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

Print Email Share Tweet

U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative public health group, has filed numerous lawsuits against federal agencies for violating provisions of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The lawsuits are part of our efforts to uncover what is known about the origins of novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, leaks or mishaps at biosafety labs, and the risks of gain-of-function research that seeks to augment the infectivity or lethality of potential pandemic pathogens.

We have filed more than 90 state, federal, and international public records requests seeking information about the origins of SARS-CoV-2, and the risks of biosafety labs and gain-of-function research.

Read more about our findings so far, why we are conducting this investigation, recommended readings and documents we have obtained.

FOI lawsuits filed

(1) U.S. Department of State. On April 25, 2022, USRTK filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of State for violating provisions of FOIA. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, seeks documents and correspondence of State employees, including C.S. Eliot Kang, Ann Ganzer, David Feith, Bruce Turner, Robert Wood and Laura Gross, related to a State Dept. investigation of the origins of Covid-19, EcoHealth Alliance, gain-of-function research, dual use research of concern, the Global Virome Project, and other matters. Case 1:22-cv-01130-JMC.

(2) University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. On April 18, 2022, USRTK filed a lawsuit against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for violating the provisions of the North Carolina Public Records Act. The lawsuit, filed in North Carolina District Court in Orange County, seeks records for seven public records requests to the University of North Carolina, including: (1) emails between Prof. Ralph Baric, former Prof. Lishan Su or Ms. Toni Baric with the Wuhan Institute of Virology or the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention or the EcoHealth Alliance, or others; (2) emails to or from Prof. Ralph Baric containing any of the search terms “DEFUSE” or “DARPA” or “DTRA”. Case 22CV463.

(3) Defense Threat Reduction Agency
. On January 14, 2022, USRTK filed a lawsuit against the DTRA for violating provisions of the FOIA. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, seeks: (1) finished intelligence, documents and reports about accidents, containment failures or deliberate release of biological agents from facilities in 21 countries around the world; (2) assessments of risks, hazards and efficacy of BSL-2, BSL-3 and BSL-4 containment schemes (including flaws, failings or weaknesses) in those same 21 countries; and, (3) grant proposals and other documents from the EcoHealth Alliance and Metabiota. Case 3:22-cv-00299-JCS. 

(4) National Institutes of Health. On November 8, 2021, USRTK filed a lawsuit against the NIH for violating provisions of the FOIA. The lawsuit (amended complaint filed 2/10/22), filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, DC, seeks records for nine FOIA requests to NIH regarding the origins of SARS-CoV-2, and communications between the NIH and EcoHealth Alliance or the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The records requests also included EcoHealth Alliance grant applications, scientific reviews, funding agreements, and correspondence with Dr. Erik Stemmy, NIAID (NIH) project officer, as well as documents regarding NIH’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML), the DARPA-funded Preventing Emerging Pathogenic Threats (PREEMPT) Program, and communication between the NIH and the World Health Organization (WHO) concerning the origins of COVID-19. This is our second FOIA lawsuit against NIH related to the origins of COVID-19. Case 1:21-cv-02936-TSC.

(5) U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)
: On October 14, 2021, USRTK filed a lawsuit against USAID for violating provisions of the FOIA. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, seeks records related to USAID funding and oversight of EcoHealth Alliance (EHA), which was a lead consortium partner in USAID-funded projects in the Emerging Pandemic Threats (EPT) program. Initiated in 2009, USAID’s EPT PREDICT programs funded collaborations between EHA and researchers at University of California, Davis; Wuhan Institute of Virology; Metabiota, Inc.; and others, to study the pandemic potential of infectious diseases including bat-associated coronaviruses. Case 3:21-cv-08058-SK.

(6) U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS): On October 14, 2021, USRTK filed a lawsuit against HHS for violating provisions of the FOIA. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, seeks correspondence between senior HHS employees, including Robert Kadlec, assistant secretary for preparedness and response, with the World Health Organization’s director general’s office, and others, related to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Case 3:21-cv-08056-TSH.

(7) University of Maryland: On October 6, 2021, USRTK filed a lawsuit against the University of Maryland for violating provisions of the Maryland Public Information Act.  The lawsuit, filed in Maryland Circuit Court for Prince George’s County, seeks correspondence and documents of Professor Rita R. Colwell, Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland at College Park, relevant to the origins of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Colwell serves on the board of directors of the EcoHealth Alliance, which funded and conducted research with bat coronaviruses closely related to SARS-CoV-2 in collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology and others. On June 10, 2022, Maryland Judge John P. Davey denied the University of Maryland’s motion for partial summary judgment. Case CAL21-11730.

(8) U.S. Food and Drug Administration: On Feb. 4, 2021, USRTK filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for violating provisions of FOIA.  The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, seeks documents and correspondence with or about China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the EcoHealth Alliance, which partnered with and funded the Wuhan Institute of Virology, among other subjects. Case 21-cv-00884-KAW.

(9) U.S. Department of Education: On Dec. 17, 2020 USRTK filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education for violating provisions of FOIA. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, seeks documents that the Education Department requested from the University of Texas’ Medical Branch at Galveston about its funding agreements and scientific and/or research cooperation with China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology. Case 3:20-cv-09117-DMR.

(10) U.S. Department of State: On Nov. 30, 2020 USRTK filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of State for violating provisions of FOIA. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, seeks documents and correspondence with or about China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the EcoHealth Alliance, which partnered with and funded the Wuhan Institute of Virology, among other subjects. See news release. Case 3:20-cv-08415-JCS.

(11) National Institutes of Health: On Nov. 5, 2020 USRTK filed a lawsuit against National Institutes of Health (NIH) for violating provisions of FOIA. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., seeks correspondence with or about organizations such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the EcoHealth Alliance, which partnered with and funded the Wuhan Institute of Virology. See news release. Case 1:20-cv-03196-CKK.

U.S. Right to Know is an investigative research group focused on promoting transparency for public health. For more information about FOI lawsuits we have filed to vindicate the public’s right to know, see our FOIA litigation page.

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

Print Email Share Tweet

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).