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.

Yoshihiro Kawaoka/University of Wisconsin-Madison emails

UW-Madison batch #2 (9.30.22) (114 pages)

UW-Madison batch #1 (6.26.22) (63 pages)

Records were obtained via a Wisconsin Public Records Law request to the University of Wisconsin (UW)-Madison for emails of Professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka. Dr. Kawaoka conducts research on influenza viruses and coronaviruses, and became well-known for his gain-of-function experiments to enable the airborne spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza virus H5N1.

UC Davis/Jonna Mazet emails and documents

Documents obtained through a California Public Records Act request for records of UC Davis Vice Provost Jonna Mazet. Dr. Mazet was the principal investigator on the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Emerging Pandemic Threat (EPT) Program PREDICT-1 and PREDICT-2 grants with the EcoHealth Alliance.

Batch #13 (9.12.22) (364 pages)
Batch #12 (9.12.22) (518 pages)
Batch #11 (9.12.22) (218 pages)
Batch #10 (9.12.22) (311 pages)
Batch #9 (9.12.22) (471 pages)
Batch #8 (9.12.22) (495 pages)
Batch #7 (9.12.22) (591 pages)
Batch #6 (9.12.22) (1049 pages)
Batch #5 (9.12.22) (1090 pages)
Batch #4 (1.10.22) (261 pages)
Batch #3 (12.7.21) (137 pages)
Batch #2 (12.7.21) (541 pages)
Batch #1 (10.27.21)(139 pages)

Chao Shan/University of Texas Medical Branch Galveston emails

Chao Shan batch #2 (9.12.22) (1311 pages)
Chao Shan batch #1 (6.30.22) (932 pages)

Dr. Chao Shan conducted research on Zika virus as a postdoctoral scientist with Professor Pei-Yong Shi at UTMB-Galveston, before taking a position at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) records

USAID batch #5 (9.7.22) (153 pages)
USAID batch #4 (8.12.22) (302 pages)
USAID batch #3 (8.12.22) (628 pages)
USAID batch #2 (4.7.22) (357 pages)
USAID batch #1 (3.17.22) (42 pages)

U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) records

HHS batch #9 (9.1.22) (28 pages)
HHS batch #8 (9.1.22) (87 pages)
HHS batch #7 (9.1.22) (21 pages)
HHS batch #6 (9.1.22) (363 pages)
HHS batch #5 (9.1.22) (141 pages)
HHS batch #4 (4.8.22) (248 pages)
HHS batch #3 (4.8.22) (325 pages)
HHS batch #2 (1.26.22) (321 pages)
HHS batch #1
(12.30.21) (266 pages)

U.S. State Department records

State Department batch #17 (9.1.22) (73 pages)
State Department batch #16 (9.1.22) (62 pages)
State Department batch #15 (9.1.22) (65 pages)
State Department batch #14 (5.24.22) (11 pages)
State Department batch #13 (4.26.22) (16 pages)
State Department batch #12 (3.28.22) (45 pages)

See our reporting: Lab accident is ‘most likely but least probed’ COVID origin, State Dept. memo says (3.28.22)

State Department batch #11 (2.24.22) (52 pages)
State Department batch #10 (1.25.22) (47 pages)
State Department batch #9 (12.27.21) (20 pages)
State Department batch #8 (12.7.21) (16 pages)
State Department batch #7 (10.28.21) (37 pages)
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:

Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) grant documents

DTRA batch #6 (7.1.22) (2387 pages)
DTRA batch #5 (7.1.22) (1499 pages)
DTRA batch #4 (7.1.22) (1216 pages)
DTRA batch #3 (7.1.22) (1132 pages)
DTRA batch #2 (2.23.22) (311 pages)

Records obtained from a FOIA request to DTRA, containing DTRA grants and awards to the EcoHealth Alliance, for projects such as: biosurveillance for zoonotic spillover of viruses in rural communities in India; reducing the threat of MERS coronavirus and avian influenza; predicting biothreat impacts from early stage data via transfer learning, and more.

DTRA batch #1 (2.22.22) (2790 pages)

Records obtained from a Freedom of Information Act request to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, containing DTRA grants and awards to the EcoHealth Alliance, for projects such as: developing a rapid identification tool for undisclosed emerging infectious disease events, understanding Rift Valley fever in South Africa, serological biosurveillance for spillover of henipaviruses and filoviruses in Malaysia and India, and others.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) records

NIH batch #5 (8.26.22) (54 pages)
NIH batch #4 (6.17.22) (230 pages)
NIH batch #3 (6.17.22) (291 pages)
NIH batch #2 (3.3.22) (308 pages)
NIH batch #1 (2.1.22) (322 pages)

Department of Education

Department of Education batch #1(3.14.22) (1095 pages)
Department of Education batch #2 (4.14.22) (7 pages)
Department of Education batch #3 (8.22.22) (752 pages)

University of Texas Medical Branch

Vineet Menachery/Pei-Yong Shi/UTMB batch #2 (5.4.22) (5070 pages)
LeDuc/UTMB batch #1 (4.27.22) (4578 pages)
UTMB-Wuhan Institute of Virology memorandum of understanding (4.20.22) (9 pages)

See our reporting: Wuhan lab can delete data in ‘explosive’ legal agreement with U.S. lab. (4.20.22)

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention records

CDC batch #4 (4.13.22) (1,864 pages)
CDC batch #3 (4.13.22) (1,864 pages)

See our reporting: Emails raise questions about China’s sway over first WHO mission on COVID-19.

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

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) records

Records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER) communications with or about the Wuhan Institute of Virology and other Wuhan-based research institutes; EcoHealth Alliance; China; and the Global Health Security Agenda. Records include proposed SARS-CoV-2 human challenge studies (not clinical trials) to evaluate COVID-19 vaccine efficacy, associated with the published World Health Organization nCoV Research & Development Blueprint. Draft informed consent and study protocols as well as descriptions of biocontainment units and SARS-CoV-2 challenge strains are included.

Batch #1 (12.10.21)(262 pages)

Xiang-Dong Fu emails

Documents obtained through a California Public Records Act request for records of Professor Xiang-Dong Fu, Distinguished Professor of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, University of California- San Diego. Dr. Fu has been a member of the International Executive Committee of Performance Evaluation of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Batch #1 (11.12.21) (641 pages)

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:

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)

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 #4: (12.30.21) (24 pages) Documents made available through a North Carolina public records law request for communications of Professor Ralph Baric related to biodefense and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

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:

Another missing database? EcoHealth project in Southeast Asia is under construction

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Scientists tasked by the WHO to outline next steps toward investigating the origin of COVID-19 have pointed to bat populations in Southeast Asia. (Photo credit: MyBukit)

EcoHealth Alliance conducted field research for years in Southeast Asia, a region central to the origin of COVID-19, but some of the data appears to have been withdrawn from public view.

EcoHealth Alliance, an American scientific organization that receives funds from several federal agencies, has come under scrutiny for its controversial work hunting for novel viruses in collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a lab at the pandemic’s epicenter. 

One of the group’s projects in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia — the Infectious Disease Emergence and Economics of Altered Landscapes Project or “IDEEAL” — culminated in a disease modeling app that no longer appears on the EcoHealth Alliance website

A final report summarizing the project in 2019 describes the app as functional, but it appears that the link that once housed the project’s app is now broken, and the organization’s website instead links to a page that states it is “under construction.” 

“The app’s domain is currently under construction,” said Majelia Ampadu, communications director for EcoHealth Alliance. 

Requests for more details were not answered. 

Another website describing the IDEEAL project – the url of which was discovered through grant reports obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests – was taken down in the summer or fall of 2021, according to the WayBack Machine.

IDEEAL worked on minimizing human diseases associated with deforestation, not virus hunting, and focused on malaria, not coronaviruses. But IDEEAL also worked closely with another USAID-funded project that searched for novel viruses called PREDICT, including sharing staff. 

IDEEAL’s app may have pulled data from EcoHealth’s work hunting for viruses in wildlife with PREDICT, the grant reports show.

“Models will be parameterized using empirical data from our extensive collection of datasets as well as existing datasets and new data generated by USAID investments including EPT PREDICT,” one grant document reads. 

And IDEEAL’s modeling has become unavailable at a time of intense interest in disease emergence in Southeast Asia.

The World Health Organization’s Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens – which examines the state of the evidence and makes recommendations for further study – has pointed to bat populations in Southeast Asia, where scientists identified the closest known relative of SARS-CoV-2. 

French and Laotian scientists located coronaviruses in Northern Laos with highly similar receptor-binding domains in 2020, but they proved much less dangerous in the lab without SARS-CoV-2’s signature furin cleavage site, a recent preprint suggests. These discoveries underscore the importance for more sampling in Southeast Asia, as well as retrospective tests of old samples, according to the WHO team. 

EcoHealth Alliance sampled wildlife in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar, and the samples were tested by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, according to documents obtained via FOIA by the animal rights group White Coat Waste Project

Some experts in biosafety have voiced concerns that a lab accident with a novel virus may have sparked the COVID-19 pandemic. While virologists agree none of the Wuhan lab’s known viral backbones are progenitors of SARS-CoV-2, a key question is whether unknown coronaviruses identified in wildlife may have been studied there, and whether that data may be accessible through records kept by its American partner.

A central disagreement between scientists who favor the natural origin theory and scientists who worry about a lab accident is whether SARS-CoV-2 traveled hundreds of miles from Southeast Asia to the metropolis of Wuhan, China, due to virus hunting or due to the wildlife trade.

EcoHealth Alliance Malaysian Project Coordinator Tom Hughes said in an email that all of the coronaviruses identified by the team have been shared in another database called GenBank. Hughes shared the unique identifiers for PCR fragments of coronaviruses identified by PREDICT in Malaysia between May 2016 and August 2020.

Still, the IDEEAL app’s unavailability follows a pattern of opacity about data on the part of EcoHealth Alliance and its partner in Wuhan. For example, EcoHealth President Peter Daszak sought to prevent the release of viral samples taken in China after the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, U.S. Right to Know previously reported. The Wuhan Institute of Virology’s extensive coronavirus database went dark in 2019.

The IDEEAL project was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, for nearly $2.5 million. U.S. Right to Know obtained a grant proposal through Freedom of Information Act requests to USAID. 

Some biosafety experts say that data should be taken offline if it poses security risks — if a nefarious actor threatens to exploit it, for example — but that otherwise scientists should strive for public trust.

“All research with potential societal implications and downside risks, including EHA’s virus hunting, should be publicly recorded to create accountability,” said Jonas Sandbrink, a biosecurity researcher at the University of Oxford.

When organizations like EcoHealth Alliance are dismissive of concerns, it damages more thoughtful researchers, according to David Gillum, assistant vice president of environmental health and safety at Arizona State University.

“It puts this dark cloud over the people who are doing it right. It makes it hard for an average person to know who’s doing it right and who’s skirting the rules,” said Gillum.

A grant proposal shows that EcoHealth pitched IDEEAL as incorporating data from virus hunting work.

‘We have this SARS-like coronavirus not very far from here’

It’s clear that EcoHealth uncovered at least one novel coronavirus they believed was capable of spilling over into humans in Southeast Asia. 

“We have this SARS-like coronavirus in the cave not very far from here,” said Hughes in a 2017 Malaysian documentary. “If that spills over, it would be very, very damaging to the Malaysian economy and the global economy.”

The documentary also features a graduate student in an EcoHealth Alliance T-shirt. He states that the team discovered three novel viruses poised for spread among humans, including a SARS-related coronavirus. 

This sarbecovirus is known as PREDICT-51, according to Hughes. A U.S. Right to Know analysis of the PREDICT-51’s genetic sequence demonstrates that it does not bear much resemblance to SARS-CoV-2. Their genomes overlap by just 58 percent.

A separate app built by another PREDICT partner, the University of California Davis, named “SpillOver,” lists viruses that the PREDICT project identified. 

The app categorizes the viruses in Malaysia as being relatively low to moderate risk – about 50 to 80 points on a 155 point scale.

EcoHealth Alliance referred questions as to whether the viruses listed in the SpillOver app represent a complete list of the sarbecoviruses identified to UC Davis. 

UC Davis did not respond. 

While there are many exceptions and carve-outs, the Federal Records Act generally holds that federal contractors maintain records for three years, according to Pete Sepp, president of the National Taxpayers Union. The grant period for the IDEEAL ended in Feb. 2019, 41 months ago.

Virologist who tried to discredit the lab leak theory was once a ‘partner’ to EcoHealth Alliance

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Columbia University virologist Ian Lipkin has coauthored several articles with EcoHealth Alliance since 2011. (Photo credit: kris krüg)

A virologist who coauthored a paper marginalizing the lab leak theory did not disclose his ties to the research group at the center of it.

Director of Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity Ian Lipkin has often worked with EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S.-based collaborator of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the group confirmed in an email. 

EcoHealth Alliance listed Lipkin as a “partner” from 2012 to 2014, an archived version of the group’s website shows. Lipkin has coauthored at least ten scientific papers with EcoHealth researchers from 2011 to 2021, EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak said in an email. These publications include a paper about novel coronaviruses EcoHealth and its partners sampled around the world. 

EcoHealth Alliance hunts for novel viruses in wildlife and funds research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Lipkin did not disclose his partnership with EcoHealth in “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2,” a highly influential paper that states that COVID-19 arose from nature.

A central premise of that paper: COVID-19 is too dissimilar from viruses commonly employed in experiments to have spilled out of a lab. 

“It is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus,” the paper states. “The genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone.”

But Lipkin did not disclose his connection to a nonprofit that uncovers new and novel viruses. Some of those viruses were likely studied at its partnering lab in Wuhan, which housed one of the world’s largest collection of bat coronaviruses. 

Lipkin did not return several requests for comment. 

At 5.7 million views, the Nature Medicine article may be one of the most widely read scientific papers in history — though the piece is formally a “correspondence.” 

David Relman, a Stanford University microbiologist and emerging infectious diseases expert for the National Academies, said conflicts of interest are especially troublesome when writing on high profile issues. 

“For any major, controversial issue, I believe that all of us have an even greater responsibility to reveal those conflicts upfront—and let others have an opportunity to judge what effect those conflicts might have had,” said Relman.

Relman also called into question the logic of the paper’s premise. The Wuhan Institute of Virology may have simply been experimenting with unfamiliar viruses. The disappearance of the lab’s coronavirus sequence database in 2019 and the lab’s history of gain-of-function experiments also weaken the claims of Lipkin and his coauthors, Relman said. 

“The Proximal Origins paper is flawed in its assumptions, logic and the soundness of its conclusions. I was very surprised that it passed review at Nature Medicine,” he said. 

Columbia University Center for Sustainable Development Director Jeffrey Sachs — chair of The Lancet COVID-19 Commission — said the citation the authors used to prop up the paper’s premise deserves more scrutiny. 

“The Proximal Origins paper has no credibility,” Sachs wrote in an email. “The paper’s central claim — that SARS-CoV-2 is not related to viruses previously reported in laboratory research — offers as proof a footnote to a 2014 paper!”

“It ludicrously claims to debunk a 2019 lab emergence using a 2014 paper,” he continued. “The paper offers no real evidence whatsoever against the possible lab origin of the virus, even though it claimed to do so.” 

Lipkin himself has since acknowledged the possibility that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was experimenting with unknown viruses, contradicting the popular paper he coauthored.

“If they’ve got hundreds of bat samples that are coming in, and some of them aren’t characterized, how would they know whether this virus was or wasn’t in this lab? They wouldn’t,” Lipkin said in an interview with the Washington Post last year. 

But Lipkin has not disclosed his work with EcoHealth to reporters.

Nature Medicine, the journal that published the paper, defines a “competing interest” requiring disclosure as including “personal or professional relations with organizations and individuals” — paid or unpaid. A spokesperson for parent company Springer Nature did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Lipkin’s connection to a group at the center of lab leak suspicions is the latest revelation to cast doubt on the correspondence.

Significant questions remain. It’s still unclear how the authors dispelled their own private concerns that the virus had been engineered within a couple of days.

For example, Lipkin privately voiced concerns to his coauthors about a “nightmare of circumstantial evidence” pointing to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Vanity Fair reported

It’s also unknown to what extent leaders of the National Institutes of Health, which funded the EcoHealth Alliance, may have shaped the paper. 

Grant reports that led a reporter to the defunct link showing Lipkin’s partnership with EcoHealth Alliance were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the U.S. Agency for International Development. 

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.”

U.S. Right to Know confirms a third maximum containment lab in China

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Representatives of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences are pictured with representatives of the University of Texas Medical Branch in September 2014. (Photo credit: UTMB)

A new maximum biocontainment lab in Kunming, China, was certified three years ago while remaining under-the-radar in the U.S. biodefense community, documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show.

China’s plans to build an ABSL-4 under the Institute of Medical Biology and Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Kunming were previously known. But U.S. Right to Know can report for the first time that the lab has long been accredited by the China National Accreditation Service for Conformity Assessment, a pivotal step toward becoming operational. Animal biosafety level four, or ABSL-4, refers to the level of biosafety precautions needed to study the world’s most dangerous viruses and other pathogens in animals. 

The quiet start at the Kunming lab could suggest skittishness among Chinese authorities about publicizing it due to the controversy surrounding another BSL-4 lab – the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It also underscores that international standards for reporting and transparency have lagged behind the proliferation of labs working with pandemic potential pathogens. 

The “Kunming National Primate Research Center of High Level Biosafety” received accreditation in late 2018 or early 2019, according to a presentation given at a U.S.-China summit. 

The lab works with rhesus monkeys, according to the documents. 

Yunzhang Hu, a professor at the Institute of Medical Biology, told the summit that the lab’s aims include developing medical countermeasures and supporting emergency response to emerging infectious diseases. 

While U.S. institutions like the National Academies were aware of the Kunming lab, it was apparently not widely understood that the lab has been making strides toward research on high risk pathogens for years. 

A World Health Organization report in 2017 listed three BSL-4 or ABSL-4 labs in China: two in operation in Wuhan and Harbin and a third planned in Beijing. The Kunming lab is not mentioned. A map of BSL-4 labs assembled by top Western biodefense experts does not report the Kunming lab either. 

While the lab’s work appeared in scientific papers in 2020 and 2021, demonstrating it was operational, China may not have publicized it in part because of international concerns about the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a BSL-4 lab at the pandemic’s epicenter, according to Gregory Koblentz, director of the biodefense program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government and co-creator of the map. Koblentz said he became aware of the lab shortly after his map was published in 2021 and that it would be added to its next iteration.

The maximum containment lab in Kunming is one of five to seven China has slated to construct by 2025, Nature reported. Accreditation from the CNAS is needed before the Ministry of Health can approve a BSL-4 lab, according to the scientific journal.

Efforts to support BSL-4 work in Kunming predate the lab’s accreditation.

U.S. researchers funded by the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases traveled to Kunming in 2014 to review animal facilities and present information on BSL-4 technical requirements, according to a federal grant report. Training continued throughout the year. The Kunming lab’s researchers traveled to a U.S. maximum biocontainment lab at the University of Texas Medical Branch for further training. 

U.S.-China summit

The U.S.-China dialogue was co-hosted by the National Academy of Sciences and held in Harbin, China, in January 2019. The topics centered on the opportunities and risks of gene editing in infectious diseases research.

The Harbin summit was the fourth in a series on biosafety involving both American and Chinese institutions, and came just a year before reports of a novel coronavirus first emerged from Wuhan.

U.S. biodefense experts began planning in June for a firth summit slated for October or November 2019, according to other documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know. But Chinese partners suggested a summit under the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan rather than under the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Kunming, the emails indicate. 

The January summit in Harbin included presentations from many experts who have since become central to the COVID-19 origins controversy. The summit included two sessions on “science and ethics in research with pathogens with pandemic potential” and “understanding and engineering viral pathogens with pandemic potential.” The sessions described technical challenges with engineering chimeric viruses as well as the safety and ethical questions the technology raises. 

Zhengli Shi, a top virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, discussed the impact that spike binding domains play in determining whether MERS viruses can spillover from animal to human hosts.

Ralph Baric, one of the world’s leading coronavirus researchers at the University of North Carolina and a collaborator of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, gave a presentation on the lack of predictability when engineering viruses to be more pathogenic. 

He spoke about a “sweet spot” that optimizes the ability of a virus to infect humans and cause severe disease. 

“Creating a virus that is super-adapted to a particular host can actually result in an attenuation of virulence, if the virus interacts overly strongly with a cellular receptor,” the summary of his comments reads. “This shows the complexity of deliberate design as well as the potential sweet spot for pathogenicity.”

This unpredictability can undermine the value of models that attempt to predict viral evolution and the danger a virus could pose to humans, he said. 

Baric also said that a combination of altering a virus’ receptor binding domain and passaging through mice can sometimes be required to generate more dangerous viruses.

Baric also noted the ease of synthesizing coronaviruses, saying the cost had decreased from $42,000 to $6,000, and the relative ease of using CRISPR technology to create humanized mice. 

Stanford School of Medicine microbiologist David Relman ⁠— who has recently been critical of virologists who have prematurely declared the origins debate settled ​​⁠— gave a presentation on responsibly preventing lab accidents as BSL-4 labs proliferate. Relman also raised questions about the feasibility and safety of the Global Virome Project, an effort to collect and catalog millions of animal viruses involving EcoHealth Alliance and Shi. 

“In an era in which most viruses can be synthesized from a genetic sequence, the discovery of new viruses and elucidation of their properties may present both biosafety and biosecurity concerns,” Relman told the group.

Chinese experts expressed concerns about these issues too.

An expert with Tianjin University told the summit that balancing the positive uses and potential for misuse of pandemic potential pathogens made in the lab poses challenges.

The expert voiced concerns about “the potential for rapid changes in science and technology capabilities to outpace ethical and regulatory measures, and the need for appropriate governance,” the summary reads. 

China has invested at least $150 million to $240 million in approximately 50 synthetic biology research projects since 2018, according to the presentation. 

A summary of the summit’s presentations was obtained by U.S. Right to Know through a Freedom of Information Act litigation against the U.S. Department of Education, which had conducted an investigation of the University of Texas Medical Branch’s work with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

EcoHealth Alliance wanted to block disclosure of Covid-19-relevant virus data from China

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EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak opposed the public release of Covid-19-related virus sequence data gathered from China as part of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) PREDICT program, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

The conversation in late April 2020 involved employees of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that has received millions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer funding to genetically manipulate coronaviruses, including with scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology; and Metabiota, a San Francisco-based biotechnology company backed by Google that works with PREDICT, a “virus hunting” program that tracks unknown viruses.

Tammie O’Rourke of Metabiota emailed Hongying Li, who coordinates EcoHealth programs in China and Southeast Asia, an attachment with virus sequences detected in China that had been submitted to the public genetic sequence database GenBank. They then discussed whether the genetic sequences should be uploaded into the public database.

Hongying Li wanted to hold off on uploading the virus sequence data for several reasons, including that, “due to the COVID-19, any relevant data publication needs to be reviewed and approved by the institution in China…”

Daszak then wrote, “It’s extremely important we don’t have these sequences as part of our PREDICT release to Genbank at this point. As you may have heard, these were part of a grant just terminated by NIH.” He referred to an article in Politico, “Trump cuts U.S. research on bat-human virus transmission over China ties,” and urged holding off on public sharing of Chinese viral genomic data, even though the generation of the data was funded by U.S. taxpayers.  Having them as part of PREDICT will being [sic] very unwelcome attention to UC Davis, PREDICT and USAID,” Daszak wrote.

The emails were released as part of a California Public Records Act request to UC Davis. They do not contain attachments and so the actual viral sequence data are not included in the information received by U.S. Right to Know. It  is not known whether the data referred to in the emails are still embargoed or were subsequently shared on GenBank.

EcoHealth Alliance denied that any sequences were kept out of GenBank. In response to a query, Daszak emailed an August 2020 Nature Communications article co-authored by EcoHealth and Wuhan Institute of Virology scientists, and wrote: “All sequences of SARS-related coronaviruses discovered by EcoHealth Alliance in China were sequenced using NIH funding and have been made public in peer-reviewed scientific papers and via the publicly available Genbank database. The Genbank accession numbers for over 600 sequences can be found in the attached paper. Two further sequences were identified and submitted separately to NIH on 11/18/21  (Genbank Accession # OK663614 & OK663615).”

For more information

All four batches of documents USRTK obtained by public records requests to UC Davis – including the most recent one, which as reported on in this article – are available here.

Public Comments on the WHO Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) Members

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The World Health Organization has proposed 26 scientists for a new group to investigate the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as future outbreaks. WHO plans to appoint members to the new Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) after a two week review to gather public opinion on the proposed choices, which ends this week.

WHO’s terms of reference to strengthen public trust and transparency require that SAGO individuals “must be free of any real, potential, or apparent conflicts of interest. However several proposed panel members have clear conflicts of interest. For more this topic, see reporting in the BMJ, Covid-19: New WHO group to look into pandemic origins is dogged by alleged conflicts of interest

U.S. Right to Know has submitted comments describing conflict of interest concerns involving several proposed SAGO members. Below is the text of our public comments and you can find the PDF at this link.

From: U.S. Right to Know
Date: October 26, 2021
To: WHO Headquarters
RE: Public comments on SAGO members

Dear WHO staff:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the proposed Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) committee members.

We represent U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative public health group based in the United States.

According to the WHO terms of reference, SAGO members “must be free of any real, potential, or apparent conflicts of interest,” and “must respect the impartiality…required of WHO.”1 The following proposed SAGO members do not meet these standards for SAGO membership:

(1) Dr. Supaporn Wacharapluesadee is a subcontractor on a 2020 multi-million-dollar NIH grant2 to EcoHealth Alliance. Her lab at Chulalongkorn University is slated to receive a $1.07 million subcontract. According to the EcoHealth Alliance, Dr. Wacharapluesadee is a longstanding collaborator for “more than 10 years.”3 Between 2014 and 2019, she was funded by a UC Davis USAID PREDICT 2 grant, in which the EcoHealth Alliance was deeply involved.4 Since 2013, Dr. Wacharapluesadee has been a co-author on multiple publications5,6,7,8 with the EcoHealth Alliance, including four with its president, Dr. Daszak.9,10,11,12

The EcoHealth Alliance has conducted research on SARS related-CoVs with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Anyone with personal, financial or academic ties to the EcoHealth Alliance (including grant funding, co-authorship or other research collaboration) or the Wuhan Institute of Virology, cannot be a SAGO member, because such ties could impair their judgment in an investigation of zoonotic and/or lab origins of SARS-CoV-2. Any such ties constitute an impermissible conflict of interest.

Dr. Wacharapluesadee’s association and subcontractor role with the EcoHealth Alliance plainly constitutes a conflict of interest and is disqualifying under the WHO terms of reference.

(2) Dr. Christian Drosten. Dr. Drosten signed a letter in the Lancet, orchestrated by Dr. Daszak,13 arguing that the SARS-CoV-2 lab origin hypothesis is a conspiracy theory.14 Such prejudgement is disqualifying; it is incompatible with the standard of “impartiality” in the WHO SAGO terms of reference.

Moreover, Dr. Drosten served on a bat conference advisory committee with the Ecohealth Alliance and Dr. Zhengli Shi of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.15 Dr. Drosten’s funding and continued research collaborations rest on the zoonotic potential of bat coronaviruses. For these reasons, Dr. Drosten has a personal stake in SAGO’s outcome, because it is to his personal and professional advantage to declare a zoonotic origin for SARS-CoV-2. This, too, disqualifies him from being a SAGO member.

(3) Dr. Katherin Summermatter. Dr. Summermatter has claimed that a lab leak origin of SARS-CoV-2 is a “typical conspiracy theory.”16 Such prejudgment is disqualifying.

(4) Dr. Marion Koopmans. At a scientific conference,17 Dr. Koopmans claimed that a lab origin hypothesis of SARS-CoV-2 has been debunked, along with “meteorites” and “snake origins” of SARS-CoV-2.18 She has asserted that “we found not a grain of evidence for a lab escape theory” of SARS-CoV-2.19 Such prejudgment is inconsistent with the impartiality required of SAGO members, and is disqualifying.

Erasmus University’s Viroscience department, led by Dr. Koopmans, puts the EcoHealth Alliance as first on its list of collaborators.20 The disclosure also states that the viroscience department is “closely involved” in the EcoHealth Alliance. This conflict of interest, too, is disqualifying. Dr. Koopman’s membership in the conflicted, discredited and failed Global Study of Origins of SARS-CoV-2 is also disqualifying.

The first WHO-convened Global Study of Origins of SARS-CoV-2 failed for several reasons. It was tarnished by conflicts of interest. It failed to seriously investigate the possibility of a lab origin, while advancing the dubious cold chain, frozen food hypothesis. It seemed to act as a public relations instrument of the EcoHealth Alliance and the Chinese government. Participation in this botched WHO panel must be disqualifying for SAGO membership, including for these proposed SAGO members:

(5) Dr. Vladimir Dedkov
(6) Dr. Elmoubasher Farag
(7) Dr. Thea Fischer
(8) Dr. Hung Nguyen-Viet
(9) Dr. John Watson
(10) Dr. Yungui Yang

Of the disciplines listed in the SAGO terms of reference, only Drs. Blackwell and Summermater come from the disciplines of “biosafety, biosecurity, occupational health and safety, or laboratory safety and security, ethics and social sciences.” This is unbalanced. The proposed SAGO members do not include enough experts from these fields in the terms of reference. Scientists from diverse fields of study, not merely infectious disease, should be included in SAGO for many reasons, including to offset any conflicts of interest from zoonotic origins infectious disease researchers. We urge WHO to add at least three additional members from these disciplines to SAGO.

We urge you to replace the ten above persons with the list below, who would be exemplary SAGO members. Their presence and participation would inspire public trust in the SAGO.

Dr. Filippa Lentzos
Dr. Richard Ebright
Dr. Jesse Bloom
Dr. Alina Chan
Dr. David Relman
Alison Young
Edward Hammond
Milton Leitenberg
Dr. Stuart Newman
Dr. Michael Antoniou

Thank you for considering our comments.

Sincerely,

Shannon Murray, PhD, Staff Scientist
Gary Ruskin, Executive Director

1https://cdn.who.int/media/docs/default-source/scientific-advisory-group-on-the-origins-of-novel-pathogens/sago-tors-final-20-aug-21_-(002).pdf
2https://documentcloud.org/documents/21055988-risk-zoonotic-virus-hotspots-grant-notice
3https://documentcloud.org/documents/21055988-risk-zoonotic-virus-hotspots-grant-notice, pg. 358.
4https://documentcloud.org/documents/21055988-risk-zoonotic-virus-hotspots-grant-notice, pg. 78.
5https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3739538/
6https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34218820/
7https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2050312121989631
8https://journals.asm.org/doi/10.1128/MRA.01457-18
9https://virologyj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12985-015-0289-1
10https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmid/33990224/
11https://www.pnas.org/content/118/15/e2002324118.long
12https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2458-14-684
13https://usrtk.org/biohazards-blog/ecohealth-alliance-orchestrated-key-scientists-statement-on-natural-origin-of-sars-cov-2/
14https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30418-9/fulltext
15https://usrtk.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/CSU_records.pdf, pg. 1572.
16https://www-1815-ch.translate.goog/news/wallis/aktuell/es-werden-sachen-behauptet-die-weder-hand-noch-fuss-haben-153159/?_x_tr_sl=auto&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=en-GB&_x_tr_pto=nui
1721 Feb 2020, KNAW-symposium, Marion Koopmans, ‘From spillover to global threat: science in action’.
18https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J24IfCS7HEs&t=832s
19https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=112&v=8KbUPh43304&feature=youtu.be
20https://www.erasmusmc.nl/en/research/departments/viroscience, see “Collaboration.”
21https://cdn.who.int/media/docs/default-source/scientific-advisory-group-on-the-origins-of-novel-pathogens/sago-tors-final-20-aug-21_-(002).pdf

Written by Shannon Murray

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.

Written by Shannon Murray. 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.

Written by Sainath Suryanarayanan

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).