FOI documents on origins of Covid-19, gain-of-function research and biolabs

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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. We are also researching accidents, leaks and other mishaps at laboratories where pathogens of pandemic potential are stored and modified, and the risks of gain-of-function research, which involve experiments on such pathogens to increase their host range, infectivity, transmissibility or pathogenicity.

For more information about our investigation, see our biohazards page. You can read our reporting here on the documents we have obtained so far from Freedom of Information requests. The documents are posted below in chronological order in which we received them.

Latinne et al. (2020) and the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI)

NCBI emails (10.12.21): File #1, File #2, File #3, File #4, File #5, File #6, File #7, File #8. Emails between NCBI and scientists from Ecohealth Alliance and Wuhan Institute of Virology regarding the submission of genetic sequence information about bat betacoronavirus isolate 7896, which is very closely related to RaTG13.

National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB)

NSABB emails (10.11.21) (104 pages). Emails between Mary Ellen Groesch, NSABB members, and NIH staff regarding the replacement of 11 NSABB members, and 2014 plans to discuss dual use research guidelines (DURC) and a new biosecurity and biosafety program.

Documents obtained through FOIA to the NIH for email correspondence of Dr. Mary Ellen Groesch, Office of the Director, National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and former executive director of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB).

Shan-Lu Liu emails

Zhengli Shi’s edits to a widely-cited EM&I commentary titled “No credible evidence supporting claims of the laboratory engineering of SARS-CoV-2.” (9.27.21) (10 pages). Document obtained through an Ohio Public Records Act request for a missing attachment from the email records of Ohio State University Professor Shan-Lu Liu.

Shan-Lu Liu emails: Ohio State University (8.4.21) (488 pages). Documents obtained through an Ohio Public Records Act request for the email records of Shan-Lu Liu, Professor, College of Veterinary Medicine, The Ohio State University.

See our reporting:

U.S. State Department records

State Department Batch #6 (9.27.21) (100 pages)
State Department Batch #5 (7.26.21) (56 pages)

  • January 2018 cable on the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s BSL-4 laboratory (a more complete version of the cable first reported by Josh Rogin in the Washington Post)

State Department Batch #4 (6.24.21) (129 pages)
State Department Batch #3 (5.24.21) (114 pages)
State Department Batch #2 (4.26.21) (37 pages)
State Department Batch #1 (3.24.21) (92 pages).

See our reporting:

CSIRO emails

CSIRO emails: Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) Records. Documents obtained through an Australian Freedom of Information Act request to CSIRO for email records between Gary Crameri, Researcher, Health and Biosecurity Business Unit, Australian Center for Disease Preparedness (ACDP) of CSIRO, and collaborators, including Drs. Lin-Fa Wang and Edward C. Holmes.

CSIRO Batch #5 (8.31.21) (63 pages)
CSIRO Batch #4 (8.31.21) (99 pages)
CSIRO Batch #3 (8.31.21) (50 pages)
CSIRO Batch #2 (8.31.21) (4 pages)
CSIRO Batch #1 (8.31.21) (154 pages)

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention records

CDC Batch #2 (6.28.21) (1,302 pages)
CDC Batch #1 (3.05.21) (1,063 pages)

Fang Li emails

Fang Li emails: (6.25.21) (1234 pages). Documents obtained from public records requests for emails of Fang Li, PhD, Professor, Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, University of Minnesota.

Linda Saif emails

Linda Saif emails batch #1: (4.7.21) (303 pages). Documents obtained from public records requests for emails of Linda Saif, PhD, Distinguished University Professor, Department of Veterinary Preventative Medicine, Center for Food Animal Health, Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, Ohio State University.

See our reporting: Chinese-linked journal editor sought help to rebut Covid-19 lab origin hypothesis (5.24.21)

Ralph Baric emails

Ralph Baric emails batch #3: (2.25.21) (22,736 pages) Documents obtained from public records requests for emails Ralph Baric, PhD, William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor in the Department of  Epidemiology and Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Ralph Baric emails batch #2: (2.17.21) (332 pages).

See our reporting:

Ralph Baric emails batch #1 (12.14.20) (83,416 pages). Dr. Ralph Baric’s emails with EcoHealth Alliance, Wuhan Institute of Virology, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and experts in biodefense and infectious diseases.

See our reporting:

Rebekah Kading and Tony Schountz emails

Rebekah Kading and Tony Schountz (1.21.21) (2276 pages). Documents obtained from Colorado State University professors Rebekah Kading and Tony Schountz of the Center for Vector-Born Infectious Diseases (CVID).

See our reporting:

National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI)

NCBI Emails (12.29.20) (63 pages). Emails with coronavirus scientists who authored four key studies on coronavirus origins, about their revisions to genomic datasets associated with these studies.

See our reporting: Altered datasets raise more questions about reliability of key studies on coronavirus origins (12.29.20)

Rita Colwell emails

Rita Colwell emails with EcoHealth Alliance staff (11.18.20) (466 pages). Documents obtained from public records requests for emails of Rita Colwell, PhD, Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland at College Park and Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is a member of the EcoHealth Alliance board of directors.

See our reporting:

How NIH-funded research in China could have led to the COVID-19 pandemic

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A multimillion-dollar bat coronavirus research grant, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was made public last week, revealing that researchers based in Wuhan, China had manipulated coronaviruses in ways that led to increased severity of infection, employing platforms that tested the ability of bat coronaviruses to use human receptors.

The grant documents underscore the perils of the collection of and experimentation on potentially pathogenic viruses, and shed new light on U.S.-funded coronavirus experiments in Wuhan, China for five years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new information disclosed in the grant proposal and its interim reports do not establish that the research led to the pandemic. But they do suggest that it was possible.

The NIH-funded, five-year grant was awarded in 2014 to the U.S.-based EcoHealth Alliance, with EcoHealth President Peter Daszak as “principal investigator” in collaboration with several researchers in China, including two working at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).  A key collaborator on the grant was Ralph Baric, of the University of North Carolina, providing expertise in mouse models for coronavirus infections. The grant was renewed in 2019 but then cancelled in 2020 as the pandemic set off panic around the globe.

A copy of the research plan and interim reports, titled “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence,” was obtained through litigation against the NIH and publicly released by The Intercept. The documents show that the NIH grant was for $3.1 million, of which $599,000 went to the WIV and to researcher Zhengli Shi, who specialized in the study of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-1 (SARS-CoV-1) and similar viruses, called SARS related (SARSr)-CoVs.

Many scientists have posited a possible lab origin of SARS-CoV-2, and suggested the WIV as a possible source for the origin of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.

Coronaviruses (CoVs) emerging from wildlife are a “significant threat to global health,” the grant claims, with bats considered a “natural reservoir of these viruses.” With that in mind, the authors said that the purpose of their research was to “examine the risk of future coronavirus…emergence from wildlife” using a range of research techniques and to understand “what factors increase the risk of the next CoV emerging in people…” The work involved screening more than 30 species of bats for CoVs and then developing strategies for assessing the potential spillover of coronaviruses from bats to humans, according to the grant documents.

But it is possible that, in seeking to learn how to avoid spillover events, the work actually caused one.

How it could have happened

How might the EcoHealth Alliance grant have caused, or contributed to, the pandemic? Here are some possible scenarios based on a close reading of the grant.

  • During fieldwork, collection, and containment of bat SARSr-CoV samples, people could have been accidentally infected. The research involved collecting samples from bats in four Chinese provinces: Yunnan, Guangdong, Guangxi and Fujian. The researchers explained their prolific sampling of Chinese bats and identification of new coronaviruses: “We have identified sequences from 268 novel bat-CoVs (140 from China alone),” they wrote in the grant. “We have an additional 5000+ clinical samples from free-ranging bats and rodents from Guangdong province.”

The grantees acknowledged that their work had serious implications, writing in the grant documents that “some SARSr-CoVs currently circulating in bats in southern China are likely able to infect and replicate within people.” [Emphasis in original].

In fact, the most closely related virus to SARS-CoV-2 identified to date was found by WIV scientists in a mineshaft in Mojiang (Yunnan Province). In 2012-2013, six miners experienced acute respiratory distress syndrome after exposure to bat feces in this mineshaft, and three died.

  • There is evidence of lax bat-handling practices and minimal use of personal protective equipment (PPE) at WIV and Wuhan University, where parts of the research were conducted. By their own admission, the researchers noted, this work could be dangerous. “Fieldwork involves the highest risk of exposure to SARSr-related or other bat CoVs, while working in caves with high bat density overhead and the potential for fecal dust to be inhaled,” according to the grant documents.

The grant documents state that “Tyvek suits and HEPA-filtered Powered Air Purifying and Supplied Air Respirator Systems (PAPRs) will additionally be worn in cave systems where there is a higher risk of contact with aerosolized bat feces.”

If any of those bat samples contained a close relative of SARS-CoV-2 infectious to humans, an accidental infection during the course of fieldwork, subsequent lab procedures, or containment could have led to a transmissible SARSr-CoV with greater similarity to SARS-CoV-2 than the currently reported strains. In fact, analysis of some early strains of SARS-CoV-2 shows that they may be more similar to bat coronaviruses than previously thought, based on evidence recovered from viral sequences deleted from NIH sequence archives.

  • During lab experimentation with the bat coronaviruses, it is possible that a novel virus was produced with greater similarity to SARS-CoV-2 than those reported in the NIH grant. The researchers stated in the grant that they developed an in vivo model, that is, mice genetically engineered to carry human angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (hACE-2), the receptor for SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2. The research group also reported that they were successful in generating new SARS-like coronaviruses. They did this by splicing the RNA sequences of the novel spike proteins they discovered into the viral ‘backbone’ of known lab strains.  This kind of novel virus is called a chimera because it consists of genetic elements from different viruses.

In this way, the researchers created three chimeric viruses, each with a different spike protein, from bats.

  • Though the grant does not mention a virus similar enough to SARS-CoV-2 to be a direct progenitor, it is possible that other chimeric viruses were tested in this model, but were not reported in the grant. The researchers had access to troves of novel coronaviruses collected during fieldwork, including unreported bat viruses. It is common for researchers to present some but not all data in interim grant reports. The research described in the grant established a platform that could have easily been used to study other chimeric viruses more closely related to SARS-CoV-2 than those mentioned in the grant.

There are indications of this within the grant documents. While results from infection of hACE-2 mice with three chimeric viruses were presented, the researchers wrote in the grant, “[w]e cannot anticipate exactly how many viruses we will find that are candidates for experimental models…and that we will identify approximately 20 viruses that will be used for mouse infection experiments.”  It is possible that the researchers generated a novel chimeric virus with more similarity to SARS-CoV-2 than those reported.

Experiments on human ACE-2 mice

The NIH grant describes important research on mice with human ACE-2 receptors.

The researchers infected the hACE-2 mice with the chimeric SARS-like bat coronaviruses to see how sick they would get, and whether they would shed infectious virus compared to the original viral strain. They found that hACE-2 mice infected with some of the chimeric viruses lost more body weight and shed more virus in the lungs than those infected by the original viral strain at certain time points. This research resulted in chimeric viruses that gained infectious and pathogenic properties.

“We’ll infect them [hACE-2 mice] with cultured bat coronaviruses and determine which organs become infected and whether these mice are capable of shedding infectious virus”, the grant proposed. The grant aimed to study tissues of the chimeric virus-infected hACE-2 mice for virus replication.

The grant proposed testing different transmission routes in which the mice could be infected, comparing nasal infection versus other routes. The grant outlines, “[W]e will perform in vivo infection experiments in humanized mice modified to carry human ACE2…gene in the Wuhan Institute of Virology BSL-3 animal facility…[t]his work will provide information about viral pathogenicity, tissue tropism, transmission route, and infection symptom.”

An outstanding question is whether the chimeric viruses can be transmitted between the hACE-2 mice. Whether the scientists explicitly reported on this is not the question, but rather, was a novel chimeric bat virus engineered that was also transmissible between hACE-2 mice?  While the grant does not discuss repeated passage of viruses in hACE-2 mice, the platform also sets up biosafety concerns about this possibility.

A weakness in the prominent “proximal origin” paper?

Some scientists who have argued against a lab origin for SARS-CoV-2 contend that the virus has a signature of it being adapted in an animal host with an intact immune system, for which no such appropriate laboratory model has been described.

One of these arguments against a lab origin of SARS-CoV-2, advanced by scientist Kristian Andersen and colleagues, and published as an influential correspondence in Nature Medicine, was “[s]ubsequent generation of a polybasic cleavage site would have then required repeated passage in cell culture or animals with ACE2 receptors similar to those of humans, but such work has also not previously been described.” [Emphasis ours.]

However, the grant shows this is not correct; the experimentation on the hACE-2 mice establish such a model.

Infection of hACE-2 mice with the novel chimeric bat coronaviruses could have supported new viruses with sequence changes that make them better able to infect human cells. These could be more similar in sequence to SARS-CoV-2 than the original chimeric virus infecting strains.  The hACE-2 expressing mice could have enabled some human adaptation of the chimeric SARS-like bat coronaviruses in vivo, generating viruses with more similarity to SARS-CoV-2 than those reported to date.  This is another possible explanation for how NIH-funded research in China could have led to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bottom line

In addition to searching for spillover events, the research outlined in the grant had the potential to generate a spillover event. This could have occurred as an accidental infection during fieldwork and laboratory handling of bat SARSr-CoVs; during containment or storage of them; or during the laboratory engineering of novel chimeric bat coronaviruses; or, after these novel viruses were used to infect hACE-2 mice, leading to a more infectious, transmissible, and/or pathogenic virus that was a precursor to SARS-CoV-2. The possibility of a lab leak or lab-acquired infection with any of these novel coronaviruses during lab experimentation raises serious biosafety concerns.

Though the bat coronavirus grant project has concluded, it is entirely possible that other studies using this platform were performed or are now being performed, including those related to viral transmission. It is noteworthy that it took civil litigation to bring these grant documents to light, even though the research itself was paid for by U.S. taxpayers. It is also noteworthy that EcoHealth Alliance has received nearly $40 million in multiple grants from the Department of Defense, and DOD grant data is often considered classified and withheld from the public.

And though the 5-year bat coronavirus research grant was only renewed for one additional year, a $7.5 million NIH grant, titled “Understanding Risk of Zoonotic Virus Emergence in EID Hotspots of Southeast Asia,” was awarded to EHA in 2020 to expand on the platforms established in the 2014 grant.

This newer grant, with Daszak again as principal investigator, was also made public last week by the Intercept. The new grant is a consortium grant that adds more collaborators and lab sites where the research will be performed, including a BSL-4 facility in Boston.  Funding is approved for the budget cycle of June 17, 2020 through May 31, 2025.

The bottom line is this: It is unclear whether the work performed under the 2014 bat coronavirus NIH grant played a role in the COVID-19 pandemic. But the EcoHealth Alliance and WIV collection and storage of SARS-related bat coronaviruses, and the creation and use of chimeric novel bat coronaviruses with human ACE-2 expressing mouse platforms, could have sparked the pandemic.

Congress should launch an investigation into U.S. government funding of this type of risky research as part of a full and thorough investigation of the origins of the pandemic.

U.S. Right to Know believes transparency in science is essential to protection of public health, including preventing future pandemics.

Dr. Shannon Murray is a staff scientist at U.S. Right to Know. She received her Ph.D. in the Molecular and Cellular Biology Program at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center from the University of Washington. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.

(Editing by Carey Gillam)

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.

Why we are researching the origins of Covid-19, gain-of-function research and biolabs

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See our reporting on the origins of Covid-19 for updates on our investigation, and we are posting documents from our investigation here. Sign up here to receive weekly updates. 

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 3.38 million people, while sickening millions more in a global pandemic that continues to unfold.

We are also researching accidents, leaks and other mishaps at laboratories where pathogens of pandemic potential are stored and modified, and the public health risks of gain-of-function (GOF) research, which involves experiments to enhance aspects of the functionality of deadly pathogens, such as viral load, infectivity and transmissibility.

The public and global scientific community have a right to know what data exists about these matters.  We will report here any useful findings that may emerge from our research.

U.S. Right to Know is an investigative research group focused on promoting transparency for public health.

Why are we conducting this research?

We are concerned that the national security apparatuses of the United States, China and elsewhere, and the university, industry and governmental entities with which they collaborate, may not provide a full and honest picture of the origins of SARS-CoV-2 and the dangers of gain-of-function research.

Through our research, we seek to answer three questions:

  • What is known about the origins of SARS-CoV-2?
  • Are there accidents or mishaps that have occurred at biosafety or GOF research facilities that have not been reported?
  • Are there concerns about ongoing safety risks of biosafety laboratories or GOF research that have not been reported?

What are the origins of SARS-CoV-2?

In late December 2019, in the city of Wuhan, China, news emerged of the deadly infectious disease called COVID-19, caused by SARS-CoV-2, a novel coronavirus that had not been known to exist before. The origins of SARS-CoV-2 are not known. There are two main hypotheses.

Researchers in professional networks associated with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S. non-profitthat has garnered millions of dollars from taxpayer-funded grants to collaborate with WIV on coronavirus research, have written that the novel virus likely originated via natural selection in animal hosts, with its reservoir in bats. This “zoonotic” origin hypothesis was further strengthened by claims that the new coronavirus outbreak started in a “wildlife” market in Wuhan, the Huanan seafood market, where potentially infected animals may have been sold. (However, at least one-third of the first cluster of infected patients, including the earliest known case of infection from December 1, 2019, had neither direct or indirect contact with the Huanan seafood market’s human and animal attendees.)

The zoonosis hypothesis is currently the prevailing hypothesis of origin. However, the zoonotic origin of SARS-CoV-2 has yet to be definitively established, and some researchers have pointed out that it rests upon contradictory observations that require further investigation.

For further reading on these topics, see our reading list: What are the origins of SARS-CoV-2? What are the risks of gain-of-function research?

Some scientists have suggested a different hypothesis of origin; they speculate that the SARS-CoV-2 is the result of an accidental release of a wild-type or lab-modified strain of a closely related SARS-like virus that had been stored in biosafety facilities conducting coronavirus research in Wuhan, such as the WIV or the Wuhan Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Importantly, a lab-origin scenario does not necessarily exclude the zoonosis hypothesis because SARS-CoV-2 could be the outcome of lab-modifications conducted on unreported versions of SARS-like bat coronaviruses stored in WIV, or merely collection and storage of such coronaviruses. Critics of lab-origin hypotheses have dismissed these ideas as unsubstantiated speculations and conspiracy theories.

To date, there is not sufficient evidence to definitively reject either zoonotic origin or lab-origin hypotheses. We do know, based on published research articles and U.S. federal grants to the EcoHealth Alliance for funding WIV’s coronavirus research, that WIV stored hundreds of potentially dangerous SARS-like coronaviruses, and performed GOF experiments on coronaviruses in collaboration with U.S. universities, and there were biosafety concerns with WIV’s BSL-4 laboratory.

But so far, there has been no independent audit of WIV’s laboratory records and databases, and little information exists about the WIV’s internal operations. The WIV has removed from its website information such as the 2018 visit of U.S. science diplomats, and closed off access to its virus database and laboratory records of the coronavirus experiments being conducted by WIV scientists.

Understanding the origins of SARS-CoV-2 has crucial policy implications for public health and food systems. SARS-CoV-2’s potential zoonotic origin raises questions about policies that promote the expansion of industrial farming and livestock operations, which can be major drivers of the emergence of novel and highly pathogenic viruses, deforestation, biodiversity loss and habitat encroachment. The possibility that SARS-CoV-2 may have emerged from a biodefense laboratory raises questions about whether we ought to have these facilities, where wild-derived microbial pathogens are stored and modified via GOF experiments.

SARS-CoV-2 origin investigations raise vital questions about transparency deficits regarding research on potential pandemic pathogens, and the imperatives and players that are creating increasingly widespread biosafety containment facilities where dangerous viruses are stored and modified to make them more deadly.

Is gain-of-function research worth the risk?

There is significant evidence that biosafety laboratories have had many accidents, breaches, and containment failures, and that the potential benefits of gain-of-function research may not be worth the risks of causing potential pandemics.

GOF research of concern modifies and tests dangerous pathogens such as Ebola, H1N1 influenza virus, and the SARS-related coronaviruses under the rubric of developing medical counter-measures (such as vaccines). As such, it is of interest not only to biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry but also to biodefense industry, which is concerned with the potential use of GOF research for acts of biowarfare.

GOF research on deadly pathogens is a major public health concern. Reports of accidental leaks and biosafety breaches at GOF research sites are not uncommon. After a distinguished group of virologists published an urgent consensus statement on July 14, 2014 calling for a moratorium on GOF research of concern, the U.S. government under President Barack Obama’s administration imposed a  “funding pause” on GOF experiments involving dangerous pathogens, including coronaviruses and influenza viruses.

The federal funding pause on GOF research of concern was lifted in 2017 after a period in which the U.S. government undertook a series of deliberations to assess the benefits and risks associated with studies involving GOF research of concern.

Seeking transparency

We are concerned that data that is crucial to public health policy about the origins of SARS-CoV-2, and the hazards of biosafety laboratories and gain-of-function research, may be hidden within biodefense networks of the national security apparatuses of the United States, China, and elsewhere.

We will try to shed some light on these matters through the use of public records requests. Perhaps we will succeed. We could easily fail. We will report anything useful that we may find.

Sainath Suryanarayanan, PhD, is staff scientist at U.S. Right to Know and co-author of the book, “Vanishing Bees: Science, Politics and Honeybee Health” (Rutgers University Press, 2017).

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: 

Sign up for our free newsletter to receive regular updates on our biohazards investigation. 

Colorado State University documents on bat pathogen research

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This post describes documents of Colorado State University (CSU) Professors Rebekah Kading and Tony Schountz, which U.S. Right to Know obtained from a public records request. Kading and Schountz are virologists who study bat-associated pathogens in hot-spots across the world. They collaborate with EcoHealth Alliance, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. military’s research and development arm.

The documents offer a glimpse into the military-academic complex of scientists who study how to prevent spillovers of potential pandemic pathogens from bats. The documents raise questions about contagion risks, for example, of shipping of bats and rats infected with dangerous pathogens. They also contain other noteworthy items, including:

  1. In February 2017, DoD coordinators of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Cooperative Biological Engagement Program announced a new global bat alliance “to build and leverage country and regional capabilities to generate an enhanced understanding of bats and their ecology within the context of pathogens of security concern.” Associated with this, the emails show a collaboration between CSU, EcoHealth Alliance and the National Institutes of Health’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories to build a bat research site at CSU to expand bat infection studies.
  2. The global bat alliance evolved into a group called Bat One Health Research Network (BOHRN). By 2018, key BOHRN scientists were working with DARPA on a project called PREEMPT. CSU records on PREEMPT show that Rocky Mountain Laboratories, CSU and Montana State University are developing “scalable vectored” vaccines to spread through bat populations “to prevent emergence and spillover” of potential pandemic viruses from bats to human populations. Their goal is to develop “self-disseminating vaccines” — which spread contagiously between bats — in hopes of eliminating pathogens in their animal reservoirs before spillover into humans. This research raises concerns about unintended consequences of releasing genetically engineered self-spreading entities into the open, and the ecological risks of their unknown evolution, virulence and spread.
  3. Shipping bats and rats infected with dangerous pathogens creates the potential for unintended spillover into humans. Tony Schountz wrote to EcoHealth Alliance VP Jonathan Epstein on March 30, 2020: “RML [Rocky Mountain Labs] imported the Lassa virus reservoir by having them born in captivity in Africa, then the offspring were imported directly to RML. Don’t know if horseshoe bats can be born in captivity, but that could be an avenue to alleviate CDC concerns.” Lassa virus is spread by rats that are endemic to west Africa. It causes an acute illness called Lassa fever in humans, which leads to an estimated 5,000 deaths every year (1% death rate).
  4. On February 10, 2020, EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak sent an email soliciting signatories for a draft of The Lancet statement “to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that 2019-nCoV does not have a natural origin.” In the email, Daszak wrote: “Drs. Linda Saif, Jim Hughes, Rita Colwell, William Karesh and Hume Field have drafted a simple statement of support for scientists, public health and medical professionals of China fighting this outbreak (attached), and we invite you to join us as the first signatories.” He did not mention his own involvement in drafting the statement.  Our prior reporting showed that Daszak drafted the statement that was published in The Lancet.
  5. Tony Schountz exchanged emails with key Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) scientists Peng Zhou, Zhengli Shi and Ben Hu. In an email dated October 30, 2018, Schountz proposed to Zhengli Shi a “loose association” between CSU’s Arthropod-borne and Infectious Disease Laboratory and WIV, involving “collaboration on relevant projects (e.g., arboviruses and bat-borne viruses) and training of students.” Zhengli Shi responded positively to Schountz’s suggestion. The records do not suggest that any such collaboration was initiated.

For more information

A link to the entire batch of Colorado State University documents can be found here: CSU records

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.

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.

——–

“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.

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.

Scientist with conflict of interest leading Lancet COVID-19 Commission task force on virus origins

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Last week, U.S. Right to Know reported that an influential statement in The Lancet signed by 27 prominent public health scientists about the origins of SARS-CoV-2 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 (WIV). 

The Feb. 18 statement condemned “conspiracy theories” suggesting COVID-19 may have come from a lab, and said scientists “overwhelmingly conclude” the virus originated in wildlife. Emails obtained by USRTK revealed that EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak drafted the letter and orchestrated it to “avoid the appearance of a political statement.” 

The Lancet failed to disclose that four other signers of the statement also have positions with EcoHealth Alliance, which has a financial stake in deflecting questions away from the possibility that the virus could have originated in a lab.

Now, The Lancet is handing even more influence to the group that has conflicts of interest on the important public health question of the pandemic origins. On Nov. 23, The Lancet named a new 12-member panel to the The Lancet COVID 19 Commission. The chairman of the new task force to investigate the “Origins, Early Spread of the Pandemic, and One Health Solutions to Future Pandemic Threats” is none other than the EcoHealth Alliance’s Peter Daszak. 

Half the task force members — including Daszak, Hume Field, Gerald Keusch, Sai Kit Lam, Stanley Perlman and Linda Saif — were also signatories to the Feb. 18 statement that claimed to know the origins of the virus barely a week after the World Health Organization announced that the disease caused by the novel coronavirus would be named COVID-19. 

In other words, at least half The Lancet’s COVID Commission task force on the origins of SARS-CoV-2 appear to have already pre-judged the outcome before the investigation has even begun. This undermines the credibility and authority of the task force.

The origins of SARS-CoV-2 are still a mystery and a thorough and credible investigation may well be crucial to preventing the next pandemic. The public deserves an investigation that is not tainted by such conflicts of interest.

Update (November 25, 2020): Peter Daszak has also been appointed to the World Health Organization’s 10-person team researching the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

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.

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.

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