‘What would Jim do?’: U.S. virologist close to Wuhan lab quietly called for investigation

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Galveston National Laboratory is pictured on the right. (Courtesy of: Wikimedia Commons)

James Le Duc, a biosafety expert and virologist who collaborated closely with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, outlines how he might investigate whether that lab or any other in Wuhan could be implicated in the COVID-19 pandemic in an email obtained by U.S. Right to Know.  

In a June 2021 email titled “What would Jim do?,” Le Duc proposes a set of questions and a survey of coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and other nearby labs.

Le Duc suggests a “detailed examination of the work underway” at each lab, including: 

  1. specimens from bats collected from the field
  2. attempts to adapt [coronaviruses] to growth in cell cultures
  3. gain of function research 
  4. the use of humanized mouse lines expressing human lung ACE-2 receptors

“If nothing significant [was] found, it would help reassure the world that it is unlikely that SARS-CoV2 originated from a laboratory,” Le Duc wrote in the email, which was sent to staff at the National Academy of Sciences.

U.S. Right to Know obtained the emails through a Texas Public Information Act request.

In a separate email published by U.S. Right to Know last year, Le Duc expressed concerns that a lab accident would have been more likely to happen at less secure BSL-2 or BSL-3 labs than the high security BSL-4 lab that has been the focus of international attention and concern. 

Still, the investigation proposed by Le Duc as necessary to absolve Wuhan’s labs has yet to be conducted. 

Le Duc provided training to Chinese researchers who worked at the Wuhan Institute of Virology ⁠— including in biosafety, lab operations and biocontainment ⁠— through a formal cooperative agreement. Since 1986, he has traveled to Wuhan to assist the lab and to meet with Yuan Zhiming, a director at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Le Duc was the longtime director of the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch until his February 2021 retirement. The Galveston lab and the Wuhan Institute of Virology are two of three labs in the world that perform similar risky research on novel coronaviruses, according to Richard Ebright, board of governors professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University. 

While the email has not previously been reported, Le Duc’s questions were also shared at a public meeting of the World Microbe Forum in June 2021.

Le Duc did not respond to a request for comment. 

In other media interviews, Le Duc has expressed warm feelings about Shi Zhengli, the director of the Center of Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and their scientific collaborations. Still, Le Duc has said he supports an impartial investigation into all possibilities related to the pandemic’s origins.

More questions

In the 2021 email, Le Duc suggests this investigation should include an evaluation of the levels of biocontainment used in Wuhan’s labs and an examination of the biosafety infrastructure in place. 

Elements of lab safety Le Duc drills down on include whether any of the labs were studying coronaviruses that can replicate in culture, which may have made them better adapted to infect human cells. He also asks whether biological safety cabinets were certified and used; whether the lab has a history of disgruntled employees; and whether there is controlled access to pathogens.

He suggests an examination of whether the air handling systems were properly maintained, citing the 1979 release of anthrax from a Soviet lab

In an earlier email exchange in April 2020, former president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene Phillip Russell voiced concerns to Le Duc about obfuscation by scientists akin to the longtime coverup of that lab accident. 

“This reminds me of the efforts by Matt Messelson [Meselson] and many colleagues to coverup up the Sverdeslosk [Sverdlovsk] anthrax outbreak,” he wrote. “They succeeded for many years aided and abetted by many in academia until Ken Alibek defected and the truth came out.”

Le Duc also suggests an evaluation of waste decontamination procedures, citing a 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom that resulted from wastewater runoff from a lab. 

‘Unfortunately, I never received a response’

Le Duc, who provided training in biosafety to some Wuhan Institute of Virology staff, suggested asking whether personnel were properly trained in key instruments like autoclaves, a sterilization tool. He also asks whether there is a history of needle sticks or accidental exposures at Wuhan labs. 

He asks: Were any employees sick in the months prior to the start of the pandemic? Were family members or close contacts sick?

Le Duc suggests that investigators could test whether serum banks contain antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Further, he asks, is there an occupational health program or special clinic that serves staff from each institute where coronavirus research was underway? If so, did they see an uptick in cases consistent with COVID-19?

Le Duc posed a similar set of questions to his former collaborator Zhiming, according to an email uncovered by U.S. Right to Know in December.

“Unfortunately, I never received a response,” he wrote.

Written by Emily Kopp 

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