In early 2020, as the world was reeling from the fast spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, a leading biosafety expert with close ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) encouraged scientists there to launch an “investigation” into whether the new disease could have come from the institute, including answering many of his specific questions about lab activities, emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know show.
The emails show that James Le Duc, a professor and former director of Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), suggested scientists at the institute in China should not wait for an outside probe, but gather information and be prepared to answer questions about their work and how it may be connected to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19.
In a Feb. 9, 2020 email to WIV Professor Yuan Zhiming, Le Duc wrote that he thought it was important to “aggressively address these rumors and presumably false accusations quickly and provide definitive, honest information to counter misinformation.”
“If there are weaknesses in your program, now is the time to admit them and get them corrected. I trust that you will take my suggestions in the spirit of one friend trying to help another during a very difficult time,” he wrote.
Though the February 2020 email indicated he downplayed the possibility of a lab leak, only two months later, Le Duc wrote in a separate correspondence to Phillip Russell, former president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, that it was “certainly possible a lab accident was the source of the epidemic and I also agree that we can’t trust the Chinese government.”
Le Duc was no stranger to the Wuhan institute; he had sponsored and trained WIV scientists at the Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory he ran in Galveston, and records show he made multiple trips to Wuhan to train virologists there since 1986.
In 2018 Le Duc co-authored an article in Science magazine with Yuan, who was then director of the WIV BSL-4 laboratory. Le Duc and Yuan referred to their “partnership” in the article, and wrote that they had “engaged in short- and long-term personnel exchanges focused on biosafety training, building operations and maintenance, and collaborative scientific investigations in biocontainment.”
BSL-3 and BSL-4 are biocontainment lab designations for handling dangerous pathogens. The higher level BSL-4 is used for working with the most dangerous high-risk agents, including Ebola and Marburg viruses.
Tough questions go unanswered
In the February 2020 email, Le Duc laid out numerous questions that he thought the WIV should address as part of an investigation into the possibility that the virus was “the result of a release from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (main campus or new BSL3/BSL4 facilities).”
Among the questions he posed:
*Where is coronavirus research conducted? What level of biocontainment?
*What are the coronaviruses in your possession that are most closely related to nCoV [novel coronaviruses] based on genetic sequences and are able to replicate in culture?
*Is there an inventory record of each isolate of each coronavirus kept? If so, are there any discrepancies between the record and actual current inventory number?
* How many people have access to the coronavirus stocks and laboratory?Senior investigators? Junior investigators? Technical support staff? Post-docs? Students? Animal handlers? Janitors and other cleaning staff? Building support personnel? Others?
* Is anyone on your team conducting gain of function studies, recombination studies or any other studies that may have resulted in the creation of the nCoV ?
*Does a serum bank exist for staff and students working on infectious agents? If yes, could a current serum and the most recent banked sera be serologically tested for antibody to nCoV in an effort to document seroconversion?
*Does the Institute have an occupational health clinic where employees and students can go to seek medical care? If so, was there any indication of unusual illness similar to that seen for nCoV among Institute staff?
*Where and when were the first Wuhan (or Hubei Province) residents infected with the nCoV first identified (hospital or clinic name/date of earliest cases)? Do staff members of the Institute reside in the district serviced by this (these) hospital/clinic (s)?
*Do staff members of the Wuhan Institute of Virology frequent the sea food/live market first associated with the nCoV outbreak? Did any staff member visit the market in the weeks prior to it being closed? If so, how many staff frequent the market? How often would they visit the market during the period of interest?
On April 13, 2020, Le Duc forwarded his email to Yuan to David Franz, former commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, saying he had never received a response to his questions.
“As we explore trying to reengage our dialogue, some of these questions might be discussed,” he wrote to Franz.
Though the World Health Organization (WHO) has been conducting its own investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2, many of the questions raised by Le Duc remain unanswered. And many scientists around the world fear there may never be a full, thorough and unconflicted investigation of the origins of SARS-CoV-2.
The April 2020 exchange between Le Duc and Russell shows that Russell, a physician, vaccine scientist and retired U.S. Army major general who died in 2021, was concerned that a “coverup” of the virus origins may be underway.
Russell wrote: “That does not rule out the possibility that one of the many bat coronaviruses isolated in the Wuhan lab infected a technician who walked out the door. No need for engineering the virus. The flimsiness of the epidemiology pointing to the wet market, the absence of bats in the market, the failure to identify an intermediate animal host, the extraordinary measures taken by the Chinese government, including persecution and probable killing of two brave physicians, to cover up the outbreak, the steps taken to silence the laboratory personnel, . the change in leadership of the lab, all point to the lab as the source of the outbreak.”
“This reminds me of the efforts by Matt Messelson and many colleagues to coverup up the Sverdeslosk [Sverdlovsk] anthrax outbreak,” Russell continued. “They succeeded for many years aided and abetted by many in academia until Ken Alibek defected and the truth came out. I bought the wet market story for months but now am very skeptical of anything information coming from the Chinese government.”
U.S. Right to Know obtained the emails for this article through a Texas Public Information Act (TPIA) request on July 3, 2020. UTMB did not produce these documents until November 23, 2021, more than 16 months later. USRTK filed a second TPIA request with UTMB on September 23, 2020, but more than 14 months later UTMB still has not yet produced any documents in response.
(Edited by Carey Gillam)