How NIH-funded research in China could have led to the COVID-19 pandemic

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A multimillion-dollar bat coronavirus research grant, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was made public last week, revealing that researchers based in Wuhan, China had manipulated coronaviruses in ways that led to increased severity of infection, employing platforms that tested the ability of bat coronaviruses to use human receptors.

The grant documents underscore the perils of the collection of and experimentation on potentially pathogenic viruses, and shed new light on U.S.-funded coronavirus experiments in Wuhan, China for five years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new information disclosed in the grant proposal and its interim reports do not establish that the research led to the pandemic. But they do suggest that it was possible.

The NIH-funded, five-year grant was awarded in 2014 to the U.S.-based EcoHealth Alliance, with EcoHealth President Peter Daszak as “principal investigator” in collaboration with several researchers in China, including two working at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).  A key collaborator on the grant was Ralph Baric, of the University of North Carolina, providing expertise in mouse models for coronavirus infections. The grant was renewed in 2019 but then cancelled in 2020 as the pandemic set off panic around the globe.

A copy of the research plan and interim reports, titled “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence,” was obtained through litigation against the NIH and publicly released by The Intercept. The documents show that the NIH grant was for $3.1 million, of which $599,000 went to the WIV and to researcher Zhengli Shi, who specialized in the study of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-1 (SARS-CoV-1) and similar viruses, called SARS related (SARSr)-CoVs.

Many scientists have posited a possible lab origin of SARS-CoV-2, and suggested the WIV as a possible source for the origin of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.

Coronaviruses (CoVs) emerging from wildlife are a “significant threat to global health,” the grant claims, with bats considered a “natural reservoir of these viruses.” With that in mind, the authors said that the purpose of their research was to “examine the risk of future coronavirus…emergence from wildlife” using a range of research techniques and to understand “what factors increase the risk of the next CoV emerging in people…” The work involved screening more than 30 species of bats for CoVs and then developing strategies for assessing the potential spillover of coronaviruses from bats to humans, according to the grant documents.

But it is possible that, in seeking to learn how to avoid spillover events, the work actually caused one.

How it could have happened

How might the EcoHealth Alliance grant have caused, or contributed to, the pandemic? Here are some possible scenarios based on a close reading of the grant.

  • During fieldwork, collection, and containment of bat SARSr-CoV samples, people could have been accidentally infected. The research involved collecting samples from bats in four Chinese provinces: Yunnan, Guangdong, Guangxi and Fujian. The researchers explained their prolific sampling of Chinese bats and identification of new coronaviruses: “We have identified sequences from 268 novel bat-CoVs (140 from China alone),” they wrote in the grant. “We have an additional 5000+ clinical samples from free-ranging bats and rodents from Guangdong province.”

The grantees acknowledged that their work had serious implications, writing in the grant documents that “some SARSr-CoVs currently circulating in bats in southern China are likely able to infect and replicate within people.” [Emphasis in original].

In fact, the most closely related virus to SARS-CoV-2 identified to date was found by WIV scientists in a mineshaft in Mojiang (Yunnan Province). In 2012-2013, six miners experienced acute respiratory distress syndrome after exposure to bat feces in this mineshaft, and three died.

  • There is evidence of lax bat-handling practices and minimal use of personal protective equipment (PPE) at WIV and Wuhan University, where parts of the research were conducted. By their own admission, the researchers noted, this work could be dangerous. “Fieldwork involves the highest risk of exposure to SARSr-related or other bat CoVs, while working in caves with high bat density overhead and the potential for fecal dust to be inhaled,” according to the grant documents.

The grant documents state that “Tyvek suits and HEPA-filtered Powered Air Purifying and Supplied Air Respirator Systems (PAPRs) will additionally be worn in cave systems where there is a higher risk of contact with aerosolized bat feces.”

If any of those bat samples contained a close relative of SARS-CoV-2 infectious to humans, an accidental infection during the course of fieldwork, subsequent lab procedures, or containment could have led to a transmissible SARSr-CoV with greater similarity to SARS-CoV-2 than the currently reported strains. In fact, analysis of some early strains of SARS-CoV-2 shows that they may be more similar to bat coronaviruses than previously thought, based on evidence recovered from viral sequences deleted from NIH sequence archives.

  • During lab experimentation with the bat coronaviruses, it is possible that a novel virus was produced with greater similarity to SARS-CoV-2 than those reported in the NIH grant. The researchers stated in the grant that they developed an in vivo model, that is, mice genetically engineered to carry human angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (hACE-2), the receptor for SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2. The research group also reported that they were successful in generating new SARS-like coronaviruses. They did this by splicing the RNA sequences of the novel spike proteins they discovered into the viral ‘backbone’ of known lab strains.  This kind of novel virus is called a chimera because it consists of genetic elements from different viruses.

In this way, the researchers created three chimeric viruses, each with a different spike protein, from bats.

  • Though the grant does not mention a virus similar enough to SARS-CoV-2 to be a direct progenitor, it is possible that other chimeric viruses were tested in this model, but were not reported in the grant. The researchers had access to troves of novel coronaviruses collected during fieldwork, including unreported bat viruses. It is common for researchers to present some but not all data in interim grant reports. The research described in the grant established a platform that could have easily been used to study other chimeric viruses more closely related to SARS-CoV-2 than those mentioned in the grant.

There are indications of this within the grant documents. While results from infection of hACE-2 mice with three chimeric viruses were presented, the researchers wrote in the grant, “[w]e cannot anticipate exactly how many viruses we will find that are candidates for experimental models…and that we will identify approximately 20 viruses that will be used for mouse infection experiments.”  It is possible that the researchers generated a novel chimeric virus with more similarity to SARS-CoV-2 than those reported.

Experiments on human ACE-2 mice

The NIH grant describes important research on mice with human ACE-2 receptors.

The researchers infected the hACE-2 mice with the chimeric SARS-like bat coronaviruses to see how sick they would get, and whether they would shed infectious virus compared to the original viral strain. They found that hACE-2 mice infected with some of the chimeric viruses lost more body weight and shed more virus in the lungs than those infected by the original viral strain at certain time points. This research resulted in chimeric viruses that gained infectious and pathogenic properties.

“We’ll infect them [hACE-2 mice] with cultured bat coronaviruses and determine which organs become infected and whether these mice are capable of shedding infectious virus”, the grant proposed. The grant aimed to study tissues of the chimeric virus-infected hACE-2 mice for virus replication.

The grant proposed testing different transmission routes in which the mice could be infected, comparing nasal infection versus other routes. The grant outlines, “[W]e will perform in vivo infection experiments in humanized mice modified to carry human ACE2…gene in the Wuhan Institute of Virology BSL-3 animal facility…[t]his work will provide information about viral pathogenicity, tissue tropism, transmission route, and infection symptom.”

An outstanding question is whether the chimeric viruses can be transmitted between the hACE-2 mice. Whether the scientists explicitly reported on this is not the question, but rather, was a novel chimeric bat virus engineered that was also transmissible between hACE-2 mice?  While the grant does not discuss repeated passage of viruses in hACE-2 mice, the platform also sets up biosafety concerns about this possibility.

A weakness in the prominent “proximal origin” paper?

Some scientists who have argued against a lab origin for SARS-CoV-2 contend that the virus has a signature of it being adapted in an animal host with an intact immune system, for which no such appropriate laboratory model has been described.

One of these arguments against a lab origin of SARS-CoV-2, advanced by scientist Kristian Andersen and colleagues, and published as an influential correspondence in Nature Medicine, was “[s]ubsequent generation of a polybasic cleavage site would have then required repeated passage in cell culture or animals with ACE2 receptors similar to those of humans, but such work has also not previously been described.” [Emphasis ours.]

However, the grant shows this is not correct; the experimentation on the hACE-2 mice establish such a model.

Infection of hACE-2 mice with the novel chimeric bat coronaviruses could have supported new viruses with sequence changes that make them better able to infect human cells. These could be more similar in sequence to SARS-CoV-2 than the original chimeric virus infecting strains.  The hACE-2 expressing mice could have enabled some human adaptation of the chimeric SARS-like bat coronaviruses in vivo, generating viruses with more similarity to SARS-CoV-2 than those reported to date.  This is another possible explanation for how NIH-funded research in China could have led to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bottom line

In addition to searching for spillover events, the research outlined in the grant had the potential to generate a spillover event. This could have occurred as an accidental infection during fieldwork and laboratory handling of bat SARSr-CoVs; during containment or storage of them; or during the laboratory engineering of novel chimeric bat coronaviruses; or, after these novel viruses were used to infect hACE-2 mice, leading to a more infectious, transmissible, and/or pathogenic virus that was a precursor to SARS-CoV-2. The possibility of a lab leak or lab-acquired infection with any of these novel coronaviruses during lab experimentation raises serious biosafety concerns.

Though the bat coronavirus grant project has concluded, it is entirely possible that other studies using this platform were performed or are now being performed, including those related to viral transmission. It is noteworthy that it took civil litigation to bring these grant documents to light, even though the research itself was paid for by U.S. taxpayers. It is also noteworthy that EcoHealth Alliance has received nearly $40 million in multiple grants from the Department of Defense, and DOD grant data is often considered classified and withheld from the public.

And though the 5-year bat coronavirus research grant was only renewed for one additional year, a $7.5 million NIH grant, titled “Understanding Risk of Zoonotic Virus Emergence in EID Hotspots of Southeast Asia,” was awarded to EHA in 2020 to expand on the platforms established in the 2014 grant.

This newer grant, with Daszak again as principal investigator, was also made public last week by the Intercept. The new grant is a consortium grant that adds more collaborators and lab sites where the research will be performed, including a BSL-4 facility in Boston.  Funding is approved for the budget cycle of June 17, 2020 through May 31, 2025.

The bottom line is this: It is unclear whether the work performed under the 2014 bat coronavirus NIH grant played a role in the COVID-19 pandemic. But the EcoHealth Alliance and WIV collection and storage of SARS-related bat coronaviruses, and the creation and use of chimeric novel bat coronaviruses with human ACE-2 expressing mouse platforms, could have sparked the pandemic.

Congress should launch an investigation into U.S. government funding of this type of risky research as part of a full and thorough investigation of the origins of the pandemic.

U.S. Right to Know believes transparency in science is essential to protection of public health, including preventing future pandemics.

Dr. Shannon Murray is a staff scientist at U.S. Right to Know. She received her Ph.D. in the Molecular and Cellular Biology Program at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center from the University of Washington. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.

(Editing by Carey Gillam)

Key articles on origins of Covid-19, gain-of-function research and biolabs

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Here is a reading list about what is known and not known about the origins of SARS-CoV-2, accidents and leaks at biosafety and biowarfare laboratories, and the health risks of gain-of-function (GOF) research, which aims to increase the host range, transmissibility, infectivity or pathogenicity of potential pandemic pathogens. For more information about the U.S. Right to Know investigation into these topics, see our biohazards page. Please sign up for our newsletter for updates.

This reading list is a work in progress. We will update it. Please send readings we may have missed to Shannon Murray at shannon@usrtk.org.

Topics (drop links)

Most recent articles

The Lancet. An appeal for an objective, open, and transparent scientific debate about the origin of SARS-CoV-2. By Jacques van Helden et al. September 17, 2021.

Stanford Magazine
. Germ Theories: Lab leak? Animal transmission? Why David Relman and his colleagues told the world that we need to investigate both of COVID-19’s origin stories. By Deni Ellis Béchard. September 13, 2021.

The Intercept. NIH Documents Provide New Evidence U.S. Funded Gain-of-Function Research in Wuhan.  By Sharon Lerner, Mara Hvistendahl and Maia Hibbett. September 9, 2021.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist
s. The grave risk of lab-created potentially pandemic pathogens. By Lynn C. Klotz, September 9, 2021.

The Intercept. New Details Emerge About Coronavirus Research at Chinese Lab. By Sharon Lerner and Mara Hvistendahl. September 6, 2021.

Times. How US cash funded Wuhan lab dealing in deadly viruses. By Sharri Markson. September 4, 2021.

Science. Call of the Wild: Why many scientists say it’s unlikely that SARS-CoV-2 originated from a “lab leak.” By Jon Cohen.  September 2, 2021.

Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Declassified summary report on the origins of Covid-19. August 27, 2021.

Washington PostA science in the shadows: Controls on ‘gain of function’ experiments with supercharged pathogens have been undercut despite concerns about lab leaks. By David Willman and Madison Muller. August 26, 2021.

Cell. The Origins of SARS-CoV-2: A Critical Review (pre-proof). Edward C. Holmes et al. August 20, 2021.

The Economist. Regardless of how covid-19 spread, we need to better prevent lab leaks. August 19, 2021.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. How COVID-19’s origins were obscured, by the East and the West. By Nicholas Wade. August 17, 2021.

Science. The animal origin of SARS-CoV-2. By Spyros Lytras, Wei Xia, Joseph Hughes, Xiaowei Jiang and David L. Robertson. August 17, 2021.

What are the origins of SARS-CoV-2?

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The origin of COVID: Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan? Nicholas Wade. May 5, 2021.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. To stop the next pandemic, we need to unravel the origins of COVID-19. David A. Relman. November 3, 2020.

New York Times. Where Did the Coronavirus Come From? What We Already Know Is Troubling. Zeynep Tufekci. June 25, 2021.

Medium. How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the Lab-Leak Theory. Donald G. McNeil Jr. May 17, 2021.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Did the SARS-CoV-2 virus arise from a bat coronavirus research program in a Chinese laboratory? Very possibly. Milton Leitenberg. June 4, 2020.

Vanity Fair. The Lab-Leak Theory: Inside the Fight to Uncover COVID-19’s Origins. Katherine Eban. June 3, 2021.

USA Today. Could an accident have caused COVID-19? Why the Wuhan lab-leak theory shouldn’t be dismissed. Alison Young. March 22, 2021.

Science. Investigate the Origins of COVID-19. Jesse Bloom et al. May 14, 2021. DOI: 10.1126/science.abj0016

BMJThe covid-19 lab leak hypothesis: did the media fall victim to a misinformation campaign? Paul Thacker.  July 8, 2021.

BMJCovid 19: We need a full open independent investigation into its origins.  Fiona Godlee.  July 8, 2021.

Politico. In 2018, Diplomats Warned of Risky Coronavirus Experiments in a Wuhan Lab. No One Listened. Josh Rogin. March 8, 2021.

Washington Post. State Department cables warned of safety issues at Wuhan lab studying bat coronaviruses. Josh Rogin. April 14, 2020.

Wall Street Journal. Intelligence on Sick Staff at Wuhan Lab Fuels Debate On Covid-19 Origin. Michael Gordon, Warren Strobel and Drew Hinshaw. May 23, 2021.

MIT Technology Review. Inside the risky bat-virus engineering that links America to Wuhan. Rowan Jacobsen. June 29, 2021.

New York Magazine. The lab-leak hypothesis. Nicholson Baker. January 4, 2021.

New York Times. A Group of Scientists Presses a Case Against the Lab Leak Theory of Covid. Carl Zimmer and James Gorman.  July 9, 2021.

The Telegraph. Did the Covid-19 virus really escape from a Wuhan lab? Matt Ridley and Alina Chan. February 6, 2021.

Wall Street Journal. The World Needs a Real Investigation into the Origins of Covid-19. Alina Chan and Matt Ridley. January 15, 2021.

Washington Post. Opinion: The Biden administration confirms some but not all of Trump’s Wuhan lab claims. Josh Rogin. March 9, 2021.

Wall Street Journal. The Wuhan Lab Leak Question: A Disused Chinese Mine Takes Center Stage. Jeremy Page, Betsy McKay and Drew Hinshaw. May 24, 2021.

Washington Post. A scientist adventurer and China’s ‘Bat Woman’ are under scrutiny as coronavirus lab-leak theory gets another look. Eva Duo and Lily Kuo. June 3, 2021.

Newsweek. Beijing Must Come Clean About COVID-19 Origins | Opinion. Jamie Metzl. January 22, 2021

Letter from U.S. Senators Johnson, Paul, Lankford, Scott and Cotton to NIH Director Francis Collins seeking information about the NIH’s actions on gain of function research. May 20, 2021.

Wall Street Journal. Fauci Email Bolsters the Lab-Leak Theory. Nicholas Wade. June 4, 2021.

Wall Street Journal. The Science Suggests a Wuhan Lab Leak. Steven Quay and Richard Muller. June 6, 2021.

Poynter. What we can learn from the media’s dismissal of the Wuhan lab theory. Alan Miller. June 17, 2021.

Current Affairs. The stakes of finding COVID-19’s origins. Nathan J. Robinson. May 19, 2021.

Washington Post. Timeline: How the Wuhan lab-leak theory suddenly became credible. Glenn Kessler. May 25, 2021.

Wall Street Journal. Chinese Covid-19 Gene Data That Could Have Aided Pandemic Research Removed From NIH Database. Amy Markus, Betsy McKay and Drew Hinshaw. June 23, 2021.

U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Energy and Commerce, minority staff letters to: (1) Secretary of State Antony Blinken seeking the release of unclassified documents related to the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, May 6, 2021. (2) EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak seeking information and documents related to the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, April 16, 2021. (3) NIH Director Francis Collins seeking to advance an independent, scientific investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, March 18, 2021.

Open Letters: (1) Call for a Comprehensive Investigation of the Origin of SARS-CoV-2. June 28, 2021. (2) To the World Health Organization and the Members of its Executive Board. April 30, 2021. (3) Call for full investigation into the origins of Covid-19. April 7, 2021. (4) Call for a Full and Unrestricted International Forensic Investigation into the Origins of COVID-19. March 4, 2021.

Wall Street Journal. Who Are the Covid Investigators? Members of a WHO origin probe have conflicts of interest. The Editorial Board. February 15, 2021.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.WHO: COVID-19 didn’t leak from a lab. Also WHO: Maybe it did. Filipa Lentzos. February 11, 2021.

Lancet. Science, not speculation, is essential to determine how SARS-CoV-2 reached humans. Charles Calisher et al. July 5, 2021.

Washington Post. Opinion: The world still hasn’t figured out how to regulate research into deadly viruses. Brian Klaas. March 11, 2021.

Medium. Response of Dr. Kristian G. Andersen to questions relating to his email to Dr. Fauci recently released under FOIA. Yuri Deigin. June 3, 2021.

New York Times. Scientist Opens Up About His Early Email to Fauci on Virus Origins. James Gorman and Carl Zimmer. June 14, 2021.

New York Times. China’s ‘Bat Woman,’ at the Center of a Pandemic Storm, Speaks Out. Amy Qin and Chris Buckley. June 14, 2021.

Undark. Lab Leak: A Scientific Debate Mired in Politics– and Unresolved. Charles Schmidt. March 17, 2021.

CBS. What happened in Wuhan? Why questions still linger on the origin of the coronavirus. Lesley Stahl. March 28, 2021.

BBC. Covid: Wuhan scientist would ‘welcome’ visit probing lab leak theory. John Sudworth. December 22, 2020.

Houston Chronicle. UTMB scientist acknowledges safety risks at Chinese lab doing coronavirus research. Nick Powell. April 23, 2020. 

Wall Street Journal. NIH presses U.S. nonprofit for information on Wuhan virology lab. Betsy McKay. August 19, 2020.  

French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). The origin of SARS-CoV-2 is being seriously questioned. Yaroslav Pigenet. November 9, 2020.

Nature Medicine. On the origins of SARS-CoV-2. Angela Rasmussen. January 13, 2021.

U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Foreign Affairs, minority staff.  The Origins of COVID-19: An Investigation of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. August 2, 2021.

CNET. The twisted, messy hunt for COVID-19’s origin and the lab leak theory. Jackson Ryan. January 19, 2021.

Newsweek. Humans, Not Animals, Likely Took the COVID Virus to Wuhan, Contrary to China’s Claims. Rowan Jacobsen. March 25, 2021.

USA Today. ‘I remember it very well’: Dr. Fauci describes a secret 2020 meeting to talk about COVID origins. Alison Young. June 17, 2021.

Boston Magazine. Could COVID-19 have escaped from a lab? Rowan Jacobsen. September 9, 2020. 

Washington Post. State Department releases cable that launched claims that coronavirus escaped from Chinese lab. John Hudson and Nate Jones. July 17, 2020. 

NBC News. Report says cellphone data suggests October shutdown at Wuhan lab, but experts are skeptical. Ken Dilanian, Ruaridh Arrow, Courtney Kube, Carol E. Lee, Louise Jones and Lorand Bodo. May 9, 2020. 

Times. Revealed: Seven year coronavirus trail from mine deaths to a Wuhan lab. George Arbuthnott, Jonathan Calvert, and Philip Sherwell. July 4, 2020.

BBC. Wuhan: City of silence; Looking for answers in the place where coronavirus started. John Sudworth. July 2020.

New York Times. In Hunt for Virus Source, W.H.O. Let China Take Charge. Selam Gebrekidan, Matt Apuzzo, Amy Qin and . November 2, 2020.

Guardian. Ignore the conspiracy theories: Scientists know Covid-19 wasn’t created in a lab. Peter Daszak. June 9, 2020. 

Daily Telegraph. Scientists say COVID-19 may have been cooked up in lab. Sharri Markson. June 1, 2020.

Science. Trump ‘owes us an apology.’ Chinese scientist at the center of COVID-19 origin theories speaks out. Jon Cohen. July 24, 2020.

Science. Reply to Science Magazine: Shi Zhengli Q&A. Shi Zhengli. July 15, 2020.

Minerva. Contradicting statements cast doubts on Chinese raw data. Aksel Fridstrøm. September 10, 2020. 

Minerva. The most logical explanation is that it comes from a laboratory. Aksel Fridstrøm and Nils August Andresen. July 2, 2020. 

Independent Science News. A Chinese PhD Thesis Sheds Important New Light On The Origin of the COVID-19. Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson. May 11, 2021.

Independent Science News. The case is building that COVID-19 had a lab origin. Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson. June 5, 2020.

Independent Science News. A proposed origin for SARS-CoV-2 and the COVID-19 pandemic. Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson. July 15, 2020.

Sam Husseini Blog. Questioning the CDC: Is it a complete coincidence that China’s only BSL4 is in Wuhan? Audio and video. Sam Husseini. April 17, 2020.

GMWatch. Wuhan and US scientists used undetectable methods of genetic engineering on bat coronaviruses. Jonathan Matthews and Claire Robinson. May 20, 2020. 

GMWatch. Was the COVID-19 virus genetically engineered? Jonathan Matthews. April 22, 2020.

GMWatch. Why are the lab escape denialists telling such brazen lies? Jonathan Matthews. June 17, 2020. 

Transparency failures and the suppression of evidence regarding COVID-19

Associated Press. China clamps down in hidden hunt for coronavirus origins. Dake Kang, Maria Cheng And Sam McNeil. December 30, 2020.

The Wall Street Journal. On the ground in Wuhan, signs of China stalling probe of coronavirus origins. Jeremy Page and Natasha Khan. May 12, 2020.

The New York Times. 25 Days That Changed the World: How Covid-19 Slipped China’s Grasp. Chris Buckley, David D. Kirkpatrick, Amy Qin and Javier C. Hernández. December 30, 2020.

The New York Times. Chinese Citizen Journalist Sentenced to 4 Years for Covid Reporting. Vivian Wang. December 28, 2020.

ProPublica. Leaked Documents Show How China’s Army of Paid Internet Trolls Helped Censor the Coronavirus. Raymond Zhong, Paul Mozur, Aaron Krolik and Jeff Kao. December 19, 2020.

The New York Times. China peddles falsehoods to push the idea that the virus came from somewhere else. Javier C. Hernández. December 6, 2020.

Bloomberg. China Is Making It Harder to Solve the Mystery of How Covid Began. December 30, 2020.

Financial Times. Chinese media step up campaign to muddy probe into Covid origins. Christian Shepherd. November 26, 2020.

GMWatch. Journals censor lab origin theory for SARS-CoV-2. Claire Robinson. July 16, 2020.

Sky News Australia. Released emails reveal ‘no truth or transparency’ in letter regarding origin of COVID-19. Sharri Markson. November 22, 2020.

Accidents, leaks, containment failures, transparency failures in biosafety facilities

The New Yorker. The risks of building too many bio labs. Elisabeth Eaves. March 18, 2020. 

Financial Times. Scientists fear future leaks as top-level labs proliferate. Kiran Stacey, Helen Warrell, Yuan Yang. June 4, 2021.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Human error in high-biocontainment labs: a likely pandemic threat. Lynn Klotz. February 25, 2019. 

Axios. Lab risks face scrutiny amid COVID origins controversy. Alison Snyder and Bryan Walsh. June 10, 2021.

ScienceFrance issues moratorium on prion research after fatal brain disease strikes two lab workers. Barbara Casassus, July 28, 2021.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Is there a role for the Biological Weapons Convention in oversight of lab-created potential pandemic pathogens? Lynn Klotz. August 27, 2019.

King’s College London. Mapping Maximum Biological Containment Labs Globally. Filipa Lentzos and Gregory Koblentz. May 2021.

James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. A Guide to Investigating Outbreak Origins: Nature versus the Laboratory. Richard Pilch, Miles Pomper, Jill Luster, and Filippa Lentzos. October 2020.

ProPublica. Here are six accidents UNC researchers had with lab-created coronaviruses. Alison Young and Jessica Blake. August 17, 2020. 

CBC. Canadian scientist sent deadly viruses to Wuhan lab months before RCMP asked to investigate. June 16, 2020.

The Frederick News-Post. CDC inspection findings reveal more about USAMRIID research suspension. Heather Mongilio. November 23, 2019. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and U.S. Department of Agriculture. U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID): description of inspection findings definitions. August 2019.

U.S. Government Accountability Office. High-containment laboratories: Comprehensive and up-to-date policies and stronger oversight mechanisms needed to improve safety. April 19, 2016. GAO-16-305. 

USA Today. 10 incidents discovered at the nation’s biolabs. Alison Young and Nick Penzenstadler. May 29, 2015. 

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Threatened pandemics and laboratory escapes: self-fulfilling prophecies. Martin Furmanski. March 31, 2014.

Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation. Laboratory Escapes and “Self-fulfilling prophecy” Epidemics. Martin Furmanski. February 17, 2014.

National Research Council. Biosecurity challenges of the global expansion of high-containment biological laboratories: summary of a workshop. 2012. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/13315 

US House of Representatives. Committee on Energy and Commerce. Hearing on germs, viruses, and secrets: the silent proliferation of bio-laboratories in the United States, 110th Congress. October 4, 2007.

US House of Representatives. Committee on Energy and Commerce. Hearing on Federal Oversight Of High-Containment Biolaboratories, One Hundred Eleventh Congress. September 22, 2009.

BMJ. Breaches of safety regulations are probable cause of recent SARS outbreak, WHO says. Jane Parry. May 22, 2004. doi: 10.1136/bmj.328.7450.1222-b

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Who isn’t equipped for a pandemic or bioterror attack? The WHO. Annie Sparrow. June 20, 2016.

Independent Science News. The long history of accidental laboratory releases of potential pandemic pathogens is being ignored in the COVID-19 media coverage. Sam Husseini. May 5, 2020.

GMWatch. COVID-19: A wake-up call for biosafety. Jonathan Matthews. April 24, 2020. 

USA Today. CDC failed to disclose lab incidents with bioterror pathogens to Congress. Alison Young. June 24, 2016.

Global Times. Biosafety guideline issued to fix chronic management loopholes at virus labs. Liu Caiyu and Leng Shumei. February 16, 2020.

CBS News. Investigation: U.S. company bungled Ebola response. The Associated Press. March 7, 2016. 

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The unacceptable risks of a man-made pandemic. Lynn Klotz and Edward Sylvester. August 7, 2012.

Networks of biodefense and biowarfare 

Salon. Did this virus come from a lab? Maybe not — but it exposes the threat of a biowarfare arms race. Sam Husseini. April 24, 2020.

Independent Science News. Peter Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance Has Hidden Almost $40 Million In Pentagon Funding And Militarized Pandemic Science. Sam Husseini. December 16, 2020.

Sam Husseini Blog. Averting our gaze from biowarfare: pandemics and self-fulfilling prophecies. Sam Husseini. May 2020. 

The Boston Globe. The lure of bio-weapons. Bernard Lown and Prasannan Parthasarathi. February 23, 2005. 

Monterey Institute of International Studies. Beijing on biohazards: Chinese experts on bioweapons nonproliferation issues. Amy E. Smithson, Editor. August 2007. The James Martin Center For Nonproliferation Studies.

Deadly Cultures: Biological Weapons since 1945. Mark Wheelis, Lajos Rózsa, and Malcolm Dando (Editors). Harvard University Press, 2006.

Biowarfare and Terrorism. Francis Boyle. 2005. Clarity Press, Inc.

Preventing a Biological Arms Race. Susan Wright (Editor). The MIT Press, 1990. 

Biohazard. Ken Alibek with Stephen Handelman. Random House: New York, 1999. 

Debates on gain-of-function research

The National Academies Press. Potential risks and benefits of gain-of-function research: summary of a workshop. 2015. 

Forbes. Should we allow scientists to create dangerous super-viruses? Steven Salzberg. October 20, 2014. 

The Cambridge Working Group. Cambridge Working Group consensus statement on the creation of potential pandemic pathogens (PPPs). July 14, 2014. 

mBio. Can limited scientific value of potential pandemic pathogen experiments justify the risks? Marc Lipsitch. October 14, 2014. doi: https://doi.org/10.1128/mBio.02008-14 

mBio. Research on Highly Pathogenic H5N1 Influenza Virus: The Way Forward. Anthony S. Fauci. September-October 2012, 3(5): e00359-12. doi: 10.1128/mBio.00359-12

The Hill. An economist’s perspective on ‘gain-of-function’ virus research. Scott Sumner. July 8, 2021.

PLoS Medicine. Ethical alternatives to experiments with novel potential pandemic pathogens. Marc Lipsitch and Alison Galvani. 2014. 11(5): e1001646. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001646  

Scientific papers on the origins of SARS-CoV-2

mBio. Can Science Help Resolve the Controversy on the Origins of the SARS-CoV-2 Pandemic? Arturo Arturo Casadevall, Susan R. Weiss and Michael Imperiale. August 2, 2021. 

Independent Science News. Phylogeographic Mapping of Newly Discovered Coronaviruses Pinpoints the Direct Progenitor of SARS-CoV-2 as Originating from Mojiang, China. Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson. August 2, 2021.

Frontiers in Public Health. Lethal Pneumonia Cases in Mojiang Miners (2012) and the Mineshaft Could Provide Important Clues to the Origin of SARS-CoV-2. Alex C. Speciale. July 13, 2021.

MediumA response to “The Origins of SARS-CoV-2: A Critical Review. Alina Chan. July 12, 2021.

Nature Scientific Reports. In silico comparison of SARS-CoV-2 spike protein-ACE2 binding affinities across species and implications for virus origin. Sakshi Piplani, Puneet Kumar Singh, David A. Winkler, Nikolai Petrovsky. June 24, 2021. doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-92388-5

bioRxiv. Recovery of deleted deep sequencing data sheds more light on the early Wuhan SARS-CoV-2 epidemic. Jesse Bloom. June 22, 2021. doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.06.18.449051

In Vivo. On the Origin of SARS-CoV-2: Did Cell Culture Experiments Lead to Increased Virulence of the Progenitor Virus for Humans? Bernd Kaina. May 2021, 35 (3) 1313-1326; DOI: https://doi.org/10.21873/invivo.12384

Antiviral Research. The spike glycoprotein of the new coronavirus 2019-nCoV contains a furin-like cleavage site absent in CoV of the same clade. Bruno Coutard et al. February 10, 2020. DOI: 10.1016/j.antiviral.2020.104742

Preprint.  The possible origins of 2019-nCoV coronavirus. Botao Xiao. February 2020. doi: 10.13140/RG.2.2.21799.29601

Infectious Diseases & Immunity. Origins of SARS-CoV-2: Focusing on Science. Zhengli Shi. April 2021 – Volume 1, Issue 1, p.3-4 doi: 10.1097/ID9.0000000000000008

Environmental Chemistry Letters. Should we discount the laboratory origin of COVID-19? Rossana Segreto, Yuri Deigin, Kevin McCairn, Alejandro Sousa, Dan Sirotkin, Karl Sirotkin, Jonathan J. Couey, Adrian Jones & Daoyu Zhang. March 25, 2021.

Environmental Chemistry Letters. Tracing the origins of SARS-COV-2 in coronavirus phylogenies: a review. Erwan Sallard, José Halloy, Didier Casane, Etienne Decroly and Jacques van Helden. February 4, 2021. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10311-020-01151-1

The Lancet. Clinical features of patients infected with 2019 novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China. Chaolin Huang et al. January 30, 2020. Volume 395: 497–506. 

Nature. A pneumonia outbreak associated with a new coronavirus of probable bat origin. Peng Zhou, Xing-Lou Yang, Xian-Guang Wang, Ben Hu,…and Zheng-Li Shi. February 3, 2020. 579(7798): 270-273. doi:10.1038/s41586-020-2012-7

Nature. Addendum: A pneumonia outbreak associated with a new coronavirus of probable bat origin. Peng Zhou, Xing-Lou Yang, Xian-Guang Wang, Ben Hu,…and Zheng-Li Shi. November 17, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2951-z

Nature Medicine. The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Kristian G. Andersen, Andrew Rambaut, W. Ian Lipkin, Edward C. Holmes, Robert F. Garry. April 2020. Volume 26, pages 450-455. 

Journal of Medical Virology. Questions concerning the proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Murat Seyran, Damiano Pizzol, Parise Adadi…and Adam M. Brufsky. September 3, 2020. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/jmv.26478 

BioEssays. Might SARS‐CoV‐2 have arisen via serial passage through an animal host or cell culture? Karl Sirotkin and Dan Sirotkin. August 12, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1002/bies.202000091

Frontiers in Public Health. Lethal pneumonia cases in Mojiang miners (2012) and the mineshaft could provide important clues to the origin of SARS-CoV-2. Monali Rahalkar and Rahul Bahulikar. September 17, 2020. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2020.581569

BioEssays. The genetic structure of SARS‐CoV‐2 does not rule out a laboratory origin. Rossana Segreto and Yuri Deigin. November 17, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1002/bies.202000240

bioRxiv. SARS-CoV-2 is well adapted for humans. What does this mean for re-emergence? Shing Hei Zhan, Benjamin E. Deverman, Yujia Alina Chan. May 2, 2020. doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.05.01.073262 

Zenodo. Where Did the 2019 Coronavirus Pandemic Begin and How Did it Spread? The People’s Liberation Army Hospital in Wuhan China and Line 2 of the Wuhan Metro System Are Compelling Answers. Steven Carl Quay. October 28, 2020. doi: 10.5281/zenodo.4119262

Zenodo. A Bayesian analysis concludes beyond a reasonable doubt that SARS-CoV-2 is not a natural zoonosis but instead is laboratory derived. Dr. Steven Quay. January 29, 2021.

Scientific Reports. Animal sales from Wuhan wet markets immediately prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Xiao Xiao et al. June 7, 2021. Sci Rep 11, 11898 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-91470-2

Minerva. The evidence which suggests that this is no naturally evolved virus: A reconstructed historical aetiology of the SARS-CoV-2 spike. Birger Sørensen, Angus Dalgleish & Andres Susrud. July 1, 2020.

ResearchGate. Is considering a genetic-manipulation origin for SARS-CoV-2 a conspiracy theory that must be censored? Rossana Segreto and Yuri Deigin. April 2020. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.31358.13129/1

Preprints. Major concerns on the identification of bat coronavirus strain RaTG13 and quality of related Nature paper. Xiaoxu Lin, Shizhong Chen. June 5, 2020. 2020060044. doi: 10.20944/preprints202006.0044.v1 

Preprints. The abnormal nature of the fecal swab sample used for NGS analysis of RaTG13 genome sequence imposes a question on the correctness of the RaTG13 sequence. Monali Rahalkar and Rahul Bahulikar. August 11, 2020. doi: 10.20944/preprints202008.0205.v1 

OSF Preprints. COVID-19, SARS and bats coronaviruses genomes unexpected exogeneous RNA sequences. Jean-Claude Perez and Luc Montagnier. April 25, 2020. doi:10.31219/osf.io/d9e5g 

Zenodo. HIV man-manipulated coronavirus genome evolution trends. Jean-Claude Perez and Luc Montagnier. August 2, 2020. 

Emerging Microbes & Infections. HIV-1 did not contribute to the 2019-nCoV genome. Xiao Chuan, Li Xiaojun, Liu Shuying, Sang Yongming, Gao Shou-Jiang and Gao Feng. 2020. 9(1): 378-381. doi: 10.1080/22221751.2020.1727299

Nature. Identifying SARS-CoV-2-related coronaviruses in Malayan pangolins. Tommy Tsan-Yuk Lam, Na Jia, Ya-Wei Zhang, Marcus Ho-Hin Shum, Jia-Fu Jiang, Hua-Chen Zhu, Yi-Gang Tong, Yong-Xia Shi, Xue-Bing Ni, Yun-Shi Liao, Wen-Juan Li, Bao-Gui Jiang, Wei Wei, Ting-Ting Yuan, Kui Zheng, Xiao-Ming Cui, Jie Li, Guang-Qian Pei, Xin Qiang, William Yiu-Man Cheung, Lian-Feng Li, Fang-Fang Sun, Si Qin, Ji-Cheng Huang, Gabriel M. Leung, Edward C. Holmes, Yan-Ling Hu, Yi Guan & Wu-Chun Cao. March 26, 2020. doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2169-0

PLoS Pathogens. Are pangolins the intermediate host of the 2019 novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2)? Ping Liu, Jing-Zhe Jiang, Xiu-Feng Wan, Yan Hua, Linmiao Li, Jiabin Zhou, Xiaohu Wang, Fanghui Hou, Jing Chen, Jiejian Zou, Jinping Chen. May 14, 2020. doi: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008421

Nature. Isolation of SARS-CoV-2-related coronavirus from Malayan pangolins. Kangpeng Xiao, Junqiong Zhai, Yaoyu Feng, Niu Zhou, Xu Zhang, Jie-Jian Zou, Na Li, Yaqiong Guo, Xiaobing Li, Xuejuan Shen, Zhipeng Zhang, Fanfan Shu, Wanyi Huang, Yu Li, Ziding Zhang, Rui-Ai Chen, Ya-Jiang Wu, Shi-Ming Peng, Mian Huang, Wei-Jun Xie, Qin-Hui Cai, Fang-Hui Hou, Wu Chen, Lihua Xiao & Yongyi She. May 7, 2020. doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2313-x

Current Biology. Probable Pangolin Origin of SARS-CoV-2 Associated with the COVID-19 Outbreak. Tao Zhang, Qunfu Wu, Zhigang Zhang. March 19, 2020. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.03.022

bioRxiv. Single source of pangolin CoVs with a near identical Spike RBD to SARS-CoV-2. Yujia Alina Chan and Shing Hei Zhan. October 23, 2020. doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.07.07.184374

Infection, Genetics and Evolution. COVID-19: Time to exonerate the pangolin from the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 to humans. Roger Frutos, Jordi Serra-Cobo, Tianmu Chen and Christian A. Devaux. Volume 84, October 2020, 104493. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.meegid.2020.104493

bioRxiv. No evidence of coronaviruses or other potentially zoonotic viruses in Sunda pangolins (Manis javanica) entering the wildlife trade via Malaysia. Jimmy Lee, Tom Hughes, Mei-Ho Lee, Hume Field, Jeffrine Japning Rovie-Ryan, Frankie Thomas Sitam, Symphorosa Sipangkui, Senthilvel K.S.S. Nathan, Diana Ramirez, Subbiah Vijay Kumar, Helen Lasimbang, Jonathan H. Epstein, Peter Daszak. June 19, 2020. doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.06.19.158717

Cell. A genomic perspective on the origin and emergence of SARS-CoV-2. Yong-Zhen Zhang, Edward C. Holmes. April 2020 181(2):223-227. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2020.03.035.

Current Biology. A novel bat coronavirus closely related to SARS-CoV-2 contains natural insertions at the S1/S2 cleavage site of the spike protein. Hong Zhou, Xing Chen, Tao Hu, Juan Li, Hao Song, Yanran Liu, Peihan Wang, Di Liu, Jing Yang, Edward C. Holmes, Alice C. Hughes, Yuhai Bi, and Weifeng Shi. June 8, 2020. 30: 2196-2203. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.05.023

aRxiv. The bat coronavirus RmYN02 is characterized by a 6-nucleotide deletion at the S1/S2 junction, and its claimed PAA insertion is highly doubtful. Yuri Deigin and Rossana Segreto. December 1, 2020.

Zenodo. Unusual features of the SARS-CoV-2 genome suggesting sophisticated laboratory modification rather than natural evolution and delineation of its probable synthetic route. Li-Meng Yan, Shu Kang, Jie Guan, and Shanchang Hu. September 14, 2020. doi: 10.5281/zenodo.4028829  

Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. In Response: Yan et al Preprint Examinations of the Origin of SARS-CoV-2. Kelsey Lane Warmbrod, Rachel M. West, Nancy D. Connell and Gigi Kwik Gronvall. September 21, 2020.

Zenodo. Proposed SARS-CoV-2 Spillover During 2019 Review of Samples from a Mineshaft in Mojiang, Yunnan Province, China. Anonymous. September 14, 2020. doi: 10.5281/zenodo.4029544

ResearchGate. An investigation into the WIV databases that were taken offline. Billy Bostickson et al. February 2021.

ResearchGate. Wuhan Institute of Biological Products Co. Rodolphe de Maistre, Gilles Demaneuf and Billy Bostickson. March 2021.

Zenodo.  1. Proposed Forensic Investigation of Wuhan Laboratories. Billy Bostickson and Yvette Ghannam. March 2021. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.4640383

ResearchGate. 2. Investigation of RaTG13 and the 7896 Clade. Billy Bostickson and Yvette Ghannam. March 2021. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.22382.33607

ResearchGate. 3. Wuhan Laboratories, Bat Research and Biosafety. Billy Bostickson and Yvette Ghannam. April 2021. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.32006.29761

Investigative blog articles on the origins of SARS-CoV-2

Medium. Lab-made? SARS-CoV-2 genealogy through the lens of gain-of-function research. Yuri Deigin. April 22, 2020.

Medium. Fearsome viruses and where to find them. Moreno Colaiacovo. November 15, 2020.

Medium. Rushed data collection of suspected early Covid-19 cases in Wuhan. Gilles Demaneuf. October 15, 2020.

FOI documents on origins of Covid-19, gain-of-function research and biolabs

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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. We are also researching accidents, leaks and other mishaps at laboratories where pathogens of pandemic potential are stored and modified, and the risks of gain-of-function research, which involve experiments on such pathogens to increase their host range, infectivity, transmissibility or pathogenicity.

For more information about our investigation, see our biohazards page. You can read our reporting here on the documents we have obtained so far from Freedom of Information requests. The documents are posted below in chronological order in which we received them.

CSIRO emails

CSIRO emails: Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) Records. Documents obtained through an Australian Freedom of Information Act request to CSIRO for email records between Gary Crameri, Researcher, Health and Biosecurity Business Unit, Australian Center for Disease Preparedness (ACDP) of CSIRO, and collaborators, including Drs. Lin-Fa Wang and Edward C. Holmes.

CSIRO Batch #5 (8.31.21) (63 pages)
CSIRO Batch #4 (8.31.21) (99 pages)
CSIRO Batch #3 (8.31.21) (50 pages)
CSIRO Batch #2 (8.31.21) (4 pages)
CSIRO Batch #1 (8.31.21) (154 pages)

Shan-Lu Liu emails

Shan-Lu Liu emails: Ohio State University (8.4.21) (488 pages). Documents obtained through an Ohio Public Records Act request for the email records of Shan-Lu Liu, Professor, College of Veterinary Medicine, The Ohio State University.

See our reporting:

U.S. State Department records

State Department Batch #5 (7.26.21) (56 pages)

  • January 2018 cable on the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s BSL-4 laboratory (a more complete version of the cable first reported by Josh Rogin in the Washington Post)

State Department Batch #4 (6.24.21) (129 pages)
State Department Batch #3 (5.24.21) (114 pages)
State Department Batch #2 (4.26.21) (37 pages)
State Department Batch #1 (3.24.21) (92 pages).

See our reporting:

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention records

CDC Batch #2 (6.28.21) (1,302 pages)
CDC Batch #1 (3.05.21) (1,063 pages)

Fang Li emails

Fang Li emails: (6.25.21) (1234 pages). Documents obtained from public records requests for emails of Fang Li, PhD, Professor, Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, University of Minnesota.

Linda Saif emails

Linda Saif emails batch #1: (4.7.21) (303 pages). Documents obtained from public records requests for emails of Linda Saif, PhD, Distinguished University Professor, Department of Veterinary Preventative Medicine, Center for Food Animal Health, Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, Ohio State University.

See our reporting: Chinese-linked journal editor sought help to rebut Covid-19 lab origin hypothesis (5.24.21)

Ralph Baric emails

Ralph Baric emails batch #3: (2.25.21) (22,736 pages) Documents obtained from public records requests for emails Ralph Baric, PhD, William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor in the Department of  Epidemiology and Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Ralph Baric emails batch #2: (2.17.21) (332 pages).

See our reporting:

Ralph Baric emails batch #1 (12.14.20) (83,416 pages). Dr. Ralph Baric’s emails with EcoHealth Alliance, Wuhan Institute of Virology, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and experts in biodefense and infectious diseases.

See our reporting:

Rebekah Kading and Tony Schountz emails

Rebekah Kading and Tony Schountz (1.21.21) (2276 pages). Documents obtained from Colorado State University professors Rebekah Kading and Tony Schountz of the Center for Vector-Born Infectious Diseases (CVID).

See our reporting:

National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI)

NCBI Emails (12.29.20) (63 pages). Emails with coronavirus scientists who authored four key studies on coronavirus origins, about their revisions to genomic datasets associated with these studies.

See our reporting: Altered datasets raise more questions about reliability of key studies on coronavirus origins (12.29.20)

Rita Colwell emails

Rita Colwell emails with EcoHealth Alliance staff (11.18.20) (466 pages). Documents obtained from public records requests for emails of Rita Colwell, PhD, Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland at College Park and Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is a member of the EcoHealth Alliance board of directors.

See our reporting:

Scientists who authored article denying lab engineering of SARS-CoV-2 privately acknowledged possible lab origin, emails show

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Four prominent U.S. virologists who published a widely cited commentary strongly rebutting the theory that SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, might have been engineered in a lab privately acknowledged that they could not “rule out the possibility” of a lab leak, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

The emails discuss the need for careful wording of the commentary titled “No credible evidence supporting claims of the laboratory engineering of SARS-CoV-2,” which was published in the journal Emerging Microbes & Infections (EMI) on February 26, 2020.

Published at a time when countries were grappling with the rapid spread of COVID-19, the commentary, which concluded that “SARS-CoV-2 shows no evidence of laboratory origin,” was shared widely in the scientific community. By the end of 2020, it had been downloaded 75,000 times and was the third most popular article in 2020 for academic publisher Taylor & Francis.

It and another influential statement denying a lab origin were published less than two months after the identification of SARS-CoV-2, when the importance of scientific studies to limit the spread and find treatments for COVID-19 were crucial. The communications within these emails, as well as others obtained and shared publicly by U.S. Right to Know, indicate involvement by individuals with undisclosed conflicts of interest; limited peer-review; and a lack of even-handedness and transparency regarding the consideration of lab-origin theories within the scientific community.

Lab leak possibility cited

The newly released emails contain discussions between scientists Shan-Lu Liu and Linda Saif, both with Ohio State University; Susan Weiss, of the University of Pennsylvania; and Lishan Su, who at the time was employed by the University of North Carolina. Some correspondence includes EMI editor Shan Lu, of the University of Massachusetts.

The published EMI commentary outlined multiple arguments as to why SARS-CoV-2 was not the result of laboratory engineering, arguing it was “more likely” the virus originated “in nature between a bat CoV and another coronavirus in an intermediate animal host.”

The authors stated in the article: “there is currently no credible evidence to support the claim that SARS-CoV-2 originated from a laboratory engineered CoV.” They wrote that despite “speculations, rumours and conspiracy theories that SARS-CoV-2 is of laboratory origin,” there was in fact “no evidence of laboratory origin.”

However, in a Feb. 16, 2020 email, Liu wrote to Weiss “we cannot rule out the possibility that it comes from a bat virus leaked out of a lab.”

Liu suggested changing the title of the commentary from “SARS-CoV-2: no evidence of laboratory origin” to downplay a focus on the origin issue.  The title Liu suggested, according to the email, should “emphasize that the new virus is not laboratory engineered.” That suggested title – “SARS-CoV-2: no evidence for laboratory engineering” – later was finalized to contain a subtle caveat: “No credible evidence supporting claims of the laboratory engineering of SARS-CoV-2”.

The emails reveal other questionable details behind the commentary.  On Feb. 11, EMI’s Lu wrote to Su and Liu about suggested changes to the commentary, “…It is better not going to too much science/tech details as it can only confuse people and provide more room for people to raise more questions.”

Emails show EMI solicited and expedited publication of the commentary and waived fees normally associated with publication.  EMI’s Lu wrote to authors Liu and Su, “Yes, just a secret to you two and not share with others. When I put a super fast review and accept (basically no review), the JEO [Journal Editorial Office] of T&F, became very suspicious and wanted her boss to check and approve.”

Su replied: “Thanks for speeding it up, bro!”

“Frightening to think it may have been engineered“

An important part of the debate over the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is the existence of a furin cleavage site (FCS) at the junction between the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein domains, S1 and S2. SARS-CoV-2 belongs to a group of viruses known as betacoronaviruses lineage B. The FCS, however, does not appear in any of the other coronaviruses in this group. One argument in support of the lab origin hypothesis is that the FCS within the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein could be a result of laboratory manipulation.

The EMI commentary does not address the existence of the FCS, even though it is widely considered one of the strongest pieces of evidence of lab engineering. Evidence supports the importance of the FCS in the ability of SARS-CoV-2 to infect human cells and tissues. Engineering FCS within coronaviruses is a well-known practice in coronavirus research labs.

Email exchanges between the co-authors show that though their commentary did not address the issue, they discussed the troubling implications.

In one Feb 16 email Weiss wrote: “I don’t think it is likely that bat virus leaked into humans in the lab- is there any evidence that someone from the Wuhan lab is infected? …– lineage B Bat viruses generally do not have the furin site…I doubt very much it was engineered in[,] in the lab. Doesn’t make sense.”

Five days later, however, Weiss wrote to Liu: “I find it hard to imagine how that sequence got into the spike of a lineage b betacoronavirus- not seen in SARS or any of the bat viruses.”

Liu wrote back: “I completely agree with you, but rumor says that furin site may be engineered…”

Weiss replied: “I have been speculating- how can that site have appeared at S1/S2 border- I hate to think to was engineered- among the MHV [mouse hepatitis virus] strains, the cleavage site does not increaser [sic] pathogenicity while it does effect entry route (surface vs endosome). [S]o for me the only significance of this furin site is as a marker for where the virus came from- frightening to think it may have been engineered.”

Weiss wrote in another email: “I remain concerned about the insertion of the furin site.”

Other questionable revelations

The emails also show the commentary included the involvement of coronavirus expert Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina (UNC) and Chinese virologist Shi Zhengli, of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

Baric and Shi have been central figures in ongoing inquiries regarding the potential origins of SARS-CoV-2 and whether or not there is a connection between the virus and gain-of-function research collaborations between UNC and WIV.  Such collaborations have been funded in part by the USAID-EPT-PREDICT program through an organization called EcoHealth Alliance. 

The emails show the authors of the EMI commentary asked Baric and Shi to review the EMI commentary before its publication, and included some of their comments in revisions. Neither Shi nor Baric were listed as co-authors or acknowledged as contributing.

EMI’s Lu wrote to the authors, “We don’t want to appear that we are defending Ralph even though he did nothing wrong.”

Over the last year and a half, a few scientists have privately expressed concerns about signatures of lab engineering seen in the SARS-CoV-2 genome but later authored commentaries arguing against a lab origin of SARS-CoV-2.

Documents show that Kristian Andersen, a virologist with the Scripps Research Institute, emailed Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, early in 2020 expressing concerns about possible genetic engineering of the virus.

Andersen had a conference call with Fauci and other scientists in February 2020, and shortly after led the authoring of a high profile article, published as a correspondence in the journal Nature Medicine, specifically arguing against any possible laboratory engineering of the virus.

U.S. Right to Know obtained the emails about the EMI commentary from an Ohio Public Records Act request to Ohio State University for emails of Professor Shan-Lu Liu.

U.S. Right to Know believes transparency in science is critical for understanding the origins of SARS-CoV-2, determining control and treatment of the virus, regulating research involving dangerous pathogens, and preventing future pandemics.

(Editing by Carey Gillam)

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.