2017,” reported that the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) canceled a meeting with diplomats from the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan. The meeting was reportedly intended to set the stage for the U.S. Consul General’s official visit to WIV’s maximum-security BSL-4 laboratory. In 2018, the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan repeatedly warned of safety issues and risky bat coronavirus research at WIV.

For more information:

U.S. State Department records, which U.S. Right to Know obtained via FOIA litigation are here: State Department Batch #3 (114 pages)

Also see: State Department Batch #2 (37 pages) and State Department Batch #1 (92 pages)

Background page on U.S. Right to Know’s investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

Written by Sainath Suryanarayanan

Chinese-linked journal editor sought help to rebut Covid-19 lab origin hypothesis

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The editor-in-chief of a scientific journal with ties to China commissioned a commentary to refute the hypothesis that the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 came from a lab, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

The commentary reinforced a scientific narrative of certainty about natural origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, just a few weeks after the first reported outbreak in Wuhan, China.

The journal’s acceptance of the commentary for publication within 12 hours of its submission suggests a superficial peer-review process by a scientific publication to make a political point.

The commentary, written by U.S. virologists, was published around the same time as scientific reports and a statement from 27 scientists published in different journals that all asserted the new coronavirus had a natural origin.

The revelation that the editor-in-chief, Shan Lu of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, solicited the commentary for the journal Emerging Microbes & Infections (EMI) raises questions about whether there was coordination between political and scientific interests aligned with the Chinese government’s position on this highly controversial issue.

The journal’s editing is handled by Shanghai Shangyixun Cultural Communication Co. in China, in coordination with publisher Taylor & Francis, which is based in England. Several of the journal’s editors and board members are based in China, including some affiliated with the Chinese government.

EMI Board members Shibo Jiang at Fudan University School of Medicine and Yuelong Shu at Sun-Yat Sen University were among the group of Chinese scientists who sought to change the name of the new coronavirus to distance it from China; Dong Xiaoping is a governmental official at the Chinese Centers for Disease Control, who was the number two expert on the Chinese side of the February 2020 joint mission with the World Health Organization to elucidate the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

The February 2020 commentary is titled “No credible evidence supporting claims of the laboratory engineering of SARS-CoV-2,” and was authored by virologists Shan-Lu Liu and Linda Saif of Ohio State University; Susan Weiss of the University of Pennsylvania; and Lishan Su, who at the time was affiliated with the University of North Carolina. The authors argued in their article against the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 originated from a lab leak of a bat coronavirus named RaTG13 that was housed within China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

The WIV is the world’s foremost coronavirus research facility and is located just a few miles from the site of the first reported outbreak in Wuhan, China. The authors also dismissed concerns that genetic alterations to SARS-related viruses created by WIV scientists in collaboration with a University of North Carolina laboratory could have been the source for SARS-CoV-2.

To date, WIV scientists and Chinese governmental authorities have not given independent scientists access to the WIV’s database of bat coronaviruses.

Speedy acceptance

In one February 11, 2020 email, Liu invited Saif to be co-author on an “almost complete” draft of “a commentary on the possible origin of the 2019-nCoV or SARSCoV-2 in order to dispute some rumors.” Liu said in the email that he had written the commentary with Su at the invitation of the editor-in-chief of Emerging Microbes & Infections.

Saif agreed to join, stating: “I edited this version and added my name as I too feel strongly about denouncing this.”

Saif separately was a signatory to the statement published in The Lancet that emails show was orchestrated by EcoHealth Alliance’s Peter Daszak.  EcoHealth Alliance is a non-profit group that has received millions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer funding to genetically manipulate viruses, including with scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

On February 12, 2020, Liu also invited Professor Weiss to also be a co-author, and she immediately agreed.

Liu submitted the manuscript on the evening of February 12, and within 12 hours, the journal’s Shanghai-based editorial office accepted the paper, with one peer-reviewer noting: “This is a timely commentary. It is perfectly written… I suggest to publish it right away.”

In February 2020, EMI published two more commentaries, all of which were favorable to the Chinese government’s position on the origins of SARS-CoV-2:

  • a Feb 4 commentary titled “HIV-1 did not contribute to the 2019-nCoV genome” by U.S.-based Chinese scientists with affiliations to Chinese universities; and
  • a Feb 28 commentary titled “Is SARS-CoV-2 originated from laboratory? A rebuttal to the claim of formation via laboratory recombination,” by Shanghai-based scientists belonging to the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Origins controversy continues 

The experts who authored the EMI commentary did not consider that WIV houses unpublished SARS-related bat coronaviruses, which could have served as a template for the lab origin of SARS-CoV-2, according to some scientists. To date, debate on the matter of the virus’s origins remains open, and there are growing calls to investigate natural as well as lab-origin scenarios.

Stanford Professor David Relman wrote in a PNAS article that arguments against deliberate engineering scenarios “fail to acknowledge the possibility that two or more as yet undisclosed ancestors (i.e., more proximal ancestors than RaTG13 and RmYN02) had already been discovered and were being studied in a laboratory—for example, one with the SARS-CoV-2 backbone and spike protein receptor-binding domain, and the other with the SARS-CoV-2 polybasic furin cleavage site. It would have been a logical next step to wonder about the properties of a recombinant virus and then create it in the laboratory.”

For more information

Ohio State University Professor Linda Saif’s emails, which U.S. Right to Know obtained through a public records request, can be found here: Saif emails batch #1: Ohio State University (303 pages)

U.S. Right to Know is posting documents from our public records requests for our biohazards investigation. See: FOI documents on origins of SARS-CoV-2, hazards of gain-of-function research and biosafety labs.

Background page on U.S. Right to Know’s investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

Written by Sainath Suryanarayanan

Why we are researching the origins of Covid-19, gain-of-function research and biolabs

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See our reporting on the origins of Covid-19 for updates on our investigation, and we are posting documents from our investigation here. Sign up here to receive weekly updates. 

In July 2020, U.S. Right to Know began submitting public records requests in pursuit of data from public institutions in an effort to discover what is known about the origins of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which causes the disease Covid-19. Since the start of the outbreak in Wuhan, SARS-CoV-2 has killed over 3.38 million people, while sickening millions more in a global pandemic that continues to unfold.

We are also researching accidents, leaks and other mishaps at laboratories where pathogens of pandemic potential are stored and modified, and the public health risks of gain-of-function (GOF) research, which involves experiments to enhance aspects of the functionality of deadly pathogens, such as viral load, infectivity and transmissibility.

The public and global scientific community have a right to know what data exists about these matters.  We will report here any useful findings that may emerge from our research.

U.S. Right to Know is an investigative research group focused on promoting transparency for public health.

Why are we conducting this research?

We are concerned that the national security apparatuses of the United States, China and elsewhere, and the university, industry and governmental entities with which they collaborate, may not provide a full and honest picture of the origins of SARS-CoV-2 and the dangers of gain-of-function research.

Through our research, we seek to answer three questions:

  • What is known about the origins of SARS-CoV-2?
  • Are there accidents or mishaps that have occurred at biosafety or GOF research facilities that have not been reported?
  • Are there concerns about ongoing safety risks of biosafety laboratories or GOF research that have not been reported?

What are the origins of SARS-CoV-2?

In late December 2019, in the city of Wuhan, China, news emerged of the deadly infectious disease called COVID-19, caused by SARS-CoV-2, a novel coronavirus that had not been known to exist before. The origins of SARS-CoV-2 are not known. There are two main hypotheses.

Researchers in professional networks associated with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S. non-profitthat has garnered millions of dollars from taxpayer-funded grants to collaborate with WIV on coronavirus research, have written that the novel virus likely originated via natural selection in animal hosts, with its reservoir in bats. This “zoonotic” origin hypothesis was further strengthened by claims that the new coronavirus outbreak started in a “wildlife” market in Wuhan, the Huanan seafood market, where potentially infected animals may have been sold. (However, at least one-third of the first cluster of infected patients, including the earliest known case of infection from December 1, 2019, had neither direct or indirect contact with the Huanan seafood market’s human and animal attendees.)

The zoonosis hypothesis is currently the prevailing hypothesis of origin. However, the zoonotic origin of SARS-CoV-2 has yet to be definitively established, and some researchers have pointed out that it rests upon contradictory observations that require further investigation.

For further reading on these topics, see our reading list: What are the origins of SARS-CoV-2? What are the risks of gain-of-function research?

Some scientists have suggested a different hypothesis of origin; they speculate that the SARS-CoV-2 is the result of an accidental release of a wild-type or lab-modified strain of a closely related SARS-like virus that had been stored in biosafety facilities conducting coronavirus research in Wuhan, such as the WIV or the Wuhan Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Importantly, a lab-origin scenario does not necessarily exclude the zoonosis hypothesis because SARS-CoV-2 could be the outcome of lab-modifications conducted on unreported versions of SARS-like bat coronaviruses stored in WIV, or merely collection and storage of such coronaviruses. Critics of lab-origin hypotheses have dismissed these ideas as unsubstantiated speculations and conspiracy theories.

To date, there is not sufficient evidence to definitively reject either zoonotic origin or lab-origin hypotheses. We do know, based on published research articles and U.S. federal grants to the EcoHealth Alliance for funding WIV’s coronavirus research, that WIV stored hundreds of potentially dangerous SARS-like coronaviruses, and performed GOF experiments on coronaviruses in collaboration with U.S. universities, and there were biosafety concerns with WIV’s BSL-4 laboratory.

But so far, there has been no independent audit of WIV’s laboratory records and databases, and little information exists about the WIV’s internal operations. The WIV has removed from its website information such as the 2018 visit of U.S. science diplomats, and closed off access to its virus database and laboratory records of the coronavirus experiments being conducted by WIV scientists.

Understanding the origins of SARS-CoV-2 has crucial policy implications for public health and food systems. SARS-CoV-2’s potential zoonotic origin raises questions about policies that promote the expansion of industrial farming and livestock operations, which can be major drivers of the emergence of novel and highly pathogenic viruses, deforestation, biodiversity loss and habitat encroachment. The possibility that SARS-CoV-2 may have emerged from a biodefense laboratory raises questions about whether we ought to have these facilities, where wild-derived microbial pathogens are stored and modified via GOF experiments.

SARS-CoV-2 origin investigations raise vital questions about transparency deficits regarding research on potential pandemic pathogens, and the imperatives and players that are creating increasingly widespread biosafety containment facilities where dangerous viruses are stored and modified to make them more deadly.

Is gain-of-function research worth the risk?

There is significant evidence that biosafety laboratories have had many accidents, breaches, and containment failures, and that the potential benefits of gain-of-function research may not be worth the risks of causing potential pandemics.

GOF research of concern modifies and tests dangerous pathogens such as Ebola, H1N1 influenza virus, and the SARS-related coronaviruses under the rubric of developing medical counter-measures (such as vaccines). As such, it is of interest not only to biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry but also to biodefense industry, which is concerned with the potential use of GOF research for acts of biowarfare.

GOF research on deadly pathogens is a major public health concern. Reports of accidental leaks and biosafety breaches at GOF research sites are not uncommon. After a distinguished group of virologists published an urgent consensus statement on July 14, 2014 calling for a moratorium on GOF research of concern, the U.S. government under President Barack Obama’s administration imposed a  “funding pause” on GOF experiments involving dangerous pathogens, including coronaviruses and influenza viruses.

The federal funding pause on GOF research of concern was lifted in 2017 after a period in which the U.S. government undertook a series of deliberations to assess the benefits and risks associated with studies involving GOF research of concern.

Seeking transparency

We are concerned that data that is crucial to public health policy about the origins of SARS-CoV-2, and the hazards of biosafety laboratories and gain-of-function research, may be hidden within biodefense networks of the national security apparatuses of the United States, China, and elsewhere.

We will try to shed some light on these matters through the use of public records requests. Perhaps we will succeed. We could easily fail. We will report anything useful that we may find.

Sainath Suryanarayanan, PhD, is staff scientist at U.S. Right to Know and co-author of the book, “Vanishing Bees: Science, Politics and Honeybee Health” (Rutgers University Press, 2017).