Junk Food Makers Target Blacks and Latinos, Increasing Risks From COVID

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In the United States, Covid-19 appears to be infecting, hospitalizing and killing black people and Latinos at alarmingly high rates, with data from several states illustrating this pattern. Health disparities in nutrition and obesity, often deriving from structural racism, correlate closely with the alarming racial and ethnic disparities related to Covid-19. See, “Covid-19 and Disparities in Nutrition and Obesity” in the New England Journal of Medicine (July 15, 2020) .

Structural inequalities across U.S. society contribute to this problem, including unequal access to fresh healthy foods, unequal access to health care, socioeconomic factors and excess exposure to toxic chemicals and unhealthy air, to name a few. For more information about structural inequities in our food system, see resources from Duke University’s World Food Policy Center and the Food First Institute for Development and Food Policy.

Another problem is that food companies specifically and disproportionately target communities of color with their marketing for junk food products. In this post we are tracking news coverage and studies about racial disparities in junk food advertising.

Data on the disproportionate targeting of junk food advertising and marketing to communities of color

TV Advertising, Corporate Power, and Latino Health Disparities, American Journal of Preventative Medicine (June 2022)

  • “Overall greater health-adverse and fewer health-beneficial advertisements are broadcasted on Spanish-language than on English-language TV. Unchecked corporate marketing strategies may serve as a commercial determinant of health disparities for Latino populations by Spanish-language TV.”

Is obesity a manifestation of systemic racism? A ten-point strategy for study and intervention, by D.G. Aaron and F.C. Stanford, Journal of Internal Medicine perspectives (2021)

Increasing disparities in unhealthy food advertising targeted to Hispanic and Black youth, Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity; Council on Black Health (January 2019)

Television food advertising viewed by preschoolers, children and adolescents: contributors to differences in exposure for black and white youth in the United States, Rudd Center of Food Policy and Obesity (May 2016)

Food advertising targeted to Hispanic and Black youth: Contributing to health disparities, Rudd Center for Food Policy, AACORN, Salud America! (August 2015)

Limit junk-food ads that contribute to childhood obesity, Statement by the American Medical Association (2018)

Health equity & junk food marketing: talking about targeting kids of color, Berkeley Media Studies Group (2017)

Television food advertising viewed by preschoolers, children and adolescents: contributors to differences in exposure for black and white youth in the United States, Pediatric Obesity (2016)

To Choose (Not) to Eat Healthy: Social Norms, Self‐affirmation, and Food Choice, by Aarti Ivanic, Psychology and Marketing (July 2016)

Disparities in Obesity-Related Outdoor Advertising by Neighborhood Income and Race, Journal of Urban Health (2015)

Child-Directed Marketing Inside and on the Exterior of Fast Food Restaurants, American Journal of Preventive Medicine (2014)

Racial/Ethnic and Income Disparities in Child and Adolescent Exposure to Food and Beverage Television Ads across U.S. Media Markets, Health Place (2014)

Impact of Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption on Black Americans’ Health, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation(2011)

The Context for Choice: Health Implications of Targeted Food and Beverage Marketing to African Americans, American Journal of Public Health (2008)

Fast Food: Oppression through Poor NutritionCalifornia Law Review (2007)

The Health Impact of Targeted Marketing: An Interview with Sonya Grier, Corporations and Health Watch (2010)

News coverage and perspectives

Junk Food Ads Are Still Targeting Kids of Color: For Black and Latino communities that already have higher rates of diabetes and obesity, fast-food advertising adds another layer to intergenerational health inequities, by Elena Gooray, Vice News (9.16.21)

Racism and obesity are inextricably linked, says a Harvard doctor – and here’s how she thinks that can change, by Arianna MacNeill, Boston.com (4.12.21)

What does junk food have to do with COVID-19 deaths? by Carey Gillam, Environmental Health News (4.28.20).

Junk food ads disproportionately target black and Hispanic kids: report, by Lisa Rapaport, Reuters (1.17.19)

Black and Hispanic youth are targeted with junk food ads, research shows, by Jessica Ravitz, CNN (1.15.19)

People of color have the highest obesity rates in the US. Food marketing is part of the problem: Interview with Aarti Ivanic by Nadra Little, Vox (9.28.18)

Study: Black children are exposed to junk-food ads way more than white kids are, by Caitlin Dewey, Washington Post (12.15.16)

Exposé on how McDonald’s and Burger King targeted African Americans in the 1970s, by Lenika Cruz, The Atlantic (6.7.15)

Fast-Food Chains Disproportionately Target Black Children, by Olga Khazan, The Atlantic (11.13.14)

Fast food marketing for children disproportionately affects certain communities, Arizona State University (10.14)

Fast Food Restaurants Are Targeting Black Kids with Their Advertising, by Laura Rotham, Vice (11.17.14) 

Targeted Marketing Of Junk Food To Ethnic Minority Youth: Fighting Back With Legal Advocacy And Community Engagement, ChangeLab Solutions (2012)

Virologists push back on more regulation of viruses made more lethal in the lab

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An electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2. (Photo credit: NIH)

Virologists pushed back on the possibility of tighter regulation of viruses tweaked in the lab to be more lethal at a public meeting Wednesday.

An enhanced pandemic potential pathogen is a virus or microbe that has gained increased transmissibility —  capacity to spread from person to person and reverberate throughout a population —  or virulence — capacity to cause serious disease.

Experiments that are reasonably anticipated to generate deadlier pathogens are supposed to receive heightened oversight from the Department of Health and Human Services under what is nicknamed the HHS “P3CO,” short for the pandemic potential pathogen committee.

Though established just a few years ago, critics say the committee’s work is hidden from public view, suffers from glaring loopholes and needs a reboot. Work that contributes to vaccine development or results from viral surveillance efforts in nature is exempted from this extra layer of review, for example. 

Speculation by some in the U.S. intelligence community that SARS-CoV-2 may have seeped out of a lab at the pandemic’s epicenter may have prompted a public meeting to consider whether current policies are adequate. Reporting irregularities by a nonprofit partner of the lab involved in gain-of-function research on coronaviruses and funded by the National Institutes of Health called EcoHealth Alliance has also led many to conclude the P3CO needs to apply to more research projects and be more accountable to the public.

One million Americans have died of COVID-19. A review by the U.S. intelligence community last summer about whether the novel coronavirus spilled over from an animal or spilled out of a lab was inconclusive.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy and NIH cohosted the meeting Wednesday.

White House COVID-19 testing czar Tom Inglesby was harshly critical of the existing framework. His top recommendation: Scientists should be required to explain in detail the goals of undertaking such research in the first place, and why less perilous methods could not reach the same goal. 

“There must be an extraordinary and public justification,” he said. “I do think there are experiments we shouldn’t do.”

But lobbying groups representing virologists and other life scientists pushed back.

“The systems of review should not be a solution looking for a problem,” said Felicia Goodrum, president of the American Society for Virology. 

Goodrum said regulation risks “tying two hands behind our backs” when it comes to modeling pandemic risks. 

Goodrum added that the inherently unpredictable nature of manipulating viruses means that it’s unwieldy to determine whether or not an experiment will make a virus more dangerous, so the regulations should be lax.

“We must be careful about dichotomizing research as simply either ‘risky’ or not because it is not possible to absolutely predict the biology of a virus with the committee,” she said.  

But Gregory Koblentz, director of the biodefense graduate program at George Mason University, said that an EcoHealth Alliance grant that funded research that made coronaviruses more deadly by swapping their spike proteins is emblematic of lapses in oversight at NIH. 

The research was not regulated as gain-of-function work, but NIH did add language to the grant requiring extra reporting if the viral engineering led to viruses that were 10 times more pathogenic. (The chimeric viruses proved to be much more pathogenic than even that threshold, but EcoHealth Alliance did not report it.) That language amounts to a “tacit admission” that NIH reasonably anticipated the work was gain of function, Koblentz said.

Stefano Bertuzzi, CEO of the American Society for Microbiology, conceded that labs should report more often to Congress and that scientists could do a better job allaying public concerns, but stated that the framework is otherwise sufficient. 

Bertuzzi signaled he is concerned that Congress could step in.

Labs taking steps toward greater transparency “helps guard against well intended but sometimes overly prescriptive legislative approaches that could undermine the important work that needs to take place.” 

Gigi Gronvall, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said that the “breathless hyping of risks” overshadows strong existing biosafety measures, such as U.S. efforts to train maximum containment labs abroad.

Asked which risks have been misunderstood, Gronvall said that “there is a lot of gray” and that the proper expertise is needed to interpret gain-of-function experiments, but did not go into further detail. 

Indeed, some experts called for decreased transparency for controversial research. Colorado State University Biosafety Rebecca Moritz called for limiting the scope of public records requests. U.S. Right to Know has submitted a public information request for records about the university’s research on bat coronaviruses in collaboration with EcoHealth Alliance, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The documents raise questions about the contagion risks, for example, of shipping of bats and rats infected with dangerous pathogens.

Kanta Subbarao, director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza, disputed the idea that research that contributes to vaccine development or results from surveillance should be included in the framework. 

Many representatives of the life science and biodefense fields emphasized weighing any regulation against lost opportunities for science. But members of the public who participated in the meeting were much more skeptical of the value of certain gain-of-function work.  

Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute, said that the public should not be surprised by controversial gain-of-function experiments for the first time in scientific papers, long after the research has been approved and completed. 

Chan called for controversial experiments to be published on preprint servers and the genomes of novel viruses to be deposited into publicly available databases within a year of discovery.

She also called for greater transparency from private “virus hunting” organizations and middlemen between the NIH and labs, an apparent allusion to the EcoHealth Alliance and the Global Virome Project

Kevin Esvelt, a biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said creating novel viruses in the lab, combined with the ease of synthesizing viruses from a genome sequence, poses a national security threat.

“More Americans have died of COVID than would perish if a Russian Topol SS-25 thermonuclear warhead were to be detonated in the center of Washington, DC,” said Esvelt. “Pandemic viruses can be more lethal than thermonuclear weapons. That makes them a proliferation concern.”

Military lab changed mission statement after report questioned value of its work

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A BSL-4 lab at Fort Detrick is shown. (Courtesy of: the Office of the Maryland Governor)

The Army’s premier biolab changed its mission statement after a 2014 report by high-ranking officials concluded its work has become less useful since its Cold War heyday and no longer delivers medical products for service members. 

The report, which had not been previously released, was obtained through a state public records request by U.S. Right to Know.

The challenges at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, come to light at a time of fierce debate about the degree to which research on novel pathogens contributes tangible benefits. Scientists with different theories about the COVID-19 pandemic’s origins have been tangled in arguments over whether certain work on dangerous pathogens can help predict pandemics or poses unacceptable risks. 

Located 50 miles outside of Washington at Fort Detrick, USAMRIID was once charged with responding to the Soviet Union’s biological weapons program, but stopped developing bioweapons in 1969. It now conducts research on biological threats including Ebola, Zika, anthrax and plague, and conducts research for universities and private companies. It employs about 900 military, civilian and contract researchers.

The global biological threat landscape has changed due to gain-of-function technology, the limited capacity of the intelligence community to identify biological threats, and the proliferation of “dual use” research programs that generate pathogens that could be harmful in the wrong hands, the report states.

USAMRIID has in recent years suffered many troubles, including biosafety breaches, a shut down of its high security work, and accusations from Department of Defense leadership of wasting taxpayer funds. 

The report by government experts, including former USAMRIID Commander David Franz, describes an agency adrift as America’s first biodefense research facility struggled to deliver on the promises in its mission statement. 

The report concludes that the lab’s work may not always generate medical advances, and should not be expected to in the eyes of its funders in Washington. 

“The emphasis on products to the warfighter has become less relevant,” the report reads. “Because prophylaxis for ‘biological agents’ (traditional vaccines) requires great specificity and a period of at least weeks before protection is achieved, the era of vaccines for the force, one of USARMIID’s greatest historic strengths, is essentially over.”

The experts behind the report recommended changing the mission of the military lab away from generating vaccines and drugs.

It appears USAMRIID’s leaders listened.

By Jan. 2015 – several months after study’s authors had convened in June 2014 – the vision of the lab had changed on its website from “right product, right time for the Warfighter” to a more general statement about leadership in medical biological defense, according to changes accessed via the WayBack Machine. 

“To be the leader in the advancement of medical biological defense with world renowned experts dedicated to protecting our military forces and the nation,” USAMRIID’s vision statement now reads.

In the years since USAMRIID’s 2014 consultants fought to prove its importance to the Pentagon, the lab has faced allegations of “financial mismanagement,” according to a Defense Department letter reported by CQ Roll Call

Other problems

USAMRIID is one of two facilities at Fort Detrick with laboratories designed to handle the most dangerous pathogens in the world, so-called BSL-4 labs. There are 14 BSL-4 labs in North America. 

These labs have come under greater scrutiny amid concerns by Republicans and some independent biosecurity experts that the COVID-19 pandemic may have arisen from a lab accident in China. 

USAMRIID has not developed a COVID-19 vaccine candidate, though the lab has tested COVID-19 vaccines in the pre-clinical trial stage, according to Caree Vander Linden, public affairs officer at USAMRIID. 

Vander Linden also provided U.S. Right to Know with a spreadsheet of 43 scientific papers produced by the lab about COVID-19. For example, the lab recently announced engineering hamsters to increase their expression of the human ACE2 receptor — a key protein used by SARS-CoV-2 to enter airway cells — to enable the study of more severe disease. Remdesivir, the first therapeutic with approval from the Food and Drug Administration to treat COVID-19, was also developed with the help of USAMRIID. 

Vander Linden did not respond to questions about the report and the change of the USAMRIID mission statement. Franz did not respond to requests for comment.

Morale has plummeted since the deadly release of anthrax from the lab in 2001, the 2014 report suggests. That has been worsened by the expansion of work on biorisks at other labs. Now USAMRIID struggles to retain talent. Much of the work at USAMRIID is that of a contract research organization performing tasks for the private sector. 

“The concept that USAMRIID is more of an ‘insurance policy’ to deal with the unknown and unexpected than a ‘factory’ to produce medical ‘things’ for the soldier should be understood by all,” it states. 

The report criticizes the biosafety regulations at the Fort Detrick lab, saying the routine presence of inspectors is a distraction.

“The heavy regulatory burden … and oversight following the 9-11 attacks and the anthrax letters has diverted both funding and human resources from the research mission,” the report states.

Yet in the years since, serious safety breaches have occurred at USAMRIID. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention flagged failures to “implement and maintain containment procedures sufficient to contain select agents or toxins” in biosafety level 3 and 4 laboratories, the Frederick News-Post reported, culminating in a shutdown of USAMRIID’s two top security labs and a suspension of its registration with the Federal Select Agent Program.

Though work resumed in November 2019, the lab’s Defense Department funding remained frozen until April 2020

Both the Biden and Trump administrations have sought cuts to USAMRIID. But members of the Maryland congressional delegation have fought to maintain funding levels.

Congress appropriated $130 million for the expansion of USAMRIID in fiscal 2021.

Unpredictable threats

While USAMRIID once focused on responding to the Soviet Union, new biological threats are more diverse and harder to nail down, according to the report.

“The intelligence community is limited in its ability to identify specific threats,” the report states.

This unpredictability is due in part to so-called “gain-of-function” research, a term used to describe research that can make pathogens more virulent or transmissible. 

“Threat agents … might include traditional ones to those that blur the line between chemistry and biology or even those modified through ‘gain of function’ techniques,” the report reads. 

Potentially dangerous biological research is now characterized by “small footprint, dual-use offensive capabilities that might be found in a few large and medium nation states,” according to the report.

Two of the 2014 report’s authors – Franz and former director of the National Science Foundation Rita Colwell – have connections to EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit under investigation for its gain-of-function work on coronaviruses with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Colwell is on the board of directors, while Franz was a booster of the organization, according to a 2019 social media post

Other consultants who coauthored the report include former secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig; former deputy commander-in-chief of United States Strategic Command Robert Hinson; former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority Carol Linden; and former chief of staff of the U.S. Army Dennis J. Reimer; executive director of the Maryland Biotechnology Center Judy Britz; distinguished research fellow at National Defense University Seth Carus; Harvard professor of biologically inspired engineering David Walt; and NIH researcher Richard Whitley. 

Written by Emily Kopp 

Wuhan lab director ordered staff not to discuss Covid-19, State Department cable says, citing blogger

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The director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) ordered staff in January 2020 to “not discuss COVID-19,” according to a Guangzhou-based blogger’s social media post that is cited in a February 2020 U.S. State Department cable obtained by U.S. Right to Know. The WIV is at the center of debate surrounding the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19.

The cable, which states that the blogger’s post “has since been blocked on social media,” adds to reports of Chinese government gag orders surrounding information about Covid-19, including revelations that  Chinese Centers for Disease Control staff have been instructed not to share any information related to the new coronavirus with outside institutions or individuals.

The cable was among State Department records released in response to a U.S. Right to Know Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. Other items in the records include:

  • A February 2020 cable reported that the U.S. Consulate’s South China Public Affairs Section (PAS) “media contacts discussed the rumors circulating on social media that a graduate of the Wuhan Institute of Virology is patient zero of COVID-19, which has been denied by the Institute.” Media reports say the Wuhan Institute of Virology has denied links between WIV and patient zero, but the Biden administration has confirmed prior State Department’s claims that “several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019… with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”
  • A March 2020 cable analyzed the Chinese government and affiliated media’s messaging on Covid-19.
  • Cables from August and October 2020 show the quasi-governmental role played by EcoHealth Alliance in Malaysia as an “implementing partner” of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s PREDICT program. EcoHealth Alliance is a New York-based nonprofit that has received millions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer funding for projects, which include genetically  manipulating coronaviruses with scientists at WIV.

For more information

U.S. State Department records, which U.S. Right to Know obtained through ongoing FOIA litigation, can be found here: State Department Batch #4 (129 pages)

Background page on U.S. Right to Know’s investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

Written by Sainath Suryanarayanan

Three State Department Cables

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On May 24, 2021, the U.S. State Department released more records in response to our FOIA lawsuit. These may be of interest:

  1. “PRC claims of COVID transmission via cold chain food imports growing”: A November 18, 2020 State Department cable expressed skepticism of Chinese state media claims that SARS-CoV-2 was transmitted via imported cold chain food. These claims were used to raise doubts on a Wuhan origin for the novel coronavirus.
  2. “China’s interest in the Global Virome Project presents an opportunity for global health cooperation”: A September 28, 2017 State Department cable conveyed the Chinese government’s interest in collaborating with the U.S. government on the Global Virome Project (GVP) — an ambitious effort to map the global diversity of potential pandemic pathogens. The GVP is a successor of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s PREDICT project. PREDICT supported scientists from WIV and the U.S. nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance to gather bat coronaviruses from a mineshaft in Yunnan, China, including RaTG13 — SARS-CoV-2’s closest-known relative to date. In 2012, six miners who entered this mineshaft fell sick with Covid-like pneumonia of unknown origin, with three eventually dying.
  3. “Wuhan Institute of Virology cancels meeting”: A December 2017 State Department cable, titled “A Most Inconvenient Year: Central China’s Interference in U.S. Activities in 2017,” reported that the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) canceled a meeting with diplomats from the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan. The meeting was reportedly intended to set the stage for the U.S. Consul General’s official visit to WIV’s maximum-security BSL-4 laboratory. In 2018, the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan repeatedly warned of safety issues and risky bat coronavirus research at WIV.

For more information:

U.S. State Department records, which U.S. Right to Know obtained via FOIA litigation are here: State Department Batch #3 (114 pages)

Also see: State Department Batch #2 (37 pages) and State Department Batch #1 (92 pages)

Background page on U.S. Right to Know’s investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

Written by Sainath Suryanarayanan

Chinese-linked journal editor sought help to rebut Covid-19 lab origin hypothesis

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The editor-in-chief of a scientific journal with ties to China commissioned a commentary to refute the hypothesis that the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 came from a lab, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

The commentary reinforced a scientific narrative of certainty about natural origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, just a few weeks after the first reported outbreak in Wuhan, China.

The journal’s acceptance of the commentary for publication within 12 hours of its submission suggests a superficial peer-review process by a scientific publication to make a political point.

The commentary, written by U.S. virologists, was published around the same time as scientific reports and a statement from 27 scientists published in different journals that all asserted the new coronavirus had a natural origin.

The revelation that the editor-in-chief, Shan Lu of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, solicited the commentary for the journal Emerging Microbes & Infections (EMI) raises questions about whether there was coordination between political and scientific interests aligned with the Chinese government’s position on this highly controversial issue.

The journal’s editing is handled by Shanghai Shangyixun Cultural Communication Co. in China, in coordination with publisher Taylor & Francis, which is based in England. Several of the journal’s editors and board members are based in China, including some affiliated with the Chinese government.

EMI Board members Shibo Jiang at Fudan University School of Medicine and Yuelong Shu at Sun-Yat Sen University were among the group of Chinese scientists who sought to change the name of the new coronavirus to distance it from China; Dong Xiaoping is a governmental official at the Chinese Centers for Disease Control, who was the number two expert on the Chinese side of the February 2020 joint mission with the World Health Organization to elucidate the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

The February 2020 commentary is titled “No credible evidence supporting claims of the laboratory engineering of SARS-CoV-2,” and was authored by virologists Shan-Lu Liu and Linda Saif of Ohio State University; Susan Weiss of the University of Pennsylvania; and Lishan Su, who at the time was affiliated with the University of North Carolina. The authors argued in their article against the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 originated from a lab leak of a bat coronavirus named RaTG13 that was housed within China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

The WIV is the world’s foremost coronavirus research facility and is located just a few miles from the site of the first reported outbreak in Wuhan, China. The authors also dismissed concerns that genetic alterations to SARS-related viruses created by WIV scientists in collaboration with a University of North Carolina laboratory could have been the source for SARS-CoV-2.

To date, WIV scientists and Chinese governmental authorities have not given independent scientists access to the WIV’s database of bat coronaviruses.

Speedy acceptance

In one February 11, 2020 email, Liu invited Saif to be co-author on an “almost complete” draft of “a commentary on the possible origin of the 2019-nCoV or SARSCoV-2 in order to dispute some rumors.” Liu said in the email that he had written the commentary with Su at the invitation of the editor-in-chief of Emerging Microbes & Infections.

Saif agreed to join, stating: “I edited this version and added my name as I too feel strongly about denouncing this.”

Saif separately was a signatory to the statement published in The Lancet that emails show was orchestrated by EcoHealth Alliance’s Peter Daszak.  EcoHealth Alliance is a non-profit group that has received millions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer funding to genetically manipulate viruses, including with scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

On February 12, 2020, Liu also invited Professor Weiss to also be a co-author, and she immediately agreed.

Liu submitted the manuscript on the evening of February 12, and within 12 hours, the journal’s Shanghai-based editorial office accepted the paper, with one peer-reviewer noting: “This is a timely commentary. It is perfectly written… I suggest to publish it right away.”

In February 2020, EMI published two more commentaries, all of which were favorable to the Chinese government’s position on the origins of SARS-CoV-2:

  • a Feb 4 commentary titled “HIV-1 did not contribute to the 2019-nCoV genome” by U.S.-based Chinese scientists with affiliations to Chinese universities; and
  • a Feb 28 commentary titled “Is SARS-CoV-2 originated from laboratory? A rebuttal to the claim of formation via laboratory recombination,” by Shanghai-based scientists belonging to the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Origins controversy continues 

The experts who authored the EMI commentary did not consider that WIV houses unpublished SARS-related bat coronaviruses, which could have served as a template for the lab origin of SARS-CoV-2, according to some scientists. To date, debate on the matter of the virus’s origins remains open, and there are growing calls to investigate natural as well as lab-origin scenarios.

Stanford Professor David Relman wrote in a PNAS article that arguments against deliberate engineering scenarios “fail to acknowledge the possibility that two or more as yet undisclosed ancestors (i.e., more proximal ancestors than RaTG13 and RmYN02) had already been discovered and were being studied in a laboratory—for example, one with the SARS-CoV-2 backbone and spike protein receptor-binding domain, and the other with the SARS-CoV-2 polybasic furin cleavage site. It would have been a logical next step to wonder about the properties of a recombinant virus and then create it in the laboratory.”

For more information

Ohio State University Professor Linda Saif’s emails, which U.S. Right to Know obtained through a public records request, can be found here: Saif emails batch #1: Ohio State University (303 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.

Written by Sainath Suryanarayanan

Chinese scientists sought to change name of deadly coronavirus to distance it from China

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In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of scientists affiliated with China’s government tried to distance the coronavirus from China by influencing its official naming. Nodding to the fact the virus was first detected in Wuhan, China, the scientists said they feared the virus would become known as the “Wuhan coronavirus” or “Wuhan pneumonia,” emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know show.

The emails reveal an early front in the information war waged by the Chinese government to shape the narrative about the origins of the novel coronavirus.

The naming of the virus was “a matter of importance to the Chinese people” and references to the virus that cited Wuhan “stigmatize and insult” Wuhan residents, the correspondence from February 2020 states.

Specifically the Chinese scientists argued that the official technical name assigned to the virus – “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)”- was not only “hard to remember or recognize” but also “truly misleading” because it connected the new virus to the 2003 SARS-CoV outbreak that originated in China.

The virus was named by the Coronavirus Study Group (CSG) of the International Committee on Virus Taxonomy (ICTV).

Wuhan Institute of Virology senior scientist Zhengli Shi, who led the re-naming effort, described in an email to University of North Carolina virologist Ralph Baric, “a fierce discussion among Chinese virologists” over the name SARS-CoV-2.

Deyin Guo, former dean of Wuhan University’s School of Biomedical Sciences and co-author of the name-change proposal, wrote to CSG members that they had failed to consult their naming decision with “virologists including the first discovers [sic] of the virus and the first describers of the disease” from mainland China.

“It is not appropriate to use one disease-based virus’ name (like SARS-CoV) to name all other natural viruses that belong to the same species but have very different properties,” he wrote in the correspondence sent on behalf of himself and five other Chinese scientists.

The group proposed an alternative name – “Transmissible acute respiratory coronavirus (TARS-CoV). Another option, they said, could be “Human acute respiratory coronavirus (HARS-CoV).”

The email thread detailing a suggested name change was written to CSG Chair John Ziebuhr.

The correspondence shows that Ziebuhr disagreed with the Chinese group’s logic. He replied that “the name SARS-CoV-2 links this virus to other viruses (called SARS-CoVs or SARSr-CoVs) in this species including the prototype virus of the species rather than to the disease that once inspired the naming of this prototype virus nearly 20 years ago. The suffix -2 is used as a unique identifier and indicates that SARS-Co V-2 is yet ANOTHER (but closely related) virus in this species.”

China’s state-owned media firm CGTN reported another effort in March 2020 by Chinese virologists to re-name SARS-CoV-2 as human coronavirus 2019 (HCoV-19), which also didn’t pass muster with the CSG.

Naming an epidemic-causing virus—a responsibility of the World Health Organization (WHO) — has often been a politically charged exercise in taxonomic classification.

In a prior outbreak of the H5N1 flu virus that arose in China, the Chinese government pushed the WHO into creating nomenclature that would not tie virus names to their histories or locations of origin.

For more information

University of North Carolina Professor Ralph Baric’s emails, which U.S. Right to Know obtained through a public records request, can be found here: Baric emails batch #2: University of North Carolina (332 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.

Written by Sainath Suryanarayanan

Emails show scientists discussed masking their involvement in key journal letter on Covid origins

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EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak, the head of an organization involved in research that genetically manipulates coronaviruses, discussed hiding his role in a statement published last year in The Lancet that condemned as “conspiracy theories” concerns that the COVID-19 virus may have originated in a research lab, emails obtained by US Right to Know show.

The Lancet statement, signed by 27 prominent scientists, has been influential in tamping down suspicions by some scientists that COVID-19 could have ties to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has a research affiliation to the EcoHealth Alliance.

Daszak drafted the statement and circulated it to other scientists to sign. But the emails reveal that Daszak and two other EcoHealth-affiliated scientists thought they should not sign the statement so as to mask their involvement in it. Leaving their names off the statement would give it “some distance from us and therefore doesn’t work in a counterproductive way,” Daszak wrote.

Daszak noted that he could “send it round” to other scientists to sign. “We’ll then put it out in a way that doesn’t link it back to our collaboration so we maximize an independent voice,” he wrote.

The two scientists Daszak wrote to about the need to make the paper appear independent of EcoHealth, are coronavirus experts Ralph Baric and Linfa Wang.

In the emails, Baric agreed with Daszak’s suggestion not to sign The Lancet statement, writing “Otherwise it looks self-serving, and we lose impact.”

Daszak did ultimately sign the statement himself, but he was not identified as its lead author or coordinator of the effort.

The emails are part of a tranche of documents obtained by US Right to Know that show Daszak has been working since at least early last year to undermine the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 may have leaked from the Wuhan Institute.

The first reported outbreak of COVID-19 was in the city of Wuhan.

U.S. Right to Know previously reported that Daszak drafted the statement for The Lancet, and orchestrated it to “not be identifiable as coming from any one organization or person” but rather to be seen as “simply a letter from leading scientists”.

EcoHealth Alliance is a New York-based nonprofit that has received millions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer funding to genetically manipulate coronaviruses, including with scientists at the Wuhan Institute.

Notably, Daszak has emerged as a central figure in official investigations of  SARS-CoV-2’s origins. He is a member of the World Health Organization‘s team of experts tracing the novel coronavirus’s origins, and The Lancet COVID 19 Commission.

See our previous reporting on this topic: 

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Written by Sainath Suryanarayanan

Altered datasets raise more questions about reliability of key studies on coronavirus origins

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Revisions to genomic datasets associated with four key studies on coronavirus origins add further questions about the reliability of these studies, which provide foundational support for the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 originated in wildlife. The studies, Peng Zhou et al., Hong Zhou et al., Lam et al., and Xiao et al., discovered SARS-CoV-2-related coronaviruses in horseshoe bats and Malayan pangolins.

The studies’ authors deposited DNA sequence data called sequence reads, which they used to assemble bat- and pangolin-coronavirus genomes, in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) sequence read archive (SRA). NCBI established the public database to assist independent verification of genomic analyses based on high-throughput sequencing technologies.

U.S. Right to Know obtained documents by a public records request that show revisions to these studies’ SRA data months after they were published. These revisions are odd because they occurred after publication, and without any rationale, explanation or validation.

For example, Peng Zhou et al. and Lam et al. updated their SRA data on the same two dates. The documents don’t explain why they altered their data, only that some changes were made. Xiao et al. made numerous changes to their SRA data, including the deletion of two datasets on March 10, the addition of a new dataset on June 19, a November 8 replacement of data first released on October 30, and a further data change on November 13 — two days after Nature added an Editor’s “note of concern” about the study. Hong Zhou et al. have yet to share the full SRA dataset that would enable independent verification. While journals like Nature require authors to make all data “promptly available” at the time of publication, SRA data can be released after publication; but it is unusual to make such changes months after publication.

These unusual alterations of SRA data do not automatically make the four studies and their associated datasets unreliable. However, the delays, gaps and changes in SRA data have hampered independent assembly and verification of the published genome sequences, and add to questions and concerns about the validity of the four studies, such as:

  1. What were the exact post-publication revisions to the SRA data? Why were they made? How did they affect the associated genomic analyses and results?
  2. Were these SRA revisions independently validated? If so, how? The NCBI’s only validation criterion for publishing an SRA BioProject– beyond basic information such as “organism name”– is that it cannot be a duplicate.

For more information

The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) documents can be found here: NCBI emails (63 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.

Written by Sainath Suryanarayanan

No peer review for addendum to prominent coronavirus origins study?

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The journal Nature did not assess the reliability of important claims made in a November 17 addendum to a study on the bat-origins of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, correspondence with Nature staff suggests.

On February 3, 2020, Wuhan Institute of Virology scientists reported discovering the closest known relative of SARS-CoV-2, a bat coronavirus called RaTG13. RaTG13 has become central to the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 originated in wildlife.

The addendum addresses unanswered questions about the provenance of RaTG13. The authors, Zhou et al., clarified they found RaTG13 in 2012-2013 “in an abandoned mineshaft in Mojiang County, Yunnan Province,” where six miners suffered acute respiratory distress syndrome after exposure to bat feces, and three died. Investigations of the symptoms of the sickened miners could provide important clues about the origins of SARS-CoV-2. Zhou et al. reported finding no SARS-related coronaviruses in stored serum samples of the sick miners, but they did not support their claims with data and methods about their assays and experimental controls.

The absence of key data in the addendum has raised further questions about the reliability of the Zhou et al. study. On November 27, U.S. Right to Know asked Nature questions about the addendum’s claims, and requested that Nature publish all supporting data that Zhou et al. may have provided.

On December 2, Nature Head of Communications Bex Walton replied that the original Zhou et al.  study was “accurate but unclear,” and that the addendum was an appropriate post-publication platform for clarification. She added: “With regards to your questions, we would direct you to approach the authors of the paper for answers, as these questions pertain not to the research that we have published but to other research undertaken by the authors, upon which we cannot comment” (emphasis ours). Since our questions related to research described in the addendum, the Nature representative’s statement suggests Zhou et al.’s addendum was not evaluated as research.

We asked a follow up question on December 2: “was this addendum subjected to any peer-review and/or editorial oversight by Nature?” Ms. Walton did not answer directly; she replied: “In general, our editors will assess comments or concerns that are raised with us in the first instance, consulting the authors, and seeking advice from peer reviewers and other external experts if we consider it necessary. Our confidentiality policy means we cannot comment on the specific handling of individual cases.”

Since Nature considers an addendum to be a post-publication update, and does not subject such post publication addenda to the same peer-review standards as original publications, it seems likely that the Zhou et al. addendum did not undergo peer-review.

Authors Zhengli Shi and Peng Zhou did not respond to our questions about their Nature addendum.

Written by Sainath Suryanarayanan