By Carey Gillam
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, scientists have searched for clues about what led to the emergence of its causative agent, the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Uncovering the source of SARS-CoV-2 could be crucial for preventing future outbreaks.
A series of four high profile studies published earlier this year provided scientific credence to the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 originated in bats and then jumped to humans through a type of anteater called a pangolin — among the world’s most trafficked wild animals. While that specific theory involving pangolins has been largely discounted, the four studies known as the “pangolin papers” continue to provide support for the notion that coronaviruses closely related to SARS-CoV-2 circulate in the wild, meaning the SARS-CoV-2 that caused COVID-19 probably comes from a wild animal source.
The focus on a wild animal source, the “zoonotic” theory, has become a critical element in global discussion about the virus, directing public attention away from the possibility that the virus may have originated inside a Chinese governmental laboratory – the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) has learned, however, that two of the four papers that make up the foundation for the zoonotic theory appear to be flawed, and that the editors at the journals in which the papers were published – PLoS Pathogens and Nature – are investigating the core data behind the studies and how the data was analyzed. The other two similarly appear to suffer flaws.
The problems with the research papers raise “serious questions and concerns” about the validity of the zoonotic theory overall, according to Dr. Sainath Suryanarayanan, a biologist and sociologist of science, and USRTK staff scientist. The studies lack sufficiently reliable data, independently verifiable data sets and a transparent peer review and editorial process, according to Dr. Suryanarayanan.
See his emails with senior authors of the papers and journal editors, and analysis: Nature and PLoS Pathogens probe scientific veracity of key studies linking pangolin coronaviruses to origin of SARS-CoV-2.
Chinese governmental authorities first promoted the idea that the source of the causal agent for COVID-19 in humans came from a wild animal in December. Chinese government-supported scientists then backed that theory in four separate studies submitted to the journals between February 7 and 18.
The World Health Organization’s China Joint Mission Team investigating the emergence and spread of COVID-19 in China stated in February : “Since the COVID-19 virus has a genome identity of 96% to a bat SARS-like coronavirus and 86%-92% to a pangolin SARS-like coronavirus, an animal source for COVID-19 is highly likely.”
The Chinese-initiated focus on a wild animal source helped chill calls for an investigation into the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where animal coronaviruses have long been stored and genetically manipulated. Instead, resources and efforts of the international scientific and policymaking community have been funneled toward understanding the factors shaping contact between people and wildlife.
The four papers in question are Liu et al., Xiao et al. , Lam et al. and Zhang et al. The two that are currently being investigated by the journal editors are Liu et al and Xiao et al. In communications with the authors and journal editors of those two papers, USRTK has learned of serious problems with the publication of those studies, including the following:
- Liu et al. did not publish or share (upon being asked) raw and/or missing data that would allow experts to independently verify their genomic analyses.
- Editors at both Nature and PLoS Pathogens, as well as Professor Stanley Perlman, the editor of Liu et al., have acknowledged in email communications that they are aware of serious issues with these papers and that the journals are investigating them. Yet, they have made no public disclosure of the potential problems with the papers.
The silence of the journals regarding their ongoing investigations means that wider communities of scientists, policymakers and the public impacted by COVID-19 are unaware of the problems associated with the research papers, said Dr. Suryanarayanan.
“We believe that these issues are important, since they may shape how institutions respond to a catastrophic pandemic that has radically affected lives and livelihoods worldwide,” he said.
Links to these emails can be found here:
- Pangolin Papers: JP Chen [Liu et al.]
- Pangolin Papers: Xiao et al. emails
- Pangolin Papers: Perlman emails
- Pangolin Papers: PLoS emails
- Pangolin Papers: Nature email
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 a million people, while sickening millions more in a global pandemic that continues to unfold.
On Nov. 5, U.S. Right to Know filed a lawsuit against the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for violating provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., seeks correspondence with or about organizations such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the EcoHealth Alliance, which partnered with and funded the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
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