Newly obtained emails offer glimpses into how a narrative of certainty developed about the natural origins of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, while key scientific questions remained. The internal discussions and an early draft of a scientists’ letter show experts discussing gaps in knowledge and unanswered questions about lab origin, even as some sought to tamp down on “fringe” theories about the possibility the virus came from a lab.
Influential scientists and many news outlets have described the evidence as “overwhelming ” that the virus originated in wildlife, not from a lab. However, a year after the first reported cases of SARS-CoV-2 in the Chinese city of Wuhan, little is known how or where the virus originated. Understanding the origins of SARS-CoV-2, which causes the disease COVID-19, may be crucial to preventing the next pandemic.
The emails of coronavirus expert Professor Ralph Baric — obtained through a public records request by U.S. Right to Know — show conversations between National Academy of Sciences (NAS) representatives, and experts in biosecurity and infectious diseases from U.S. universities and the EcoHealth Alliance.
On Feb. 3, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) to “convene meeting of experts… to assess what data, information and samples are needed to address the unknowns, in order to understand the evolutionary origins of 2019-nCoV, and more effectively respond to both the outbreak and any resulting misinformation.”
The early draft described “initial views of the experts” that “the available genomic data are consistent with natural evolution and that there is currently no evidence that the virus was engineered to spread more quickly among humans.” This draft sentence posed a question, in parentheses: “[ask experts to add specifics re binding sites?]” It also included a footnote in parentheses: “[possibly add brief explanation that this does not preclude an unintentional release from a laboratory studying the evolution of related coronaviruses].”
In one email, dated Feb. 4, infectious disease expert Trevor Bedford commented: “I wouldn’t mention binding sites here. If you start weighing evidence there’s a lot to consider for both scenarios.” By “both scenarios,” Bedford appears to refer to lab-origin and natural-origin scenarios.
The question of binding sites is important to the debate about the origins of SARS-CoV-2. Distinctive binding sites on SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein confer “near-optimal” binding and entry of the virus into human cells, and make SARS-CoV-2 more contagious than SARS-CoV. Scientists have argued that SARS-CoV-2’s unique binding sites could have originated either as a result of natural spillover in the wild or deliberate laboratory recombination of an as-yet-undisclosed natural ancestor of SARS-CoV-2.
The final letter published Feb. 6 did not mention binding sites or the possibility of a laboratory origin. It does make clear that more information is necessary to determine the origins of SARS-CoV-2. The letter states, “The experts informed us that additional genomic sequence data from geographically – and temporally – diverse viral samples are needed to determine the origin and evolution of the virus. Samples collected as early as possible in the outbreak in Wuhan and samples from wildlife would be particularly valuable.”
The emails show some experts discussing the need for clear language to counter what one described as “crackpot theories” of lab origin. Kristian Andersen, lead author of an influential Nature Medicine paper asserting a natural origin of SARS-CoV-2, said the early draft was “great, but I do wonder if we need to be more firm on the question of engineering.” He continued, “If one of the main purposes of this document is to counter those fringe theories, I think it’s very important that we do so strongly and in plain language…”
In his response, Baric aimed at conveying a scientific basis for SARS-CoV-2’s natural origin. “I do think we need to say that the closest relative to this virus (96%) was identified from bats circulating in a cave in Yunnan, China. This makes a strong statement for animal origin.”
The final letter from the NASEM presidents does not take a position on the virus origin. It states that, “Research studies to better understand the origin of 2019-nCoV and how it relates to viruses found in bats and other species are already underway. The closest known relative of 2019-nCoV appears to be a coronavirus identified from bat-derived samples collected in China.” The letter referenced two studies that were conducted by EcoHealth Alliance and Wuhan Institute of Virology. Both posit a natural origin for SARS-CoV-2.
A few weeks later, the NASEM presidents’ letter appeared as an authoritative source for an influential scientists’ statement published in The Lancet that conveyed far more certainty about the origins of SARS-CoV-2. USRTK previously reported that EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak drafted that statement, which asserted that “scientists from multiple countries…overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife.” This position, the statement notes, is “further supported by a letter from the presidents of the US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.”
The subsequent appointments of Peter Daszak and other EcoHealth Alliance allies to The Lancet COVID19 Commission and Daszak to the World Health Organization’s investigations of SARS-CoV-2’s origins means the credibility of these efforts are undermined by conflicts of interest, and by the appearance that they have already pre-judged the matter at hand.
“issues we should probably avoid”
The Baric emails also show a NAS representative suggesting to U.S. scientists they should “probably avoid” questions about SARS-CoV-2’s origin in bilateral meetings they were planning with Chinese COVID-19 experts. The emails in May and June 2020 discussed plans for the meetings. Participating American scientists, many of whom are members of the NAS Standing Committee on emerging infectious diseases and 21st-century health threats, included Ralph Baric, Peter Daszak, David Franz, James Le Duc, Stanley Perlman, David Relman, Linda Saif, and Peiyong Shi.
The participating Chinese scientists included George Gao, Zhengli Shi, and Zhiming Yuan. George Gao is Director of China CDC. Zhengli Shi leads the coronavirus research at Wuhan Institute of Virology, and Zhiming Yuan is Director of WIV.
In an email to American participants about a planning session, NAS Senior Program Officer Benjamin Rusek described the purpose of the meeting: “to fill you in on the dialogue background, discuss the topics/questions (list in your invitation letter and attached) and issues we should probably avoid (origin questions, politics)…”
For more information
Link to University of North Carolina Professor Ralph Baric’s emails can be found here: Baric emails (83,416 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.
Written by Sainath Suryanarayanan