Why we are researching the origins of SARS-CoV-2, biosafety labs and GOF research

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See the Biohazards Blog 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 a 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.

Whether SARS-CoV-2 is lab-modified or not, lab-origin-theorists’ 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).