New emails show scientists’ deliberations on how to discuss SARS-CoV-2 origins 

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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.”

Baric and other infectious disease experts were involved in drafting the response. The emails show the experts’ internal discussions and an early draft dated Feb. 4.

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.

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“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

Items from coronavirus expert Ralph Baric‘s emails 

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This page lists documents in Professor Ralph Baric’s emails, which U.S. Right to Know obtained via a public records request. Dr. Baric is a coronavirus expert at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (UNC). He has developed genetic techniques to enhance the pandemic potential of existing bat coronaviruses in collaboration with Dr. Zhengli Shi at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and with EcoHealth Alliance.

The emails show internal discussions and an early draft of a key scientists’ letter about coronavirus origins, and shed some light on relationships between U.S. and Chinese experts in biodefense and infectious diseases, and the roles of organizations such as EcoHealth Alliance and National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

Please email anything of interest we may have missed to sainath@usrtk.org, so that we can include them below.

Items from Baric emails

  1. Tracy McNamara, Professor of Pathology at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California wrote on March 25, 2020: : “The Federal govt has spent over $1 billion dollars in support of the Global Health Security Agenda to help developing nations create the capacity to detect/report/respond to pandemic threats. An additional $200 million was spent on the PREDICT project via USAID looking for emerging viruses in bats, rats and monkeys overseas. And now the Global Virome Project wants $1.5 billion dollars to run around the world hunting down every virus on the face of the earth. They will probably get funding. But none of these programs have made taxpayers safer right here at home.” (emphasis in the original)
  2. Dr. Jonathan Epstein, Vice President for Science and Outreach at EcoHealth Alliance, sought guidance for a request from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) about communicating “potentially sensitive dual-use information” (March 2018).
  3. EcoHealth Alliance paid Dr. Baric an undisclosed sum as honorarium (January 2018).
  4. Invitation to U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) U.S. China Dialogue and Workshop on the Challenges of Emerging Infections, Laboratory Safety, Global Health Security and Responsible Conduct in the Use of Gene Editing in Viral Infectious Disease Research, Harbin, China, Jan 8-10, 2019 (November 2018-January 2019). Preparatory emails and a travel memorandum indicate the identities of the American participants.
  5. NAS invitation to a meeting of U.S. and Chinese experts working to counter infectious disease and improve global health (November 2017). The meeting was convened by the NAS and the Galveston National Laboratory. It took place on January 16-18, 2018, in Galveston, Texas. A travel memorandum indicates the identities of the American participants. Subsequent emails show that the WIV’s Dr. Zhengli Shi is present at the meeting.
  6. On February 27, 2020, Baric wrote, “at this moment the most likely origins are bats, and I note that it is a mistake to assume that an intermediate host is needed.”
  7. On March 5, 2020, Baric wrote, “there is absolutely no evidence that this virus is bioengineered.”

For more information

A link to Professor Ralph Baric’s emails can be found here: Baric emails (~83,416 pages)

U.S. Right to Know is posting documents from our Biohazards investigation. See: FOI documents on origins of SARS-CoV-2, hazards of gain-of-function research and biosafety labs.

EcoHealth Alliance orchestrated key scientists’ statement on “natural origin” of SARS-CoV-2

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Update 2.15.21 – Newly surfaced Daszak email: “No need for you to sign the ‘Statement’ Ralph!!” 

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know show that a statement in The Lancet authored by 27 prominent public health scientists condemning “conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin” was organized by employees of EcoHealth Alliance, a non-profit group that has received millions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer funding to genetically manipulate coronaviruses with scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The emails obtained via public records requests show that EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak drafted the Lancet statement, and that he intended 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”. Daszak wrote that he wanted “to avoid the appearance of a political statement”.

The scientists’ letter appeared in The Lancet on February 18, just one week after the World Health Organization announced that the disease caused by the novel coronavirus would be named COVID-19.

The 27 authors “strongly condemn[ed] conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” and reported that scientists from multiple countries “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife.” The letter included no scientific references to refute a lab-origin theory of the virus. One scientist, Linda Saif, asked via email whether it would be useful “to add just one or 2 statements in support of why nCOV is not a lab generated virus and is naturally occuring? Seems critical to scientifically refute such claims!” Daszak responded, “I think we should probably stick to a broad statement.”

Growing calls to investigate the Wuhan Institute of Virology as a potential source of SARS-CoV-2 have led to increased scrutiny of EcoHealth Alliance. The emails show how members of EcoHealth Alliance played an early role in framing questions about possible lab origin of SARS-CoV-2 as “crackpot theories that need to be addressed,” as Daszak told The Guardian.

Although the phrase “EcoHealth Alliance” appeared only once in The Lancet statement, in association with co-author Daszak, several other co-authors also have direct ties to the group that were not disclosed as conflicts of interest. Rita Colwell and James Hughes are members of the Board of Directors of EcoHealth Alliance, William Karesh is the group’s Executive Vice President for Health and Policy, and Hume Field is Science and Policy Advisor.

The statement’s authors also claimed that the “rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins.” Today, however, little is known about the origins of SARS-CoV-2, and investigations into its origins by the World Health Organization and The Lancet COVID-19 commission have been shrouded in secrecy and mired by conflicts of interests.

Peter Daszak, Rita Colwell, and The Lancet Editor Richard Horton did not provide comments in response to our requests for this story.

Written by Sainath Suryanarayanan

For more information

A link to the entire batch of EcoHealth Alliance emails can be found here: EcoHealth Alliance emails: University of Maryland (466 pages)

U.S. Right to Know is posting documents obtained through public freedom of information (FOI) requests for our Biohazards investigation in our post: FOI documents on origins of SARS-CoV-2, hazards of gain-of-function research and biosafety labs.

Related posts

Validity of key studies on origin of coronavirus in doubt; science journals investigating

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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: 

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.

U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit investigative research group focused on promoting transparency for public health. You can support our research and reporting by donating here. 

Coronavirus Food News Tracker: Best articles on the pandemic and our food system

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Covid-19 is exposing serious problems with our food system. In this post, U.S. Right to Know is tracking important food news news related to the coronavirus pandemic. To receive weekly updates and breaking news from the USRTK investigations, please sign up for our newsletter.

Topics (drop links)
Most Recent Articles 
Obesity and Coronavirus
Eating Ultra-processed Food Increases Likelihood of Dying from Coronavirus
Inequalities In Our Food System
Risks Facing Farmworkers and Food Workers
Food Supply and Security  
Toxic Chemicals and Coronavirus
Role of Factory Farming and Agriculture in Pandemics Like Covid-19
Food System Analysis 
Food Safety
Junk Food Resurgence 

Most recent articles

Obesity and Coronavirus

Eating Ultra-processed Food Increases Likelihood of Dying from Coronavirus

Inequalities In Our Food System 

Risks Facing Farmworkers and Food Workers

Food Supply and Security  

Toxic Chemicals and Coronavirus

Role of Factory Farming and Agriculture in Pandemics Like Covid-19

Food System Analysis

Food Safety

Junk Food Resurgence

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